Traditional and contemporary folk from the British Isles

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The first complete CD devoted to the influential Northern Irish Traditional singer Sarah Makem.

The Heart Is True is selected and presented by Rod Stradling from classic recordings made in the 1950s and 1960s.

1. As I Roved Out
2. The Banks of Red Roses
3. Barbara Allen
4. The Butcher Boy
5. The Canny Ould Lad
6. Caroline & the Sailor
7. Derry Gaol
8. The Factory Girl
9. Our Ship She’s Ready
10. It Was in the Month of January
11. Jackets Green
12. The Jolly Thresher
13. The Laurel Wear
14. Robert Burns and his Highland Mary
15. Mary of Kilmore
16. A Servant in her Master’s Garden
17. I Courted a Wee Girl

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In 1977 Lal and Norma Waterson, as a side project, recorded A True Hearted Girl – an album of solos, duos and trios (with Lal’s daughter Maria). Lal and Norma varied the tried and true vision of The Watersons on this outing, by only using female voices and in different combinations. This gives the album a different ambience and depth to The Watersons.

Highlights of A True Hearted Girl include The Flowers of the Forest, I Wish I Never Had and Grace Darling. This CD reissue includes two extra tracks; one from the 1966 Watersons album, A Yorkshire Garland, and a rare 1998 live recording of The Waterdaughters (Lal, Norma, Maria & Eliza Carthy).

Lal Waterson, Norma Waterson, Maria Waterson, Eliza Carthy vocals
Jim Eldon flute, whistle
Peta Webb fiddle
Rod Stradling melodeon
Tony Engle Anglo-concertina

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In her own words, Sheila Stewart is probably the last in the line of a rich oral tradition of song, story and Scots Traveller culture. She is also one of the greatest singers of traditional song. From The Heart Of The Tradition was recorded by Doc Rowe in 1999 and captures her at the height of her powers.

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Drawn from recordings made during the 1950s and 60s these four volumes capture the music making of working people. 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 “by people with dirt under their finger nails.” This is music that has been largely ignored by the vagaries of the commercial recording industry. The emphasis in the presentation of this series has been weighted towards the social lives and values of the performers.

Series Editor Reg Hall has chosen individual experts to select and compile these four volumes – Shirley Collins, Steve Roud and Rod Stradling.

TSCD671 YOU NEVER HEARD SO SWEET : Songs by Southern English Traditional Singers.
Selected and presented by Shirley Collins from classic recordings made in the 1950s by Peter Kennedy and Bob Copper
TSCD672D I’M A ROMANY RAI : Songs by Southern English Gypsy Traditional Singers.

Selected and presented by Shirley Collins from classic recordings made in the 1950s by Peter Kennedy
TSCD673T  GOOD PEOPLE, TAKE WARNING : Ballads by British and Irish Traditional Singers.
Selected and presented by Steve Roud from classic recordings made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s
TSCD674  SARAH MAKEM : The Heart Is True

Classic recordings of this important Northern Irish Traditional singer selected and presented by Rod Stradling

“Topic’s original 20-volume The Voice Of The People series in 1998 provided a plethora of superb material for UK folk’s productive new wave to gorge on. Now, courtesy of another goldmine of 1950s field recordings salvaged largely from the late collector Peter Kennedy’s archive, Reg Hall, Shirley Collins, Steve Roud and Rod Stradling have compiled a cracking new series with detailed, illuminating booklets shining a revelatory light on Britain and Ireland’s ‘old music’. Hopefully it will inspire future generations… Magnificent” ★★★★ Colin Irwin, MOJO

“The Voice Of The People is the most important and rewarding series of British folk song recordings ever issued.” fRoots Magazine

★★★★★ Songlines    ★★★★★ Record Collector   ★★★★ Q   ★★★★ MOJO

Topic Treasures

Deluxe CD re-issues of classic Topic albums with original artwork, expanded sleeve notes, unseen photos and bonus tracks.

22nd March 2019 will see the release of the first three titles in the all-new Topic Treasures series. Beautiful deluxe CD re-issues of classic Topic albums with expanded sleeve notes, bonus material and unseen photographs.

Martin Simpson - Prodigal SonMartin Simpson – Prodigal Son

Considered by many in the folk world as one of Martin Simpsons finest albums, Topic are proud to present here in their 80th year the first release on the Topic Treasures imprint, deluxe issues of classic Topic albums from the label. Prodigal Son, the classic album in all its glory along with a bonus disc of live tracks hand-picked by Martin Simpson himself.

Originally released in 2007, the album was hailed a classic, receiving 4- and 5-star reviews in such publications as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Daily Express and Observer while Folk publications such as fRoots raved about its wonderment!

Tracks like ‘Duncan & Brady’ an American ballad originally recorded by Leadbelly and ‘Good Morning Mr. Railroad Man’ clearly indicate Martin Simpsons love for traditional American roots music and the wonderful cover of Randy Newman’s track ‘Louisiana 1927’ delve into historical event territory.

One of the stand out tracks if there is such a thing on this album of quality is ‘Never Any Good’ a song about Father and Son relationship, stands out as the shining star. In truth the whole album is a true tour de force and a beautiful body of work from one of the greatest guitar players in the world.

The bonus disc 2 features 9 live tracks recorded at the Union Chapel in Islington, London on 13th November 2007 and features Andy Cutting, Andy Seward and Kellie While in Martin Simpsons band for the gig. Tracks such as ‘Duncan and Brady’, ‘Never Any Good’ and ‘Good Morning Mr Railroad Man’ are played with such beauty and style.

Buy, download or listen to Prodigal Son


Anne BriggsAnne Briggs

A long overdue reissue of the classic first album from Anne Briggs on Topic. Widely regarded as a long-lost treasure and recorded in 1971 by Sean Davies and featuring Johnny Moynihan from Sweeny’s Men on bouzouki.

Anne Briggs began singing in local folk clubs in her teens. In 1962 she became part of the Centre 42 tour which was a leftist group of artists, writers, actors and musicians whose aim was to make arts and culture accessible to the masses. Ewan MacColl first heard Briggs’ remarkable voice and persuaded her to join the group and tour. There Briggs met MacColl’s comrade A.L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd who became her mentor.

Briggs debut EP, The Hazards Of Love, was produced by Lloyd. Lloyd also recorded Briggs for Topic released albums The Iron Muse and The Bird In The Bush.

In 1971 Anne Briggs recorded this, her debut full length album simply named Anne Briggs with Johnny Moynihan of Sweeny’s Men appearing on one track. Tracks include ‘Blackwater Side’, ‘The Snow It melts The Soonest’ and ‘Go Your Way (My Love)’.

Famously, Briggs taught Bert Jansch the song ‘Blackwater Side’, which he recorded on his classic 1965 debut album; the next year his pivotal traditional album Jack Orion largely comprised songs he learnt from Briggs who helped him understand the structure of folk song. Briggs and Jansch also wrote a handful of songs together. ‘Go Your Way’ being one of them.

Briggs went onto recorded a follow up album The Time Has Come later that same year for CBS. Two years later she recorded again but blocked the album’s release because she was so disheartened by her singing and retired from the limelight only to resurface in the mid 90’s to perform with Bert Jansch for a TV documentary.

Buy, download or listen to Anne Briggs


Shirley Collins - The Sweet PrimerosesShirley Collins – The Sweet Primeroses

Topic Records are proud to present the Shirley Collins album The Sweet Primeroses plus bonus material by way of the Heroes Of Love Topic EP with sleeve notes by Colin Irwin and photos by Brian Shuel and packaged with the original album artwork.

During the 1960s and 70s Shirley Collins was regarded by many as the first lady of folk music, the subsequent decades have only served to enhance that reputation. Between 1955 and 1978 she recorded for the Folkways, Argo, Harvest and Topic labels. After the release of ‘For As Many As Will’ in 1978 she withdrew from performing and the music world after developing dysphonia. Shirley recently returned to recording after a very long hiatus and is still widely acknowledged as one of the finest singers and ambassadors to have emerged during the Folksong Revival of the 1960s.

Few singers of the English folk revival have attempted as much on record as Collins – an extraordinary combination of fragility and power. “I like music to be fairly straightforward, simply embellished – the performance without histrionics allowing you to think about the song rather than telling you what to think.” Through an impressive series of experimental recordings Shirley established an extraordinarily sympathetic marriage of traditional songs handed down through generations of rural labouring people with ground breaking contemporary arrangements – recordings that have scarcely been equalled in subsequent decades.

Buy, download or listen to The Sweet Primeroses


June Tabor’s Airs and Graces follows the first three Topic Treasures releases on the 26th April.

June Tabor - Airs and GracesJune Tabor – Airs and Graces

For four decades and more since that day in 1976 when June Tabor ventured into Sound Techniques – a small barn in Fulham converted into a recording studio – to make her very first solo album, she’s been consistently revered, not just in folk music circles, but many realms beyond.

With a voice of rarefied beauty, a subtly emotive and imaginative delivery and an unerring ear for a song to make us cry, laugh, get angry, be sad and think a lot, she holds a special place in the hearts of all who crave more of music than the superficial gloss in which we usually find it wrapped, sealed and delivered.

Airs and Graces features 10 beautifully recorded tracks featuring Folk legends Nic Jones on guitar and fiddle and John Gillaspie playing piano, organ, roxichord, bassoon and sopranino recorder! This classic first solo album by June was a long time coming but was well worth the wait. This beautiful Topic Records Deluxe issue includes 4 bonus tracks hand-picked by June herself along with an introduction and notes by June and respected Folk journalist Colin Irwin.

Tracks include While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping, Bonny May, Reynardine and the Eric Bogle classic The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. This track stopped people in their tracks, routinely reduced audiences to tears and went on to have a colourful and slightly bizarre life of its own. The June Tabor version remains one of the most telling and emotive anti-war statements ever.

Pre-order Airs and Graces


Martin Simpson – Trails & Tribulations

Martin Simpson - Trails & Tribulations

World renowned guitarist, singer and songwriter Martin Simpson releases his 20th solo album in 40 years ‘Trails & Tribulations’ on September 1st 2017 via Topic Records. The brand-new studio album, his first new solo work since 2013’s widely praised ‘Vagrant Stanzas’, will be available in standard and deluxe CD, digital download and standard vinyl (the latter through Vinyl 180).

“‘Trails & Tribulations’ is a collection of songs about nature, about travels and about real life stories. There are traditional songs, poems and contemporary songs by great writers, and songs that I had to write because nobody else knew what I wanted to say. I travel, I learn songs, I write and try to get better at the skills required for me to do my job. I look at the world as I pass by, on the road, out of the train window, or as I stop and pay close attention to the square foot under my nose. There is so much to see and to hear and to inspire and to try and understand. I had a huge amount of fun playing and recording these songs, using different instruments, different noises, old friends and new ones, all of whom brought so much to the mix.”
Martin Simpson, April 2017.

Produced and engineered by Andy Bell, ‘Trails & Tribulations’ features some of Martin’s most inventive playing yet, showcasing his virtuosity on a variety of instruments including acoustic guitars, resonator guitars, Weissenbown lap steel guitar, electric guitars, 5 string banjo, ukulele – and voice.

Guest musicians on the new album are: Ben Nicholls (string bass and electric bass guitars), Toby Kearney (drums and percussion), Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola), Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion and melodeon), John Smith (electric guitar and backing vocals), Helen Bell (strings), Amy Newhouse-Smith (backing vocals) and his daughter Molly Simpson on vocals.

Martin will tour extensively this year, including a headline set at Cambridge Folk Festival in the summer and London’s Kings Place in autumn, following the release of ‘Trails & Tribulations’. Hand in hand with his long and storied solo career, Martin has been central to seminal collaborations like The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Simpson Cutting Kerr. He has worked with a dazzling array of artists from across the musical spectrum: Jackson Browne, Martin Taylor, June Tabor, Richard Hawley, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Thompson, David Hidalgo, Danú, Richard Thompson and Dom Flemons, to mention a few. He is consistently named as one of the very finest acoustic, fingerstyle and slide guitar players in the world and is the most nominated musician in the history of the BBC Folk Awards, with a remarkable 31 nods. A true master of his art.

Exclusive versions of Trails & Tribulations, which include a signed print of a handwritten guitar tab, plus Trails & Tribulations branded guitar pick are available now from Martin’s shop.

You can also buy from Amazon, iTunes and all good record shops, the album is also available to stream on Spotify and Apple Music

Trails & Tribulations tracklisting (standard edition):
1. Blues Run The Game
2. Bones & Feathers
3. Thomas Drew
4. East Kentucky
5. Katherine Of Aragon Interlude
6. A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon
7. Maps
8. St. James Hospital
9. Jasper’s/Dancing Shoes
10. Ridgeway
11. Rufford Park Poachers
12. Reynardine Interlude
13. Reynardine

Deluxe Edition CD2 Bonus Tracks:
1. Joshua Gone Barbados
2. Dillard Chandler
3. Willy O Winsbury
4. Heartbreak Hotel
5. Blues Run The Game Interlude
6. Blues Run The Game (Radio Edit)

MARTIN & ELIZA CARTHY ~ The Moral of the Elephant TSCD587

UnknownSTOP PRESS: The Moral of the Elephant is nominated for Folk Album of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

The Award is decided by public vote, every vote counts and you can cast your vote by visiting the Folk Awards website before midnight on February 13th: cast your vote here

2014 fROOTS Critics Poll Album of the Year

It’s nearly 50 years since Martin Carthy recorded his iconic, eponymous first album and more than 20 years since his daughter Eliza Carthy’s recording debut. Throughout their respective careers both have toured and recorded with many others (Eliza shared the bill with her acclaimed mother, Norma Waterson, on their award-winning ‘Gift’ album in 2010) but finally, this trail-blazing dad and daughter have made their first ever duo album, The Moral of the Elephant which will be released on  Monday 2nd June 2014.

Two tracks were released on a 7″ vinyl single for Record Store Day 2014 – Happiness, which was written by Nick Drake’s Mum, Molly, is one of a number recorded at home by her in the 1950s and only recently unearthed. It’s the first time this wistful song has been covered by a major recording artist. Meanwhile, The Queen of Hearts is a new version of a song which Martin first recorded on his debut album in 1965.

“This album is coal, not fireworks. It burns with the slow, deep flame which is the mark of timelessness.” Stirrings

“This is a magnificent album, bridging the generation gap and reminding the listener just how vital and pertinent folk music can be.” Record Collector

The full album features 11 (mostly) traditional music tracks, including The Elephant, on which the title of the album is based. It’s an interpretation of a setting of the 19th poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which itself is an adaptation of an ancient Indian parable.

Produced by Oliver Knight with Martin and Eliza, the duo reinterpret and revisit a number of songs on this stunning new album.  Bonny Moorhen  is about a fight between starving lead miners and a gang representing the landowners. Martin learnt The Grand Conversation on Napoleon from the Vaughan Williams collection at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. This was one of many songs by the English proclaiming their love of Napoleon who they hoped would rescue them from poverty. Monkey Hair is a song by late Michael Marra about a Scottish minister’s wife who doesn’t want any more children as her husband keeps sending them off to war to be killed. Fittingly, several of the songs on The Moral of the Elephant take the form of conversation between parent and child.

Track List :
Her Servant Man
Blackwell Merry Night
Queen Caraboo
Grand Conversation on Napoleon
The Elephant
Waking Dreams
Bonny Moorhen
The Queen of Hearts
Monkey Hair

Here’s a short video where Martin and Eliza describe making the album and the material recorded:

Buy The Moral of the Elephant now from:

LINDA THOMPSON ~ Won’t Be Long Now TSCD822

The arrival of a new recording from Linda Thompson is always a cause for celebration. That the new album is as good as Won’t Be Long Now is really quite remarkable.

Won’t Be Long Now – her first album in six years -  was recorded in the UK and America with a rich array of contributing musicians. While it’s undoubtedly a family affair, featuring a duet with former husband Richard Thompson, regular contributions from their children Teddy and Kami, and grandson Zak Hobbs, Won’t Be Long Now also reflects Linda’s folk beginnings. This new album includes appearances by many alumni of the British folk scene, including John Kirkpatrick, Dave Swarbrick, Martin and Eliza Carthy, as well as American musicians like David Mansfield, Amy Helm, Sam Amidon, Jenni Muldaur and Tony Trischka, among others.

Linda Thompson has an ancient voice, wilting, wounded and wise. She sings with the conviction of an eyewitness of thieves, beggars, drunks, street urchins and circus freaks, spurned lovers and murdering swine, centuries-gone. The album is perhaps best summed-up by these wise words from MOJO: “The cover image of Thompson’s back as she stares at the horizon across a flat sea precisely represents the bulk of Won’t Be Long Now’s 11 songs. Men leaving by sea, women waiting, deceived and disappointed. Beautifully sung, often bleak and harking back in sombre mood to 1974’s Withered And Died.”

“Longstanding dysphonia problems make any Linda Thompson sighting precious. The fact that, now substantially beyond the full flush of youth, she can still make an album that makes your heart wobble fretfully is extraordinary… Kleenex is a must” Colin Irwin, fRoots

“It’s apparent how undimmed Thompson’s talent is, especially in the sheer confident power of her vocal performance. Long may she continue.” Record Collector

…and in the opinion of those fine people at Uncut magazine: “Folk-rock grande dame, still damned grand”

Track list:
1    Love’s For Babies & Fools
2    Never Put To Sea Boys
3    If I Were A Bluebird
4    As Fast As My Feet
5    Father Son Ballad
6    Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
7    Mr Tams
8    Paddy’s Lamentation
9    Never The Bride
10  Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk
11  It Won’t Be Long Now

TSCD822 : CD and DL
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12TS822 : LP
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purpose + grace

Guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson will release his new album on Monday September 5th.
purpose + grace

takes its very apposite title from the great American songwriter Yip Harburg (composer of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’ and ‘Only A Paper Moon’)
“I am one of the last of a small tribe of troubadours who still believe that life is a beautiful and exciting journey with a purpose and grace well worth singing about.”

This album marks a bold and confident step for Simpson. Building upon the strengths of Prodigal Son and True Stories, like a movie producer, he conceived the whole project over a number of months and then invited some of his favourite musicians to bring their stellar talents to the recording sessions. Jon Boden, B J Cole, Dick Gaughan, Fay Hield, Will Pound, June Tabor and Richard Thompson join Martin’s regular band – Andy Cutting, Andy Seward and Keith Angel – on an exemplary series of performances. The material shifts from Anglo-American ballads, Scots and English traditional songs to new compositions from Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson, the aforementioned Yip Harburg and Martin Simpson.

Central to the whole project is a new Simpson composition based upon the words of Banjo Bill Cornett of Hindman, Kentucky, from a 1958 home recording. Cornett makes a heartfelt exposition of the beauty and purpose of traditional music-making: “This is Banjo Bill Cornett, I’m at home today, thirteenth day of February 1958. Here by myself, nobody but me around and that’s when I usually play the banjo and sing and whatever. My children grew up, and they fell for this rock’n’roll music – honky tonk music whatever you might call it. I don’t like that and I catch them all gone, my wife gone and then I carry on to suit my own self and I’m a making this record to give somebody – I don’t know who I’ll give this recording to, I want to give it to someone who will keep it and if there’s any people after I’m gone who’d like to hear my carrying on as far as my singing and banjo playing is concerned, I’d like them to keep it.”

purpose + grace

track list:
1     The Sheffield Apprentice
2     Bold General Wolfe
3     Brothers Under The Bridge
4     Little Liza Jane
5     Brother Can You Spare A Dime
6     Jamie Foyers
7     In The Pines
8     Strange Affair
9     Banjo Bill
10    Barbry Allen
11    Don’t Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr Waterson
12    Bad Girl’s Lament
13    Lakes Of Ponchartrain

Martin’s album is reviewed by Robin Denselow, Sam Lee and Julian May on the new weekly ProperMusic.Com Podcast. The podcast may be downloaded free :
or listened to:

Little Liza Jane : MARTIN SIMPSON by Topic Records

Brothers Under The Bridge : MARTIN SIMPSON by Topic Records

with thanks to Ian Anderson at fRoots

“Simpson can seemingly do no wrong at the moment, his Indian summer turning into an extended heatwave on yet another brave and sometimes daring album… (purpose + grace) is an album of infinite range and moods and yet again must rank up there among his very best.” Colin Irwin, fRoots

Sadly, the great Mike Waterson, one of the finest singers of the folk revival died on June 22nd. Martin had composed a tune in honour of Mike and his banjo – “Sometime in the early 1970s I visited Hull to see the Watersons at their home, and I was greatly taken by an old fretless banjo they had – I coveted it a great deal actually! Almost 35 years later I did a gig with Mike, Martin Carthy and Chris Parkinson at Skipton Cattle Market. I asked Mike about the banjo, which he informed me was languishing in his shed. He told me I could have it if I got it fixed up. My friend Barry Murphy has painstakingly restored it to playing condition, straightening the warped neck, making new friction pegs and replacing the old split head. The first time I played it I started to write the tune for Mike – Don’t Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr Waterson.”

For details of Martin Simpson’s forthcoming gigs please visit:

“I am a big fan of Martin’s playing. Perhaps the highest praise I could give is to say that he never stops getting better!” Richard Thompson

Available now from:


John Tams is one of our finest musicians and singers and one of our greatest songwriters. He can sing traditional material wonderfully and, at the same time, has written some of our best songs ever. Harry Stone, otherwise known as Hearts of Coal, and the beautiful Hugh Stenson and Molly Green are just two of his songs that have entered the canon in the last few years.

On this album, John deals the tradition – reworking several classic songs – and then adds his own unmistakable originals to produce a landmark new album.

• Top 10 Folk Album of the Year 2005 Mojo
• ” An album that seems to grow in stature with every play – a poetic songwriter and singer of real character – a consummate reflection on an evocative, living tradition. An exceptional album. Album of the Month” ★★★★ Mojo
• “The true “Folk album of the year” is undeniably John Tams’ The Reckoning. A stunning collection of original and traditional material, the album defies easy categorisation. Outstanding” ★★★★ What’s On In London
• “Bitter Withy as arranged here is the best version I have ever heard. Brilliant.” fRoots
• “The new album, The Reckoning, is absolutely superb – one of the main folk happenings of the year.” Mike Harding BBC Radio 2
• “An absolutely fantastic album – I love Amelia, love Safe House, love it all, and the Bitter Withy is out of this world.” Linda Thompson
• “The Reckoning is a beautifully composed CD – masculine yet tender, full of integrity – so beautifully expressing things that should be said and felt. As for the Bitter Withy – it’s just wonderful – hypnotic, and moving forward in a quite extraordinary way; so steady – so compelling.” Shirley Collins

>> Read more


A new album of traditional and original songs by one of the all time great voices of the English folk scene. Renowned on both sides of the Atlantic for his uncompromising, gritty talent, Davenport’s recording history goes back over four decades and has produced raw, idiosyncratic nuggets. His unique poetic realism has been a profound influence on such disparate artists as Richard Thompson and Ray Davies. Never one to court fashion, Bob has remained true to the living tradition while being on the cutting edge of revivalism.
When word got round that Bob was recording a new album, the cream of the current folk scene queued for a chance to participate. The final list includes appearances by Richard Thompson, Chumbawamba Acoustic, Martin Carthy, Linda Thompson, Mike and Norma Waterson, John Tams, Coope, Boyes and Simpson and Fi Fraser. The resulting album is raw, real and original.

• “A Folk Album of the Year 2004” Mojo
• “Few singers command the respect of their peers like Tyneside’s Bob Davenport – his radical fire is undimmed.” ★★★★ The Observer Music Monthly Magazine
• “… some sublime moments…such a strong sense of identity. Linda Thompson pops up and steals the whole album with her charged and atmospheric rendition of Davenport’s own song You Came Back Down That Long Road.”
• “His more subdued approach lends a subtle reflective quality to his material. And what fine material he has here and what fine “assistants” to help.” Living Tradition
• “Warmth and sincerity – his unaccompanied version of the McGarrigles’ Heart Like a Wheel is a whimsical treasure. Few singers are as important to the revival.” The Telegraph

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The legendary, ground-breaking duo in a startlingly intense reunion on this 2006 album. All the old skills are demonstrated with a new collection of traditional songs and instrumentals. Their experienced approach to their art lacks none of the fervour of their early days, and brings a maturity born of many years living with the music that is an integral part of their beings.

• “Intense and demanding, this is hard core traditional music. Sublime fiddle playing and the passionate delivery of evocative old songs by their ablest interpretor.” Telegraph
• “The super-duo are back together after 14 years.” ★★★★ The Guardian
• “Swarbrick is an absolute revelation here, as instinctively sympathetic and wickedly inspirational as he ever was. It’s like they were a couple of twenty somethings again. To hear Swarb bowing with such soul and tenderness and dynamism too is an unconditional joy.” fRoots

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TSCD411 webThis mature work of a brilliant song-interpreter and guitarist, packed with fresh songs and novel settings, is rendered all the more valuable by the scarcity of his recordings. When Bob Dylan appropriated his arrangement of Canadee-I-O, it was just one sign of Jones’ status among musicians as well as lay listeners.
“Penguin Eggs may be the best British acoustic folk album ever made” Stuart Maconie, BBC Radio 2

“This is simply the most committed folk music ever recorded. Jones’ guitar playing is diamond-hard while his vocals hit both head and heart. A written in stone masterpiece from a true folk icon.” All time classic album HMV Choice

“Penguin Eggs should be in every folkie’s music collection. It is one of those rare, nearly perfect recordings.” Celtic Heritage

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TSCD490 webTabor’s characteristic choice and blend of traditional songs and compositions by Richard Thompson, Ralph McTell and other contemporary songwriters are enhanced by sensitive arrangements.

‘Tabor’s singing is spellbinding. She is one of the great singers of any genre.’ The Guardian

June Tabor is accompanied by:
Andy Cutting
diatonic accordion
Mark Emerson violin, viola
Mark Lockheart clarinet, tenor & soprano saxophones
Dudley Phillips double bass
Huw Warren piano, piano accordion

>> Read more

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)