Singing the changes is one of the most significant song books of recent years. Its eighty-five songs – starting with the Flying Pickets Song of 1974 – are like milestones of the contorted social struggles of the last three decades. Brought out to celebrate those thirty years of Birmingham ’s Banner Theatre, it represents the lifes work of one of the founders and leading lights of the theatre, Dave Rogers. The majority of the tunes are his originals and most of the words, too – but a sizeable portion forms various collaborations from the Banner team – including Charles Parker (of Radio Ballads fame). Parker’s involvement points to this body of work having strong roots in the Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger tradition – that of song not just being a protest but a positive revolutionary act. The song-dramas of the 7:84 theatre group, Unity Theatre or the songs of Dick Gaughan grew out of the same legacy. As Peggy Seeger remarks in her foreword, Roger’s songs “are alive with social purpose” and make a big emotional impact, especially on those directly involved in the struggles and stories he sings of. The songbook links into today’s conflicts – and its editor is an outspoken trade unionist who is the general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union, Doug Nicholls. The songs are no nostalgia trip. Nicholls is right in his introduction to welcome how they “consistently present contemporary issues and struggles, and thereby carry the political song tradition into the future imbues with a firm sense of reality.”
However, what makes this collection so special is that, as in Shakespeare’s case, the words (and music) have been honed to needle sharp effectiveness by having been through the grist of multiple public performances and grew out of contact with real people. Most have also been recorded (the transcription is in clear music notation with chord symbols and useful suggestions as to performance style). And each song is illustrated with a fine quality photograph, often neatly personalised showing the individuals involved or stage action portraying the story of the song. Text provides the background to the historic event.
The collection is studded with hard-hitting songs – ‘Jobs for Sale’, ‘We Demand a Future’, ‘Cotton Threads’ (Banners’ work with women ‘sweat-shop’ workers); ‘PFI Talking Blues’, ‘Old Age Song’. He also deals with conflicts beyond theses shores in such songs as ‘Malvinas’, ‘Soldier Boy’, ‘David and Goliath’, ‘Devastation of Iraq’, ‘Hidden Hands’ (inspired by Costa Rica women trade unionists of Fuerza Unida), ‘Libérez, Libérez’ (a collaboration with singers from Ivory Coast) and ‘No More killing in Our Name’. As well as such songs of anger and resistance, more reflective, personal thoughts are in evidence in the minor key mode of ‘Missing You’ and the achievements of Ewan MacColl’s life are celebrated too, in ‘Ewan’s Song’.
A handsomely produced volume - worth getting, even just to read as an intriguing social document.