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.
Pete Coe is one of the old guard, one of the last. He’s been in this business for more than forty-five years and still has all the moves. I expected The Man In The Red Van to be something of a political work, akin to It’s A Mean Old Scene. It would be appropriate but even Pete couldn’t have known what is lying in wait for us in June. This album is a collection of songs, most of which will be familiar in some form. And that’s the key – halfway through the second track I was hooked.
That track is ‘The Spanish Lady’. Pete learned it from Al Donnell, was given extra verses by Mary O’Connor and added the chorus from Frank Harte, so this is a combination of at least three versions, but it is Pete’s treatment of the song that lands the killer punch. Forget the rollicking folk club chorus version; Pete slows it down, plays it on acoustic guitar and includes more verses than I’ve seen in a single text before. There’s an odd, noirish feel about the finished product and I’d be prepared to say that this is what Pete does best.
The opener is ‘King Henry’, a variant of the ‘Lord Randall’ story with poisonous toads instead of eels, and I’ve heard versions of the song many times but not this one. The same is true of ‘World Of Misery (Shenandoah)’, a song I wouldn’t mind not hearing again. Except that Pete’s version comes from Saint Vincent and includes lines I’ve never heard before. It’s nice to be surprised.
Pete includes two of his older songs. The first is ‘Joseph Baker’, which he has been performing live recently, and the second is the song that flagged him as a songwriter, ‘Farewell To The Brine’, about his home town of Northwich, and two covers; Terry Conway’s ‘The Walls Of Troy’ and Vic Gammon’s ‘Ash And Alder’ which come the closest to making political points.
Musically, the album is deceptively simple. Pete plays most of the music with sparing support from Andy Peacock and producer David Crickmore plus a chorus of colleagues and friends. He doesn’t need any more than that.
If you haven’t seen Pete Coe on stage recently (why not?) the title may require some explanation. “Frank” refers to Frank Kidson, something of a 19th century renaissance man from Leeds: publisher, artist, historian, antiquary and collector of folk songs and tunes. His first volume of songs was published in 1890, a full ten years before Cecil Sharp had even heard a folk song. Kidson was a founder member of The Folk Song Society but now he’s thought of as the “lost” collector with only one of his books remaining in print. As for “five finger”, that was how he described himself – he had many talents but pianist was not among them.
Having got the history lesson out of the way let’s get down to the business in hand. This splendid double CD set brings together twenty-seven Kidson songs and tunes. Alice Jones is every bit as much a multi-instrumentalist as Pete Coe, specialising in keyboards and reeds with a fine, natural voice that complements Pete’s unmannered style. The approach is essentially simple with minimal additions – there is a brass trio on two tracks, some fiddle, mouth organ and hammered dulcimer here and there – but the songs are what’s important.
Lest you think that this album is hard work, think again. These are often earthy songs and are treated as such – Pete even sets ‘Turpin Hero’ over the ‘Teenage Kicks’ chord progression and swears he hasn’t changed a word or a note of the melody. Many of the titles will be familiar and many others conceal familiar songs. ‘The Swan Swims So Bonny’, for example, is a nicely involved version of ‘The Two Sisters’. In contrast, disc 2 opens with a down-to-earth version of ‘Hares In The Old Plantation’ that’s half chorus. I hadn’t heard it before. ‘All On Spurn Point’, another new song to me, is the fascinating story of a shipwreck tainted by pecuniary considerations. Very modern. Kidson’s version of ‘Bonny Light Horseman’ is very different from the familiar one but this album is full of such delights.