ROBB JOHNSON – Ordinary Giants (Irregular IRR223)

Ordinary GiantsAt first glance Ordinary Giants seems like a sequel to Robb Johnson’s wonderful Gentle Men but it isn’t. It’s more of a companion piece; there is no formal spoken narrative – Robb won’t spoon-feed us, although he helps us along here and there – and the album encompasses the last hundred years of British history interleaved with the story of his family and in particular his father, Ron Johnson. It’s rather like an audio advent calendar with each track displaying a snapshot of a moment in time. This is a triple-CD set with a book so it isn’t something you can rush through nor, I suspect, will anyone listen to it in a single sitting.

Although the songs are arranged with a light touch there is a big supporting cast; among them Roy Bailey, Matthew Crampton, Rory McLeod, Phil Odgers, Tom Robinson, Miranda Sykes as the main female voice, Boff Whalley, four community choirs, Frances O’Grady and Dennis Skinner. Robb wrote nearly all the songs – there’s a traditional tune, a couple of borrowed melodies and the assistance of Robinson on ‘Holding Hands With Hitler’. He succeeds in capturing the style of each period, particularly in the first part, covering the years 1918 to 1939 and puts the most appalling words in the mouth of Adam Clayson as the Mosley-supporting Major Utterswine. The problem is that the same words reappear in the third part covering the period from 1970 to the present day.

Inevitably, Ordinary Giants, is a very political record; you’d expect nothing less from Robb, but the politics are embedded in the words of ordinary people and often creep up on you when you’re not expecting them. The first ‘Lou’, one of Frances O’Grady’s three spoken word pieces is a perfect example, starting innocently enough but ending in verbal conflict. There are causes close the Robb’s heart such as ‘Craven Vale Hall’, dated 1958 and celebrating the building of the first post-war care homes.

The final tracks of the second disc and all of the third can be quite painful because Robb’s view is that things haven’t changed that much and it’s hard to argue with him. The songs are peppered with political slogans and he makes his points with humour and sharp insights in songs like ‘Goalkeepers’ and ‘Who Buggered Bognor?’ but beneath that is the realisation that we’re still fighting the same battles in whatever guises they appear.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

There are no videos from this album yet so we’ll have to make do with this:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Transports – A Tale Of Exile And Migration (Hudson Records HUD007LP/CD)

TransportsTom Paxton once remarked about one of his songs that it originally sounded as if it had been written a century ago, but that he no longer considered that a virtue. Fortunately, Peter Bellamy had no problem with “telling it like it was”. His ballad opera The Transports was, in the opinion of many, the best example of how effectively he could write songs that sounded as if they had been written around the time of the events they describe, which happened in the late 18th century. The Transports – A Tale Of Exile And Migration, released on January 12th 2018, is not, of course, the first recorded version of the opera.

The first recording was released in 1977, and included some enormously influential artists, including some whose influence has survived long after they themselves left the stage. (For example Bert Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Dave Swarbrick, and Peter Bellamy himself.) The ‘silver edition’ released in 2004 included not only the (remastered) original recording, but also a collection of newer recordings by other artists, including members of Fairport Convention; Coope, Boyes & Simpson; Steve Tilston; and Damien Barber and John Kirkpatrick. This latest CD, produced by Andy Bell, features a younger generation of singers and musicians, including members of The Young ‘Uns, Bellowhead, Faustus, Waterson: Carthy, Whapweasel, and Belshazzar’s Feast, as well as Nancy Kerr, Matthew Crampton and Greg Russell.

This live CD isn’t just a reproduction of the original recording with different musicians, however: it mirrors the touring revival from 2017 (which at the time of writing is just beginning another 14-date tour that ends in Norwich on the 24th January: see the website linked below for details). While it’s still based on the true story that captured Peter Bellamy’s imagination all those years ago, it uses spoken narrative between songs rather than the four sections of ‘The Ballad Of Henry And Susannah’ from the original recording. The narration, by Matthew Crampton, also draws parallels with the plight of 21st century forced migration. Perhaps the only reservation that I have about the CD is that while the narration is very capable, even a new listener might not want to hear it every time after they’ve become acquainted with the story. But in this age of iGadgets and personal playlists, I suppose people are much less likely to simply put on a CD and play it all the way through.

The production also includes Sean Cooney’s own recent song ‘Dark Water’, about Hesham Modamani, who swam from Turkey to Greece in his bid to escape from Syria. Live performances include stories of migration researched by the Parallel Lives project. While the song doesn’t have the ‘traditional’ quality of Peter Bellamy’s songs, it doesn’t jar – on me, at any rate – and it’s an excellent performance.

For comparison with previous recordings, here’s a listing of the songs: there are 28 tracks altogether, including the spoken tracks.

  1. ‘Us Poor Fellows’
  2. ‘The Robber’s Song’
  3. ‘The Leaves In The Woodland’
  4. ‘The Ballad of Norwich Gaol’
  5. ‘I Once Lived In Service’
  6. ‘Sweet Loving Friendship’
  7. ‘The Black and Bitter Night’
  8. ‘Dark Water’
  9. ‘The Humane Turnkey 1’
  10. ‘The Plymouth Mail’
  11. ‘The Humane Turnkey 2’
  12. ‘The Green Fields of England’
  13. ‘The Still and Silent Ocean’
  14. ‘Roll Down’

For reasons of space, I won’t go through the performances individually: the songs are of a uniform high quality (and, happily, the booklet includes the lyrics). The vocals (both solo and ensemble) and instrumental work are never less than very good, though Nancy Kerr’s bravura performance on ‘The Leaves In The Woodland’ deserves a special mention.

If you already have an earlier version, it’s still worth taking a look at this for its change of focus (and, of course, some excellent performances). If you’re not acquainted with The Transports but like the sound of songs that are very much in a traditional vein and tell a fascinating historical story with 21st century resonances, you should definitely take a look. And if you tend to prefer more contemporary renditions of contemporary material, take a look anyway. You might just surprise yourself.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist’s website: www.thetransportsproduction.co.uk/

A Taste Of The Transports:

MATTHEW CRAMPTON – Human Cargo

Muddler Books – ISBN 978-0-9561361-2-1 – Softback 164 pp

Human CargoHuman trafficking is never far from the news these days, whether it’s young women from eastern Europe being brought to the west and forced into prostitution; immigrants fleeced by people smugglers before being trapped by gang-masters or refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and dying in the attempt. Behind all the stories is the profit motive but I for one have never linked today’s news to the slave trade, the press gangs and forced emigration of the past. Matthew Crampton’s book makes that link.

The book is divided into two parts. Firstly, Matthew examines slavery, kidnapping into indentured servitude, military recruitment by whatever means and transportation and secondly, he discusses the stories of those emigrants who volunteered to go, often lured by false promises and whose fates were frequently no better than those of the slaves who preceded them.

Initially, I found Matthew’s short punchy chapters and rapidly changing time-frames a little irritating but once I’d got into the pattern and the rhythm of Human Cargo everything fell into place. Although most of the book is taken up with historical accounts, old illustrations and folk song texts, its focus is very much in the present and the modern reports which parallel the historical text show that very little has changed since the 17th century. Modern villains may not be the rich traders in Liverpool or Bristol nor the greedy landowners clearing the Scottish highlands and the west of Ireland for their own purposes; nor yet governments (as far as we know) but the stories are the same.

Human Cargo is well laid out with facsimile broadsides and posters tempting the unwary and is an easy read. It is a primer rather than an academic treatise but the sources of the various narratives are properly documented as are the song texts and Matthew doesn’t restrict himself to English sources which is refreshing. It will prick your conscience and raise your awareness and then point you in the direction of further reading and for that it achieves its purpose admirably.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the book then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Author’s website: www.matthewcrampton.com

To give you a flavour of the book, you can have a listen to a previous live concert performance by the “The London Lubbers” which used excerpts from “Human Cargo” via the soundcloud link below: