Topic Records celebrates its first 80 years

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.

With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.

For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.

“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg

This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.

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Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

NAOMI BEDFORD & PAUL SIMMONDS – Singing It All Back Home (Dusty Willow Records DWR005)

Singing It All Back HomeIt has been my experience that any record with Naomi Bedford’s name on it is worth listening to and adding Paul Simmonds to the mix practically makes it mandatory. With Singing It All Back Home they turn their back on their customary songwriting and present a set of Appalachian songs with roots in English and Scottish traditional songs. Despite their southern English backgrounds, Naomi and Paul sound authentically American particularly when they hit their harmonies.

Alone, they are just two voices and acoustic guitar but here they’ve assembled a cast of musicians who work together seamlessly well. Dan Stewart and Ben Walker, who co-produced the album, play banjo because you can’t have an Appalachian album without banjo and Ben also plays guitar and mandolin. Ben Paley plays fiddle, Rory McLeod adds harmonica and Lisa Knapp supplies hammered dulcimer. All of this comes over the engine room of Rhys Lovell’s bass and Billy Abbot’s drums and percussion.

The first few titles are the less familiar ones – Naomi and Paul have delved deep into the archives – but from the first notes you know what these songs are and where they are from. The first, ‘I Must And I Will Be Married’, begins in a Celtic style but when Walker’s slide guitar comes in you know that you’ve crossed the Atlantic. The melody of ‘The Fateful Blow’ sounds vaguely like ‘Johnny Todd’ but not quite and ‘A Rich Irish Lady’ surfaced later as the better-known ‘Pretty Saro’.

The first well-known track is a raucous ‘Hangman’ (‘Prickle-Eye Bush’ or ‘Gallows Pole’ if you prefer) and ‘Matty Groves’ needs no introduction but here there are rarely sung verses and variations I haven’t heard before. ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ isn’t a song I expected to find here but I should have known that Hedy West recorded back in the 60s. Finally we have ‘The Foggy Dew’, a song well-known on both sides of the water.

If I must be critical, I would have liked notes about the origins of these versions. Not only is Singing It All Back Home a very enjoyable album, and it can be listened to on that basis, but also an important collection, particularly for someone like me – by no means a scholar but with a more than passing interest in the history of the songs.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.naomibedfordandpaulsimmonds.bandcamp.com/

‘Who’s That Knocking’:

Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds announce new album of Appalachian songs

Naomi Bedford and Paul Smmonds

The Appalachian ballad form has been liberally sprinkled throughout Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds’ albums to date. For the next project, they have recorded a full set of songs with English and Scottish roots entitled Singing It All Back Home.

This is no museum piece. In keeping with the folk tradition, the songs have been revised and re invigorated whilst staying true to the heart of the stories.

The project began with a very simple premise; to rediscover, explore and celebrate the ballads that had been such a strong influence throughout Bedford’s childhood. It’s only the most vital works that can survive nearly three centuries as living, still valid pieces and the Appalachian ballads are certainly that.

Greatly aided by the marvellous Shirley Collins, who generously donated her time, encouragement and research materials, and by Folk Award winner Ben Walker on production and multi instrumental duties, the material was chosen, rehearsed and recorded live in the summer and autumn of 2018 in Brighton. With a cast that also included Justin Currie, Rory McLeod and Lisa Knapp, the album moulds influences from England, Scotland and South East USA to stir the great melting pot of folk and roots styles.

Launching officially at home of folk music Cecil Sharp House in London on June 6th, the project will then tour throughout the UK in 2019. With new arrangements and the power of Bedford’s evocative voice, these legendary songs continue their transatlantic voyage.

‘A partnership that is complementary in every respect’ Songlines Magazine

‘Easy to get besotted with’ Froots Magazine

‘Thrills, soothes and haunts in equal measure’ Uncut Magazine

Artists’ website: www.naomibedford.com

‘I Must And I Will Be Married’ live:

You Are Wolf announces her second album

You Are Wolf
Photograph by Dannie Price

You Are Wolf is the alt-folk project of award-winning composer and vocalist Kerry Andrew. Releasing her second album Keld in March, it is the follow-up to her 2014 debut Hawk To The Hunting Gone, a record that explored British birds and folklore. Now working as a trio with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall and percussionist Peter Ashwell, Keld – an old Northern English word meaning “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – is an album that explores and develops the theme of freshwater. Wild swimming is a key passion and inspiration of hers, and she can often be found dipping into lochs, lakes, rivers and the sea in all weathers. Though there are countless traditional songs about the sea, there are less about our inland waterways, and Kerry decided to use this as a challenge: to source traditional material and write originals all inspired by freshwater folklore.

It was an aim of Kerry’s to find songs that featured an array of strong female characters, and Keld includes traditional songs about waterfall banshees, killer female water sprites, drowning boys and powerful witches. Original songs are inspired by wild swimming, vengeful rivers, nymphs and naiads, and even an Anglo-Saxon charm. You Are Wolf brings these ancient songs and stories into the present, with bold arrangements inspired by leftfield pop, new classical music and electronica.

The album is produced by MaJiker, best known for his work on French alt-pop queen Camille’s Victoire-winning albums. He has also remixed / worked with Fever Ray, Nitin Sahwney and Gaggle, and brings an experimental pop sensibility to the album. Where Hawk To The Hunting Gone was heavily vocal, with lots of vocal looping – inspired by the likes of Camille, Bobby Mcferrin, Meredith Monk and tUnE-yArDs – Keld is more expansive. With a wider palate of sounds including drums, ‘cello, vibraphone, trumpet, found sounds and field recordings, it’s an album that not only draws from innovative contemporary folk artists including Lisa Knapp (who features here on “The Weeper”), Sam Lee and The Unthanks, but also by music outside the folk sphere: everything from minimalist composer Steve Reich to PJ Harvey, traditional Central African Pygmy music and Julia Holter. The brilliant poet Robin Robertson also appears.

You Are Wolf is a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb and performed her debut short story with music on BBC Radio 4’s Stories From Songwriters series. Elsewhere, as Kerry Andrew, she is a composer of experimental vocal music and choral music, has a PhD in Composition and is the winner of four British Composer Awards. Kerry has written for The Guardian and is an occasional presenter on BBC Radio 3. Her debut novel, Swansong, based on a folk ballad, is published by Jonathan Cape on January 25th 2018. The novel has been praised by Robert Macfarlane as “spiky, strange and contemporary, but always with a dark undertow of myth and folklore tugging at its telling” and by folk legend Shirley Collins as “a subtle, supernatural tale told in a present-day voice.”

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Artist’s website: http://www.youarewolf.com/

‘All Things Are Quite Silent’ – live:

Shirley Collins talks to Dave Freak for Folking

Shirley Collins
Photograph by Eva Vermandel

“It’s been a sort of fairy story!” is how Shirley Collins describes her unexpected return to the spotlight with a studio album and live tour after 30 years of silence.

The singer and song collector was at the forefront of the so-called folk revival, releasing a string of well-received and influential albums in the 1960s and 1970s as a solo artist, and with Davy Graham (the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes), sister Dolly Collins, and the Albion Band. But the shock of her marriage break up to Fairport Convention and Albion Band’s Ashley Hutchings in the early 1980s led to dysphonia, and she effectively lost her singing voice.

But after 20 years of polite pestering David Tibet, of Current 93, managed to get Collins on stage in 2014, at London’s Union Chapel, and the (former) singer (and a hushed audience) discovered she could hold a tune after all!

“Then two filmmakers approached me at one of my talks about gypsies, and wanted to make a film about me, so this started up as well,” Shirley reports on her surprising return to the spotlight. “I guess people wanted to meet me before I died!” she laughs, before quickly adding: “No! I don’t mean that … but there seemed to be enough people out there that remembered me, and it all snowballed.”

Hence the home recording and release of Lodestar at the end of 2016 – via the ever excellent Domino label – and a run of hugely acclaimed live shows.

“I couldn’t tell you how, but it’s been such a surprise. I’m glad it happened, it’s lovely to sing again,” enthuses the 82-year-old. “Domino have been so supportive. They do help promote the album and support you, unlike some record labels that just put out a record and watch it slip away. They’ve all become such friends, I’m so happy to have made this at this point … I do feel so blessed by it all.”

After so long away from recording and singing (Collins says she didn’t even sing at home, in private), it was decided to record Lodestar in the comfort of the folk doyen’s own home in Lewes, Sussex. Pulling together a collection of English, American and Cajun songs from the 16th century to 1950s, highlights include ‘Death And The Lady’, which Collins initially recorded over 45 years ago on Love, Death And The Lady.

“Yes, that was recorded with my sister, Dolly, in nineteen-sixty-whenever-it-was. I always loved that song and I sang that at the Union Chapel, so it was my first song in public again. Of course the key had to be lowered. When it came to doing it Ian [Kearey, Lodestar’s producer] wrote a new arrangement – I love the slide guitar.

“I love Muddy Waters, I love the blues, and there was a point when it suddenly turned into a Muddy Waters song where I’ve spelt death – D.E.A.T.H.” she chuckles. I did that song at Rough Trade [store in London] for the record launch and I did ‘Death spelt … T.R.U.M.P! It got a great cheer! I shouldn’t do it to that song, it’s a bit of mischief … I love the song anyway. It felt so right with the slide guitar on it, it made it sound mysterious, but strong.”

Taking Lodestar out on tour, Collins has created a full show which sees her perform the album in its entirety, plus film shorts, Morris dancing, and guest musicians.

“We’ve had guests like Graham Coxon – it’s unbelievable. Here’s this guitarist from Blur, and he sings, and plays, so beautifully – who’d have thought he’d be so into folk music? When we visit Warwick Arts Centre [29 April 2017] we’ll have John Kirkpatrick [who] is just about my favourite singer, and Lisa Knapp – she’s a really gorgeous singer. At other shows, we’ve got Olivia Chaney, who is very good too, and others.”

In her time away from music, it would be wrong to suggest Collins was invisible. She published a memoir in 2004, America Over The Water, documenting her song collecting expedition with Alan Lomax; picked up an MBE for her Services To Music in 2007; curated a South Bank festival in 2008, and received a Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards the same year; and created a series of spoken word-based shows exploring Gypsy singers, Bob Copper, music from Sussex, and her trip to the USA.

Now back as a bona fide ‘recording artiste’, she’s full of praise for many younger performers (such as Knapp, Chaney, Alasdair Roberts and others), but finds the current popular use of the term ‘folk’ to seemingly describe anyone with an acoustic guitar somewhat misleading.

“People who write their own stuff – that’s not traditional music. I have to say that I don’t find it very interesting, I know that sounds harsh, but it’s not traditional folk music.”

Perhaps ‘singer/songwriter’ would be a better term?

“Exactly!” she agrees swiftly. “I get these messages from Amazon, and there was one about Folk Singers and number one on the list was Adele! Adele!” she repeats, exasperated. “I do like her as a singer … but she is not folk music!

“So I have to put proper folk songs in front of people – that’s my challenge. Folk … it gives us our music, it’s not global, it’s not about making money. I don’t like globalisation – everything is the same everywhere. I want variety. I want choice. I hear these kids singing with American accents and that saddens me … everything becomes a blur to me. I like difference, I like distinctiveness, I like the fact [folk is] still surviving, it’s working class music … and I don’t care if it’s not working class people recording, but I work to be part of that.

“It’s music from the labouring classes provided by people who’ve kept it going, learning it off by heart and passing it down. That’s a great achievement – people who’ve been exploited by the wealthy providing this glorious music.”

She agrees that the rise of gloablisation and dominance of pop music would make a song collecting exercise like she embarked on in 1959 virtually pointless today.

“Big business has encroached on everything and everywhere. I don’t think I want to go there now. It was bad enough in 1959, but now? I wouldn’t feel safe – would you? America feels sad to me now. It was dangerous in 1959,” she recalls of her trip as an outsider in her mid-20s. “It was right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement and we were going to places like Mississippi State Penitentiary, where we recorded these work songs, and black communities, but we were always welcomed, we always felt welcomed by the old blues men and the true, old mountaineers. They wanted to meet us, they wanted to meet people from the old country. But we were held up at gunpoint – we stopped to take a photograph of a chain gang. There we had a gun pointed at us and we were told ‘get those wheels rolling!’”

Collins also recalls a run-in with an aggressive Kentucky Baptist who took offence to her short hair and clothes

“I had to run to escape,” she says. “There was something scary … but if we’d been there a year later, I might have ended up as a pile of bones in the Mississippi mud. There was this sense that people were watching … always watching …”

Dave Freak

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Artist’s website: www.shirleycollins.co.uk

VARIOUS – From Here: English Folk Field Recordings (From Here Sitw005)

From HereThey may be newcomers to the scene, but Stick In The Wheel are certainly making their mark, not just with their own recordings and associated artifacts, but in their involvement with the folk world in general, and the traditional in particular.

Band members Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey serve as curators, collaborators and producers for this collection of new live recordings by both the great and good and some of the lesser known luminaries in the genre. The remit for those involved was to record songs that explored either place or their musical identity, culminating in a gathering of field recordings captured in locations as diverse as a stone cottage in Edale, a bank vault and a garden at Robin Hood’s Bay using just two stereo microphones and with no subsequent overdubs.

As you would imagine, the tracks are stark and raw, first up being ‘Bedfordshire May Carol’, chosen by performer Jack Sharp, leader of psych-folk outfit Wolf People, as it supposedly originated just a few miles from where he grew up. Next up, Eliza Carthy leads a flurry of more familiar names with a self-penned number, ‘The Sea’, a new setting of the broadside ballad found in Manchester’s Chetham Library and featuring on her current album, the initial pizzicato fiddle giving way to more robust playing. She’s followed by one of the veterans of English folk, John Kirkpatrick, applying his accordion to a song from his lengthy repertoire and a folk club staple ‘Here’s Adieu To Old England’, while his sometimes musical partner, Martin Carthy, also chose a number he’s recently reintroduced back into his sets, ‘The Bedmaking’, a familiar tale of the abused and cast aside servant girl. fingerpicked here to a halting rhythm.

Sandwiched in-between is one of the rising stars of the few folk firmament, the Peak District’s Bella Hardy, who went to 19th century collection The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire for ‘The Ballad of Hugh Stenson’, setting it to a more upbeat tune than the hymnal adapted by Jon Tams, while, another member of folk royalty, Jon Boden puts his squeezebox to work on a contemplative take on 19th century drinking song ‘Fathom The Bowl’.

There’s a couple of spokes from the Wheel, both unaccompanied, Kearey delivering glottal version of the much covered ‘Georgie’ and Fran Foote ‘The Irish Girl’. They’re not the only numbers to be sung naked as it were. BritFolk alumnus Lisa Knapp has a lovely treatment of the tumblingly melodious ‘Lavender Song’, while, also from the female side, Fay Hield tips the hat to Annie Briggs with her choice of ‘Bonny Boy’.

On the other side of a capella gender fence, Geordie folkie Stew Simpson mines his Newcastle roots for ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’ (which the accompanying booklet helpfully translates as “Oh Yes, I Could Pick At The Coals”), Sam Lee turns the evergreen ‘Wild Rover’ on its head to transform it into a slow, sad lament rather than more familiar rollicking rouser of Dubliners and Pogues note, and, from Wales, a deep-voiced Men Diamler closes the album with ‘1848 (Sunset Beauregard)’, a self-penned political protest ballad about Tory policies. The remaining unaccompanied track is actually a duet, Peta Webb and Ken Hall joining voices for an Irish in London in the 50s marriage of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Just A Note’, about the building of the M1, and Bob Davenport’s account of the dangers of ‘Wild Wild Whiskey’.

The three remaining tracks are all instrumentals. Bristol’s acoustic instrumental quartet Spiro are the only band on the collection and provide their self-penned ‘Lost In Fishponds’, apparently about getting lost en route to a gig, joined here by North Wales violinist Madame Česki, while Sam Sweeney brings his fiddle to bear on two tunes. ‘Bagpipers’, one of the first things he played with his band Leveret, and ‘Mount Hills’, an English dance tune from the 17th century. Which leaves Cumbrian concertina maestro Rob Harbron to provide the third with a pairing of ‘Young Collins’, a Costwolds’ tune learned from Alistair Anderson, and, another from the Morris tradition, ‘Getting Up The Stairs’, which, by way of a pleasing synchronicity, he actually learned by way of John Kirkpatrick on the influential Morris On album.

It more than does the job it set out to achieve, and, likely to loom large in end of year awards, fully warrants a place in any traditional folk fan’s collection.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.stickinthewheel.com

Stew Simpson – ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’: