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VARIOUS ARTISTS - Rhythms Of Labour: Music At Work In Britain

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Rhythms Of Labour: Music At Work In Britain
Private Label

This pair of CDs, handsomely housed within a DVD-sized slipcase, is intended to link with the book of the same title jointly authored by Professors Marek Korczynski and Michael Pickering and Dr. Emma Robertson and published by Cambridge University Press last year. The book itself having not been submitted for review, it’s hard to judge to what extent the 50 audio samples and accompanying 48-page booklet serve to sufficiently comprehensively illustrate the main volume’s academic argument. However, as one might expect, there’s a distinct feeling of “tip of an enormous iceberg” about the endeavour.

The motivation behind the project was to explore the history of music in the workplace and present a historical overview. In other words, it’s important to recognise at the outset that a distinction is – quite rightly – being drawn here between singing whilst at work and songs about work; this project is concerned with the former, an activity which has always been widely referenced within literature, from Shakespeare through to Wordsworth, Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. This “audio companion” CD-compilation enables us to hear something of various communal cultures of singing at work and to celebrate them; thus, a majority of the examples consist of archive and field recordings. Just a few of these (Harry Cox, Sam Larner, Fred Jordan) are taken from Topic releases and some from Folktrax issues, but the bulk of the remainder come from collections in repositories such as the National Sound Archive, the School Of Scottish Studies and the Leeds University Archive of Vernacular Culture. Vintage ranges from 1928 wax cylinder (Andrew Salters) to today’s contemporary (a dozen tracks recorded specially for the project, by Laura Hockenhull, Brona McVittie, Lee Enstone and a cappella trio Will, Ed & Ginger).

Space does not permit discussion of the rationale of the set (although it clearly aspires to Voice Of The People status), nor any detailed scrutiny of anticipated contents and specific omissions, but at the most basic level the selections have been governed by the limitations posed by the availability of source material. The (manual) occupations represented (predominantly, though not exclusively, pre-industrial) include fishing, spinning, weaving, harvesting, stone-breaking, hop-picking and mining. The songs (or snatches of song) themselves do not always feature descriptions of elements of the singer’s own work process; thus we get music-hall songs – Don’t Go Down The Mine, Dad sung by a hop-picker (George Dunn) and Just Like The Ivy (Stanley Marsden) sung while milking – to Roll Out The Barrel sung by quarrymen. Valuably and entirely logically, the compilation also brings us staples such as Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song, Louie Fuller’s Hopping Down In Kent and Tom Daniel’s Poverty Knock.

Sound quality inevitably varies over the whole set, but the remastering is always capable. However, some unfortunate audio glitches remain (rumbles and bad fades, as in the recordings by Bob Hart and Mrs. Hall respectively – and Poverty Knock jumps three times); it’s not clear whether these faults are present within the original recording sources or whether they’re the product of careless transfers in this instance.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of fascinating material here, and I’ll certainly be spending more time with this set very soon. The accompanying booklet is both sensibly laid out and informative, complete with decent references and sufficient discographical annotation – although (unlike in the Topic VOTP role-model) song texts are generally not included.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 105 of The Living Tradition magazine.