Can there be many sounds as deeply nostalgic as that of a brass band? Even for those that were born after their dip in popularity, or perhaps some way away from the collieries, it’s enough to make a person feel mighty wistful. Johnny Campbell’s latest single, ‘A Right to Roam’, taps into that by the coal-scuttle load. It should come with a health warning: this song might prompt an unexpected binge on Yorkshire puddings.
And here’s another health warning: listeners may find themselves seeking out a picket line, or perhaps heading out on a public trespass. It’s not a traditional song in the strictest sense, but Campbell has a way of writing songs that marry earnest protest lyrics with tunes that sound a lot like they may have fallen off the back of the tradition. This song is very much in that vein, celebrating the spirit of those that have fought for ‘the right to roam’ across the moorland that the singer holds so dearly to his heart.
Singing the first verse unaccompanied, Campbell’s voice is jarring – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea – but then again, who ever listened to Billy Bragg for the sweet timbre of his vocals? This is full-throated protest singing, goddammit, and fans of ‘Between the Wars’ are going to love it. Juxtaposed against the arrival of the restrained, deeply moving sound of the Commoners Choir, as well as the Skelmanthorpe Brass Band, the singer cuts through and stands out – something that can also be said for how he operates in general. Nobody else seems to be doing what Johnny Campbell is doing right now, and his passion and determination deserve recognition.
In short, it’s a stirring song that leans heavily on local tradition and celebrates a movement that once again seems to be finding its feet, not least through the work of Nick Hayes. Someone ought to put the two artists together. They’d have places to walk across and things to discuss.
The video, featured above, which was put together following a very successful Kickstarter campaign, was filmed in Calderdale, Yorkshire. Campbell explains, “The area, I feel, has a mystique and a plethora of radical 18th and 19th-century folk history, such as the Basin Stone, a rendezvous meeting place for Chartists to gather in secret, and the Cragg Vale Coiners, popularised in the recent Ben Myers book and in a new Shane Meadows BBC drama. I’m constantly drawn to this valley and it has become the setting of many of my photo shoots, including this recent video.”
Given Campbell’s recent tendency to put out commemorative singles that mark the anniversary of historical protests, the big question is whether he can sustain this kind of quality over the length of a full album. We’re very eager to find out. Bring it on, Johnny. Let’s see what you’ve got.
Order your copy of Johnny Campbell’s ‘A Right to Roam’ from johnnycampbell.co.uk.