Sweet Liberties, originally a commission by the EFDSS and Folk at the Oak, in partnership with the House of Commons, to mark the 2015: Anniversaries: Parliament in the Making, this has now expanded to become a 14-track album featuring a varied line up of folk musicians in celebration of 800 years in the pursuit of democracy.
Some of the names will be familiar, others less so, but all contribute thoughtful and relevant songs touching on various aspects of the overall topic. I am assuming that everyone listed in the credits (which includes Nancy Kerr and Patsy Reid on violin, Nick Cooke on melodeon) played on all (or most) of the songs, the writers themselves handling the vocals, perhaps the best known being Martyn Joseph who contributes three of his own numbers, the first, featuring fingerpicked guitar and violin, a revisiting of ‘Dic Penderyn’ from his Evolved album, the story of the 1831 Merthyr Riots and the man hung for a crime he could not have committed. The second, a duet with Sam Carter, is also one from the back catalogue, ‘Twelve Years Old’, from Songs For The Coming Home, inspired by the 1833 Factory Act and framed as a conversation between two children a hundred years apart. His third, ‘Nye’, is a new song written for the project, a fingerpicked, violin-accompanied tribute to those who work in the NHS and to its founder, fellow Welshman, Aneurin Bevan.
The album opens with ‘Kingdom’, the first of four songs by 2015’s BBC Folk Singer of the Year, Nancy Kerr, a traditional styled solo acoustic number that takes Magna Carta as a springboard to address the ownership and management of land for profit and the subsequent loss of habitat. Coloured by violin, ‘Seven Notes’ is another traditional framed track, one which uses the image of the migrating cuckoo as a poetic metaphor for colonialist history, setting it in an experiment in musical patterns to represent multicultural Britain.
Rather more jaunty, the waltzing, melodeon-led Music Hall-like ‘Lila’ (the only song not to also feature on her new Instar album) connects the suffragette movement with the abolition of slavery through its twin subjects, Adelaide-born Muriel Lila Matters, who took to a hot air balloon to scatter Votes for Women leaflets over Parliament, and Mary Prince, an eighteenth century Bermudian whose autobiography offered a narrative of slavery. Her fourth contribution, the spare, melodeon, violin and guitar accompanied ‘Written On My Skin’, again draws on metaphor and nature imagery (here a hunted fox) on a song in memory of women forced to resort to the Human Rights Act to have their sexual assault cases justly tried.
A relatively new voice on the British contemporary folk scene, Maz O’Connor also has four credits, all new recordings, kicking off with the violin-backed ‘Rich Man’s Hill’ which, inspired by the 1601 Poor Law and concerning the widening gap between the haves and have nots,, tells of a homeless man in London who believes that, if he works hard enough, he too can get himself a mansion. The one track to address democracy directly, ‘This Old House’ (a nod the Palace of Westminster) is a playful take on democracy and compromise framed in the context of a couple redecorating and patching up their shared house, pizzicato violin driving along the chorus.
Featuring nimble fingerpicked guitar and violin, ‘Broad Waters’, as the title suggests, concerns the 1985 killing of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm estate and the subsequent police fitting up of three innocent men for his murder, and is set as a dialogue between a police officer pressuring a young boy into testifying against Winston Silcott. Her last track, backed by just acoustic guitar, the plaintive ‘Broken Things’, also concerns social justice, here, borrowing the opening of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth, a lament for the decline of the trade union movement, focusing on the Miners’ Strikes of 1984 and, in particular, the death of David Jones during violence on a picket line.
Which leaves Sam Carter who, like Joseph, provides three numbers. Echoing Kerr, ‘Am I Not A Man?’ also addresses slavery a waltzing number inspired by freed slaves organisation Sons of Africa whose campaigning contributed to the Abolition of Slavery Act, drawing for its details on the slave autobiography Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano.
His two other songs come at the back end of the album, the first being the lurching cabaret-styled ‘Dark Days’, a straightforward state of the nation comment with gyspy violin accompaniment, proceedings closing with the folksy salvationist hymn ‘One More River’, a return to the theme of slavery that sounds a personal note in that his great great aunt married the son of a fugitive Virginian slave, sun in his voice as he contemplates fleeing to England, ending in an unaccompanied chorus by Carter and, presumably, his three female associates.
Featuring none of the bombast or flagwaving that would likely characterise an American equivalent, this is both a damn fine album and a salient reminder of the liberties we so often fail to hold dear.
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‘John Ball’ live at the launch event: