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A cutout from the cover of The Voice of the People by Topic Records, in black and white.

What is The Voice of the People?

Piers Cawley delves into the epic Topic Records' collection, The Voice of the People, where you'll delight in the "crackle, hiss, wow and flutter" of these glorious old recordings.

If, like me, your particular folky poison is unaccompanied singing, it won’t be long before you run out of commercially released recordings to listen to. There are the mighty Watersons, the Copper Family, and many other vocal harmony practitioners, but if a single voice is your thing, you’ll find yourself picking through albums for tracks in ones and twos, even from singers that are known for their way with a traditional song.

Eventually, you’re going to have to dig into ‘source’ recordings. These are (usually) field recordings made of ‘amateur’ singers who are viewed as being the source of traditional songs we ‘revival’ singers sing in folk clubs and zoom sessions. There is a whole load of problematic language around these singers that seems to come from the history of the first folk revival in the early 20th century, but they’re basically the folk singers who don’t go to folk clubs, and who learned their material from other singers in that tradition orally rather than from written sources.

Throughout the folk revival, there has been a sense that these singers are somehow more ‘pure’ than folk who learned their material from a recording, and there’s been an ongoing effort to ‘collect’, initially by taking down notation and a verse or two of lyrics, and then (as the technology became more readily available and the singers became more comfortable with it) by sticking a tape or other recorder in front of them and encouraging them to sing.

And by god, have they sung. Often beautifully. Sam Larner, Lizzie Higgins, Belle Stewart (and all the members of her extended family for that matter), Harry Cox, Walter Pardon, Mary Ann Haynes, Wiggy Smith (and his family), Lemmy Brazil and family…

Some of them were recorded in studios (often with buckets of artificial reverb, if they were made in the sixties or seventies. Lizzie Higgins’ What a Voice session is drenched in it, for instance, for no good reason), others in singers’ front rooms, kitchens or on the porch. The quality of the recordings can vary wildly too – Joseph Taylor’s magnificent singing was only ever caught on wax cylinders, which could record a maximum of two minutes of material at a time. Listening to those recordings, it sounds almost as if he’s shouting to you across the decades, and he was certainly singing loud, but with subtlety and skill that I can only aspire to. His ‘Brigg Fair’ is pretty much perfect. Other singers were recorded on whatever the collector could afford and we owe a debt to the folk who make audio restoration software for allowing us to hear them above the crackle, hiss, wow and flutter of the original tapes. 

Digging in

The easiest place to start listening to source singers is probably Topic Records’ ongoing, multi-volume The Voice of the People set. Reg Hall’s comprehensive collection of some of the finest traditional singers ever recorded. You could simply pick a volume and dip into it on Spotify or your streaming service of choice, but if you’re at all taken by what you hear, then it’s really worth picking up the CD, because the sleeve notes are fantastic – notes on the songs and singers and the tradition in which they’re singing. Fascinating stuff. 

I just picked a disc at random – It fell on a day, a bonny summer day – and it’s a proper treat. Sixteen songs from thirteen singers and even though I’ve heard the recording many times before, Sheila Stewart singing ‘The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Grow‘ at the National Folk Festival in 1988 still brings up the hairs on my neck. 

Some voices on these recordings aren’t pretty, and you’re going to have to enjoy the sound of ‘old’ voices to really get the most out of the collection since many singers weren’t recorded until they reached retirement. Personally, I love the way old voices sound. It’s the sound of experience. If you’ve heard Martin Carthy or Peggy Seeger recently, you’ll know that voices can and do change and lose some of their power, but the singer never loses their art.

When you eventually exhaust The Voice of the People, pick your favourite singers from that collection and follow the sleeve notes to other recordings (which might not be that easy to lay your hands on, I’m afraid because of the Celtic Music fiasco), or check out the catalogues of specialist record labels like Veteran or Musical Traditions (The MTCD downloads page has to be about the best value out there for source recordings. Great material, fabulous sleevenotes for a couple of quid per ‘disc’). And that’s just sticking to this side of the pond. There are amazing riches in US library collections too, but that’s another article.

What you’ll find

The collection includes more than 500 songs, compiled and annotated by Reg Hall. They can be purchased on CD from the Topic Records website.

Legendary singer, Norma Waterson, called this series, “My favourite sit-down-and-listen records”, and you’ll find several more references to The Voice of the People in interviews on this website.

In 2017, Emily Portman told us, “That’s my favourite place to look really, because you get a real feel for the singers’ styles, and there are some beautiful singers. I particularly like a lot of the traveller singers, actually. I like their style and their repertoire. Over the years I’ve also learnt a lot from singers like Mary Ann Haynes and Jasper Smith.”

Elsewhere, former Topic Records boss, David Suff, explained that facilitating 10 more volumes of the series was the proudest thing he had done. “That’s the most important thing – to carry on building that repository and access to traditional field recordings so that younger performers or interested people in other parts of the world can at least hear this stuff and go off and do something with it, or not.”

Topic Records has released multiple volumes in this series, a list of which you’ll find below.

  • Come Let Us Buy the Licence – Songs of Courtship & Marriage
  • My Ship Shall Sail the Ocean – Songs of Tempest & Sea Battles, Sailor Lads & Fishermen
  • O’er His Grave the grass Grew Green – Tragic Ballads
  • Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land – Songs of Exile & Emigration
  • Come All My Lads That Follow the Plough – The Life of Rural Working Men & Women
  • Tonight I’ll Make You My Bride – Ballads of True & False Lovers
  • First I’m Going To Sing You a Ditty – Rural Fun & Frolics
  • A Story I’m Just About To Tell – Local Events & National Issues
  • Rig-A-Jig-Jig – Dance Music of the South of England
  • Who’s That at my Bedroom Window? – Songs of Love & Amorous Encounters
  • My Father’s the King of the Gypsies – English and Welsh Travellers & Gypsies
  • We’ve Received Orders to Sail – Jackie Tar at Sea & on Shore
  • They Ordered Their Pints of Beer & Bottle of Sherry – The Joys and Curse of Drink
  • Troubles They Are But Few – Dance Tunes & Ditties
  • As Me and My Love Sat Courting – Songs of Love, Courtship & Marriage
  • You Lazy Lot of Boneshakers – Songs & Dance Tunes of Seasonal Events
  • It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day – Ballads
  • To Catch a Fine Buck Was My Delight – Songs of Hunting & Poaching
  • Ranting & Reeling – Dance Music of the North of England
  • There is a Man Upon the Farm – Working Men & Women in Song
  • You Never Heard So Sweet – Songs by Southern English Traditional Singers
  • I’m a Romany Rai – Songs by Southern English Gypsy Traditional Singers
  • Good People, Take Warning – Ballads by British and Irish Traditional Singers
  • Sarah Makem – The Heart Is True
  • Good Humour for the rest of the Night – Field recordings made by Peter Kennedy in 1954
  • The Barley Mow – Field recordings and a film made in Suffolk
  • The Flax in Bloom – Traditional songs, airs & dance music in Ulster
  • Orkney – Traditional Dance Music From Orkney
  • It was Mighty – The early days of Irish music in London
  • It was Great Altogether – The continuing tradition of Irish music in London