‘How can I keep from singing?’

Pete Seeger said his goal was ‘to put a song on people’s lips, instead of just in their ears’. His death at the age of 94 was announced on 28 January 2014.

‘Once called ‘America’s tuning fork’, Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song,’ said President Obama. ‘But more importantly, he believed in the power of community.  ‘To stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.’

This brought to mind the wealth of songs of protest and social criticism residing in Archives, Heritage & Photography waiting to be sung to rally the hearts and minds of campaigners, protesters and all humanity!

The Charles Parker Archive [MS 4000] has particular links, because Peggy Seeger, half-sister to Pete and an equally wonderful musician and singer of political songs was involved in many of the programmes and projects in that archive. Together she arranged the music for the Radio Ballads created for BBC Radio with Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker from the hours of tape recording they had undertaken. She and Ewan also set up a self- help group of young folksingers, the Critics Group, to examine the technical and artistic problems of singing and various ways of tackling them. The programme papers and recordings are all here to be heard. Ewan and Peggy also gave practical instruction and lectures to members of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, started by Charles Parker and others in 1963. The records from this organisation [MS 1804] show the work undertaken to collect folk songs from the Midlands which, edited by one of the members, Roy Palmer, were published in the book ‘Songs of the Midlands’ in 1972.

The Grey Cock Folk Club grew out of the Folk Centre and specialised in learning and singing political songs. AH&P also holds records of this club, which closed in 1987 [MS 1642]. ‘The Grey Cock’ was a traditional song collected from Cecilia Costello of Birmingham and a double CD set of her singing has just (2014) been issued by Musical Traditions.

From the Grey Cock grew Banner Theatre Company, using multi-media techniques and folk song and music to create drama on contemporary political struggles. These can be studied from their records at AH&P [MS 1611] and a selection of songs to practice can be found in Singing the Changes: Songs by Dave Rogers for Banner Theatre (2005).


Political Broadsides - The Vain Attempt To Take Lady Well

Political Broadsides – The Vain Attempt To Take Lady Well

Illustration: The Vain Attempt to take the Lady Well (AH&P Political Broadsides Vol.2 p. 83)

Back in 1989 when water privatization was undertaken by the government of Margaret Thatcher through the sale of assets of the then public regional water authorities, an amateur group supported by Banner chose to create a short drama on the subject by using a  Birmingham Broadside from the 1800s. This tells the story of the Devil and his henchman attempting to close the Lady Well in Hurst Street and set up a pump to charge the people for their water.

As children from Nechells Junior and Infant School sang, in a successful demonstration to save their school from closure in 1983:

Hey there everybody, there’s one more thing we want to say, 
Take care of the world where we all live
The future isn’t yours to give
We’ll be here when you are gone
Make way for the young ones coming on
We demand a future                                                                

[Banner Theatre. Songs of Struggle, 1987]

Keep on singing!

 Fiona Tait



One response to “‘How can I keep from singing?’

  1. Pingback: Music in Colonial & Revolutionary America | Harry Schenawolf.com

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