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SWEET LIBERTIES - St. David’s Hall, Cardiff - 27 November 2015

Our democracy, such as it is, has been a long time in the making. In 1215 the Magna Carta was signed and in 1265 Simon De Montfort called his Parliament. To celebrate 800 years in the pursuit of democracy and equality of rights, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and Folk By The Oak commissioned Martyn Joseph, Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter and Maz O’Connor to examine the history and compose new music to mark the rights and liberties that people have fought to achieve and protect. They were joined by musicians Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke for performances across England and Wales in November.

I have a little criticism and I’ll get it in early so as not to detract too much from what was a really good night. It is that, despite our multi-racial society, there was not a black face among the performers and all the songs were sung in English, understandable perhaps, but not representative of the polyglot nature of language on these shores today or during our history.

The concert commenced with a traditional song, John Ball, dealing with the Peasant’s Revolt and then we were into contemporary material. Martin Joseph sung of Dic Penderyn and the Chartists, whose demands for liberty were regarded as radical at the time but have now largely been realised. Maz O’Connor contrasted the 1602 poor law, which placed a duty of care for the poor on parishes, with circumstances today. Nancy told of visiting Parliament and seeing centuries of Parliamentary Bills written on vellum. Her song, Written On My Skin, was about the “struggle for this thing liberty”.

To cover 800 years of this struggle in 90 minutes was an impossible task, but to give a flavour of what it was about, to add to the audience’s store of knowledge and to highlight important milestones and relate them to events today was more than achieved. The musicians blended voices and instruments together in fine songs.

In the rest of the first set they dealt with the abolition of slavery, the Race Relations Act and events around that period, the Factories Act and migration. The set was concluded with two cautionary songs. In the first, Maz O’Connor sang of Parliament, “…this old house is falling down, it’s the best that we have got and we can’t build another one until the old one rots”. The second, Dark Days, was about the return to government of the Conservative Party.

During the interval I remarked that it was difficult to perceive a theme. If there was one, it was that these things we call democracy and liberty have been achieved as a result of a momentous struggle, that they continue to require vigilance and effort to ensure their continuance and that there is so much more to be achieved.

This was confirmed by the second set in which the themes included land management, its effect on our wildlife and the fate of innocent people caught in the struggle. Maz sang a song about John Lilburne (Freeborn John), one of the Levellers which reported a phrase of his that seems so apposite in the wake of the banking disaster: “ruled by greed and gold, I’d have you ruled by all”, which is, after all, the point of democracy.

The final song, sung by all, was about Nye Bevan. For me, the NHS is one of the critical modern foundations of our liberty and it is not yet 70 years old, a short part of the 800 years covered. The song contained the phrase: “Freedom won’t be freedom until poverty is gone”. If one thing was made clear during the concert, it is that the struggle for equality of rights and liberty is a continuing process. Liberty is a relative concept. Unfortunately it is not a case of, “ more river to cross, then I’ll be at rest”.

The final performance will be at the Folk by the Oak festival in Hatfield in July 2016.

Iain Campbell