In the ever changing world in which we’re living it’s nice to know that there are some things that can be relied on to hang on in against the odds – and one of those things is Topic Records, which can trace its history back a full 80 years, enabling it to make the bold claim that it is the longest running independent music label in the world. And where better to start a year of celebration of such an iconic folk label than at Cecil Sharp House, the beating heart of English Folk Dance and Song ? Just to add a touch of the eerie to the night, the snow started at the start of the journey – and the last flakes melted away upon reaching the hallowed hall. It must mean something.
After welcoming drinks there was time to peruse the contents of a “goody bag” and get an early look at the major upcoming vinyl releases and recent notable issues – The Pentangle’s ‘Finale‘ looks suitably impressive as a boxed 3 LP set. One of the label’s key new releases are the ‘Introduction to…‘ series, showcasing key recordings by artists as diverse as Shirley Collins, June Tabor, Anne Briggs, various combinations of Watersons and Carthys, The Oldham Tinkers, John Tams, Dick Gaughan, Martin Simpson and, of course, Ewan MacColl. With film of various of these artists showing, and a selection of the music playing in the background it was a keen reminder of the depth of musicality that Topic have presented to the world, and every now and again there’d be a real “moment” such as hearing Anne Brigg’s version of ‘Willie O’ Winsbury‘, with the singer sat just a few tables away.
And then the meat of the evening – David Suff gave a short history of Topic, interspersed with music. Topic trace their roots back to the Workers Music Association and a first release in 1939 of ‘The man who waters the workers’ beer‘ by Paddy Ryan, and their early inspiration was just that, to record the music of the workers – an industrial counterpart to the often rural idyll approach to folk music which concentrated on haymaking (both types) and other country pursuits. Through links to the Communist Party the net was cast wider to include any number of “tractor factory choirs“, but the early years also saw releases by Woodie Guthrie, Ewan MacColl and, a little later, The Oldham Tinkers – who also happened to be present in the persons of John Howarth and Gerry Kearns. These one time favourites of John Peel had been asked to record a song for an upcoming celebration of Topic, and had jumped at ‘Dirty Old Town‘ which they opened their couple of songs with – including the sometimes dropped verse ‘I’m going to make me a good sharp axe / Shining steel tempered in the fire / I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree / Dirty old town‘ which really does change the feel of the song. They followed this up with a whistle introduced ‘Peterloo‘, a memorial to the 1819 massacre, which, in the Oldham Tinkres’ way is distinctively strong on dialect, and has a rousing chorus “Salute once more these men of yore / Who were to conscience true / And gave their blood for t’ common good / On t’ fields of Peterloo“.
The tale of Topic then progressed towards the sixties and the revolutionary boom of that decade’s folk-revival. The label had parted from the WMA and was a separate registered company, albeit one with a roster of artists who cleaved to a similar political stance. The next musician up, however, isn’t a Topic artist – yet! – but will also be part of the Topic celebration recordings. Lisa Knapp, initially solo but later joined by Gerry Diver on fiddle, joked that she was probably asked to take part because she’s local making her “cheap…but not free“. Lisa Knapp has one of those clear, unadorned and completely natural voices, as she demonstrated with an unaccompanied “George Collins” which, if it brought Shirley Collins to mind was probably the intent. It’s simply beautiful. No less so is her banjo accompanied ‘If My Love Was A Cherry‘, from AL Lloyd’s singing – it’s a frail ethereal thing which belies the barely disguised lustiness of the lyrics which start from the fairly subtle “I wish my love she was a cherry / A-growing on yon cherry tree / And I myself a bonnie blackbird / How I would peck that sweet cherry” before losing its inhibitions “I wish my love was in a little box / And I myself to hold the key / I’d go in to her whenever I’d a mind / And I’d bear my love sweet company“. Switching to fiddle, and accompanied now by Gerry Diver on the same, this short set closed out with a spirited tune set.
After the traditional folk club raffle – which had rather more impressive prizes than is typical, a series of framed photographs by Brian Shuel for example – David Suff closed out his history of Topic with what amounted to looking to the future – new artists that enliven the tradition with their own spirited approach – eyes may have twitched towards Eliza Carthy at this point – and a new future for Topic with future releases being made through the auspices of Proper Records. The future is bright. As bright and vibrant as the playing of Eliza Carthy – her “Worcester City“, which she recorded for one of Topic’s best selling albums ‘Anglicana‘. This fiddle and vocal only version saw Eliza Carthy playing in her most powerful style – a mix of stomping, striking poses and abandoned dancing. And this does the song no disservice – a dark tale of jealousy, poisoning and heartbroken suicide, it’s a perfect murder ballad. ‘Cats And dogs‘ (better known as ‘You Seamen Bold‘) couldn’t be more of a contrast – Eliza Carthy recorded this with Tim Eriksen on their album ‘Bottle‘ which is, dare we repeat it, “not on Topic“. Eliza Carthy sang it here with just the accompaniment of a plucked violin. As is typical of folk songs that last the test of time these sailors being sung of don’t have a pleasant voyage, faced with starvation they fall to cannibalism after exhausted other sources of food: “their cats and dogs how they did eat them“. Luckily rescue comes in the nick of time. Other familiar songs from the Eliza Carthy store of song are the well known ‘The Grey Cock‘ and ‘Maid On The shore‘, the latter sung accompanied, both delivered with gusto. Something a little less familiar is ‘Nelly Was A Lady‘ by 19th century American songwriter Stephen Foster (of ‘Camptown Races‘ fame), which was recorded with mum Norma for the second Gift Band album. It’s a stately minstrel ballad, which already marks it out as unusual, but in the chorus it also has a tragic twist to the lyrics celebrating the object of affection “Nelly was a lady. / Last night, she died. / Toll the bell for lovely Nell, / My dark Virginny bride.” Even in half a dozen songs this is a varied set, full of interest, which just goes to explain once again why Eliza Carthy is such a highly regarded English folk artist. Superb.
There are promises of further releases through this 80th celebration year, and there’ll be many gigs by Topic artists keeping the banner waving – next up at Cecil Sharpe House are The Oldham Tinkers on February 2nd. This evening brought into focus an old friend with a rich heritage of song, and a back-catalogue well worth exploring further.