Thursday 6 October 2016


CD Review

Sweet Liberties

Pretty much from its birth in the mists of time folk music, or the music from the people, has always been associated with political and social commentary, rebellion and dissent. It's good to see that tradition being carried on by an impressive group of musicians who have been commissioned to produce songs for this album.

Sweet Liberties. From left Nick Cooke, Sam Carter, Nancy Kerr,
Martyn Joseph, Maz O'Connor and Patsy Reid
Picture courtesy of
In a project similar to The Full English, this comes from a partnership of Folk By The Oak, the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) and the House of Commons. The artists in their individual ways are charting 800 years of society trying to create a fairer world for everyone.
The line up of  Nancy Kerr, Maz O'Connor, Sam Carter, Martyn Joseph, Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid should be enough to get any folk fan salivating.
Kerr's distinctive voice has the honour of kicking off the album with the gentle and very traditional sounding Kingdom. Using just her voice and guitar the uncluttered ballad draws you into the words which, like most of the songs on this album, start with a single intent. However,  just as society is interconnected so the story of the origins and purpose of the Magna Carta spreads out to look at how the land has been used and, in a lot of cases, abused and the consequences. Kerr sets out the stall straight away alluding to the tension between republicans and royalists, a situation which remains with us to this day.
The clever wording draws very clearly on images from the natural world the voice of which is often ignored in many wrangles over who owns which parcel of land and how it should be used.
Perhaps the most telling line in the song is "Like bees alive all in one hive, and that shall feed us all."
The softer tones of O'Connor take up the mantle of the unfair society which, as always, is divided by the pursuit or the retention of money.
O'Connor uses the juxtaposition of a homeless man looking at the well-heeled people on Rich Man's Hill. The language she adopts in this offering is cutting and worthy of listening to closely. There are phrases such as "I found myself there on a warm summer's day. Didn't take long to move me on." and "How could anyone find themselves unhappy, surrounded by so many shiny things." The undertone of the poor being sold the lie of being able to get on with hard work is also clearly threaded through the song.
Carter carries on the gentle tone of the songs which each of the artists keep from being oppressively sombre while at the same time keeping a respectful gravitas. With Am I Not A Man, Carter tackles the distasteful subject of slavery which is a shameful episode in the histories of many developed countries.
Inspired by the true story of former slave Olaudah Equiano there is a lamentable quality to his singing and once again the lyrics are clear and cannot fail to make the listener stop and think about how we are a global family.
Joseph brings to the table a song about workers rights which is as relevant now as it was in the time frame to which the lyrics refer.  Dic Penderyn is the eponymous character at the centre of this song and who, still,  is the focus of an on-going petition to get him pardoned. With the dust of Brexit not quite settled this song could well prove a timely warning as Britain's workers could lose the protection and final sanction of European employment laws.
There is a passion in Joseph's voice when he expresses phrases such as "You can only trample people down for so long my friend, and time will show you that you simply have not won."
Muriel Lila Matters
Kerr's second offering, Seven Notes, is inspired by the chequered history of race relations and how Britain, like most modern societies to a lesser or greater extent, is multi-cultural. She uses the metaphor of the cuckoo, a migratory bird also known for laying it's eggs in other bird's nests - an allusion to our colonising past. The repetitive bird call style cadence of the song takes on an almost mantra-like quality.
This Old House is a real gem from O'Connor who, in this comic song, tells the story through the metaphor of an old couple who can't live with each other and are either too complacent or afraid to live without each other.
There are some really playful lines in this song with "Well Mary she wants blue, but Johnny wants red, so fair's fair they're yellow instead." Which mirrors some of the bizarre compromises which are made for democracy to work.
The second song from Joseph is a wonderfully observant piece where he cleverly compares the lives of children a century apart. Twelve Years Old focuses on how the industrial age meant so many children were forced to leave their childhood behind too soon and yet his lyrics show that in the digital age there are many similarities to be drawn.
In the narrative of histories, sadly, many times the role of women is overlooked and so Kerr makes sure this is not the case on this collection. Lila has a feel of a music hall Morris hybrid and with the swinging lilt you can almost see the suffragettes, arms linked, swaying back and forth in solidarity. The jolly tune is inspired by Muriel Lila Matters and Mary Prince and Cooke's contribution on melodeon adds more colour to what is an obvious protest tune which may well have got Kerr into trouble a few generations ago.
O'Connor's next offering, Broad Waters,  is slightly schizophrenic in that the tune is quite light and gallops along at a friendly pace and yet within it she tackles an extremely sensitive, contentious and dark subject.
But that's what this album is about. The tunes appear deliberately simple so as not to take any focus from the lyrics which are wonderful examples of folk song writing.
Joseph's tribute to both Nye Bevan and the NHS he founded is also a thank you to the great man and the ordinary men and women who save lives day in and day out, but it's also a warning of the threat the organisation is under. Joseph's gentle guitar picking is complemented perfectly by the subtle and emotive strings in the background.
Carter brings a sinister feel to Dark Days which is an indictment of contemporary politics. The gypsy style tune does have a Faustian feel about it, with Carter's grittier style of singing carrying just that little hint of warning menace.
 Another serious subject is tackled by Kerr with her cryptically titled Written On My Skin. The song deals with the fight to get sexual assault on women taken seriously.  The title has a dual meaning referring to how acts of parliament are written on vellum for permanence but also because the assaults would have left their physical marks on the victims.
The album from the project
The album's penultimate tune, Broken Things, could almost be the sister song to Joseph's Twelve Years Old, as it deals with the demise of the trade unions and with it the capacity to protect workers' rights.  O'Connor's singing is wonderfully understated and she builds the song around David Jones who died in the awful clashes during the miners' strike in the mid-eighties.
It's refreshing she took up this subject because for such a dark period in recent political history there are surprisingly few folk songs written about the time.
Carter has the honour of taking the album out with One More River which is a personal song for him revolving around the story of some of his ancestors. Rather appropriately, because the subject involves slavery, the style is that of an 'ol time gospel song akin to Down To The River To Pray from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? He is joined on this by some of his fellow artists. The style sounds remarkably like Martin Simpson but Carter puts together a delightful tune and could easily be one of those tunes which will be picked up by other folk artists and will soon be doing the circuit. Kerr does some wonderful harmonies on what is a great way to take such a class album out.
This collection is a great example of how good the folk music can be in this country. Without wanting to do any disservice to the tunes on this, which are excellent, the musicians seem to have realised that it's the stories and the words which need to stand out and they do both in subtle and deeply incisive ways. They, like the War Stories album from Harp and a Monkey, chose to focus on the lives rather than statistics to bring the histories to life and show that at the centre of these events were and still are real people.
This album shows you how folk music can be both emotive, incisive and thought provoking in a world which seems awash with trite, banal and pointless music and lyrics. As a history of many of the political meanderings which have made this nation, a million albums from a billion musicians couldn't give the full picture, the Sweet Liberties does an illuminating snapshot which could well launch many other projects, songs and inspire another generation of folk singers.
It is a wonderful example of the level of songwriting talent folk music encompasses and more so because these weren't organically inspired offerings, the artists were constrained to particular areas and they have all executed their briefs most admirably

Sweet Liberties is released October 7 through Proper Records.

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