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  • Release Date: 15th September, 2017
  • Genre: Folk, Traditional Folk, Alt Folk, Singer-Songwriter
  • Record Label: Quercus Records
  • Tracks: 15
  • Website:
  • Review By: Gary Smith (LCM)


Probably one of the most timely releases of the year and 'right on point' is the newest UK Folk music project 'Shake The Chains'. Last year The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled "Not talkin' bout a revolution: where are all the protest songs?" It discussed the lack of protest songs in modern culture despite of plenty of strong subject matter to work with.

From anti-Vietnam war ballads to miner’s strike songs, folk artists have long voiced counter-cultural anger. Could folk music be about to wake from its recent docility? The highly acclaimed UK Folk project 'Sweet Liberties' was released year and this year the exciting new 'Shake The Chains' project picks up and runs with the mantle. In a tumultuous eighteen month period of tremendous political upheaval, a group of five highly respected UK Folk artists came together to explore and celebrate the role songs play in social change, resistance and protest. 

“Protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication,” says Malcolm Taylor, a folk music expert and former librarian at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. “There’s so much ammunition for them­, and if you wrote one that happened to catch on, you could potentially reach millions. But whereas Billy Bragg and his generation would have strapped on their guitars and headed for a street corner to make their point, today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media.” Billy Bragg’s generation in the 1970s and 1980s could also draw inspiration from the US, where legendary protest artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax had ended up on Senator Joe McCarthy’s blacklist, and later arrivals such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez lent musical backing to the civil rights and anti­-Vietnam war movements. Music was for a time, a powerful counter­-cultural force.

But as Bob Dylan once sang "The Times They Are A-Changin'"'. Organised by the multi-award winning singer-songwriter Greg Russell, the 'Shake The Chains' project brings together some of the cream of UK Folk musicians and singer-songwriters Nancy Kerr, Findlay Napier, Hannah Martin and Tim Yates. I was really thrilled to see this exciting new collaboration. It was also brilliant to see some new names included in a large UK Folk project. 'Shake The Chains' is a commission from Folk By The Oak with support from the Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK and Folk Alliance International.

The 15-track album was recorded live during a nationwide tour earlier this year and features new material written exclusively for the project set against classic protest songs. It was recorded on the tour by Tom A Wright and then mixed and mastered by the excellent Stu Hanna (Megson, Lucy Ward). The artwork is designed by Katy Coope. The album provides a storybook of the human, social and political issues that are shaping our generation.

With it's percussive hand clapping and great harmonies the album begins with a song written by Nancy called 'Through The Trees'. It was written for Nancy's mother and all the woman who were at Greenham Common in the 80's fighting for nuclear disarmament. It's a song both of protest and of celebration. 'E.G.A' written by Greg is inspired by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) a London born physician and suffragist, the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon. She was the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor of medicine in France, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board and as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain. The song celebrates her life and her challenges. The tune in the middle is 'The Whitechapel Reel' written by Nancy in response to hearing the song 

One of my favourites on the album is 'Building Ships' written by Findlay. Findlay's father worked in the ship building industry and he often used the phrase 'There's more to building ships than......" The decline of the ship building industry not only effects the individual workers but the whole communities and infrastructure which are built around them. Governments often take a very short term view of major industries and are more interested in votes than have a long term plan. "But there's someone in the government who wants to make their name. They scupper it and cut it and the unions take the blame."

Very topical and current is 'Yarl's Wood' written by Hannah. Yarl's Wood is an immigration centre in Bedfordshire, which is at the center of ongoing allegations of human rights abuses. The song was inspired by the 'Set Her Free' campaign to end the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. The song traces the story of a woman's journey to Yarl's Wood with all her hopes, dreams and aspirations. "I made a choice that was no choice and so left my home. Perhaps to find some new nest and that my own is gone. Then I came to this country. They cut out the corners from the sky. Then I came to Yarl's Wood and no more dreamed!"

Next a very powerful and classic protest song 'If I Had A Hammer' written by Pete Seeger & Lee Hays. Versions of this song have been sung in revolutions all over the world. It was written in 1949 in support of the progressive and civil rights movement, and was first recorded by The Weavers, a folk music quartet composed of Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. It was also a number 10 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962. Also very timely is 'Poison Apples' written by Nancy. It is based on a conversation Nancy overheard in a cafe about Alan Turing, the famous WW2 code-breaker whose vilification via the state for his homosexuality led to his suicide in 1954. The tears and outrage of everyday people can often be the fuel for protest.

'Glory Of The Sun' written by Hannah explores the current state of the environment and the lack of concern in some quarters for the effects & threats of global warming and the benefits of renewable energy sources. It was inspired by Robert Macfarlane's book 'Landmarks' highlighting that there is great value in noticing and naming. 'You cannot see the wood among the tree.......sunlight is worth more than gold'. The famous Glasgow Song Guild protest song 'Ding Dong Dollar' first released in 1962 still resonates today over 50 years later. Originally written In protest to an American nuclear submarine that sailed into the Holy Loch in the early 1960's. It became the anthem of the Scottish Anti-Polaris movement of the 60's and beyond. Drawing from the rich Celtic bard traditions and combining folk and popular melodies with biting lyrics, the Anti-Polaris Singers were not only informative but played an important role in sustaining the demonstrators’ morale. Nothing really has changed in that time, the UK government has just swapped Polaris for Trident now leased from the American government, which is even more destructive. With the full ensemble in full voice led by Finday, this is a very powerful and thought-provoking version of the classic. With the very sage thought of 'You can't spend a dollar when your dead!' 

It is always good to include something about UKIP and their views on a protest album. In this case it's a song for Nigel Farage and the issues he stands for. In 2014 Nigel said "Any normal and fair minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door" Greg thought about this and came to the conclusion in 'Bunch Next Door' that he really wouldn't want to live next to Nigel Farage. So Greg wrote him this Americana folk & blues song......   Art and especially music can be very powerful in protest and can act as a significant threat to those who seek to oppress. Adrian Mitchell's haunting piece commemorates Victor Jara is book-ended with a poem by Denis Kevans (Australia's "Poet Lorikeet").  "Musician From Chile/Victor Jara of Chile (Words D Kevans music K. Fagan / Words A Mitchell Music A. Guthrie)"

The album's inspirational and blood-pumping title track 'Shake The Chains' is written by Findlay. It's a thought-provoking call to action. The verses were inspired by Marc Maron's WTF podcast. Findlay also borrowed a bit of Shelley's 'Masque of Anarchy'. It explores the subjects of activism, apathy and the lack of individual action... "No one will do it for you. We are many, they are few. Shake the Chains!!!"

Known to "hold funerals" for other birds the Western Scrub Jay use a specific call known as a 'scold' to gather other birds. The Jay does not discriminate between different types of birds, but uses the same pattern of behavior for all. The "Song Of The Jay" by Hannah explores these themes. The only song on the album written by Tim Yates is 'Side By Side'. It is inspired by multi-cultural neighborhoods. The eternal battle of reason and rational thought against the inflammatory words of the far right.......and interestingly the 'Town Flag' episode of South Park. Often referred as one of the best of Scotland's unofficial national anthems 'Freedom Come All Ye' was written by Hamish Henderson in 1960. It was originally themed as an anti-imperialist protest song. The first line also echoes Harold MacMillian's "Winds of Change" speech. Like Findlay I really like the sentiment in the verse "All of you who love freedom pay no attention to the prophets of doom. In your house all the children of Adam will have food, drink and hospitality" 

The album fitting ends with the ensemble cast and audience joining together with another timeless and powerful classic 'We Shall Overcome'. Originally it was a gospel song which became a protest song and a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. The song is most commonly attributed as having descended lyrically from "I'll Overcome Some Day", a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley which was first published in 1900. Pete Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s, such as Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies, folk festivals and concerts in the North and helped make it widely known. Since its rise to prominence the song and songs based on it, have been used in a variety of protests worldwide.

A new UK tour is planned for late January/early February 2018 with special guests to be announced.

  • Wed 31st Jan - Celtic Connections, Glasgow
  • Thu 1st Feb - Brewery Arts, Kendal
  • Fri 2nd Feb - The Met, Bury
  • Sat 3rd Feb - St. John's, Bethnal Green, London
  • Sun 4th Feb - Town Hall Birmingham

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