In spite of the establishment’s attempts to cover up the story of the massacre for nigh on two hundred years, it’s now common knowledge to anyone who cares to listen. Mike Leigh’s film has done a great service and now we have a musical history of the event compiled by Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth. It might have been tempting to write a folk opera but every word of The Road To Peterloo is contemporary with the events they describe. Some come from broadsides and Brian and Laura have laboured to marry existing tunes to the lyrics or write new ones where necessary.
The album falls into two halves. The first eight tracks deal with the build-up to the meeting and several of the songs passed into the folk repertoire and remain familiar. ‘The Drummer Boy For Waterloo’ serves to remind us that the massacre took place just four years after Wellington’s victory. Young Edmund “escaped” his life in the cotton mills but died on the battlefield and it’s hard to say whether or not he was better off. . ‘Jone O’Grinfield’ is better known as ‘Four Loom Weaver’ in this version but another song with the same title also tells of a man joining the army in preference to starving at home. ‘Cropper Lads’ celebrates, if that’s the right word, the wrecking of Cartwright’s Mill by Luddites in 1812 and ‘Tom Paine’ is an old broadside set to a new tune by Laura. All this and the Corn Laws, too – everything’s coming to a head.
The second half begins with an instrumental break in the shape of a couple of jigs and then we get to the meat of the story. ‘With Henry Hunt We’ll Go’, ‘Rise, Britons, Rise’ and ‘John Stafford’s Song’ all describe aspects of the massacre, the latter being particularly graphic, while ‘St Ethelstone’s Day’ and ‘The Pride Of Peterloo’ are bitter satires of the events. Finally, ‘The Chartist Anthem’ and ‘Kersal Moor’ document the continuing protests – Peterloo wasn’t the end of the story by any means.
Pete, Brian and Laura haven’t tried to be too clever. They sing and play their instruments without overdubs or guest musicians and some may find the sound of The Road To Peterloo a little old-fashioned. Of course, if you’ve heard any or all of the trio in a folk club, you’ll know better.
Project website: www.theroadtopeterloo.com
‘The Triumph Of Liberty’: