Starting life as a series of pop up gigs by the city’s acclaimed folk/roots reggae outfit and other artists constructed round the Manchester Ballads, a collection of thirty five broadside ballads dating from the industrial revolution which, collected by two local folk music enthusiast historians, was published, with backing from Manchester City Council, in the form of facsimile prints of the original penny broadsheets, alongside background to the songs and, as required, a dialect glossary.
Providing a snapshot of Mancunian life in the industrial era, they now form the basis of this new album, the band’s first full length release of new material in 15 years, contemporary arrangements of several of the ballads also featuring Bury-born broadside balladress Jenifer Reid who provides four a capella or spoken excerpts, three taken from her own album, ‘The Langley Linnett’, The album opens with 38 seconds from The Testimony of Patience’, a song about a 17-year-old girl’s life working in the mines also recorded by The Unthanks, before the band, still fronted by the warm tones of Glen Latouche, launch in with the title track, a melodically cascading, melodeon wheezing celebration of the city’s changing fortunes.
Next up, introduced by a gypsy violin flourish, is the rock steady groove of ‘Ragbag’, an 1861 commentary on the exploitation of drinkers by greedy, lying landlords. What follows sees a departure from the core broadsides concept in the band’s jaunty, horns led version of ‘Dirty Old Town’, although, written by Ewan McColl about the harsh living condition in Salford, it gels perfectly with the social and personal histories elsewhere on the album. I’m not persuaded the same argument can be applied to the other more modern cover, a reggaefied take on New Order’s ‘Love Vigilantes’, tenuously justified by the fact Joy Division used to sing their own songs of Mancunian life at a venue in the heart of the historic ballad centre. But, what the hell, it’s a great version.
Returning to the source, opening on a burst of melodeon, ‘Soldier’s Farewell To Manchester’, written around 1800, concerns a soldier looking to bed his girl before going off to war, promising to marry her the next day, she offering to let him do as he will and then join him in disguise. Similarly lighthearted, ‘Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night’ celebrates a typical weekend goodtime of drinking, market stalls, revelry, “good things and bad” on the bridge over the Irwell which today links the cities of Manchester and Salford. Maybe it’s me, but it sounds almost like a Squeeze song. Then there’s ‘Mr. Sadler’s Balloon’, a musically clumping celebration of the first balloon flight in the country by James Sadler in 1785.
By contrast, several of the ballads are far more serious, addressing politics and troubled times. The five minute ‘The Great Flood’, for example, is a dub-reggae paced account of the 1872 tragedy that overwhelemed central Manchester when the Medlock burst its banks, washing coffins and bodies out of the ground. Others address the civil unrest and uprisings that marked the struggles of workers for improved conditions and the right to vote, the slow, moody ‘Peterloo’ concerning the peaceful gathering of August 16, 1819 that ended in a bloody massacre and the following, jauntier and lengthier titled, ‘A New Song on the Great Demonstration which is to made on Kersal Moor, September 24th, 1838’, referencing the Chartist rally that occurred in its wake.
The exploitation of workers and the fight for better pay continues with the catchy sprightly lurching ‘A Humorous And Interesting Dialogue’ between an employer and employee with its message refrain to masters who keep their wages low to “never keep your workmen down and use them manfully.” The album ends with ‘The Execution of Allen, Gould and Larkin’ which, those up on their 19th century British history will know refers to the so-called Manchester Martyrs, Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien (referred to as Gould in the press of the time), three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were hung on Sept 18, 1867 for being part of a gang (two others who were acquitted) that attacked a police van transporting two of the movement’s leaders, during which a sergeant was killed. The notice of their execution was published as a pamphlet featuring the ballad recounting their fate, but here it appears as an instrumental, with the Manchester Session Strings, in the style of an Irish air.
Lavishly packaged with a 48 page book in which social archaeologist David Jennings provides an informative commentary on the ballads and the times, it’s a terrific piece of work, both musically and in a historical context, a reminder of what folk music is actually all about.
Artists’ website: http://edwardthesecond.co.uk/
‘The Soldier’s Return To Manchester’: