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Alun Parry knows the value of working class culture and life – he writes songs and sings about it at folk clubs, festivals and rallies. ‘I couldn’t write about life without sharing the stories of working people,’ he says. ‘I think we are the most important group in any society, not the bosses or the parliamentarians but the ones who make stuff happen day to day. History and the tabloid press tell the stories of the big people. I think there’s something important about telling our stories, so as a songwriter I do that.’
Positive messages for social change have always been present in music. But much that happens in British live music is under the radar of most radio and TV. Every week thousands attend gigs to listen to music that is a stranger to national radio. Much of this is ‘folk music’ – the music made by folk in many different areas, about many different issues. And after decades of denigration of working class life and values by the establishment, the press and other sections of the media, in contrast much folk music does the opposite – highlighting and celebrating working class culture and experience. As Alun Parry says, ‘I tell the story of people like us. Yes, that’s a political thing to do. But that says more about the system and who it values than it does about me.’
In small venues up and down the country alternative sounds and voices can be heard. Veteran folk singers such as Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey and others are still doing the rounds singing songs of hope, and recently toured with others as The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow. Now there’s Union of Folk, a supergroup of radicals who have been filling venues for years with anti-capitalist sentiment.
Put together by Leeds-based Gary Kaye, who saw the wide range of talent available on his own travels around the nation’s folk clubs, Union of Folk’s album Union Made updates some old songs and celebrates some new ones. This group of mostly northern folkies includes Attila the Stockbroker, a class warrior whose love of Brighton and Hove Albion will not stop him being associated with northern radicals – it’s class not geography that divides after all.
The album features an updated version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’ – you know the one, ‘You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union’ – and Kaye’s own ‘No Pasaran’, a great anti-fascist sing-along much loved at rallies. Attila sings of Sun readers being discouraged from thinking – why change the world when you can see a picture of ‘Prince Harry’s Knob’ – and Tracey Curtis’s ‘Raising Girls and Boys’ declares that equality in upbringing leads to equality elsewhere.
Union Made is not part of the global music business – it is sponsored by the NUT and RMT unions and raises money for their hardship funds. The themes in this album, and much other contemporary radical folk, remain unfortunately similar to much folk music of the past, as generations of people face the same problems: whether Britain is a rich or poor nation, the working class does not get a fair share.
Alun Parry’s contribution ‘The Dirty Thirty’ celebrates striking miners in 1980s Leicestershire: ‘The dirty thirty and their kin are all heroes to me.’ Parry was raised in Liverpool in the 1980s. The backdrop was not only the loss of dock and industrial jobs but the castigation of the people of Liverpool as militants, scallies and ultimately a ‘drunken mob’ blamed for their own deaths at Hillsborough in 1989. The Hillsborough families stood up for their own when few others would. It is these voices that folk music articulates. ‘I always hark back to what Joe Hill said,’ says Parry. ‘Put a great idea in a pamphlet and it may get read the once. Put it in a song and it gets sung thousands of times.’
Is Union Made overtly political? According to Parry, ‘It’s an odd commentary on our culture that sharing the story of working people is automatically considered subversive. When does anyone ask Nicholas Witchell if he’s happy to be political when he tells us about the royal family?’
Go to gigs; buy CDs or downloads from artists’ websites and at gigs rather than iTunes; find them on YouTube and SoundCloud. Listen to Steve Tilston’s ‘A Pretty Penny’, which predicted the crash back in 2007, Alun Parry’s ‘Oh Mr Cameron’, and the songs on Union Made and the Anti Capitalist Roadshow’s Celebrating Subversion. n
Dave Boardman is a former promoter at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, a founding supporter of Red Pepper, and is now finding gigs for musicians who wouldn’t go near The X Factor if they were invited.