Traditional and contemporary folk from the British Isles

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Volume 5 of The Voice of The People.
The Life of Rural Working Men & Women.
An anthology edited by REG HALL.

1 MARY ANN HAYNES voice: Hopping Down In Kent
2 JOE HEANEY voice: The Rocks Of Bawn
3 DAVIE STEWART voice: The Tarves Rant
4 SAM LARNER voice: The Pleasant Month Of May
5 BOB FORRESTER voice: Copshawholm Fair
6 POP MAYNARD voice: The Weaver’s Daughter
7 JINKY WELLS fiddle & voice: The Maid Of The Mill
8 STRAIGHTY FLANAGAN voice: The Grazer Tribe
9 JOHN MacDONALD voice & accordeon: The Mains O’Fogieloan
10 FRED JORDAN voice: We’re All Jolly Fellows As Follow The Plough
11 BOB HART voice: The Farmer’s Servant
12 DAVIE STEWART voice: I am a Miller To My Trade
13 HOCKEY FELTWELL voice: Four Horses
14 JIMMY MCBEATH voice: Nicky Tams
15 PADDY TUNNEY voice: The Lark In The Morning
16 LIZZIE HIGGINS voice: Lovely Molly
17 PADDY BEADES voice with fiddle & piano-accordion: The Bonnie Labouring Boy
18 JIMMY McREATH voice: The Barnyards O’Delgaty
19 HARRY UPTON voice: The Rich Lady Gay
20 TOM LENINAN voice: The Cranbally Farmer
21 WILLIE KEMP & CURLY MacKAY voice & piano-accordion: Wi’ Ma Big Kilmarnock Bonnet
22 WILLIE SCOTT voice: The Lads That Was Reared Among Heather
23 EDDIE BUTCHER voice: Tossing The Hay
24 JOHN MacDONALD voice: Sleepytoon
25 THE HYDE BROTHERS melodeons: Back O’ The Haggart

Available now from:


A radio-ballad about the railwaymen of England by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

The first of the radio-ballads was inspired by a steam locomotive driver who died performing an act of heroism. It was based, like its successors, on many hours of tape-recorded testimonies and reminiscences, mixed into a continuous narrative interspersed with MacColl’s songs and Seeger’s music.

‘A generation from now, listeners will surely still be moved by this recording’ NEW STATESMAN

‘The Ballad of John Axton was ostensibly about the life and death of a train driver but, like ensuing ballads about the building of the M1, herring fishing and coal miners, it was really about the complex relationship between men and their professions.’ TIME OUT

‘No wonder it knocked England out that July evening.’ THE OBSERVER

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The Copper Family of Rottingdean in Sussex has roots in traditional song that are at least two hundred years old. Their rare southern English harmony is presented at its most outstanding in these classic performances from the 1950s and early ’60s. Bob and Ron Copper came to prominence outside their immediate local environment when recordings of the duo were released during the early part of the folk revival. These newly remastered recordings are included here in their entirety. In addition, earlier recordings involving Bob and Ron’s fathers – Jim and John – are available for the first time. There are three songs which feature the full quartet.

The special packaging includes a 60-page booklet of extensive history, biography and social context as well as a 36-page booklet of song texts. Both booklets also contain historic photographs.

  • “inspirational … a testament to the strength of songs that have endured so long and the spirit at the heart of their survival … the whole package (is) a lesson in quality” fRoots Magazine
  • “Topic Records reputation a the great UK folk label is further enhanced by the release of (this) wonderfully packaged collection of early recordings of the legendary Copper Family. More than just a record…both an historical document and a vital part of the living tradition of English folksong” Get Rhythm magazine
  • “Resonates with a weird primitivism” Sunday Times
  • “These robust mournful songs of life’s travails and treasures have a directness and authenticity that puts most rock music to shame”Mojo
  • “Make sure to buy three copies of this CD: one for yourself to play and play all day; one to give as a present to the person who means most to you; and one to bury in the garden for the Martians when they land, to show them us Human Race were capable of real excellence. …the first booklet contains the lyrics to the songs, but with the added bonus of deeply interesting notes by Steve Roud on every one of the songs. This booklet in itself would put most CD booklets in the shade. But then, even THIS is trumped by the second booklet: a 58 page “beaut” consisting of extensive notes…it is genuinely a compulsive page turner. As for the CD content…it is all sublime.” Musical Traditions magazine
  • “These extraordinary songs breathe life into a tradition that stretches back to the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. They are the aural equivalent of remote viewing on to a vanished world. There are seafaring ballads, aching laments and songs of farewell, drinking songs alongside more ancient ballads.” The Guardian

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tscd652 webVolume 2 of The Voice of The People.
Songs of tempest & sea battles, sailor lads and fishermen.
An anthology edited by REG HALL.

1 CYRIL POACHER voice: A Broadside
2 PADDY TUNNEY voice: The Lowlands Of Holland
3 TOM WILLETT voice: Riding Down To Portsmouth
4 JOHNNY DOUGHTY voice: Come My Own One, Come My Fond One
5 JOHN RAE dulcimer: The Sailor On The Rope / The Bonnie Bunch Of Roses
6 SAM LARNER voice: In Scarborough Town
7 LIZZIE HIGGINS voice, with chorus: Sandy’s A Sailor
8 TURP BROWN voice: The Streams Of Lovely Nancy
9 GEORGE LING voice: On Board The Leicester Castle
10 MARY ANN CAROLAN voice: In London So Fair
11 WALTER PARDON voice: A Ship To Old England Came
12 FRANK VERRILL voice: Jesus At Thy Command
13 HARRY UPTON voice: The Royal Albion
14 HARRY COX voice: The Pretty Ploughboy
15 MICHO RUSSELL voice: The Poor Little Fisherboy
16 BOB HART voice: Cod Banging
17 JOHNNY DOUGHTY voice: Round Rye Bay For More
18 PHIL TANNER voice: Young Henry Martin
19 CYRIL POACHER voice: A Sailor And His True Love
20 BOB ROBERTS voice, with chorus: The Fish And Chip Ship
21 JUMBO BRIGHTWELL voice: The Oak And The Ash
22 WILLIE SCOTT voice: The Banks Of Newfoundland
23 FRED JORDAN voice: The Dark-Eyed Sailor
24 WALTER PARDON voice: Jack Tar Ashore

Available now from:

Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band – Big Machine

Eliza Carthy & The Wayward BandPioneering English traditional folk powerhouse, Eliza Carthy, first assembled the Wayward Band in 2013 in order to explore and celebrate her long and varied career in folk music. To do this Eliza put together a team of hugely talented musicians from across the UK and together they hit the road to promote her “Best Of” compilation, ‘Wayward Daughter’ (Topic Records), which coincided with a biography of the same name. Eliza and the Wayward Band loved playing together so much – as well as becoming a festival favourite – that it seemed natural and inevitable, as well as characteristically ambitious, that this 12-piece would set about recording an album. The result is ‘Big Machine’, recorded at the renowned Real World and Rockfield Studios and produced by the multi-talented Jim Sutherland. The Wayward Band line-up is a veritable dream team of musicians comprising Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead), David Delarre (Mawkin), Barn Stradling (Blowzabella), Saul Rose, Beth Porter, Lucy Farrell (Emily Portman Trio), Will Molleson, Andrew Waite (Tyde), Laurence Hunt, Nick Malcolm and Adrien “Yen-Yen” Toulouse. ‘Big Machine’ (their debut album) will be released by Topic Records on 3rd February 2017.

The material on ‘Big Machine’ represents a healthy slice of everything good that is happening in traditional music now, across a sparkling spectrum of sound. The album features three contemporary songs; Eliza’s own “You Know Me” about the refugee crisis and notions of hospitality (featuring MC Dizraeli), a powerful cover of Ewan Maccoll’s Radio Ballad “The Fitter’s Song” (at the behest of Peggy Seeger – and the song which inspired the album title) and an affectionate reworking of “Hug You Like a Mountain” (Rory MacLeod), re-imagined here as a duet with Teddy Thompson.

There are also several examples of the Broadside ballad collections housed in Chetham’s Library in Manchester given a new twist with music by Eliza and the band. This follows a programme Eliza presented for BBC Radio 4 about the Manchester Ballads, covering everything from songs about and caused by domestic abuse (“Devil in the Woman”, the sumptuous and searing “Fade and Fall (Love Not)”, to the seafaring life in “The Sea”. Added to that a couple of brilliantly constructed instrumentals, a song about dying from custard poisoning and a heartbreaking traditional ballad “I Wish that the Wars were all Over” (performed live with the band onstage in Real World Studios’ Studio One and featuring Irish superstar Damien Dempsey), and you begin to get the picture. A very big picture, a Big Machine firing on all cylinders.

“Big Machine” is certainly one of Eliza Carthy’s most adventurous and accomplished works to date – and given that Eliza is the most passionate and groundbreaking English traditional singer of her generation, “Big Machine” is an album you really won’t want to miss.

BIG MACHINE is available now from:

“No quarter is spared in the pursuit of the grand gesture designed to sweep all before it in an exhausting whizz-bang barrage of sounds, ideas, technique and colour.”
fRoots (5 stars)

“an irresistible collection that amply demonstrates the vibrancy of today’s traditional music scene”
R2 (5 stars)

“This confident collection whips her characteristic fondness for adventure into ever grander and more colourful directions, aided by a 12-piece big band that includes urgent brass, searing guitar (Dave Delarre) and guest vocals from Teddy Thompson, Damien Dempsey and rapper MC Dizraeli..”
MOJO (4 stars)

“Big Band, big sound, big album, big machine. Bold, brassy and bendy, Eliza Carthy’s Big Machine is a monster of an album”
Songlines (4 stars)

New Internationalist Magazine

“Big Machine has all the hallmarks of a vastly important release, and should cement Eliza Carthy’s place as one of our most valuable musicians.”
Folk Radio UK

“Big Machine resets Carthy’s career as a big, big statement at a time of considerable turmoil and change. It is most welcome.”
The Arts Desk (4 stars)

“..Big Machine is grounded by Carthy’s voice. Her warm, intimate, earthy tone is perfectly suited to the material. In many ways this is Carthy’s album through and through. The first big hit of 2017.”
Bright Young Folk


This was the first recording made by the New High Level Ranters. It sees the group changed by the departure of Alistair Anderson and Tom Gilfellon, wholeft to pursue their own ways in making their own kind of music. The two lads who replace them are Jim Hall and Peter Wood, who contribute their particular skills in playing and singing, thus continuing the Ranters’ commitment to British folk music and especially the music of the North East of England.

The original members of the group are Colin Ross and Johnnie Handle, who are perhaps too well-known to merit description. Anyway, Colin plays the fiddle and pipes and Johnnie sings and plays the accordion. There was never any doubt in their minds that the group would carry on after Ali and Tom left, so it was only natural that Jim and Pete, fellow members of Folk Song and Ballad Club, Newcastle, be asked to come into the Ranters.

1  Fisherman’s Friend / Black and Grey
2  Ca’ Hawkie
3  The Old Drove Road / Kennedy North
4  Jim Jones
5  The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade
6  John Peel
7  Durham Regatta / Little Jenny
8  The Snows They Melt the Soonest
9  Yellow Haired Laddie / The Glen Coe March
10  New Song of the Coal
11  Skipper’s Wedding
12  The Duke of Fife / Maggie Laudert

First published by Topic Records 1982

Enter your name and email address to download The NEW HIGH LEVEL RANTERS pdf booklet

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JIMMY McBEATH Wild Rover No More TSDL173

One of Scotland’s best known traditional singers, Jimmy McBeath, was a former farm servant and traveller from Banffshire. He sang in a direct any authoritative style bothy ballads and songs learnt on the road. His 1967 album has long been regarded as a very important collection of traditional song.

1  The Bold English Navvy
2  Come A’ Ye Tramps an’ Hawkers
3  Johnny McIndoe
4  The Wind Blew The Bonnie Lassie’s Plaidie Awa’
5  The Merchant and the Beggar Maid
6  Nicky Tams
7  The Barnyards o’ Delgaty
8  I’m A Stranger in this Country
9  The Moss O’ Burreldale
10  The Highlandman’s Ball
11  McPherson’s Rant
12  Grat For Gruel
13  Drumdelgie
14  Wild Rover No More

First published by Topic 1967

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Vagrant Stanzas is a splendid, intimate new recording from finger-style guitar maestro Martin Simpson. Encouraged by his near neighbour Richard Hawley, Martin set out to record his new album completely solo. The ambition was to record just one man and his guitar (or banjo) close-miked and personal. Most of the performances are first or second takes. So much material was recorded that the deluxe edition includes an extra CD of eight outtakes from the recording sessions – quite honestly they’d have made the cut on just about anybody else’s album.

“This is not a record of repairs and corrections, this is what I do at a gig. It’s the first time I’ve made a studio album which deliberately tries to capture the immediacy of a live performance…. in fact it is the intimacy of playing to a friend which is at the heart of this album.”

The album sees Martin collaborate with some of the best producers and engineers in the business, including multi-Grammy Award winning mastering engineer, Silas Brown. The CD has been co-produced by Martin alongside American producer Peter Denenberg and, our own Richard Hawley, who produced the UK part of the CD in Sheffield, at the legendary Yellow Arch Studios. Vagrant Stanzas is made up of a mixture of Martin’s original compositions, including a song commissioned by BBC Radio 2 for their award winning Radio Ballads series, alongside classic songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Chris Wood, Leon Rosselson and, of course, the ubiquitous ‘Anon’ of Folk ballad fame.

“One man with guitar and banjo and an acutely tuned ear for a good tune and a powerful lyric can certainly whip up a lot of different moods and styles. It’s all down to attitude.” fRoots

“There is a distinctive brilliance to Simpson’s guitar and voice – these are vocals from the back step, from the songs’ stark interiors, understood and played out by a man in the third age of life.★★★★ Songlines

“What you get is pure and fluent Simpson musicianship. A very fine record.” ★★★★ The Telegraph

CD 1
1 Diamond Joe
2 Jackie and Murphy
3 Shepherds Rejoice
4 Come Down Jehovah
5 Molly As She Swings
6 Palaces of Gold
7 Blue Eyed Boston Boy
8 Delta Dreams
9 Waly Waly
10 North Country Blues
11 Lorena
12 Lady Gay
13 Stranger Song
14 Come Write me Down

Available now from:


Deluxe limited edition 2CD set

Vagrant Stanzas is a splendid, intimate new recording from finger-style guitar maestro Martin Simpson. Encouraged by his near neighbour Richard Hawley, Martin set out to record his new album completely solo. The ambition was to record just one man and his guitar (or banjo) close-miked and personal. Most of the performances are first or second takes. So much material was recorded that the deluxe edition includes an extra CD of eight outtakes from the recording sessions – quite honestly they’d have made the cut on just about anybody else’s album.

“This is not a record of repairs and corrections, this is what I do at a gig. It’s the first time I’ve made a studio album which deliberately tries to capture the immediacy of a live performance…. in fact it is the intimacy of playing to a friend which is at the heart of this album.”

The album sees Martin collaborate with some of the best producers and engineers in the business, including multi-Grammy Award winning mastering engineer, Silas Brown. The CD has been co-produced by Martin alongside American producer Peter Denenberg and, our own Richard Hawley, who produced the UK part of the CD in Sheffield, at the legendary Yellow Arch Studios. Vagrant Stanzas is made up of a mixture of Martin’s original compositions, including a song commissioned by BBC Radio 2 for their award winning Radio Ballads series, alongside classic songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Chris Wood, Leon Rosselson and, of course, the ubiquitous ‘Anon’ of Folk ballad fame.

“One man with guitar and banjo and an acutely tuned ear for a good tune and a powerful lyric can certainly whip up a lot of different moods and styles. It’s all down to attitude.” fRoots

“There is a distinctive brilliance to Simpson’s guitar and voice – these are vocals from the back step, from the songs’ stark interiors, understood and played out by a man in the third age of life.★★★★ Songlines

“What you get is pure and fluent Simpson musicianship. A very fine record.” ★★★★ The Telegraph

CD 1
1    Diamond Joe
2    Jackie and Murphy
3    Shepherds Rejoice
4    Come Down Jehovah
5    Molly As She Swings
6    Palaces of Gold
7    Blue Eyed Boston Boy
8    Delta Dreams
9    Waly Waly
10    North Country Blues
11    Lorena
12    Lady Gay
13    Stranger Song
14    Come Write me Down

CD 2
1    Fair Annie
2    Kaga Re
3    Blind Willie McTell
4    Old Paint
5    The Bell
6    Diamond Joe
7    The Death of Queen Jane
8    The Green Linnet

With ‘Vagrant Stanzas’ Martin Simpson makes a career defining statement
– solo, intimate performances captured in a series of jewel-like recordings.

Buy Vagrant Stanzas now from:


June Tabor’s recording career has consistently reached ever higher standards of performance and interpretation. Each of her albums has sought to match the highest technical standards with emotionally powerful performances and scintillating musical arrangements. Her forthcoming album – a stunning collection of songs concerning humankind’s relationship with the sea – is already being hailed by critics and long-time fans as another career highpoint.

June’s range and depth are unparalleled, and with Ashore she fully justifies her reputation as England’s foremost song interpreter. Ashore features a powerful set of contemporary songs alongside classic traditional ballads like ‘The Bleacher Lassie Of Kelvinhaugh’ and ‘The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerry’. The contemporary material includes a spine-tingling version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’; a new recording of Ian Telfer’s ‘Finisterre’ (first recorded by June with the Oyster Band on ‘Freedom & Rain’) and two remarkable songs from the pen of Cyril Tawney – ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ and ‘The Oggie Man’. The album was recorded with June’s regular musicians – Andy Cutting, diatonic accordion; Mark Emerson, viola and violin, Tim Harries, double bass and Huw Warren, piano.

The Bleecher Lassie Of Kelvinhaugh : JUNE TABOR by Topic Records

“It’s 35 years since June Tabor’s debut album, but this has to be among her best.” ★★★★ The Times

“A thing of compelling beauty, and stands head and shoulders above most folk albums you’re likely to hear this year… Pure class.” English Dance & Song

“This deeply affecting collection of sea stories demonstrates the core of her art almost to perfection.” ★★★★ Mojo

“This is wonderful. England’s foremost folk singer performs 13 fascinating songs that key into our historical and emotional relationship with the sea. It’s a remarkable record.” The Word

“June Tabor has always resolutely pursued her own heart without recourse to the conformities of genre, expectations of audiences and especially not the pressures of orthodox commercial appeal.”
Colin Irwin / BBC Music online

>> Read more


In common with most record labels, Topic releases new albums both on CD and as digital downloads.

Topic Records is also the custodian of a tremendous catalogue of archive recordings. Early in 2009 as part of the label’s 70th anniversary celebrations we began a programme of digital releases from the archive.

Classic recordings from Ewan MacColl, A L Lloyd, The Oldham Tinkers, Lizzie Higgins, Vin Garbutt, John Kirkpatrick, The Cheviot Ranters and many more are now available for full album and individual track download from all the best digital retailers, including:

TSDL018  PEGGY SEEGER  Come Along John
TSDL035  DOMINIC BEHAN  Down By The Liffeyside (Irish Street Songs)

TSDL044  DOMINIC BEHAN Easter week and after
TSDL051  A L LLOYD  Outback Ballads
TSDL052  JEANNIE ROBERTSON  Great Scots Traditional Singer
TSDL069  The LIVERPOOL SPINNERS  Songs Sung In Liverpool
TSDL079  EWAN MacCOLL & PEGGY SEEGER The Jacobite Rebellions
TSDL084  THE WILLETT FAMILY  The Roving Journeyman
TSDL091  JOE HEANEY Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic & English
TSDL093  RAMBLING JACK ELLIOTT  Talking Woody Guthrie
TSDL103  A. L. LLOYD & EWAN MacCOLL English and Scottish Folk Ballads
TSDL104  EWAN MacCOLL & PEGGY SEEGER Steam Whistle Ballads
TSDL106  JACK ELLIOTT Muleskinner
TSDL110  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Farewell Nancy ~ Sea Songs & Shanties
TSDL113  PEGGY SEEGER & TOM PALEY  Who’s Going To Shoe You’re Pretty Little Foot?
TSDL117  HEDY WEST  Old Times and Hard Times
TSDL118  A L LLOYD  First Person
TSDL120  THE CAMPBELL FAMILY  The Singing Campbells
TSDL128  RAY & ARCHIE FISHER et al  Bonny Lass Come O’er the Burn
TSDL130  EWAN MacCOLL  Bundook Ballads
TSCD134  JESSE FULLER  Move On Down The Line
TSDL137  THE FISHER FAMILY  Traditional & New Songs From Scotland
TSDL138  The STEWART FAMILY  The Stewarts Of Blair
TSDL139  PADDY TUNNEY  A Wild Bee’s Nest
TSDL143  The EXILES  Freedom, Come All Ye
TSDL146  HEDY WEST  Pretty Saro
TSDL147  EWAN MacCOLL  The Manchester Angel
TSDL163  HEDY WEST  Ballads
TSDL164  The EXILES  The Hale & The Hanged
TSDL165  PADDY TUNNEY  The Irish Edge
TSDL171  SARAH OGAN GUNNING  A Girl of Constant Sorrow
TSDL172  FRANK HARTE  Dublin Street Songs
TSDL173  JIMMY McBEATH  Wild Rover No More
TSDL175  WILLIE CLANCY  The Minstrel From Clare
TSDL179  The STEWART FAMILY  The Travelling Stewarts
TSDL182  MRS. SARAH MAKEM  Ulster Ballad Singer
TSDL183  WILLIE SCOTT  The Shepherd’s Song
TSDL184  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Breeze From Erin
TSDL185  LIZZIE HIGGINS  Princess Of The Thistle
TSDL186  The HIGH LEVEL RANTERS Northumberland For Ever
TSDL190  DAVE & TONI ARTHUR  The Lark In The Morning
TSDL193  PHOEBE SMITH  Once I Had A True Love
TSDL200  PETER BELLAMY  The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate
TSDL203  A L LLOYD  The Great Australian Legend
TSDL204  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Owdham Edge – Popular Song & Verse from Lancashire
TSDL206  THE OLDHAM TINKERS  Oldham’s Burning Sands
TSDL209  IRISH COUNTRY FOUR  Songs, Ballads & Instrumental Tunes of Ulster
TSDL212  OAK  Welcome To Our Fair
TSDL214  THE CHEVIOT RANTERS  The Sound Of The Cheviots
TSDL217  ROY HARRIS  The Bitter & The Sweet
TSDL223  PETA WEBB  I Have Wandered In Exile
TSDL225  BOB HART Songs from Suffolk
TSDL226  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Streets of Glasgow
TSDL227  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Wild Hills O’Wannie
TSDL228  The BROADSIDE From GRIMSBY  The Moon Shone Bright
TSDL229  VARIOUS ARTISTS  English Country Music From East Anglia
TSDL230  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Lark In The Clear Air
TSDL236  HARRY BOARDMAN A Lancashire Mon
TSDL239  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Bonny North Tyne
TSDL240  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Boscastle Breakdown
TSDL244  SAM LARNER  A Garland For Sam
TSDL245  THE CHEVIOT RANTERS  Cheviot Barn Dance
TSDL247  JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS  The Rose Of Britain’s Isle
TSDL248  JOHN LYONS  The May Morning Dew
TSDL250  SEAMUS ENNIS  The Wandering Minstrel

TSDL251  THE RUSSELL FAMILY Of Doolin, County Clare
TSDL253  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Songs Of The Open Road
TSDL254  VARIOUS ARTISTS  When Sheepshearing’s Done
TSDL255  GARY & VERA ASPEY  From the North
TSDL256  ROY HARRIS  Champions Of Folly
TSDL257  PACKIE MANUS BYRNE  Songs Of A Donegal Man
TSDL258  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Sussex Harvest
TSDL260  LIZZIE HIGGINS  Up And Awa’ Wi’ The Laverock
TSDL261  JUMBO BRIGHTWELL  Songs from the Eel’s Foot
TSDL264  PADDY TUNNEY  The Mountain Streams Where The Moorcocks Crow
TSDL266  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Caledonian Companion
TSDL268  THE MUSIC OF SCOTT SKINNER  Traditional Scots Fiddling
TSDL270  JOHNNY HANDLE  The Collier Lad
TSDL273  FRANKIE ARMSTRONG  Songs and Ballads
TSDL274  BOB DAVENPORT  Down The Long Road
TSDL275  BOB CANN  West Country Melodeon
TSDL276  THE OLDHAM TINKERS  For Old Time’s Sake
TSDL277  ARCHIE FISHER  Will Ye Gang, Love
TSDL280  J SCOTT SKINNER  The Strathspey King
TSDL282  TOM GILFELLON  In The Middle Of The Tune
TSDL283  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Holey Ha’penny
TSDL284  THE GAUGERS  Beware of the Aberdonian
TSDL285  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Green Grow The Laurels
TSDL286  GEORGE MAYNARD  Ye Subjects Of England
TSDL287  SEAN McALOON & JOHN REA  Drops Of Brandy
TSDL288  FELIX DORAN  The Last Of The Travelling Pipers
TSDL289  PADDY TUNNEY  The Flowery Vale
TSDL292  The LING FAMILY  Singing Traditions Of A Suffolk Family
TSDL294  PAT MITCHELL  Uilleann Pipes
TSDL295  JOHN KIRKPATRICK & SUE HARRIS  Among The Many Attractions At The Show…
TSDL299  GARY & VERA ASPEY  A Taste Of Hotpot
TSDL303  JIMMY McBEATH  Bound To Be A Row
TSDL304  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Travelling Songster
TSDL306  JIMMY POWER  Irish Fiddle Player
TSDL307  BELLE STEWART  Queen Among The Heather
TSDL315  DICK GAUGHAN  Coppers & Brass
TSDL316  ROSE MURPHY  Milltown Lass
TSDL317  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Songs & Southern Breezes
TSDL318  BOB DAVENPORT  Postcards Home
TSDL324  JOHNNY DOUGHTY  Round Rye Bay For More
TSDL325  JOSIE McDERMOTT  Darby’s Farewell
TSDL326  JOHN BURGESS  The Art Of The Highland Bagpipes vol. 2
TSDL327  ROY HARRIS  By Sandbank Fields
TSDL328  BOB COPPER  Sweet Rose In June
TSDL334  LEN GRAHAM Wind and Water
TSDL335  TOMMY HEALY & JOHN DUFFY  Memories Of Sligo
TSDL337  JACK & CHARLIE COEN  The Branch Lin
TSDL338  VINCENT GRIFFIN Traditional Fiddle Music from County Clare
TSDL339  PACKIE DUIGNAN & SEAMUS HORAN Music From County Leitrim
TSDL348  JOHN WRIGHT  Unaccompanied
TSDL349  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Devon Tradition
TSDL351  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Folk Music Of Norway
TSDL352  TERRY TEAHAN & SEAMUS HORAN  Old Time Irish Music In America
TSDL353  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Music of Cape Breton vol: 1
TSDL354  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Music of Cape Breton vol: 2
TSDL356  VERA ASPEY  The Blackbird
TSDL359  JOHN REILLY  The Bonny Green Tree
TSDL361  BOB ROBERTS  Songs From The Sailing Barges
TSDL362  MARY-ANN CAROLAN  Songs From The Irish Tradition
TSDL364  HUGH GILLESPIE Classic recordings of Irish traditional fiddle music
TSDL369  THE LAMBS ON THE GREEN HILLS  Songs from County Clare
TSDL372  GEORGE HANNA & SARAH ANNE O’NEILL  On The Shores Of Lough Neagh
TSDL373  JOHN REA  Traditional Music on the Hammer Dulcimer
TSDL374  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Earl Soham Slog
TSDL375  VARIOUS ARTISTS  Sing, Say and Play – Traditional Songs & Music from Suffolk
TSDL378  VIN GARBUTT  Eston California
TSDL382  NEW VICTORY BAND  One More Dance & Then
TSDL385  VIN GARBUTT  Tossing A Wobbler

TSDL386  BARRY DRANSFIELD  Bowin’ & Scrapin’
TSDL391  CHRIS FOSTER  All Things In Common
TSDL392  WALTER PARDON  A Country Life
TSDL395  TRAVELLERS  Songs, Stories and Tunes from English Gypsies
TSDL398  JOHN DOHERTY  Bundle And Go
TSDL399  THE OLDHAM TINKERS  That Lancashire Band
TSDL407  GARY & VERA ASPEY  Seeing Double
TSDL416  UMPS AND DUMPS The Moon’s In A Fit
TSDL428  VIN GARBUTT  Little Innocents
TSDL429  HAUK BUEN, KNUT BUEN, TOM ANDERSON, VIDAR LANDE  Ringing Strings – Fiddle Music of Norway-Shetland
TSDL430  MARTIN SIMPSON  Grinning In Your Face
TSDL435  CURLEW  Fiddle Music From Shetland & Beyond
TSDL438  MARTIN SIMPSON  Sad Or High Kicking!
TSDL439  THE HOUSE BAND  The House Band
TSDL440  THE COCK AND BULL BAND  Eyes Closed and Rocking
TSDL441  BILL CADDICK  The Wild West Show
TSDL447  ANDREW CRONSHAW  Till The Beast’s Returning
TSDL451  THE HOUSE BAND  Word of Mouth
TSDL479  VARIOUS ARTISTS  The Bird In The Bush
TSDL501  BRASS MONKEY  Sound & Rumour
TSDL502  EWAN MacCOLL  Chorus From The Gallows
TSDL1050  ANDREW CRONSHAW  The Language Of Snakes
TSDL1503  CHRIS DRONEY  The Flowing Tide
TSDL1504  JOHN KELLY  Fiddle and Concertina Player
TSDL1505  BERNARD O’SULLIVAN, TOMMY McMAHON  Play Irish Traditional Music of County Clare

More releases from the archive will follow. Please join our mailing list or keep checking back for updates.






The Oldham Tinkers specialise in the local songs and ballads of their native South Lancashire, and have an immense following. All the salt and savour of Lancashire song and humour is to be enjoyed in their records. ‘For Old Time’s Sake’ their third album for the Topic record label was popular with the late John Peel. He played their material often on his BBC radio programme, especially the tall tale of ‘John Willie’s Horse’.
1  Signora
2  Eaur Joe’s Lad
3  John Willie’s Horse
4  Barefoot Days Medley
5  Lancashire Witches
6  Come Whoam to Thi Childer an’ Me
7  Johnny Bugger
8  Billy Winker
9  Bits O’ Bromley Street
10  The Condemned Cell
11  The Maypole
12  For Old Time’s Sake

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A radio-ballad about Britain’s nomadic peoples by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

The last of the radio-ballads deals with gypsies, tinkers and the rest of Britain’s travellers – ‘people talking about what it means to be a tenth-rate citizen in a civilised land.’ MacColl’s song The Travelling People was so true to their lives that it was taken up by travellers and absorbed into their repertoire.

‘The final episode, The Travelling People, had MacColl at the peak of his lyrical intonation.’ DAVE HENDERSON, Q

‘The Radio-Ballads are, in the literal sense of the word, wonderful ….. they changed the course of broadcasting history. What makes them so important now is that, at their best, they tell you things you don’t forget. The Travelling People is even more powerful than it was in 1964’ GILLIAN REYNOLDS, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

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A radio-ballad about boxers by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

Part documentary, part allegory, The Fight Game takes the listener into the gladiatorial arena of professional boxing.

‘In The Big Hewer, about coal mining and The Fight Game, about boxing, the radio-ballads find men titanic enough to live up to their pretensions. Listening to these two, you can really believe that there were giants in those days.’ THE INDEPENDENT

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A radio-ballad about Britain’s coal miners by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

The Big Hewer – ‘a poetic documentary with worker heroes,’ as The Times called it – charts the lives of Britain’s coal miners, in the Northeast, East Midlands and South Wales.

‘In The Big Hewer, about coal mining and The Fight Game, about boxing, the radio-ballads find men titanic enough to live up to their pretensions. Listening to these two, you can really believe that there were giants in those days.’ THE INDEPENDENT

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A radio-ballad about Britain’s herring fishing communities by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

Britain’s herring fishing communities are the subject of this, perhaps the best-remembered and most widely heard of all the radio-ballads. It was broadcast in more than 80 countries, and won the 1960 Prix d’Italia for radio documentary. Several of MacColl’s songs for Singing The Fishing quickly entered the repertoire of a generation of folk singers.

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A radio-ballad about the building of the M1 Motorway by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

The second of the remarkable Radio Ballads Song of a Road tells the story of the making of the M1, Britain’s first motorway. The road building was a suitably iconic and newsworthy project for Parker, MacColl and Seeger to develop their ground-breaking radio techniques. Among the songs MacColl created for this radio-ballad was Hot Asphalt.

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TOPIC70 packshot webTHREE SCORE AND TEN is seven CDs in a ten by ten inch hardback book, with dust jacket containing 108 profusely illustrated, full colour pages with a narrative portrait of Topic from 1939 to the present day. Also included separately is a complete discography of every Topic release from 1939 to the newest releases in 2009.

There are 144 tracks that cover all aspects of Topic’s recording history in 7 themed CDs with many rare tracks never before on CD. The extensive text gives a detailed recording and social history with profiles of the essential recordings, principle artists and key personages. The many hundreds of illustrations are a revelation in themselves, anchoring the whole project with photos of the artists, album sleeves, advertising leaflets, snapshots and memorabilia.

A quote from page 92 of Three Score and Ten sums it all up pretty nicely:

“From its first release in 1939 and it’s origins in the Workers’ Music Association through the folk revival to the present day Topic Records has always endeavoured to make classic and definitive recordings of traditional music available to the public; a catalogue of records to inform and inspire the listener.” Since the 1950s, Topic has stood virtually alone in continuing to make recordings of traditional music and the tradition based music of the British Isles.

The aims and objects of the Workers’ Music Association (as published in 1944) still stand as a fair description of the ambitions of Topic Records in 2009:
- To present to the people their rich musical inheritance
- To utilise fully the stimulating power of music to inspire people
- To stimulate the composition of music appropriate to our time
- To foster and further the art of music on the principle that true art can move the people
- to work for the betterment of society


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The Voice Of The People


The first TWENTY volumes : TSCD651-670

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“My favourite sit-down-and-listen records”
Norma Waterson

This series makes available nearly 500 recordings of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh traditional music drawn from the archives of Topic Records and from private collections.

Compiled as thematic anthologies, each volume stands on its own, but the series as a whole presents an extensive and varied picture of traditional singing, instrumental music-making and dancing throughout the course of the 20th century. Many of the singers and musicians and their recorded performances presented here are classic, but the inclusion of some less well-known performers and genres broadens the horizon by offering glimpses at some little-known nooks and crannies of traditional music-making. This is the home-spun art and entertainment that enriched the lives of working people in pubs and cottages, in social clubs and village halls and on the street, and was made, in the words of one of the musicians in the series, “by people with dirt under their finger nails.”

Society has moved on, but the artistry of these singers and musicians and the emotional impact of their performances are timeless. The timbres and textures of the language and musical expression, the performance skills and techniques, the social values contained in both the material and the performers’ life stories, and the subtleties of meaning in the song texts could easily be lost sight of forever. The cultural voices of these farm workers and men on the buildings, the housewives, the shepherds and cowmen, the gardeners and estate workers, the miners and trawlermen, the dealers in scrap, the country policeman and the village postman, the chambermaid and the hospital nurse are therefore worthy of serious and prolonged attention. Their singing and music-making have made a striking and significant contribution to the cultural roots of these islands.

Best known as a dance musician, Reg Hall is a visiting research fellow at the University of Sussex and, in compiling and annotating this series, he has called on the experience of a long, personal involvement with traditional music-making and an academic historian’s view of its history and social context. His commentary pays tribute to the pioneer pen-and-paper folk-song-collectors of the Edwardian era and to those professionals in the early post-war years equipped with tape recorders. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of a small number of enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, who recorded traditional music and broke new ground in discovery and evaluation, and this series owes a great deal to their creative efforts and co-operation.

Ever a critic of the concepts of ‘folk-song’ and ‘folk-dance’, Reg Hall challenges the ground rules of both movements and directs the emphasis in this presentation towards the lives of the performers and the communities and circumstances in which they performed. The songs and dance music had meaning and purpose for the singers and musicians, and the exploration of those realities, as far as we are able to understand them, is far more exciting than perpetuating the myths.

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Celebrating 80 Years


Topic 80It’s always dangerous to make lofty assumptions about these things because there’ll always be someone bursting out of the undergrowth to shoot you down in flames with a compelling counter-claim, but Topic Records is the oldest independent record label in the world. Apart, of course, from any others lurking in wait to prove otherwise.

Whatever the weather, Topic’s enduring and unbroken role as a consistent champion of ‘people’s music’ for four score years is beyond extraordinary. It has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a flagship of integrity and true values in a market place where such ideals tend to count for little. It is unique on that score and we can say with absolute certainty that it’s the oldest independent label in Britain.

A swift perusal of the Topic catalogue is effectively a glittering resume of many of the best and most important records in the British folk music canon…The Watersons’ Frost & Fire… Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs… Shirley Collins’ Sweet Primeroses… Dick Gaughan’s Handful Of Earth…June Tabor’s Airs & Graces…Eliza Carthy’s Anglicana…Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son… that’s before we even start mentioning the great traditional songs and singers it has nurtured with a love that makes it the proud guardian of the nation’s folk tradition.

When Topic released its epic Voice Of The People series in 1998, involving 500 rare recordings from all over the British Isles, MD Tony Engle cheerfully admitted it was a project he fully expected to lose money, but who cares for profit when you are the custodian of a cultural treasure? Would any other record company wilfully release something simply because it thought it should, knowing it was destined to lose money?

But then Topic was never like any other record company. Its opening mission statement was to “release gramophone records of historical and social interest” and it has certainly done that. Founded on a socialist agenda, its role has always been more cultural servant than commercial enterprise; and for 80 years it has stoically defied the odds to defend its principles. Principles that have given the folk song tradition not merely a forum, but a reason to live and breathe. The fact that so many generations have drawn on and been inspired by Topic’s work – and folk music in its broadest sense is currently in such relatively fine fettle partly as a result of its industry – is a beautiful testament to its importance through the years. All the more incredible considering its humble beginnings and the many challenges it has faced.

Just consider what life was like in the weeks leading to the release of its first record – The Man That Waters Down The Workers Beer by Paddy Ryan, a 10-inch 78rpm vinyl disc, in September, 1939. These were brutal days, of course. The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, tensions in Palestine, Ghandi protesting about British rule in India, Italy’s invasion of Albania, fleeing Jewish refugees and Germany’s invasion of Poland, triggering the outbreak of World War 11.

Art and culture, too, played their part as the world became more politicised… Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, her devastating song about lynching; John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes Of Wrath was published; George Orwell had written The Road To Wigan Pier; and Yip Harburg’s Broadway hit Brother Can You Spare A Dime symbolised the humiliating deflation of the American Dream.

The rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War had done much to concentrate minds and harden left wing opinion. With Communist ideas gaining momentum, London music professor, composer and radical Alan Bush founded the Workers Music Association in 1936 with a remit to encourage political ideas in music and theatre in conjunction with trade unions and labour organisations. It found plenty of favour with other musicians and composers, including leading figures like Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and John Ireland, while other prominent supporters included Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells, Sybil Thorndike and Paul Robeson.

And then, in September, 1939, it formed the Topic Record Club and released The Man That Waters Down The Workers Beer. Written and sung by Paddy Ryan – the assumed name of a medical student called Fisher who was also an actor at the Unity Theatre – it perfectly set a tone of affront and outrage at the exploitation of the workers which became a familiar theme in later years with the explosion of the protest song movement.

“I am the man, the very fat man
That waters the workers’ beer
And what do I care if it makes them ill
If it makes them terribly queer
I’ve a car, a yacht, and an aeroplane,
And I waters the workers’ beer.”

No subtlety there then.

It was backed with one of the great anthems of the socialist movement, The Internationale, which originated in France in the 1880s. This choir version was attributed to the Topic Singers & Band, led by Will Sahnow, a cellist, French horn player and conductor, who’d just been appointed general secretary of the Workers Music Association and went on to play a key role in running the Topic Record Club. It was Sahnow who took charge of the early recordings and organised their despatch to the club’s 900 members.

The war years naturally stilted the label’s growth. The scarcity of shellac made production difficult and, with so many away serving king and country, early releases were sporadic with no intent on creating a market beyond the immediate club membership. Only a handful of releases saw the light of day during the war years, and most of those were related to revues by the left-wing Unity Theatre. Songs from the period included Fags Are Up, Brother Brother Use Your Head and Here We Come, all from the revue Turn Up The Lights. Another prominent member of the Unity Theatre – which naturally incurred the interest of the security services due to its communist connections – was the great actor Michael Redgrave, who was featured on the 1941 release A New World Will Be Born from the pantomime Jack The Giant Killer. Redgrave’s daughter Vanessa also later joined the Topic roster with her 1964 recording of Hanging From A Tree, backed with Pete Seeger’s anti-war classic Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Another interesting release from the period was How Long Brethren and Ah’s De Man, billed as “two songs of negro protest”, by Martyn Lawrence and the Topic Male Singers. Written by Lawrence Gellert about the treatment of blacks in the American south, it had already achieved a level of fame and notoriety when performed by an African American chorus and set to a dance devised by choreographer Helen Tamiris in 1937.

After the war, Topic’s reputation as upholder and champion of British folk traditions was still some way off as it concentrated on providing an outlet for recordings promoting the international peace movement. There were Russian choirs and other recordings sourced from Eastern bloc state labels, alongside the great Paul Robeson’s Message of Peace, recorded at the 20th anniversary of the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker held at Haringey Arena in February, 1950. Robeson also featured with Pete Seeger and the Weavers on another 1950 release, Our Song Will Go On, with Howard Fast recounting the shameful story of the previous year’s riots when Robeson, Seeger and The Weavers were attacked – with the apparent acquiescence of police and authorities – by anti-communists and racists at a civil rights concert at Peekskill, New York.

Even now, it’s an incredibly emotive recording…
”These police condoned hoodlums can’t stop the song of freedom in America,” says Robeson in that incredible voice of his. “We will carry on singing and presenting our concerts in every corner of America. Let’s fight together.” Sung by the Weavers, the words of Our Song Will Go On (“We shed our blood at Peekskill and suffered many a pain but we beat back the fascists and we’ll beat them back again”) read like a mission statement for Topic at the time.

Such political intent certainly matched the socialist ideals of the two main architects of the British folk song revival – Ewan MacColl and A.L.Lloyd – who recognised in folk music the potential expression for working class dissent and rebellion in the face of the onslaught of capitalism. In short, it could be moulded into the music of the people.
The folk song movement in Britain had previously largely been rooted in the rural environment as advocated by Cecil Sharp and other Victorian collectors, but MacColl and Lloyd turned their attention to songs relating from the industrial revolution.

They came to it from different angles. Emerging from a Salford working class family of Scottish descent, MacColl’s journey had been through left wing theatre groups, arriving at Topic’s door via the Unity Theatre.

Londoner Lloyd’s rich cultural history stemmed from a varied life, which included working as a rancher in the Australian outback and whaling ships in the Antarctic; experiences which richly informed both his folk song knowledge and repertoire, as well as his political beliefs. Even before the war he was espousing the theory of industrial songs as a catalyst of political expression, attacking middle class pretentions of folk song as represented by the establishment in general and the English Folk Dance & Song Society in particular. His book The Singing Englishman, published in 1944 by the Workers Music Association, had profoundly informed thinking at the time.

They were very different singers – and very different characters.

MacColl’s early singing was a product of his theatrical ambitions, his character strident. Lloyd had a much more lyrical, subtle delivery and was a man of infectious charm. Yet ideologically they shared much and, while inevitably falling out on occasion, played huge roles in the genesis of the folk song movement, in which Topic found itself central as it moved on from the record club idea and its releases became available to the general public at large.

Throw into the mix the great American folk song collector, researcher and enthusiast Alan Lomax and you had a formidable triumvirate of colourful figures leading the drive to shape the new folk music as a catalyst for change in the post-war era. All were instrumental in the emergence of the folk club movement, which stemmed from London’s Ballads & Blues nights, which went on to become the celebrated/infamous (depending on your point of view) Singers Club in London.

And both MacColl and Lloyd also had a big part to play in Topic’s emergence through the 1950s as THE home of traditional folk music. MacColl made his first record for Topic in 1950, singing The Asphalter’s Song, I’m Champion At Keeping ‘Em Rolling, Four Pence A Day and The Barnyards of Delgatie, instantly asserting his strength both as a songwriter and traditional song interpreter.

He continued to be Topic’s most prolific recording artist for several years, with material ranging from the idealistic Ballad Of Stalin (Joe Stalin was a mighty man, a mighty man was he/He led the Soviet people on the road to victory/All through the revolution he fought at Lenin’s side/And they made a combination till the day that Lenin died) to one of the songs that still defines him, Dirty Old Town. He even recorded an arresting version of the emotive Merle Travis coalmining song Sixteen Tons, which had become an American hit for Tennesee Ernie Ford (“Sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…”

Lloyd’s first Topic release featured two of the bush ballads he’d learned in Australia – Bold Jack Donahue and The Banks Of The Condamine and in 1958 he was appointed Topic’s artistic director. By this time the skiffle craze had swept the land as a nation grabbed washboards, kazoos, banjos, makeshift guitars and anything else they could find to make a racket interpretating American blues, jazz and folk songs in the image of their spiritual leader Lonnie Donegan. It didn’t last long but it instilled in the country’s youth a taste for performance and a sketchy interest in a loose approximation of folk music.

Most famous of these would turn out to be The Beatles, but plenty more found something real enough in the music they’d heard to investigate further and many of those with ‘skiffle group’ on the end of their names, swiftly changed it to ‘folk group’. Folk clubs sprouted up around the country, run by enthusiasts who doubled as club residents – the Spinners in Liverpool, the Watersons in Hull, the Ian Campbell Group in Birmingham and so on. As they found themselves being booked at other clubs, a vigorous network of clubs rapidly emerged around the country, the folk boom started in earnest and those who’d initially been reliant on American music for repertoire, began to explore and research the roots of the music closer to home.

In addition to licensing important American releases by Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Paul Robeson, Jesse Fuller, Derroll Adams, Peggy Seeger, Hedy West and Rambling Jack Elliott, there was no shortage of British and Irish material for Topic to mine. Most of the most prominent artists in the new revival landed at Topic at some point – the roustabout Irishman Dominic Behan, Liverpool Lullaby writer Stan Kelly, Northern Ireland’s McPeake Family, who gave the world Wild Mountain Thyme/Will Ye Go Lassie and the Campbell family, originally from Aberdeen.

Folk music was a firmament of exploration and discovery and Topic offered a welcoming home for many of the gems of traditional performance. There were the Stewarts of Blairgowrie, perhaps the greatest of all the musical families of travellers, with the great piper Alex Stewart playing stirring marches, strathspeys and reels; while his wife – the peerless Belle Stewart – sang definitive versions of great ballads like Queen Among The Heather and The Dowie Dens O’Yarrow; with their daughters Cathie and Sheila Stewart equally immersed in the fabled oral tradition of folk song.

Equally vital and inspirational to this tradition was another mighty travelling singer Jeannie Robertson from Aberdeen, who also joined the annual pilgrimage fruit-picking in Blairgowrie, and was discovered, befriended and recorded by the great collector, writer, singer and musicologist Hamish Henderson. There was also the extraordinary Cork street singer Margaret Barry – dubbed ‘queen of the gypsies’ although she was no gypsy – who played banjo and sang at a terrifying decibel rate accompanied by the elegant Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman and who became a celebrated figure in the London Irish pubs after discovery by Alan Lomax singing on a street corner in Dundalk.

These were primitive days for the recording industry – for folk musicians at least. Many recordings were made by Bill Leader, a Yorkshireman who’d joined the staff of the Workers Music Association in London and went on to become Topic’s production manager, releasing seven and eight-inch 33rpm discs at around sixteen shillings each. The performers were guided to an upstairs room at Bishops Bridge Rd in Paddington, where the Workers Music Association had their headquarters and from which Topic operated to be recorded by Leader. Others were done at Ewan MacColl’s home in Croydon on a large Ferrograph tape recorder he’d obtained from the BBC; while Leader would drive around in an old Morris Traveller with a Revox in the back, setting up makeshift studios in cramped conditions wherever convenient, with whatever implements were available (egg boxes, sandbags, etc) to insulate the sound.

Some of the label’s most significant early releases were themed around different topics, notably the 1956 LP of shanty songs The Singing Sailor, featuring Ewan MacColl, A. L. Lloyd and Harry H. Corbett, an actor at the Unity Theatre who went on to legendary status as Harold in the classic BBC sit com Steptoe & Son. Some of the tracks were subsequently re-cycled on different compilations as Topic records began to attract interest abroad. The story goes that Frank Zappa, for one, was a huge fan and cherished his copy of The Singing Sailor…until it was stolen by an envious Captain Beefheart. Apocryphal or not, it’s a great story.
Similarly, the 1963 Iron Muse collection – “a panorama of industrial folk song” – had a huge impact. Programmed by Bert Lloyd, it brought together the likes of Anne Briggs, Bob Davenport, Louis Killen, Ray Fisher and Matt McGinn performing a collection of urban songs borne of mines, mills and foundries and became one of the label’s best sellers, forcibly hammered home the argument that, far from being the preserve of rural communities, folk music also belonged to factory workers and had an important role in the urbanisation that resulted from the industrial revolution.

But, as attitudes shifted and support for Communism began to dissolve, so Topic began to drift away from its previous associations, turning to the growing folk club movement for its bread and butter, with many iconic names joining the roster – Shirley Collins, Louis Killen, Ray & Archie Fisher, Frankie Armstrong, Bob Davenport and Anne Briggs among them. Most significantly, perhaps, though, were one of the new breed of revivalists who’d evolved from skiffle and were energetically running their own club in Hull, digging out English songs and developing their own uniquely passionate and vibrant style of harmony singing – the Watersons. They found in Bert Lloyd an influential champion and sometime mentor – he got them to sing Hal-An-Tow, listened intently, and then asked them to sing it again. Norma Waterson assumed he hadn’t liked it and asked what they’d done wrong. “Nothing,” said Lloyd, “it’s just personal indulgence.”

Their debut album Frost & Fire in 1965 – sub-titled ‘A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs’ – was fuelled by a passion for the music that bordered on obsession, as they sought to restore traditional song to the seasonal ceremonies around the country from which it had originally sprung, in the hope that tradition itself would be revived. Recorded in a back room of Leader’s flat in Camden on a Revox, it was – and still is – an important landmark in folk music which has inspired generations ever since. Due to TV, the influence of American culture and globalisation generally, Norma Waterson’s dream of re-igniting folk tradition in its own communities didn’t ultimately materialise in the way she’d hoped, but it did inject the scene with an enduring fervour.

In the meantime the day to day running of Topic had been assumed by Gerry Sharp, an accountant who joined the Workers Music Association after the war and took care of business from the basement of his home in Nassington Rd, Hampstead, yet leaving most of the artistic input to Bert Lloyd, Bill Leader and electronics engineer Dick Swettenham. And while Topic’s political heart began to take a back seat, it remained true to its principles of putting music before profit, which has always set it apart from the mainstream record industry. Not rebellious exactly, but certainly non-conformist and alternative.

After the sudden death of Sharp in 1972, his place was taken by a young Tony Engle, a member of the wonderful English country dance band Oak – also featuring Rod and Danny Stradling and Peta Webb – whose sole album Welcome To Our Fair came out on Topic in 1971, produced by Bert Lloyd. And under Engle’s guidance, Topic continued to be the dominant source of British folk, releasing albums directly aligned to and informed by the tradition from all parts of the British Isles – with important field recordings from Ireland, Northumbria, Suffolk, Devon, Scotland and many places beyond, combining to create an illuminating mirror to a living tradition. Almost uniquely nothing was ever deleted.

In addition, Topic released the best of the revival performers – Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Vin Garbutt, Martin Simpson, Dick Gaughan, Alistair Anderson and Nic Jones, et al.

It hasn’t always been easy, of course. There have been many major challenges and testing times along the way, but Topic has always somehow managed to think on its feet and find a way to survive the various crises stemming from economic pressures, vinyl shortages, lack of facilities, competition from other labels, corporate pressure, the switch to CD and then the internet and the whole download revolution. Working on the premise that this is music that must be heard and be made available, irrespective of whether it was ever likely to sell many copies or pay for itself – and the fact that it has always been run by people passionate about the music and artists who seem to have unfailingly understood the music and Topic’s role in making it happen has continued to carry the day even when the odds were stacked against it.

If ever there was needed confirmation of Topic’s crucial importance to the survival and nourishment of this music – and its determination to do the impossible to get it out there – it came in 2000 with the release of the extraordinary 20-volume Voice Of The People series, the beautifully presented anthology of traditional music portrayed via different themes through 500 recordings collected and collated from all over the British Isles. It has continued to promote these singers and musicians – fishermen, gypsies, farmworkers, publicans, blacksmiths and the like – who carried the music when nobody wanted to know…and by doing so, provided light and insight into the lifestyles and attitudes that informed our culture.

Other Voice of the People volumes followed. There were four fresh volumes in 2012 and then in 2016, two three-CD volumes – It Was Mighty and It Was Great Altogether – compiled by the incomparable Reg Hall to provide a comprehensive view of the Irish music which lit up London in the 1950s and 1960s.

Neither has it neglected the rest of the world, releasing collections of Islamic music, as well as folk music from Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, Macedonia, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere; and, in 1999 reissued the Radio Ballads of Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, which effectively changed the course of British radio in the late 1950s/early 1960s by taking different themes of working life (railway workers, fishing, mining, boxing, workers building the M1) and using actuality interviewers with the workers themselves rather than the plummy-voiced BBC actors who’d previously dominated the airwaves, and interspersed them with songs – both traditional and MacColl originals – to tell the stories.

Ever-ingenious, Topic also moved into the box set market in the early 2000s with The Acoustic Folk Box, The Watersons’ Mighty River Of Song and June Tabor’s Always. On its 70th birthday it released a wonderful eight-CD package titled Three Score & Ten: A Voice To The People; and in 2000 Topic was honoured with the Good Tradition Award at the BBC Folk Awards.

In time David Suff took the reins from Tony Engle, maintaining Topic’s reputation as a highly individual arbiter of taste and integrity – and thus seen to be a little bit maverick, a little bit eccentric and a lot independent. And so it goes on, with Topic – now partnered with Proper – celebrating its 80th year with a Topic Treasure programme of deluxe reissues of some of its most prized releases, including Shirley Collins’ Sweet Primeroses, Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs, Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son and June Tabor’s Airs & Graces in addition to a series of celebratory concerts and other ideas up its sleeve.

The British folk scene is currently in rude health with young performers constantly bursting out from the undergrowth offering ever fresher takes on an old, old tradition. And pretty much all of them owe a huge debt to Topic Records. Even if they don’t know it.

– Colin Irwin (2019)