The origins of Topic Records, which has its roots in the Workers Music Association, can be traced back to 1939.
In those days, the organisation fostered a belief that music should be used as a tool of revolution, in a cultural and educational sense, and that folk music, passed down through the generations, above all, gave ‘a voice to the people’.
On this theme, first in the catalogue was Paddy Ryan’s The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer. Other early releases were influenced by the work of Ewan MacColl (singer and composer of Dirty Old Town, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face etc.) and A.L.Lloyd (singer and historian).
Their original aims were to try and present a better understanding of British Industrial or urban (as opposed to rural) folksong. At the same time, Topic Records was also making available albums by Pete Seeger, the icon of the American folk movement , by the actor, singer and political figure Paul Robeson, and by Woody Guthrie, the roving troubadour and composer of This Land is Your Land etc.
The profile of the label was becoming firmly established. Described in the 50s as ‘that little red label’ by a haughty major label, Topic nevertheless became perfectly placed to release some of the most influential recordings of the 60s. A blossoming audience with an appetite for domestic folk music began to surface.
The best performers of the day included The Spinners, Louis Killen, Jeannie Robertson, Joe Heaney and The Stewart Family, Anne Briggs, Shirley & Dolly Collins and The Watersons, and all of them recorded for the Topic label. (Other notables included Vanessa Redgrave singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone?). However, Topic’s focus was not exclusively on ‘revivalist’, ‘traditional’, American or even British music.
The catalogue already included wonderful collections from Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey – and has continued to grow since. In this way, the label helped sow the seeds for the subsequent explosion of independent ‘roots’ and ‘world’ music labels in the 80s. A very rich period ensued in the 70s, after the arrival of present day Managing Director, Tony Engle. Topic released a series of albums by seminal artists including Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, The Battlefield Band and one of Britain’s most influential singers and guitarists, Martin Carthy (MBE), the performer widely acknowledged to have influenced the work of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, amongst many others.
In recent years, Topic has embarked on a programme of reissuing the cream of its deleted vinyl collection on CD. As a consequence, many significant anthologies of British and Irish singers, as well as collections from the neglected instrumental traditions, continue to be widely available. In the late 1990s, folk performers were beginning to have a noticeable influence on the musical landscape once again. Releases from Eliza Carthy, Lal Waterson, Waterson:Carthy and June Tabor, (recently voted one of the Top 100 greatest singers of all time) have met with both critical and popular acclaim across the board.
Topic Records recently issued what is considered to be the most comprehensive and important release of its kind, the 20 volume anthology of traditional music from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, entitled The Voice of The People. In their anniversary year, Topic also released the ground-breaking Radio Ballads; an 8 part series which revolutionised documentary radio (and television) programme making in the 50s, constructed by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger.
During the past 70 years, Topic Records has built a deserved reputation for not compromising the nature of its work or that of the independent spirit of the artists it represents. Irrespective of fads or fashions, Topic has not simply survived, but it has grown and flourished too – proof, if any were needed, that ‘grass roots’ interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong.
So, not content to merely rely on the undeniable splendours of the past, Topic Records continues to look forward to the future with considerable optimism for both itself and the genre to which it has long been central.
At the start of a new millennium, it is fitting that new recordings, as well as old, emerge from one of the few truly independent labels still in existence. Influential DJ and presenter Andy Kershaw, describes Topic as being simply “the most important record label in Britain”.