Topical Songs: celebrating the world’s oldest independent label

England’s Topic Records turned seventy in 2009, making it, according to most expert accountings, the world’s oldest independent record label. Founded in 1939 by an offshoot of the British Marxist Party called the Workers’ Musical Association, it has evolved, over the forty years Tony Engle has stood at its helm, into the world’s premiere outlet for British and Irish tradtional and traditionally minded music, and more recently, for beautifully designed and expertly annotated albums of field recordings drawn from the British Library’s collections.

Topic marked its birthday by the release of the massive Three Score and Ten boxset last summer, and New York City’s Other Music, for whose weekly updates we write occasional reviews, has just made available an introduction to Topic through a dirt-cheap digital sampler, as well as deals on some classic albums in the Topic catalog. The prices make the news too good not to pass along, although here we are guilty, yet again, of slinging record reviews. Thus is the entropic reality of blogdom, perhaps. Anyhow, we include brief considerations of some of our favorite Topic records below, with an invitation to check out the Topic-specific installment of the OM Update for more essential (digital) records at awful low prices (through February 22, 2010 – then they return to the still-well-worth-it price of $9.99. A way to show your support for stalwart independent record shops and record labels at once.)

But first, here is our Topic’s birthday gift to you – a download of the label’s second release: “International Folk Song Contest, 1955.” A display of Topic’s political predilections, these performances were recorded at the Fifth World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw. Picked this 8″ record up at the late Chelsea Flea Market in New York (along with Pavement’s first single) a few years ago for a total of $3. Why an 8″? The Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis, in a great piece last August on Topic’s 70th, explained that:

Indeed, Topic’s survival is a staggering, inspirational tale of resourcefulness and of blind, fervent belief in music surmounting any obstacle. In the label’s early days, some of their albums were 8in across rather than the usual 12, because, [Martin] Carthy claims: “They would get a job lot of 8in vinyl blanks and a machine that would do them for nothing.” Even by the time of Engle’s arrival at the label, at the height of the late 60s folk-rock boom, things were tight: “I thought a record company was a big operation with a neon sign. Topic was in the basement of someone’s house.”

International Folk Song Contest, Warsaw, 1955.
“Issued by TOPIC RECORDS for the British Youth Festival Committee with the co-operation of the Radio Section of the World Youth Festival Organising Committee.”

Side A. (click to download)
A1. Aniela Swiatek (Poland): The White Dove
A2. Yanka Delcheva Ivanova (Bulgaria): The Bagpipe Began to Play
A3. Nirmal Chaudhuri (India): Baul
A4. Ibrahim Tukici (Albania): O my flower

Side B.
B1. Kladvia Aleksandrovna Kotok (USSR): Chastushka
B2. Nadka Ivanova Karadzhova (Bulgaria): Sing, Girls, Sing
B3. Jarmila Sulakova (Czechoslovakia): Ek, rozo, rozo
B4. Asek Dzhumbayev (Kirghizia, USSR): O my Kobuz

Archie Fisher: Will Ye Gang, Love (click to sample and buy; that’s right.)

I like Martin Carthy, really like Bert Jansch, and love Nic Jones, but my affection for the music made by Archie Fisher is inexpressible. He’s not as widely known on these shores, but his abilities as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and interpreter of traditional material are deserving of at least an equal portion of the acclaim afforded his more famous peers. His recorded output as a solo artist is sparse – he’s only made six albums in forty years – and his emphasis on traditional Scottish material, especially Jacobite songs, perhaps makes him a bit less approachable. But if you’re game, this 1978 Topic LP, the only one he made for the label, makes for a fine introduction to his brilliant guitar playing, effortless singing, and uncommon versatility. There are paeans to Bonny Prince Charlie and the Gallant Ninety Two; traditional Scots ballads; an interpretation of an oyster-dredging song (by means of incantation); and a couple Fisher originals, including a topical piece about the 1960s North Sea oil boom. A great record by a sublime artist, who also happens to doing a rare tour of the States now. If he comes within a day’s drive, you’d be well-advised to make it.

Margaret Barry & Michael Gorman: Her Mantle So Green

Cork City’s Margaret Barry was born in 1917 into a Traveler family of musicians. She left home as a teenager, wandering County Cork frailing a banjo and singing for money at football matches, pubs, and county fairs, and was “discovered” by Irish folklorist Sean Boyle on the streets of Dublin in 1951. Alan Lomax made the first recordings of her later that year, and by the mid ’50s she had moved to Camden Town in London, where she became a popular figure of the folk revival and where the songs that comprise Her Mantle So Green were recorded. No one could sing like Barry – her voice was immense, intense, but exceedingly beautiful and filled with pathos. She could wring emotion out of ballads that nearly every other singer turned to treacle. Once you hear her versions of “The Flower of Sweet Strabane,” “My Lagan Love,” and especially “The Factory Girl,” you’ll never again stand them sung by any lesser singer. Margaret was often joined for dance tunes by fiddler Michael Gorman and her ballads and songs are punctuated on this disc by some jigs, polkas, and reels the pair recorded live at the Bedford Arms, the epicenter of traditional Irish music in Camden. This record also contains one of the best sporting-related songs ever committed to tape: “The Cycling Championship of Ulster,” alone well worth the bargain download price.

The Yemen Tihama: Trance & Dance Music from the Red Sea Coast of Arabia

With Yemen serving as this season’s premiere semi-failed state, now is a good time to explore some of the more enduring aspects of its character. That’s what Anderson Bakewell did in 1982, recording the music of the Tihama region, along the country’s western Red Sea coast. Tihama’s geographic disposition has made it a port of call for centuries of varied commercial, social, and imperial forces, and its music a synthesis of many disparate regional styles and traditions. Bakewell’s recordings of work songs, dance tunes, zar ceremonial music, and trance rituals in veneration of local saints sound at once familiar – there are echoes of North African Sufi brotherhoods; Arab mawwal singers; troubadours of the Horn of Africa – and wholly new. Although so many competing interests didn’t bequeath Tihama a very peaceful history, the music that has emerged from it is exceedingly more noble and enlivening than the sort of exports – attempted underwear bombers come to mind – for which Yemen has more recently been credited.

Dominic Behan: Down By the Liffeyside – Irish Street Ballads

Dominic Behan was a prolific singer, composer, man of letters, and Irish Republican who made over a dozen albums in the late 1950s and ’60s. Some of those records were among the best offspring to issue from the mid-century commingling of radical politics, literary sophistication, and folk-music fancy, but sadly “Down By the Liffeyside” (1960) is the only left in print. Drawing on a huge cache of traditional ballads, Gaelic airs, Fenian songs, and his own compositions – most famously “The Patriot Game,” “The Auld Triangle” (which first appeared in his brother Brendan’s play “The Quare Fellow”), and “Easy and Slow” (included here) – Behan sang like a proper Irish street singer, keening quaver and all, and had a profound impact on more than a generation of like-minded singers and songwriters: among them Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan, and Shane MacGowan. Not handy with an instrument himself, Behan was backed on “Down By the Liffeyside” by some young players who came to be known as leading lights of both the British and American folk revivals: Leon Rosselson; Peggy Seeger (wife of Dominic’s occasional collaborator Ewan MacColl); and Ralph Rinzler.

Nic Jones: Penguin Eggs

Nic Jones got better with every record, and 1980’s “Penguin Eggs” is arguably his masterwork. He could breathe new and exciting life into just about any old ballad, no matter how hoary, and it’s no different with his interpretations of these songs of the sea, sea creatures, and sea-goers. His singular guitar technique is as virtuosic as ever, his voice strong and true, and somehow even “Barrack Street” – the comic tale of a shore-leave gone awry, along the lines of “The Beggar Wench” – elicits chills and sighs. Perhaps it’s because we know this was the last record Jones made. He barely survived a severe car accident two years later. His prodigious musical gifts didn’t.

June Tabor: Airs & Graces

This is June Tabor’s staggeringly wonderful solo debut from 1976. Hold on to your hat as it starts – Nic Jones’ guitar comes blazing in, and then there’s Tabor doing that thing that she does with her voice, dropping and wheeling like a swallow, then following Jones’ attack like a fox on a hound. (Forgive me – enthusiasm breeds weak metaphors.) But as satisfying as Jones’ guitar work is, Tabor’s blistering a cappella versions of “The Plains of Waterloo,” “Queen Among the Heather,” and “Waly Waly” require not an iota of accessory. There’s no one else that can carry the six and a half minutes of “Waltzing Matilda” with only her voice, and not only does she do it, she owns it entirely. Of all the many talented female voices of British folk music’s golden age, June Tabor was the greatest. And if she’d never made another record besides “Airs & Graces,” that’d still be true.


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