The full-length biography below was written by Colin Irwin for Topic’s 80th anniversary in 2019.

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)