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Pete Coe, Brian Peters & Laura Smyth - The Road To Peterloo

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August 16, 2019 is the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre when 60 cavalrymen charged into a peaceful crowd of men, women and children who had assembled to protest against poverty and their deteriorating conditions and to demand improved democratic representation in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The event took place in St Peter’s Field Manchester, just four years after the battle of Waterloo - hence the name.

The assault by the troops, which resulted in 15 dead and 500-700 injured, was led by a local factory owner and was widely regarded as representing the Tory establishment. Peterloo, the 2018 film directed by Mike Leigh, reminded us in graphic detail of the horrors of that day. Now, to mark the occasion from a new angle, Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth have put together The Road To Peterloo, a show which draws on broadsides and other material published in Alison Morgan’s 2018 book Ballads And Songs Of Peterloo. The trio will be performing the show around the country later this year.

Pete Coe sings and plays bouzouki, melodeon and banjo. He has been a professional folk musician for almost 50 years, first in a duo with Chris Coe, then in The New Victory Band, Bandoggs and Red Shift. Since the mid-80s he has performed mainly solo. In addition to performing, he has collected songs from traditional singers, unearthed unusual versions of traditional songs and written a few songs of his own. Talking about his involvement in The Road To Peterloo, Pete says: “I’ve always been interested in broadsides as a source of local and topical songs to add to my repertoire even though some need tunes and a little tweaking to make them singable. I just like the idea that the issues in some of these broadsides relate local stories and events and express sentiments from the grassroots. In the specific case of Peterloo, the history wasn’t just written by the winners.”

Brian Peters sings and plays anglo concertina, melodeon, guitar, and in the show he’ll be playing his grandfather’s fiddle for the first time onstage. He has been performing for over 30 years, and has always concentrated on traditional songs and tunes. Pete Coe’s music was an important early influence on him: “Playing the melodeon, singing Child ballads and gritty industrial songs from the North were all things Pete did that rubbed off on me.” Brian has always tried to develop his own distinct repertoire of traditional songs, and that has meant being prepared to rework material - whether ballads or Victorian broadsides - to make it fit for performance. That’s come in handy in preparing The Road To Peterloo

Laura Smyth sings and plays English concertina and cello. She normally performs in a duo with Ted Kemp from Suffolk, performing traditional English material from their home regions in the North West and East Anglia. They take inspiration from traditional performers and the revival musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, and so a lot of their material is stripped down and raw. Laura has been a fan of both Pete and Brian for a number of years, so when they approached her for this project, she was excited and very flattered. She has always been drawn to songs with a strong storyline, and feels it is her job to convey stories and elicit the emotion that subjects deserve. She says, “The Peterloo Massacre is a very emotive subject, and so I hope that I can do it justice.” According to Brian, Laura is “right up there with the best of them, a great singer, who cuts straight through to the meat of the song, nothing airy-fairy.”

When I spoke to the members of the group, I wondered why they had chosen Peterloo and what their show brought to the subject. Pete had read an article about the event and discovered that 2019 was the bicentenary. He says: “I already knew some of the Peterloo songs from Harry Boardman and Roy Palmer and I thought they should be heard again. I suppose my main motivation was that most people didn’t know much about the massacre. I’d studied history at a school 20 miles south of Manchester, but Peterloo had never been mentioned.” Having had the original idea, Pete contacted Brian, who was equally enthusiastic. He’d had an interest in local material since seeing the Oldham Tinkers at a folk club in Manchester when he was at school. He’d been influenced by Harry Boardman when he was resident at a club Harry ran in the 1980s. Brian says: “I’ve always known the well-known ones about Peterloo – With Henry Hunt We’ll Go and the Harvey Kershaw song the Tinkers did. So the prospect of marking the 200th anniversary of the event, and working with fresh material that no-one else had used before, was something I really fancied.” Laura, being from Greater Manchester, always knew the Peterloo story; she had heard it described as the most important event in Manchester's history, and one of the most important events in the struggle for suffrage which led to Chartism. She says: “When I'd seen one or two songs on broadsides I'd always thought that I must get around to learning one of those. Now I'm learning a whole raft of them! As for what we bring to the subject, it’s true that Peterloo has been well documented, but it's surprising how few people know much about it.”

She acknowledges that Mike Leigh's film went some way towards correcting this, but feels there is still a long way to go. However, she is clear that the group doesn’t want the show to simply be a history lesson. “We want to raise awareness of the issues and what the working classes went through in order to win the rights we take for granted today, but it's really about allowing working class voices to be heard. Much of this comes through the broadside ballads, poems and other verses which made their way into the radical press of the day. There are absolutely tons of songs out there on the subject which have never seen the light of day and some of them are powerful and moving.” Brian agrees and adds: “Peterloo is in the history books and a lot of people will have seen the film, but presenting the story in song and music as we do gives a new dimension to it. Music can connect with people on a very emotional level, and that’s what I’m hoping we can do. The last thing we want is to be preachy or dry.”

I was interested to find out more about the material the group has used for the project. All the songs are Broadside Ballads, although this term is now somewhat outdated, since it’s become clear that most of what are now called ‘folk songs’ or ‘ballads’ started out as broadsides. Brian says: “In the case of industrial songs in general and Peterloo songs in particular, you have to research the actual broadsides, since most of these songs haven’t ended up in the oral tradition. A lot of broadsides from the period are online, so that was one line of research. Then there’s Alison Morgan’s book. Alison has researched a lot of broadsides and also verses that were published in the underground press of the day, ranging from political satire to eye-witness accounts.” Pete adds that they had already started researching Peterloo-related songs using Roy Palmer’s books and Manchester Ballads, the broadside facsimile collection Roy had put together with Harry Boardman before they heard about Alison Morgans’s book. “I contacted her and she very generously gave us access to all the songs before her book was published. She’s been excited to hear the songs sung again. They do need work: some had tunes ascribed, some needed tunes adding, but all three of us have a lot of experience of working with this kind of material.” Brian agrees: “The raw material is very good, but to make it accessible to a modern audience, broadside lyrics of the time need some editing and music has to be adapted or created – I’ve written new tunes for several of the songs.”

Next, I broached the subject of politics. I wanted to know whether the Peterloo Massacre had raised ordinary people’s political awareness in a direct way 200 years ago. Was it evident from the songs they used in the show or were these primarily about historical events and personal lives? Laura believes firmly that many people of the time were already politically minded. “Their living standards and conditions had been worsening over the previous 100 years, and by the time of Peterloo, conditions were abysmal. Mechanisation had led to many skilled workers being paid a pittance or being put out of a job completely, added to which the Napoleonic wars had led to depression. To rub salt into the wound, the Corn Laws, introduced in 1815, had pushed up the price of food just at the time that the country was experiencing a particularly bad harvest. Working people were starving while the factory owners and the farmers were seeking to line their pockets. And what was worse was that these working people had no voice. There were only two MPs for the whole of Lancashire and just a tiny fraction of the population was eligible to vote. So it's no surprise that 60,000 plus people turned up to St. Peter's Field that day to demand representation. After the event itself, protests rippled across the country, but the long-term benefits were very slow in coming.”

Pete believes the massacre did raise people’s political awareness because the event was attended by literate witnesses and published nationally in a variety of radical publications like The Cap Of Liberty and The Black Dwarf, as well as influential newspapers including The Manchester Observer and The Manchester Guardian, (later The Guardian.) Brian adds further historical information: “We should remember that Peterloo wasn’t the first big meeting that ended in violence, but it was the bloodiest and the most notorious, so it became a cause célèbre for reformers. The song we’re using to end our show was written nearly 20 years later; it’s about a massive Chartist meeting held in Salford, and in that song they are looking back with pride to the days of Henry Hunt and saying remember Peterloo. I was reading the other day about a hand-weaver in Manchester who was visited by a journalist 50 years after Peterloo – he still had a picture of Henry Hunt on his wall, and expressed very powerfully the ideals the protestors had stood for. It resonated down the ages, and still does.”

In view of this last comment of Brian’s, I wondered how political The Road To Peterloo aims to be. Laura makes it clear that the group is not going to be drawing direct comparisons with today’s political situation although she agrees that the subject matter is inherently political: “I think it would be hard for people not to see similarities,” she says. “I think that Peterloo was the culmination of worsening conditions for the working classes, but particularly because the growing disparity between the rich and the poor was made worse by fat cat masters and unjust laws. In this age of austerity, welfare cuts and tax breaks for the rich, we can see this disparity creeping in again. Once again, people are concerned about not being heard, not having proper representation because politicians are not truly speaking on their behalf. Unfortunately, this time it has led to the rise of the likes of Farage and the Brexiteers, or Trump in America.” Pete hopes the songs speak for themselves. “We’ll let audiences draw their own conclusions.”

I pressed them on this theme a little more, because folk music has often been regarded as politically radical, although this relationship seems to have become less overt in recent years. I suggested that the show may be seeking to re-establish that link between folk and politics? Brian is clear in his mind that folk music can work on many levels: “There are lots of great stories and wonderful old melodies to enjoy in their own right – but our kind of music often benefits from having that political edge. I remember Tony Rose saying many years ago that if Margaret Thatcher had done one good thing, it was to put the politics back into folk. After Thatcher, some of that anger dissipated, but it’s coming back now for obvious reasons, in some of the work of Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, or Lucy Ward.” Laura agrees: “Personally I don't have an agenda to make folk more political. People listen to folk music for all sorts of reasons, but at the same time folk music is the music of the people, so it's natural that sometimes it does have a political perspective. This show happens to be heavily political!”

I pressed a little further. Did they think that today’s folk audiences were happy with this link? (What I didn’t add was that many of today’s folk audiences well remember the early days of the folk revival when folk and politics were very clearly linked!) Brian replies: “I’d say most folk audiences are on the spectrum liberal to left. But The Road To Peterloo is not about preaching to the converted, it’s about telling a powerful story in a musically interesting way. Anyone who gets up in front of an audience has to entertain them, but that doesn’t just mean singing comic songs and telling jokes. A seven-minute murder ballad or a tragic song of lost love can be entertaining in the right place. We’re not into giving lectures and, of course, this will be entertainment first and education second.”

I moved on to the show itself and wondered whether it was in any way similar to the folk operas of the 1970s and 1980s, shows like the Peter Bellamy’s recently revived Transports, or the Albion Band’s Lark Rise? Brian remembers: “Lark Rise was a theatre production based on a book, which incorporated folk song and music for period flavour; and The Transports as a narrative for which Peter Bellamy had written songs.” He believes The Road To Peterloo shares elements of both, but makes it clear that their show is different: “We use songs from the time to tell the story, we don’t dress up or take specific parts, and there isn’t a narrator. The Road To Peterloo is not a folk opera, but we will certainly be bringing in historical detail from eyewitness accounts and casualty lists.” Pete confirms this: “It’s more of a concert than a ‘show’ or an ‘Am Dram’ production. We’re musicians not actors. We use our intros to place the songs in context.”

Next, I wondered how the dance tunes, which are part of the concert, fitted into the overall piece. Apparently there’s a collection of tunes from a fiddler called Joseph Kershaw, who lived in Saddleworth, where many marchers set out from, at the time of Peterloo. Brian points out: “That kind of music would have been familiar to the people in the local towns, and we thought it would be appropriate and interesting to include a few of Kershaw’s tunes.”

The group is planning to take The Road To Peterloo all over the country, obviously to folk clubs and festivals but also to other kinds of groups and organisations, possibly the People’s History Museum and the Central Library in Manchester, and there has been interest from some Labour Party branches. “It’s always good to get outside your folk comfort zone if you can,” says Brian.

Finally, I asked the trio what it had been like working together and whether their work on this project had impacted their other day-to-day work as folk musicians. Brian answers: “It’s always an adventure working with other musicians for the first time, learning how they operate. We’re definitely all on the same wavelength musically; the instruments we play fit together well, and personality-wise we’re all a bit bolshy and like a laugh, so it all seems to have worked out very well!” Laura adds: “We're all very rooted in the tradition, so that’s helped, especially with the long-distance arranging. Each of us has found the songs that we wanted to do, recorded our arrangement ideas, then shared them with the others to work on. In practice we’ve not felt a need to intervene too much with what each other has come up with. I’ve learnt a lot from the experience: prior to this I’d only ever arranged material in my duo with Ted Kemp.”

Pete points out some of the difficulties: “Rehearsing can be complicated, as Laura’s based in London and has a full-time job, and Brian and I have the usual folk gig commitments.” Laura works as the librarian at Cecil Sharp House: “I’ve had to be careful about my extra-curricular activities! I have still been doing the odd gig with Ted, and fortunately some of the festivals have been keen to book us as a duo alongside the Peterloo show. Pete adds: “To be honest it’s not easy material we’re working with, but I have managed to try out some of the songs I lead on my solo gigs, and Brian’s been doing the same.” Brian is confident they’ll be able to juggle their various commitments: “Given the kind of places we’re performing, the Peterloo concerts will be scattered around, mostly at weekends, rather than us piling into a van for a six-week tour – perish the thought! I’ll still find time to fit in solo gigs, teaching on workshops and running courses. And we’re working on having a recording ready for the first dates in June.”

Find out about performance dates and listen to song samples at The Road To Peterloo website: theroadtopeterloo.com

by Simon Haines

Published in Issue 128 of The Living Tradition - April 2019.
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