SWEET LIBERTIES - SWEET LIBERTIES
LCM ALBUM OF THE MONTH - SEPTEMBER 2016
Release Date: 7th October, 2016
Band Members: Martyn Joseph, Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter, Maz O'Connor, Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke.
Location: Various, UK
Record Label: Quercus Records
There isn't that many Folk music projects that you can say were launched at the Speaker's House in the Palace of Westminster. 'Sweet Liberties' may be unique in that regard. It was commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), Folk By The Oak and partly funded by the PRS for Music Foundation, as part of Parliament in the Making’s anniversary programme. The year 2015 was very important in the UK, as two significant milestone were reached: (1) The 800th anniversary of the sealing on the Magna Carta in 1215 (2) 750 years since the Simon de Monfort Parliament in 1265. These new and original songs (launched in November 2015) celebrate 800 years in the history of democracy.
The very talented chosen singer-songwriters and musicians, some of the cream of UK Folk, were tasked with writing new songs in relation to the pursuit of democracy and the events that have made a difference to our key civil liberties. With such a wide and potentially emotive subject, it's very interesting to see how each songwriter has contributed to the overall brief. Although having an overall common theme the subject matter varies greatly and musical style changes from more Traditional Folk and Contemporary Folk through to Americana.
Martyn Joseph pays tributes to fellow countrymen Nye Bevan and Dic Penderyn. Nancy Kerr weaves subjects including the Magna Carta, Human Rights Act, women's suffrage and slavery into compelling and heartfelt songs. Sam Carter showcases his storytelling skills to examine the struggle against slavery. One of the freshest voices on the contemporary folk scene Maz O'Connor brings history firmly into the present day with her reflections on the Poor Law and race relations. Backed by talented instrumentalists Patsy Reid (formerly of Breabach) and Nick Cooke (Mawkin, Kate Rusby Band), this is a unique album of thought provoking, highly original and relevant new music that was recorded in response to overwhelming demand from audiences during the project tour. Sweet Liberties has already received coverage on BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, The Independent, Morning Star, The Times, R2, and Songlines, as well as receiving radio play across the country.
With the subject matter involved this could have easily been a very dry album, but the very opposite is true, it's vibrant and very interesting. Which is largely testament to the quality of the musicians and songwriters involved. I found it a joy to listen to and I've already seen the live version on two separate occasions at Cecil Sharp House and Folk By The Oak. As well as being entertaining, this album should also get you thinking. About our personal protections and rights by law, where often blood was shed, sacrifices were made and lives were lost to gain them. Our hard-fought valuable freedoms, that we often take for granted....our 'Sweet Liberties'
The album begins very aptly with Nancy Kerr's 'Kingdom', themed around the original intent of the Magna Carta agreed by King John. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Unfortunately neither side stood behind their commitments and it quickly evolved into the ownership and management of land for profit. The charter became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn, although as time went by and the fledgling English Parliament passed new laws. At the end of the 16th century there was an upsurge in interest in Magna Carta. Lawyers and historians at the time believed that there was an ancient English constitution, going back to the days of the Anglo-Saxons, that protected individual English freedoms. Lord Denning described the Magna Carta as "the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot"
Nancy a prolific, talented songwriter and a veteran of many recent high profile and award winning folk projects including 'The Full English' and 'The Elizabethan Session' was a perfect choice. Nancy also won "Folk Singer of the Year" at the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Next up is a song written by multi-award nominated Maz O'Connor, who like Nancy has produced some excellent commissioned work. 'Rich Man's Hill' is a classic Maz composition. It tells the story of a homeless man wandering around London and believing that if he works hard enough, he will one day live in a Richmond mansion. The song was inspired by 'The Poor Law' of 1601, the first time it was legislated that the community had to collect for those who couldn't work. It draws some interesting parallels with modern London, with its every widening gap between the rich and the poor.
'Am I Not A Man' turns it's attention to the subject of slavery and The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The song written by Sam Carter is inspired by the lives and efforts of a group of freed African slaves known as 'The Sons Of Africa', whose continual campaigning contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery. The details in the song are based on the seminal autobiography 'Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equiano'. Sam was the winner of the "Horizon" award for best newcomer at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2010 and is highly regarded as an instrumentalist. He is also part of the band 'False Lights' with Jim Moray. Described as 'the finest English-style finger-picking guitarist'' and 'one of the most gifted acoustic guitarists of his generation'
One of my favourite tracks on the album is 'Dic Penderyn' written by Martyn Joseph. The song is based on the struggle for basic workers rights in the early nineteenth century. The Merthyr Riots of 1831 were a reaction to the many years of simmering unrest. After the riots Dic Penderyn although innocent, was hung for a crime he couldn't possibly have committed. As a side point, there is currently a petition for Dic's posthumous pardon. In 2004, Martyn won the Best Male Artist Category at the BBC Welsh Music Awards. His music often focuses on social issues and reflective songs of protest, so another Ideal choice for the project.
The second composition from Nancy 'Seven Notes' focuses on The Race Relations Act and multicultural Britain. When we migrate, we take our musical patterns (scales and rhythms) with us. The migrating cuckoo is a metaphor for our colonial history and our desire to reinvent it as a love story. The idea for this song came from the Race Relations Act banner, in which scrolls of coloured fabrics represent the vibrancy of Britain's mixed cultures. It examines migration and colonialism, love and the universality of musical language, and was greatly influenced by the poem 'If My Homeland is Coloured' by Angolan-Portuguese poet Mauricio De Almeida Gomes.
Sadly not a cover of the Shakin' Stevens classic ,'This Old House' is a light-hearted, slightly surreal song from Maz about democracy, compromise and the crumbling walls of the Palace of Westminster. Some lovely clever lyrics in this one. Winston Churchill once famously said that 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others".
The thought provoking 'Twelve Years Old' written by Martyn considers the The Factory Act of 1833 which set out to improve the working condition of children working in factories. The song focuses on a conversation between two children one hundred years apart. You would have expected that lives are better for a child now, but some important social aspects in the life of today's child have actually declined. Twelve years old was the school leaving age.
The subject of women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery is considered next by Nancy in 'Lila'. Written in memory of Adelaide-born Muriel Lila Matters, who went up in a hot air balloon to scatters 'Votes For Women' leaflets on parliament. She was a real Steampunk feminist hero. The song is also a tribute to Mary Prince, whose autobiography was a crucial narrative of slavery. Women were often at the forefront of anti-slavery boycotts of goods such as sugar.
'Broad Waters' written by Maz focuses on a miscarriage of justice in 1985, when three men were wrongly convicted of killing PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham. The resulting investigation saw the arrest of 1 in 10 of the men on the estate. Three men were arrested based on the evidence of young men and boys. These men were acquitted several years later and it become a famous example of police racism, leading to the updating of the Race Relations Act of 2000 to include public bodies. The song is a dialogue between the police and one of the young boys pressured into testifying against one of the suspects. Winston Silcott. Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite who were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, despite no witnesses or any forensic evidence.
The focus for Martyn's next song in 'Nye' is Welsh hero Nye Bevan, The Health Act of 1946 and the NHS. Nye helped bring about the bill and even today it's a very emotive and important subject. The hard fought for and unique NHS should be celebrated and protected. "And the purpose of power is to give it away. this is the truth tell me yours. And freedom won't be freedom until poverty is gone. So Nye, your dream's alive and strong"
Coming right up the present, Sam Carter's very hypnotic 'Dark Days (Goodnight & Good Luck)' voices the frustration with the system and the current political process in recent times. "Hopeless as we are, there is still hope....We won't give up or give in 'til the last penny drops". Everytime I listen to the song it really reminds me of the current BBC1 Sherlock Holmes series....and I think a perfect sync.
Another firm favourite is the beautifully composed 'Written On My Skin' by Nancy. The song is written in the memory of several women who were forced to invoke the Human Rights Act, in order to have there sexual assault cases justly tried. Most acts of parliament are written on scrolls of vellum (originally made from the skin of a calf). The 'Reynardine' reference is based on a traditional old English ballad (Roud 397). Reynardine is a werefox who attracts beautiful women to him, so that he can take them away to his castle to seduce them.
The demise of the trade union movement is the subject of Maz's 'Broken Things'. With the opening of Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for a Doomed Youth', the song remembers those who gaves their lives for better working conditions, including David Jones who was killed on a picket line in 1984.
A very personal part of Sam's own family history is 'One More River'. It has the feel of an Americana Shaker hymn. Written about his great, great, great grandfather (a fugitive Virginian slave who escaped to England in the early 1800's) and grandmother, it traces his incredible journey from slavery to freedom across the Atlantic. The beginning reminds me of the classic 'Dirty Old Town and finishes with a wonderful group a cappella.