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THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
VARIOUS ARTISTS
"Ranting & Reeling"
Topic Records TSCD669

Live music whether played in concert hall, club, bar, camp site, kitchen or back room can generate a number of magical qualities that are all short lived. These qualities can be fondly remembered but never quite experienced second-hand.

Recording work can certainly capture the material and the instant, but even at best can never retain all of the dimension and presence of the recorded musician. Recorded or not, that instant, that performance, cannot be re-lived. Recorded and made available, however, the material and some notion of the artist can reach out and overcome distance and time - try to estimate how many times in his life Joseph Taylor sang, "Brig Fair" and how many people heard him singing. Now compare these figures to whatever your guesstimations would be for how often copies of Percy Granger's recording of Joseph Taylor have been played and how many have listened to them.

Topic records have long been associated with making the sounds of traditional music readily available. This association and commitment continues with the release of a collection of recordings under the headline title of "The Voice of the People". To judge this undertaking simply by sheer scale, let's go through some of the facts and figures. This is a series of recordings from traditional players and singers: the mix is roughly 25% instrumental to 75% song; a full set of song texts and short biographical notes on all the main performers are included; an individually themed collection of 20 CDs; each CD has an average of around 24 tracks; each CD has an average of around 73 minutes; there is a total of 490 tracks; the overall running time is ... er, well, I don't actually know but somewhere in excess of 25 hrs!

I couldn't put an exact figure on the number of artists involved either but there must be more than one hundred and ninety featured players and singers. Each volume can be bought as a single package and they are all available now.

This is not the only collective and themed series of traditional music recordings that has been released by Topic Records. In the early seventies Topic produced, on 12 inch LPs, "The Folk Songs of Great Britain", with sub headings that included, "Songs of Courtship", "A Soldier's Life for Me", "The Child Ballads" and "Jack of all Trades". The material on these records was from invaluable collections and recordings made by Peter Kennedy, Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, Patrick Shuldham-Shaw and Seamus Ennis.

"The Voice of the People" anthology was edited by Reg Hall and contains some of the same artists, songs and tunes as "The Folksongs of Great Britain" but by way of different recordings or sources. Many of these recordings, although being made with a view towards a viable product for general release rather than for archive or study purposes, have become none the less invaluable. Added to these are performances from deleted 10 inch 78rpm records and rarely heard singers and players collected and recorded during the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies.

All the recordings have also been subjected to "cleaning up". This is nothing to do with the contents of the songs or the titles of the tunes, which all remain unedited and as originally recorded, but to the sonic qualities of the recordings. I have certainly found no fault with this process so far on these recordings. The sound is commendably clear with plenty of life and ambience still evident while the live and lively location recordings still retain plenty of the push and shove, back-ground chat and noises-off that can often reveal much regarding the settings and environments that helped form the style and genre of performances.

Much has been written and said about traditional music especially regarding just what is a "traditional style". If indeed there is such a thing, then it is surely to be found among these songs and tunes. Though I must admit to being on better known and more familiar ground with the vocal content of this collection although the musicians take centre stage on several occasions. Vol.19 "Ranting and Reeling, Dance Music of the North of England", has several tracks featuring the splendid mouth-organ playing of Will Atkinson as well as sets along with fellow shepherds Willy Taylor and Joe Hutton on fiddle and small pipes. Also to be heard on Vol.19 are Alf Addamson's Band and The Cheviot Ranters. Balancing this (?) is Vol. 9, "Rig-a-Jig-Jig, Dance music of the South of England". Here Scan Tester's concertina playing sets much of the pace and he is joined by Rabbity Baxter on tambourine and Daisy Sherlock on piano. There is also some lively stepping from The Boscastle & Tintagel Players and an appearance of The Sailors' Hobby Horse. Morris sides, performance and processional music bands collect together on Vol.16, with The Britannia Coconut Dancers, Brampton Morris, Helston Town Band, the Wrenboys from Listowel and The Ripon Sword Dancers.

The bulk of the other seventeen volumes are mostly taken over by songs and singers. And what songs they are and what singers to sing them! Now I know that "officially" the song is supposed to be of primary importance and the singer a vehicle that carries the song on. But, I can get as much pleasure from the sound a singer makes, how they produce their voice and how they alter tune and verse, just as much as the songs themselves. There are ballads and broadsides, songs of great depth and those of little or no importance but still bring a spring to your step or a smile to your face.

Each CD has its own theme and songs to fit, "Who's that at my Bed Window"; "We've Received Orders to Sail" ;"To Catch a Fine Buck was my Delight"; "My Father's the King of the Gypsies"; "O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green"; "There is a Man Apon the Farm". The singers are not confined to the one album and appear as the mood of their songs fits in with the themes which adds to the listenable nature of each of the CDs.

The cast of singers includes Willie Clancy, Sarah Makem, Jimmy McBeath, Jeannie Robertson, Walter Pardon, Bob Hart, Phoebe Smith, Fred Jordan, Micho Russell, Sam Larner, Paddy Tunney, Stanley Robertson, Packie Byrne, Davie Stewart, Willie Kemp, Eddie Butcher, Margaret Barry, Sheila Stewart, Joe Heany, Joseph Taylor, Harry Brazil, John Reilly, Willie Scott, Belle Stewart, Jack Elliott, Pop Maynard, Maggy Murphy, Lizzie Higgins and many many more. Individual listings are on each CD and there is a catalogue available giving details of the complete series.

So there it is - "The Voice of the People" on twenty volumes. This is certainly a prodigious and important body of work from Topic Records but it is not presented in a way that is stuffy or academic. Indeed there is a sense of freshness and lightness that has been too often missing from many recent recordings. Let's hope this anthology gets much use in record libraries and radio station play lists, certainly for folk programmes, as well as schools and music collections at home. I would also hope that present and future singers and players can learn from what is to be heard, savoured and enjoyed on this collection.

Peter Fairbairn

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