First published in fRoots magazine, April 2012 (issue 346)

Vocal Persons

Topic’s seminal 20-volume Voice Of The People series has just seen four more additions. Jo Breeze talks to some of the key people involved.

The first Voice Of The People anthology was, and is, an astonishing 20 volumes of recordings of traditional singers and musicians from all over the British Isles, released in 1998. Now, Topic Records are releasing four more volumes to continue the series; they draw on the Peter Kennedy archive, Topic’s own archives, private recordings and more.

“The first Voice Of The People was drawn largely from existing Topic recordings,” says Tony Engle, managing director of Topic Records. “But we’d always known that there was another tranche of recordings made by Peter Kennedy and other collectors, mainly in the ’50s. I’d been working with the British Library, and I knew they’d started talking to Peter, and after his death they were talking to the family. At that time I got involved, and we negotiated a deal whereby we bought all the recordings in his archive, and agreed for them to be deposited in the British Library where they’ll be protected and digitised, and we acquired the commercial rights.”

Controversial collector and folklorist Peter Kennedy had released some material on his own label, Folktrax, and some as part of the Folk Songs Of Britain project he worked on with Alan Lomax in the ’60s. Folk Songs Of Britain, though an amazing resource at the time, was notoriously flawed – in no small part due to the editorial policy of cutting verses from songs and sometimes splicing together fragments from different singers. But with access to the Kennedy archives, those complete original recordings can now be heard.

“If we’d had this 13 years ago we would have amalgamated everything,” says Tony. “But perhaps this is going to be more interesting. We don’t know how many CDs we’re going to do; this is just the first batch. We have a huge amount of material – if we wait until we evaluate and analyse it all before releasing it, we’ll be too old to do anything.”

Reg Hall, series editor, esteemed musician and historian, explains: “Each of the original 20 CDs had a similar format, and that was partly to do with the material, partly the philosophy at the time, and partly marketing. We don’t feel that we’ve got to do it exactly the same now, so the four issues that are coming out are quite different. I’m the series editor, so I haven’t put these together; we invited Rod Stradling, Shirley Collins and Steve Roud, and we’ve given them free rein to produce the records that they want to.”

Shirley Collins, legendary singer, collector, writer and researcher, worked on two of the four new volumes: You Never Heard So Sweet, southern English traditional singers, and I’m A Romany Rai, southern English Gypsy traditional singers. Both draw on Kennedy’s archives, and on recordings made by Bob Copper. Shirley knew both Bob Copper and Peter Kennedy very well, and worked with Peter in the ’50s and early ’60s on his field recordings.

She worked closely on the project with Steve Roud, founder of the Roud Folk Song Index and ballad specialist. Steve was responsible for the third volume in the set, Good People Take Warning, focusing on ballads. Shirley explains “Steve was compiling his CDs of ballads and I was compiling CDs of songs, and one of the provisos was that we couldn’t use anything that had been issued on Voice Of The People before. So of course we both longed to make our own choices but we had to agree on what the other could have.”

Steve adds “Each of us did our own selection. I had it easier in a way because the definition of ballads I’ve adopted is the simple one of a song that tells a story. I had to reject the more lyrical songs even if they were good; it’s got to have some sort of story in it. I also specifically wanted to have more female singers than usual. Women hadn’t been ignored by the collectors by any means, but when records come out it’s usually 75 percent men, so on my CDs almost half are female singers. I can only do it because there’s enough in the collection for me to make that choice. We have to pay tribute to Peter Kennedy especially, and the fact that, way ahead of his time, he recorded women singers as much as he did.”

There were a number of discoveries that came to light during the compilation process. Some of the songs, especially some of the Traveller songs, were so little known that until now they weren’t listed in the Roud Index – the database of over 21,600 songs collected from oral tradition in the English language.

For Shirley, the great surprise was Dorset Gypsy singer Carolyne Hughes: “I hadn’t heard her before. How had I not? When I started listening I thought God, this is dreadful, and I just persevered and kept listening, and then suddenly I just got it, and then I was just completely hooked and loved every note she sang. I think it was quite an exhausting experience for Peter to record her because songs just came cascading from her, she just kept flowing and flowing. Her versions of songs are quite extraordinary, and her versions of ballads are incredible. That was a major discovery for me.”

For Steve, he says, “the big discovery was a rediscovery. Some of the tracks I was familiar with from Topic LPs 30 years ago, but listening to them again on good equipment made me realise why I fell in love with them in the first place. There were one or two songs from the Copper Family that I hadn’t heard before, and when I listened to them I thought ‘Bloody hell! I’ve known the Copper Family all my adult life and they can still surprise me.’”

The fourth volume is Sarah Makem, The Heart Is True, put together by Rod Stradling, editor of Musical Traditions magazine and respected musician. Other than the album released by Topic in the ’60s, there were very few known recordings of Sarah Makem. Rod explains the origins of the project: “Paul Carter, the man who originally recorded her, rang me up one day and said, ‘I’ve got a reel of tape with five songs on that didn’t get used on the Topic record. Can you do anything with them?’ Topic had recently bought the rights to the Kennedy archive and I knew there were Sarah Makem recordings in that. So I said put the two together, and the tracks from the original LP, and we’ve got a CD’s worth.”

Rod agreed with Tony Engle to put together an album for Topic, with any additional material released on the Musical Traditions label. As it turned out, Rod uncovered far more than he’d expected. “I eventually dug up so much that there are actually four CDs – one on Topic and three on Musical Traditions. The majority of the extra material was family recordings given to me by Stéphanie Makem, Sarah’s great-granddaughter; songs that nobody else recorded. Then I discovered that Diane Hamilton (aka Diane Guggenheim) had recorded her.” He contacted the Irish Traditional Music Archive, expecting to hear just five or six recordings, but was amazed when they sent him two full CDs: “There were five or six that had appeared on records, but by no means was that the whole of what she’d recorded. In total there were 34 Diane Hamilton recordings.”

In the end, the material divided up neatly. “What eventually happened,” explains Rod, “is that the Topic record contains the best recordings of the good songs, which are from the Paul Carter, Peter Kennedy, and Diane Hamilton recordings. And there’s just one song – Banks Of Red Roses – which appears on the Topic record but not on the Musical Traditions records, because it seems it was only recorded once.”

Many of these recordings have been sitting in archives for years, unavailable – or effectively so – to the general public. The excitement of everyone involved at being able to get this music out and get people listening to it is clear. “It’s a big thing to recognise,” says Tony, “that most of the current generation of performers have had very little opportunity to be in the same decade, let alone the same room, as this music. This is why for me it’s very important: you can’t damage this stuff. If anybody wants to stick a synthesiser on it, sample it, whatever they want to do, that’s up to them, but you can’t damage it except by losing sight or sound of it.”

Such an unparalleled collection of recordings is a valuable resource for performers as well as listeners. “All they need do is listen,” says Shirley. “You’re not going to like every song, but it seems silly to me to think you can be a folk singer if you’re not learning from older traditional singers. What bothers me about folk singers today is they’re not singing traditional songs, a lot of them, they’re writing their own stuff or just adapting one or two lines of a song into a lengthy piece of work. There’s this absolute treasure chest of material, just waiting to be unlocked. I pray that young singers will appreciate this and realise that it’s such a resource for them.”

“Even for somebody like myself who’s fairly blasé about these things,” says Steve, “these recordings are so good, they really make you sit up and listen. How can these singers tell a story that in any other form would sound trite, and yet they sing it with such dignity that you’re immediately drawn in? I’m not an advocate of trying to sound exactly like them, but it’s only by listening to the masters that you’re going to understand how to do this kind of song. That’s the sad thing about a lot of the revival, they don’t go back to the source.”

“If I could make a personal plea to young singers and musicians,” says Tony, “if they feel moved by this music and want to take it on, then sing or play in your imagination in the same room as the singers and musicians you’re hearing. If there’s anything that you’re doing that you feel is not compatible with that, that’s absolutely fine, but then you’re not playing the continuation of that traditional music. If you want to play traditional music, don’t worry too much about computers and synthesisers, worry about people in the same room as you. Worry what Harry Cox might have thought of you as a singer.”

Plans are already underway for the next albums in the series, focusing on releasing more of the Kennedy archive. “The thing I’ve been trying to do,” says Reg, “is to get it into some kind of sequence. Then you can see how Peter developed – what was his first recording, his last recording, what were the recordings in between, what were the inspirations? So the project for next year reflects his work: the field trips to East Anglia, Scotland, Orkney, Northern Ireland, and trips to Northumbria and Cumbria. The recordings reflect not only the music but his discovery of the music.”

The open-ended nature of the Voice Of The People series, and the extensive Kennedy archives, means that there is much more to come – and no doubt many more discoveries to be made. The rich song traditions of the British Isles shine through in these recordings. As Shirley says, having worked through so much archive material to select the final gems, “We’re so lucky to have such a great tradition behind us, and that it’s all there for people to listen to. I’ve made such discoveries on this, and again been completely convinced and reassured that this is the most wonderful music in the world.”