Two pivotal anniversaries in democratic history are being marked in a new song project called Sweet Liberties. Julian May gets a history lesson from singers Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr and Martyn Joseph
The acts of parliament are written on rolls of vellum. There’s something about them literally being written on the skins of animals,” says Nancy Kerr. “My human rights song is called ‘Written on the Skin’. It’s about sexual consent and bodily rights.”
“We went to see the scrolls that date back to 1400 and something,” Martyn Joseph says. “I held in my hand something signed by Henry VIII.”
“This week they’re voting on the Trade Union Bill,” says Maz O’Connor. “There are several points in it that relate to The Chartists, for instance, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.”
Kerr, Joseph and O’Connor are all enthused by their involvement in Sweet Liberties, a collaborative commission in which half a dozen folk musicians – the others are singer and guitarist Sam Carter, melodeon player Nick Cooke and Scottish fiddler Patsy Reid – have been invited into the Palace of Westminster and given access to its archives to create new songs. They are writing these separately, before working on them together and going on a six-date tour around the country.
The songs are their responses to moments key to the creation of Britain’s modern democracy. It is part of Parliament in the Making, which is a year-long commemoration of the anniversaries of two events crucial to this: 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort parliament. This was the beginning of political representation of the people, while Magna Carta enshrines rights such as access to justice.
There is already a visual aspect to this: The Beginnings of That Freedome, an exhibition of large banners by nine artists, in the magnificent Westminster Hall. Each is the artist’s representation of one of 18 milestones in this journey, such as (below, from left) the 1601 Poor Law; the 1689 Bill of Rights; the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807; the foundation of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897 and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual activity. “The Poor Law of 1601,” O’Connor says, “brought about the first social benefit, for people who couldn’t work. The banner links this with the NHS. There are connections that I didn’t know. You can see what is happening now in the context of our country’s history.”
Nancy Kerr – BBC Folk Singer of the Year and fiddle player – is inspired. She has already written eight new songs and aims to respond to all 18 of these moments. “I’m trying to find my voice as a political writer,” she says. “Not from a party political point of view but from a position of concern for social justice. I’m finding a language – no, more than one – to write about these issues.”
But representing a monumental historical event through a song can prove to be problematic. O’Connor is, as her name suggests, of Irish extraction. She wanted to write a song about Ireland achieving independence and one moment she’s drawn to is the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. This act permitted Roman Catholics to take seats in parliament. “But I just wasn’t making a good song out of this,” she sighs. “There are things I want to write about that I can’t make into a song.”
Historians are concerned with the sweep of events, the impact on the balance of power in society of, for instance, the Petition of Right. This set out, in 1628, certain liberties that the monarch could not infringe. The best songs, however, deal in specific characters and their stories in details. ‘We Shall Overcome’ is a powerful anthem of solidarity and action, but Leon Rosselson’s ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, about the solidarity and action of Gerrard Winstanley and The Diggers (also known as True Levellers) and their attempt in 1649 at agrarian socialism to live ‘in common’ on St George’s Hill in Surrey, is a far better song.
“If you want to centre on a big subject – war, or famine – tell me a person’s story,” says Joseph. The songwriter from South Wales has recorded more than 20 albums and so speaks with authority and experience. “You’ll probably be telling thousands of people’s stories. I wrote ‘The Good in Me is Dead’ during the war in Kosovo, when I first heard the expression ‘ethnic cleansing.’ I put myself in the shoes of a young man at the border in the rain, looking for his family. The response to it years later is still amazingly strong. Well, look at us today. More war. More refugees.”
“What folk song does really well,” O’Connor suggests, “is tell the stories of the lives of people who are caught up in great events. We see these reflected in their experience.” She has written half a dozen Sweet Liberties songs, including one about John Lilburne. He was one of The Levellers who worked to extend suffrage and equality before the law in 17th-century England. Known as Freeborn John, Lilburne was arrested for circulating unlicensed books. That was in 1638, but O’Connor, who was born in 1990, can treat much more recent history in the same way. Too young to have known personally the bitterness of the Miners’ Strike of 1984, she has written a lament for the Trade Union Movement, focusing on the fate of David Jones. The Yorkshire miner was 23 years old and a father of two when he was killed on a picket line by a thrown brick in 1984. The song begins with, ‘What passing bells for David Jones.’ By borrowing the opening of Wilfred Owen’s great sonnet, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ O’Connor links the waste of Jones’ life to the loss of an entire generation of young men in World War I.
For poets writing today, the milestones in the journey to democracy pose another great challenge to the contemporary folk musician: familiarity. Slavery, enclosure, the Industrial Revolution, and Irish independence – many great songs have already emerged from these. “Last night I wrote a song about the Tolpuddle Martyrs,” Kerr says. “I thought: does the world need another song about the Tolpuddle Martyrs? There is some wonderful music about that already. But the key for me is the personal connection. My husband [singer and bouzouki player James Fagan] is Australian. His family is descended from convicts, one of whom was convicted of swearing an illegal oath, almost certainly to a trade union. So the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is the story of our family and our children’s heritage. It’s not abstract.”
Sweet Liberties has also fired the musicians’ imaginations with rich, lesser-known stories. Kerr came across Muriel Lilah Matters, a suffragette who hired a hot air balloon so she could drop leaflets over Westminster during the opening of Parliament in 1909. And Mary Prince, who lived a century earlier, had been a slave and was the first woman to present a petition to Parliament. “We know about Wilberforce and the men, but the women in the anti-slavery movement wanted it to work much quicker. A lot of women became politicised because they had worked on anti-slavery.” Kerr sees, then, links between the Abolition Movement and the Women’s Movement and has imaginatively combined the narratives of these two women in a single song. “It’s all about hot air balloons, chains and solidarity.”
The musicians were much affected by their visit to the archives where thousands of acts of parliament, written on vellum scrolls, are housed. Kerr believes it is a bravely radical move to allow people such as her and O’Connor into the parliamentary archives to work in this way. Joseph’s view of the whole democratic process has been changed. “You drive past the Houses of Parliament and think MPs are useless, they never answer the questions, things like that. When I saw the scrolls I realised that for centuries people on a daily basis have been trying to find better ways of living on this planet together. We’re fortunate in this country to have this process.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #113. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs