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The Radio Ballads - BBC Radio 2 modern version

Swings and Roundabouts

Also in series:-
The Song of Steel

The Enemy that Lives Within
The Horn of the Hunter
Thirty Years of Conflict
The Ballad of the Big Ships
The Songs of the Radio Ballads

For almost 50 years the original Radio Ballads, by Ewan MacColl and producer Charles Parker, have rightly retained their groundbreaking status whereby songs about communities and the actual voices of the people who lived in them were weaved together in eight programmes.  The spring of 2006 saw a similar pairing of John Tams and producer John Leonard resulting in six hour-long programmes for Radio 2.  The genesis of their idea for these programmes began over a decade earlier but had to wait until early 2005 for the work to be commissioned by the BBC.

The six subjects chosen – Steel, Living with Aids and HIV, Hunting with Hounds, Travelling Fairs, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and Shipbuilding – have now been reproduced in individual CD form (containing songs and the voices of local people) – and also with a separate songs-only issue.

If you only manage to get hold of one of these CDs, then I guess the songs-only collection would seem the obvious choice.  All of the songs are stunning in themselves – and performed beautifully and sensitively by an impressive array of artists including John Tams himself, Kate Rusby, Julie Matthews, Karine Polwart, Bob Fox, Chris and Kellie While, Martin Simpson, Coope, Boyes and Simpson and Cara Dillon to name but a few.  Some readers may have seen these songs performed at the one-off stage version at Celtic Connections in January of this year.

To get the most out of the listening experience, it is recommended that each album should be heard as a separate entity.  It is only then that one can hear the music in its rightful context, complementing the spoken voices of the people describing their actual first hand experiences.  Each of the spoken recordings is underscored by instrumental music and, when the talking stops, a song takes over the narrative. (Interestingly, one of the interviewers was Sara Parker, the daughter of Charles – and providing another link with the original series).

Listening to each CD again, it’s striking how fundamental to the story and the music are the background sounds - be they the industrial rhythmical thudding from the Don Valley steelworks, the trotting of horses and baying of the hounds, the cacophony of fairground noises (you can almost smell the toffee apples) and, tragically, the guns and crashing bottles from Ulster street battles.

As well as being a wonderful musical experience, these albums demonstrate documentary journalism at its best, with balanced views from all perspectives on several issues, be they interviews with pro- and anti-hunting lobbies and both “sides” in the Troubles.  In particular, The Enemy that Lives Within handles what must have seemed like an insurmountable artistic challenge with huge sensitivity.

Also worthy of mention are the detailed sleeve notes, providing an overview of each topic, the process by which the songs were written and performed and interviews gathered, background of each artist, information on the original 1950’s series and selections of feedback comments made by listeners to the programmes.

A staggering accomplishment, then, and a worthy addition to the work begun by MacColl and Parker.

George Dow

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This album was reviewed in Issue 74 of The Living Tradition magazine.