The Lovely Wife and I spent a very interesting Sunday evening at the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre recently – well, I say The Globe, but the ‘performance’ was in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the intimate internal space, lit by candles. It is a lovely little theatre that makes you feel right in the middle of whatever performance and indeed if you are seated in the ‘Pit’ then you may well be dragged into the play.
We were there for something a bit different this time, however, an evening hat was billed as ‘Songs for the People’. It was a mixture of folk music and accompanying history from the 1400s to the present day, presented by Steve Knightley (who is half of the folk group Show of Hands) and the historian and presenter Michael Wood.
I admit that it was Wood’s involvement that interested me – I was obsessed by ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander The Great’ when much younger, a series that was more real life drama than documentary and something which showed Wood’s ability to drag you into the story – whatever it is – by enthusiasm and force of personality. I’m pleased to say that at 71 he has not lost any of that ability. Add talented musicians and a fair amount of banter (mostly along the lines of ‘Michael – we do the singing, you stick to the history, mate’ variety) and a couple of hours flew past in a whistle stop tour of the importance of song in protest and times of struggle.
Topics covered included the Black Death; the English (or as was pointed out more accurately the British) Civil War, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Peterloo Massacre, Chartists, Suffragettes and more with appropriate readings, illustrative songs of the period and some facts that had the audience gasping in disbelief – for example that some of those supporting the Chartist movement in the 1830s were actually convicted of Treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – in the 1830s! (eventually commuted to Transportation). Or that in the Civil War the loss of life in Britain, proportional to the population at the time, was greater than in the 1914-18 war.
Through the medium of song people have supported each other, made their needs clear and drew attention to inequality and injustice, with varying degrees of success. As was pointed out, some songs and melodies have been so powerful that they have been recycled, sometimes hundreds of years apart, when the same themes re-occur and people feel the need to say something, to give protest a voice (for example in relation to anti-war songs). Folk today continues to fly the flag, although mass singing is probably now more limited to football grounds (again, many of the tunes used on the terraces around the country are based on old folk tunes). This is because that whatever the lyrics, the songs are easy to sing. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was the audience joining in, sometimes invited, sometimes by itself, because it kind of felt right to do so. Folk is at its best in a mass singalong and Michael Wood pointed out that it brings people together and, in a time of conflict and disagreement – and where inequality and lack of justice is just as prevalent as ever – maybe it is time that we all joined a song of reconciliation and hope; that just might help make things better.
Song writing friends – I know there are a few of you – go and write something special. We need it, I think.