Mention ‘Topic Records’ to any music loving aficionado and you’d inevitably get a plethora of back-catalogue folk legends reeled off – from the likes of Martin Carthy, The Waterson Family, June Tabor or Anne Briggs – to maybe a reverential nod to pioneering ‘world music’ field recordings and anthologies from Greece, Bulgaria or Cuba.
‘Topic Songbook’ Words and Melodies of old and new Favourites
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I expect that a rather less likely response would cite such double sided gramophone discs that paired the ‘May Day Greeting’ sung by the Choir of the Women-Teachers’ faculty of Cinkota, with ‘Song of the Tractor-Drivers of Deszk’ recorded by the Central Song and Music Ensemble of the Ironworkers Union of the Hungarian Peoples Republic…
In fact, the story of Soviet-inspired tunes such as that one (Topic Catalogue No. TRC 31) harks back well before the UK folk revival, and to a meeting of Labour and Co-operatives’ choirs held at The Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1936. The outcome was the creation of the Workers’ Music Association – its ethos to help promote the music of workers’ struggles and triumphs. The WMA was co-founded by the composer Alan Bush (and member of the Communist Party) with the backing of his fellow composer friends like Hanns Eisler and Benjamin Britten. Just three years short of its 80th birthday, the WMA is still active today with members belonging to socialist and street choirs, red big bands and who unite for WMA music festivals.
The WMA had launched Topic Records in 1939 to fulfil its desire to release CP-related music on 10” double sided 78 rpm discs which were sold to WMA members as part of, or in addition to, their annual subscription. In fact the very first recorded output (TRC 1) paired the ‘The Internationale’ with ‘The Man who put the Water in the Workers’ Beer’, a rather more jovial number, sung by Paddy Ryan (of the Unity Theatre). Topic re-issued TRC 1 three times, backing ‘The Internationale’ with the ‘Soviet Fatherland Song’, and then with Alan Bush’s wife Nancy Head on the flipside, reading ‘Salute to life’ accompanied by Shostakovich! Today, Topic is easily the longest running independent record label in Britain, and from the beginning of 2013, it has been undertaking a major digitization programme, with ongoing downloadable releases of its revered back catalogue beginning with the LP era of the late ‘50s onwards…
Hence this ‘Topic Songbook’ is such a fascinating reminder of the first life of Topic Records, when the labels’ output was still very much focused on its ‘historical and social interest’ records – and its firm relationship with the WMA. By working out the last Topic 78 rpm record to be listed on the inside back cover (TRC 45 ‘Song of the Forests’ by Shostakovich), I’d say that this attractive 12 cms x 17 cms booklet dates back to about 1951.
A banner on the cover tells us that it was a ‘Festival Special’ edition, produced for one of the WMA’s musical festivals, and intriguingly on pages 24 and 25, there are two songs which had been “specially written for the Sheffield Festival”. Public performances of socialist songs were always a fixture in the musical lives of WMA members – from massed choirs in workers halls and municipal town halls to the times when Birthday Rallies for the ‘Daily Worker’ packed out the Royal Albert Hall – and there’s the annual WMA Summer School still held to this day at Wortley Hall in South Yorkshire.
Coincidentally, this Topic Songbook hails from 1951 – the very same year when the WMA’s President Alan Bush had entered his very first opera into the Festival of Britain Opera Competition. It won a prize, but then failed to secure a professional performance until the 1970s. Not that surprising really considering the Cold War era. The opera was called ‘Wat Tyler’, a homage to the leader of the 1381 Peasants Revolt…
The front cover art of the Topic Songbook was signed by ‘CAS’, who was, or were, the Co-operative Art Service Ltd, London. The illustration of the singing boy and girl is pretty similar to imagery on paraphernalia published by fellow travellers in the USA. Interesting to note that TRC 28 is ‘Our Song Will Go On’, written to commemorate the anti-racist rallies at Peekskill, upstate New York in 1949, and with contributions by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger among others…
Throughout the early 1950s, Topic, dubbed ‘that little red label’ by one of the major recording companies, was indeed merrily releasing hard-line Soviet-inspired pieces ‘Songs of Stalin’ and such like, but the labels’ resident artists such as Ewan MacColl were also championing the industrial folksong heritage and new folk compositions, like ‘Dirty Old Town’. These were signalling a new era – post-Stalin, after the ’56 Hungarian uprising, when the label eschewed songs of Soviet maidens and tractors, for Jack Elliot or Peggy Seeger, and the song of the American worker.
As far as Topic Records part of the story is concerned, that ended in 1960 when the label separated from the WMA, and thus began Topic’s most influential and exciting decade of legendary folk recordings. But returning to the tunes within the 56 pages of the ‘Topic Songbook’, there are so many compelling musical glimpses into the Socialist century. Perhaps a special mention should be for ‘Jarama’, the song of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War – and that final verse. It was this conflict that triggered the WMA into existence in the first place:
We have left that dark valley for ever
But its memory we ne’er shall forget,
So, before we continue this meeting,
Let us stand to our glorious dead