Workers’ Voice and Vision General Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary Doug Nicholls unveils a new CD collection of radical songs all proceeds from which go back to fund trade union education. Voice and Vision is a two-CD collection of radical …

Voice and Vision

Workers’ Voice and Vision

General Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary Doug Nicholls unveils a new CD collection of radical songs all proceeds from which go back to fund trade union education.

Voice and Vision is a two-CD collection of radical songs compiled by the General Federation of Trade Unions Educational Trust together with Topic Records in order to celebrate this important label’s 75th
year and the GFTU’s 115th.

The songs on this collection, dedicated to the memory of Bob Crow and Tony Benn, resist class oppression, celebrate the lives of workers and the fight for peace, democracy, socialism and social
justice in the world.

track listing

We not only wanted to re-connect this rich singing tradition to a new audience of trade unionists, but also showcase younger or lesser-known voices that are developing this heritage anew.

The greatest popular historian of our songs, Roy Palmer, was also on hand to help us explore our culture, thus Voice and Vision was born.

Culture plays an essential role in our ability to resist and offer alternative views of the world. As the cultural writer Raymond Williams found this music offers “affirmation of a world in which one is not necessarily a stranger and an agent, but can be a member, a discoverer, in a shared source of life”.

And, as Pete Seeger who appears on this collection reminds us, “a good song can only do good”.

In our songs you hear history singing and people like us, though long dead, speak directly to us. Hear for example how the actual mid seventeenth century words of The Diggers’ Song say everything you need to say about inequality today in an elegant rendition by Chumbawamba.

Martin Carthy’s stunning Dominion of the Sword, based on an anonymous poem, gives voice to this astute undercurrent that sustained and developed ‘socialist’ ideas from the mid seventeenth century into William Blake’s days and into ours.

Or feel how The Hard Times of Old England, written around 1815, when the first trade unions were forming, reflects our continuing frustration with mass unemployment.

Ewan Macoll’s version of To The Begging I will go also reminds us with humour how the ignominy of begging is better than the life of those who cause it.

These songs shape and reflect a collective experience of hundreds of years of social development. Deep meaning is conveyed in beautifully-crafted tunes and words. But the performers are singing about us improving our fortunes as a class, not to make a fortune for themselves.

Consider the song The Pleasant Month of May sung by brothers in a family of agricultural workers from Sussex, The Copper Family. The song may appear at first an idealised depiction of the joys of rural life. But it was written long before May Day became international workers’ day identified for strike action to win the eight-hour-day.

Spring itself is symbolic in many cultures of forces of renewal and rebirth. Rulers throughout history hated spring celebrations because they could not control the exuberance of revellers.

As industrialisation and invention mechanised farm labour, so bitter struggles in the countryside raged against the replacement of existing modes of production and the reduction of wages and worsening of living conditions. Farm workers starved as they fed the nation.

The intensity of centuries of rural struggle is portrayed in the powerful song Captain Swing which recreates the 1830 rebellions and links their causes to current resurgences. Like the name Robin Hood, which was used in peasant songs in the medieval period to express their opposition to the Church and tax-greedy monarchy, the name Captain Swing personified a secret, class conscious organisation, not necessarily an individual.

In the great blaze of the Industrial Revolution, farm labourers moved into the new factories. Conditions were appalling and life was regulated by the clock and dangerous machines in ways unfamiliar and frightening to those used to the rhythms of the sun, moon and seasons. No other song so well captures the plight and suffering of early textile factory workers than Poverty Knock.

Just as industrialisation displaced people from the land, so it brought mass production, replacing family and home-based handloom weaving for example. The word Luddites or Luddism is still frequently used by the ill-informed to describe workers who oppose technological advance or seemingly stand in the way of social and economic progress by irresponsibly wrecking things.

This is factually wrong because all new technology is made by workers and the real Luddites were not opposed to new production methods per se, but to the use of them by employers as a means of reducing wages.

The Four Loom Weaver says everything about the vulnerability of all workers who are little more than a week, month or sometimes a day away from destitution if they do not keep earning a wage.

In one of its key verses General Ludd’s Triumph, sung in a gentle style by M G Boulter, puts the record straight on what the Luddites actually stood for.

Jack Forbes’ Rolling Down the River, echoes the sea shanty tradition, painting the historic transformation of life on the seas and reflects on the reality today.

There are many songs about trade unions. We include Peggy Seeger’s magnificent song If you want a better life, which perfectly expresses the very essence of the particular kind of democracy within trade unions that uniquely propel them as the most powerful organisations in society.

This collection begins with a ballad reflecting on the first socialists who emerged during the mid-seventeenth century revolution The World Turned Upside Down and ends with a reggae song called War, a call to arms against the neoliberal blitz on the people and all we have achieved.

Like Joe Hill, these songs will never die. Our hope is that this CD will keep them alive by inspiring another generation to take on the fight of our lives. Part of this fight is to ensure that they do not extinguish our history.

Keep music live.
Keep songs live.

For more information and to order copies please email sean@gftu.org.uk


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

Read All Articles

Related Articles