The idea behind the Commoners Choir, she said, was a radical choir melding political singing with political activism: “You should come along. They’re looking for more people and I’m sure you’d love it.”
I didn’t feel particularly inspired, more cornered. I had just turned 50 and my punk-political activism youth was far behind me. Instead, I’d settled down to a life of grousing and daydreaming. The exhausting graft of life as a teacher and parenting stroppy teenagers seemed to be the expected measure of my days.
But this brief conversation with Helen lodged in the back of my mind amid the evening’s sea of beer, cheese and chat. I decided to try it. I got increasingly anxious as I contacted Boff and arranged to turn up for one of the weekly practices. The thought of singing in public with a bunch of people that I didn’t know filled me with dread.
When I walked into the small room at the local university, I was handed a badge and a song sheet and pointed towards the kettle and teabags. I immediately felt welcomed, and became at once, without hesitation or question from anyone, a Commoner.
We stood in a semicircle and went through the six or seven songs written by Boff. This choir didn’t do standards or covers, the original songs are a critical take on contemporary events from a radical perspective. The idea is to keep you humming all day as they snuggle into the brain, hopefully taking our progressive message with them. A singing revolutionary tabloid.
I sang fairly quietly that first time. We got to a new song called Three Boats, which riffs on the tune of a Christmas carol, with lyrics highlighting the human experiences of the Mediterranean migration tragedy. In the background, half of us sang the numbers of the dead in Arabic, Swahili and English. I found myself choking up.
Two years on, I’m still singing. We sing angry songs and hopeful songs. We’ve toured northern libraries. We serenaded Christmas shoppers to reclaim the once public space that is now Trinity Leeds shopping centre. We went up to Ilkley moor to defiantly recall the real spirit of citizens’ rights and the Magna Carta. We went to Ely to sing in memory of food rioters hanged in 1816. We dressed as monks and went to Kirkstall Abbey to sing a song about Boris Johnson. We serenaded commuters on their way home the day after the election.
Being in the choir has perhaps not so much changed me as confirmed me. Many of us have an idealised version of what we’d like to be and what we want to do. But to get there involves shaking ourselves out of our comfort zone. I didn’t imagine finding myself in my early 50s recording an album.
Singing in this choir has made me much happier. Life for ordinary working people at the moment is tough. Like many jobs, teaching is an often thankless task that can easily take over your life. I reckon I’d probably be happier if I’d joined a cycling club or sorted out the garden. However, the Commoners choir is a shared experience with other ordinary folk that helps me realise my isolated experiences are common. My newfound sense of joy comes from the way that we have a clear sense of Britain’s radical history and our proud place within that.
We sing for the homeless, the closed-down factories, immigrants, the printed word, past struggles and, most importantly, we sing for hope. I have met an incredible group who inspire each other to get out of the house and do something. I’m still not the best or bravest singer, but I assume my position with the basses at the back and endeavour to give it my best bellow.
that was the year that was... 2017
various Members of Commoners Choir write about the events of the past 12 months
Commoners Choir has had
an amazing year: gigs and walks in places conventional and
unexpected, our first CD released, a huge influx of members, a new
protest song online every month, a fair bit of protesting in the
streets, a lot of laughter, occasionally a lot of beer and always
plenty of cake.
We’re a talkative and awkward bunch: when Boff suggested that one of us might like to write something about 2017, eight of us did and each of us has written quite a lot… So here goes, the Commoners’ year, in eight chapters:
January: a first gig for a new member – Alison
I started singing with
the choir almost exactly a year ago and the event at Armley Mills
Industrial Museum was my first time singing in public. I was slightly
For the gig, we were singing amongst the machinery in the Museum and fortunately the acoustic was reassuringly lovely so that fear faded quickly. I only made one mistake that I remember, (though it was a loud and obvious one so caused me more than a little embarrassment), and the choir as a whole had to start two songs again. This was appreciated by the audience in a similar way to seeing comedians corpsing and feeling you’ve got something no-one else is going to see.
Afterwards it made me think about the unlikely magic that happens when a large group of people do manage to all come in on the right notes together. It made me aware of the level of trust implicit in communal singing: everyone has to lean on everyone else just a little, and I’ve happily spent a year’s worth of Monday nights (plus quite a few weekends) immersed in that magic.
March to May: Commoners Library Tour – EllieThe 1964 Public Libraries Act states that local authorities have a statutory duty to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons”. However, since 2010 the austerity agenda has seen 600 libraries close or move to being volunteer-run and ten thousand library workers lose their jobs. It doesn’t seem sustainable, comprehensive or efficient to be relying on the goodwill of volunteers to provide a service. For many the library is access to books, a sense of community and also the internet; in a society where we have moved the whole benefits system online this access is vital for many.
Because Commoners love the Commons, and love libraries, in April we piled onto a tour bus with a stack of cryptic crosswords and set off on a five-date jaunt to sing in libraries across the North of England. To some this breaking of the “silence” in libraries may be heretical. I work in a library, and I don’t think libraries should be quiet, I’m with Paula Poundstone who says that “libraries are raucous clubhouses of free speech, controversy and community”. I hope we helped libraries live up to that.
We sang in Sheffield, Keighley, Darlington, Carlisle and Doncaster. Each town had a different tale of cuts to library services. In Keighley we heard of 14 libraries closing in the 2016/17 budget with a further £950k of cuts announced in November 2017.
We offered cakes and a cuppa and 45 minutes of singing and ranting and sharing our love for libraries, the printed word and the hope of a fairer society to come. Oh and a free CD of our song Mechanical Movable Type … there’s a video about the library tour here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6h4KsdM2ek.
February to November: Singing outdoors – CatherineFor me, one of the most joyous things about Commoners Choir is when we sing outdoors, surrounded by wildlife, people, dogs and glorious scenery – or by thousands of other people who are angry and energised about the same things as we are. I love the way that we keep on trying to make sure that everyone, whatever their situation, gets the chance to sing in the open air.
MAY – Singing to a small group of outdoor swimmers in Sparth Reservoir. “When your heart says yes and the sign says no” has never seemed more pertinent than when we sang it to this fantastic group who resisted an attempted ban on swimming in a spot that had been used for generations. We hadn’t planned it – we were walking along the canal from Marsden, where we’d had a lot of fun singing in different spots around the town for their Cuckoo Festival, to Milnsbridge, where we sang at the wonderful Red and Green Club. But we just came across the swimmers en route and we had to serenade them. It’s hard to stop a Commoner when an appropriate opportunity comes up.
FEBRUARY, JUNE and SEPTEMBER – in Leeds and in Manchester, protesting. Sometimes with hundreds or even thousands of other people, sometimes just us. Singing to show solidarity, singing to show anger, singing to share hope. Singing because we believe that we don’t need to accept a world in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and women and people of colour and gay people and disabled people and everyone who just doesn’t fit can be pushed to one side… It’s brilliant to see people in the crowd smiling in recognition, laughing, singing along – and it’s also great when there’s someone who gets really indignant. If what we said never got any disagreement, we’d be doing something wrong!
NOVEMBER – Teetering on the edge of Kinder Scout, almost numb with cold but still grinning, watching Boff’s hands waving about in absurd yellow gloves and pretending not to see the hovering drone above us as we launch into the fourth repetition of a song that celebrates the 1932 Mass Trespass, being filmed for a “Britain’s Greatest Walks” TV programme.
It was brilliant – the fact that we were all ready to be out there early on a cold Sunday morning; the cheeriness and enthusiasm of the TV crew; the fact that lots of Commoners had carried cake up the hillside to share; the way that lots of us piled on across Kinder Scout and beyond after the filming and made it to the pub at the end of the day red-cheeked and still laughing. The combination of fresh air, incomparable hills, angry and articulate politics and lots of laughter can’t be beat.
february, recording the album – jane
One large room, Ebor Court, two windows
One gentle sound engineer, one desk, one chair, limitless patience
One hearty warmup full of ooohs and aaahs and brrrs
Three impromptu songs
Fifty eight choir members
Twenty-one amazing songs
Two hundred and thirty two cups of tea (at least)
Three or more attempts at each song
Two cold Sundays
One roomful of kindred spirits
One pair of red socks as worn by Boff
One tree, Kett’s Oak
One bucketful of hope
One unbelievable album
One Choir on an adventure
September: Commoners Choir CD Launch – MarkWe have a great album. So good that a complete stranger said ‘that sounds good’ whilst I was blasting a prerelease copy in my car, windows down, arm resting on the door. So how do we make a bit of a fuss about it?
Josh was the ideas man for this particular caper. Boff knew a man who had a good gaff for holing up in. We worked on a getaway route that initially took us to a mill involved in the Luddite rebellion, until we realised that it had become a soulless executive housing estate. We needed a gang of accomplices to pull this blag off.
Pretty much instantly on board was the superb Rob Cowen, writer of the book Common Ground, and the first voice to be heard on our album. Next, Nick Harper was going to play up a storm for us. Last on board was the lovely Ursula Holden Gill, actor and storyteller supreme. All of this and a choir too. We had ourselves a plan.
We also had the brilliant Turner Prize-nominated printer Helen Peyton, a regular co-conspirator of ours, and the Real Junk Food Project; Leeds legends who, like culinary Wombles, take the stuff that everyday folk leave behind and turn it into a delicious buffet. And then there was the delightful Alaric Neville, who brewed us a batch of Commoners beer, based upon a Victorian recipe he had found in his work with Phipps Brewery. All the ingredients were there for a grand day out.
Our venue? The lovely Sunnybank Mills in Farsley. Steeped in history and still the beating heart of its community.
The day came, the bunting went up, the library tour posters were hung, the room organised. We just needed an audience. Would they come? Indeed they did. We took a good 50 or 60 people off on a ramble through the Farsley countryside. When we had scoped out the walk, two of us managed to negotiate the Leeds outer ring road without any real issue. Getting 60 people across the ring road was something more of a challenge!
Back to the Mill for the main event. We weren’t sure how many people would come, but we needn’t have worried. The room filled and we were away. Rob Cowen read with passion and verve and made me want to read his book all over again. Ursula Holden Gill kept the audience spellbound with stories from her Fairies in the Gutter collection. Nick Harper fired us up with his political songs. Helen printed souvenirs cards and posters. Everyone who wanted fare was well fed and watered. And did Commoners Choir sing? We surely did. Loud, proud and unbowed.
September: Wigtown Book Festival – AllanAt the end of September the mists parted briefly above a dreich but rain-shiney Wigtown, Scotland’s own book-town, revealing two vans chugging along the Galloway coast ready to disgorge the slimmed-down version of twenty-six Commoners insane with coffee, crosswords and travel cramp and ready to take on Scotland’s leading literary festival.
In a mad wet 24 hours we turned a green garden to festival-goo with our tents, slapped the back of Paul Lavery – genius screenwriter of ‘I, Daniel Blake’– went to the pub, sang a grand set to a grand audience in a grand big tent, cheered Phil as he nearly won the talent competition, went back to the pub, forgot to eat, got drunk, met lots of people who do all sorts of creative and uncreative things, drunk a bit more and then had a go at singing down the very walls of the Craft public house in a cheery anarchic sound-clash which we probably lost to a guy harbouring a historian’s knowledge of local folk songs. There was a rumour that someone actually went a to a book-shop at some point but I couldn’t say. Much later I stumped back to my billet in the night-ink of country dark, head ringing for reasons both musical and distilled.
The drive home next day was long and quiet. By the right side of Skipton news emerged that the other mini-bus had finished the day’s crossword way ahead of our jaded effort. As we threw some bodies out in Otley an anxious query came from behind a steaming pile of tent at the back of the bus “Well? What’s next?”. Plenty’s next...
October – two gigs in one day – MarkWe launched the album successfully, but what next? Where would we steer our ship? We
needed a launch tour! Ideas came in thick and fast: We would cover as much territory as we
could. Scotland, Manchester, Ilkley, Hartlepool and Stockton, and culminating in a gig at the
legendary Hebden Bridge Trades Club.
Hartlepool: the one thing everyone knows about Hartlepool is the story about the French
spy, washed up on the shore and hanged for being a monkey…. or something like that. We were off to find that corner of the North East that was Hartlepool Maritime Museum, to
sing on a ship.
First up was a workshop on board an old Humber ferry. Dave Hep had recollections of
seeing this ship on the Humber as a child, long before a bridge spanned the tidal waters.
We sang, and they came. They sounded magnificent, and we did okay too. The ladies
behind the tea-bar counter joined in too.
No time for sightseeing. We disembarked and walked through the authentic
Napoleonic Wars era dockyard to our next venue, where we were doing a double header gig with the amazing Grace Petrie.
The room filled, and we did our stuff with gusto to much appreciation and applause. Grace
followed us and surfed the wave we had created. A superb performer. Time for a quick look
around the sailing ship HMS Triconmalee, where Josh and myself couldn’t resist splicing the
mainbrace with a contraband bottle of spiced rum.
Then we were off a few miles inland to Stockton, to do our stuff as part of a Bob Dylan
tribute night with a series of homegrown acts at a packed-out Arc arts centre.
The band included the brilliant Dan Donnelly (last seen six-string wrangling for the Wonderstuff). There was also a burly bunch of ex-steelworkers who went under the name of Infant Hercules; more a force of nature than a choir. They said they were intimidated by us. They had surely got it the wrong way round! They were a lovely, warm bunch of blokes who were enthusiastic about what we did. It won’t be the last time we work with them.
We were put in the bowels of the labyrinthine arts centre to warm up and wait. Stockton was reputedly a UKIP stronghold. Bandit country for a choir who sings about welcoming
asylum seekers, and just down the road from where they hanged a monkey for daring to
come over here and eat our bananas … we needn’t have worried. We went down a storm apart, that is, from one man in the front row shaking his head throughout.
Mr Zimmerman was duly celebrated.
Quite a day.
November: Kinder Scout – LizIt's November and Commoners Choir are reprising their first gig, a walk over Kinder Scout in the Peak District, to celebrate the 1932 Mass Trespass. This was the most famous of several protest walks campaigning for public access to huge areas of moor and mountain, hitherto reserved for the landowning gentry and their grouse shooting chums.
I was on that first walk. The choir then was a fledgling thing, with a repertoire of two songs. And a flag. It was a marvellous day nonetheless, a beautiful day in early spring. A day of sunshine and high cloud, and a wonderful feeling that something good was beginning. A bunch of people preparing to 'work like they were living in the early days of a better nation' to quote Oysterband.
November’s walk is a different creature altogether. The choir has grown, becoming widely known across the folk scene of the North. It has a successful and well-reviewed album under its belt. This has been a busy year, of television appearances, recordings, and gigs coming thick and fast.
The purpose today is to participate in a programme, being filmed for ITV, on the most iconic walks in the country. Despite having had to leave the choir for a whole gamut of reasons, I am welcomed back to participate in this walk on my doorstep, and over a mountain that holds a special place in my heart.
Being filmed involves lots of waiting, standing still, being asked to 'go back and come through that stile again, and this time, don't look at the camera.' It is a cold day, mercifully dry but with a blustery wind. But directors, camera men and choristers are equally good humoured and patient, and so we progress along the first section of the Pennine Way, and up the steep staircase of Jacobs Ladder. This is hard-going, and there is some huffing and puffing, but we arrive under the steep bluff of the Swine's Back in good order. The original plan to sing around the trig point on Kinder Low is abandoned, as it is far too windy.
The choir assembles to sing on a steep grassy hillside looking back over Edale. There is some shifting about as folk look for a secure stance, but there is none of the uncertainty of the early days. Nowadays, these people know what they are about. We sing the song several times through as we get the light and sound right, and the piece is filmed from different angles. The song rings out across the fell and it feels as if we are singing to all Derbyshire.
It was a long time to stand still in a November wind at 2000 ft above sea level and I was chilled to the bone. But you know, it was worth it. It felt right, it felt good, and I was thrilled to be singing with the choir that I love again.
November: Hebden Bridge Trades Club – BobAs the officially second tallest member of the Choir (it’s a long story) I tend to see things from the back of the room/venue, which as the choir numbers swell, can be quite dangerous. Our last gig of 2017 was at the wonderful Hebden Trades club. Great place, tiny stage, with a big drop at the back. Now I find it hard to stay still at the best of times so when the swaying starts (“left foot first!”) for Citizens Shanty I have to keep my feet firmly on the edge of the stage to prevent an embarrassing fall from grace.
You never know how people will react when you perform live. When we played the Ilkley literature festival last year it was a free event so anyone could turn up, which they did (another full house). Afterwards a young chap (mid 30s?) approached me, so I asked “Did you like that?” – He starred at the floor shaking his head “I don’t know if I’ll ever get the image of a beheaded Boris Johnson out of my head. I don’t think you should sing songs like that” and off he went. Then an older lady (early 70s?) approached and I thought “Here we go…” “I absolutely loved it. Where do you practise and can I join?” “Leeds, Monday nights, of course you can!”
Having been a music fan since I heard my brother play the Stranglers’ ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ at the tender age of 12, it has been a great thrill to be on record myself and made buying everyone’s Christmas present so much easier this year. Making a noise. Making friends. Making me think. Making Mondays tolerable. Great fun – what’s not to like?
Singing is for all and singing is better when we all sing. Come Monday evening our Commoners door is always open and the kettle is always on. The most visible and obvious change in the Commoners in 2017 has been the way the tribe increased resembling now a great roiling mob, hoiking up its sleeves, loosening its buttons, spoiling for a sing.
We’re bigger and we’re louder. Come on in 2018.
• Photo of the Choir at the top of the page is by Will Griffiths, from our appearance on top of a hill at the Buxton Big Session Festival.
commoners library tour 2017
I’ve just started reading two books. I don’t usually start two books at the same time, but they both arrived on the same day and I can’t decide which I’m more excited about reading. Maybe ‘excited’ is a bit too Famous Five, but it’s true, I get a bit giddy when I have a new book that, after the first couple of pages, feels like it’s going to take me on an adventure. A lot of us have that feeling, don’t we? My two books are Benjamin Myers’ ‘The Gallows Pole’ – a novel based on the real history of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a slice of the past I’m fascinated by – and wildlife commentator Chris Packham’s autobiography ‘Fingers In The Sparkle Jar’, tracing his life from punk rocker to environmental campaigner. The Myers was a present, the Packham was lent.
I might have said this before (possibly late into the evening, in the kitchen, at a party) but there was a hazy time in my life when I switched from second-hand record shops to second-hand bookshops. I still love flicking through racks of LPs in the hope of finding a mint copy of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ on the Brunswick label (mono, first UK pressing). But the lure of an old copy of The Victor (with an Alf Tupper story I haven’t read) or a hardback of Tony Harrison’s ‘The Loiners’ just about wins out. And there’s the smell of books, too… and maybe it’s also that just about every piece of music ever recorded is instantly available and downloadable somewhere on the internet, whereas books still demand your time and space, force you to make a cup of tea and settle down. And blimey, we all need time and space to settle down nowadays.
April is over and there’s a bit more time to read, despite the fact I’ve started a month-long job in Hull with Dan Bye, writing for and leading a choir. More time because April was mad with Commoners Choir concerts, five of which were events we put on in libraries around the north of England. That’s where this preamble is leading, from my excitement at having two new books to read, backwards into a month seemingly surrounded by books. There’s something about singing in a library that feels right. Possibly it’s to do with the physicality of the paper, the smell and weight of all those pulped trees having the effect of being in a forest clearing. We’ve sung in six libraries now, and they’ve all been very different buildings – from imposing Victorian gothic of Sheffield to the stark steel ‘n’ glass of Carlisle – but the long shelves of books all have the same allure, heavy and tactile, all those words packed tightly in leaves and rows.
The singing echoes that physicality. Without added instruments, there’s only the raw, basic nature of the voice, cast into the forest of print; and a tangible, audible, visceral connection happening between the song and the shelf. There’s character and energy in the way the books rub against each other on the shelves as you look along them, those that jump out, those that hide, all those masses of ideas and arguments wedged into their hardback covers. All the different voices inviting you into their adventures, all entirely individual but all of a piece, too, a collection of disparate noises that the lovely fussy librarians assemble and order and then present. I say fussy in the best sense of the word: the librarians we met on our tour were full of the passionate fuss that people have when they really, really want to show you something, when they think you just might understand their obsessions.
Packham’s book gives me that feeling, already – he goes for walks
and engages with nature, loving it so much that he wants to tell us
all about it, about what it means, about where the urge came from,
about how we might love it, too.
Commoners Choir was set up two years ago for a few reasons – to sing about what’s going on around us, to give an outlet to our anger and joy and hope, to have a laugh together, to make something truly original. And we also (because this is the very nature of art) want to share that with people, want to usher an audience in to hear and see our ideas, because we have that passionate fussiness, passion to make something we love and the fussiness to make it work, properly. Books, libraries, choirs, we want nothing less than to put words to use, dress them up and invite you to grab them and use them (and sing along to them, if you fancy it).
On our tour of libraries, we didn’t just sing . We took along a printmaker – Helen Peyton – who lugged an ancient cast iron letter-printing-press along with her and hand-printed souvenirs for everyone that showed up to the concerts. It was a delight to watch how much Helen enjoyed showing off her perfectly-set block of metal type, seeing the pride she took in spreading sticky ink across the letters with a wooden-handled roller. At one event, Helen used printing ink containing glitter. We gave away CDs of a song we’d written specially called ‘Mechanical Movable Type’, an acapella celebration of Johannes Gutenberg’s world-changing invention, and the CDs were sleeved in Helen’s printed cards. The smell of the ink across the rows and rows of bookshelves was, every time, perfect.
And we hung an exhibition. Last winter I sat in Leeds Central Library surrounded by reference books piled in a minor mountain on a huge desk. Every so often, as I worked my way through the collections of ancient broadside ballads and penny pamphlets, one of the librarians would arrive with another book, wondering if this or that chapter might contain useful ideas. I’d told them I wanted to collect a series of quotes, modern and contemporary, to describe and illuminate the power of print, of the printing press, of how the press gave people power. How cheap print spread information, how songs and ballads turned printed information into oral tale-telling to be passed around and remembered. How public libraries further gave ordinary folk access to a world previously denied them. All this stuff was in my mountain of books pulled from various public and hidden collections, and three days spent wading through them was a nothing short of a privilege (the smell of ‘em was enough).
The gathered quotes were printed onto huge sheets of paper and hung, usually on wires and with clips, around the libraries we visited. In places where we sang right amongst the rows of books, the posters hung from the shelves held fast at the top by heavy books, crude and perfect.
And there was tea and cake. Always tea and cake, baked by choir members, a range of smells to match and mingle with the stink of the printing ink. What better way to spend an hour on a weekend afternoon? We sang our songs to uncategorisable audiences. All life was there. Kids on the front row with drawing books and pencils. Grown-ups who cried when we sang about refugees. Teenagers wearing T-shirt slogans, couples singing along, old folk laughing. A Tory supporter leaving in disgust, a bewildered homeless bloke clutching his free tea and cake. People there especially and people there by chance. Folkies and professors and students and families.
It all felt right, felt perfectly fitting. A choir of 35 people doing what choirs do, stretching the gap that hums between the purity and clarity of singing in unison and the huge beauty of singing in harmony. I can’t name everyone, obviously, and anyway there were different singers each time. As conductor, I get to stand at the front (as one lad asked a choir member afterwards, “who was that bloke at the front waving his arms out of time with the singing?”) and listen to the singing. Not often, to be honest, as I’m too busy trying to remind all the different harmony groups when to sing and when to shut up, or when to song softly and when to bellow and bawl. But I do sometimes stop singing along and listen, and it’s always a thrill. Once you go through the slog of rehearsing a particular line over and over and over and over again in rehearsal, matching intonation and rhythm and some odd word’s particular swoop and dive, once you’ve gone through all that fussiness, then it can be allowed to be simply, directly, tangibly passionate.
Imagine what the books thought. Books that exist to create and invent worlds or to instruct and teach or argue with you and insult you. Books whose histories are rooted in forests, stuffed full of their own sense of the physical. All numbered and categorised, arranged in their sections; suddenly hearing those verse-chorus-verse-chorus voices singing at them and about them. As natural and as old as our vocal chords, as important and useful as our ability to tell stories, to pass on information. Voices and books, having travelled through millennia of progress, technology and science, ending up there in the library, back at the beginning, together, where people sing each other the news, make marks in the earth, and laugh at each other.
Then, with the tea gone cold and the cake reducd to crumbs, we all pile back on the Commoners coach and head home, back up and down the motorways, full of the chatter and natter of the afternoon, who sang this and who sang that. A group of choristers gather to do the Saturday cryptic crossword, some doze against the bus windows, and some get out their books. New books! Sally from the choir saw this book in a shop and thought I should read it. It’s about the Cragg Vale Coiners. But I already told you that didn’t I? Sorry. I’m excited, that’s all.
Thanks to the librarians at all the libraries we visited (Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, Carlisle, Doncaster and Keighley).
one year later…Well it’s been a year since the choir gathered, since its ambitious manifesto and since we had just one proper song. That song was the one-minute long ‘Get Off Your Arse’, a sort of melodic call-to-arms. Since then the choir has grown, gone through the crawling and toddling stages and now stands up and shouts, with umpteen songs under its belt and loads of projects and ideas in the diary (past and present). From that tentative minute-long song has grown a huge and unruly full-throated yell.
Yes, this is a blog about a choir. I’m not unaware of the recent popularity of choirs on this island, especially after all that Gareth Malone stuff on the telly, and I can see how championing singing together can sound like an advert for well-being, pleasantness, good clean living and the Big Society. Here’s Niall Crawley writing in The Independent:
“Choral singing may have curative qualities but if we recast it as just another healthy lifestyle activity, like going to the gym or visiting our GP, then all that’s magical, inspiring and elevating about the choral experience might just melt into air.”
So I’ll try to keep this to the magical, inspiring stuff. What can I say? Monday nights are choir nights and choir nights are a joy. They really are. There’s chatting and tea-drinking and catching up and laughing… and some singing, too. Before the Commoners I’d never been in a choir before, barely seen a real choir rehearsing, so I have nothing to compare it to except my time in a band. And what I can assume is that being in Commoners Choir is somewhere between being in a band and being in a choir, which was, as it happens, exactly the aim. Being in a band is about making music as a gang, purposeful, ambitious and close-knit. Being in a choir is about the empathy and shared experience of making music with lots of people. The idea is that Commoners Choir is neither one nor t’other, but the best bits of both.
A bit more about the band thing. One of the best things about rock ‘n’ roll is volume, and specifically amplification. I haven’t forgotten the sheer excitement to be had from turning up the dial on a Gibson guitar going through a Marshall amp. Honestly. The youthful, exciting stuff. And of matching the guitar to drums and bass, of playing with the tension and dynamics of volume and sound. But I’m learning that that’s sort of how it can work in a choir – playing with the possibilities of volume and sound, of matching voices. I’ve always loved acapella singing, by folk groups like The Watersons, Swan Arcade, Coope, Boyes & Simpson and by fifties and sixties acapella doo-wop groups like the Zircons, Nutmegs and Savoys. It’s just bands without instruments, isn’t it?
I always loved being in a band. It was that joy of playing music matched to the feeling of working with friends to make something that connected with bigger ideas than rock ‘n’ roll or pop. For a couple of years after Chumbawamba stopped playing I wondered about starting another band, but couldn’t work out what it could be, what it might sound like. Bands are intense, so it was a bit daunting. And I knew I had to steer clear of anything that might sound remotely like Chumbawamba (that would be weird, like being in a covers band). In the meantime I was writing scores of songs for theatre and art and community projects, for friends and for fun. I worked with choirs in a project at Manchester Museum with Dan Bye and Sarah Punshon (and thoroughly loved it) and then created a small scratch choir to sing at the Tate Gallery in London (and loved that too). I found it challenging and enjoyable and strange and wonderful.
And that’s when I had the idea of crossing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (whose music I grew up listening to, but that’s another story) with seminal anarchist punk band Crass. Absolute diametric opposites. Sacred, harmonic grandeur paired with frenetic, angry polemic. But the thing about the Tabernacle Choir and Crass is that both are utterly compelling, they share a desire to tell the world something important. Neither makes music just to be listened to, it’s about what they have to say, and both found a form that matched their intent. And whilst both Crass and the Tabernacle Choir could be criticised for being one-dimensional, I knew choirs didn’t have to be – a choir could encompass the pop of doo wop and the folk of The Watersons, the art-noise of Furious Pig or the repetitive, modern classical stuff like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. There’s a whole world right there in the human voice.
I hadn’t thought it through very much. That was about as far as it went, the mutant lovechild of Crass and the Mormon Tabernacles, along with the idea for the opening song – knowing that there would be something peculiarly beautiful in hearing twenty or thirty people harmonise the refrain, ‘Get off your arse!’ It’s juvenile – but that’s what they said about Dada and rock ‘n’ roll and punk…
So a year later here we are, twenty or thirty or forty people in a low-ceilinged rehearsal room or waving our flag up on a moortop or uninvited in a shopping arcade singing our hearts out and feeling like we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. Not just because we’re a choir but because we’re, well, a weird choir. A maladjusted, not-quite-knowing-what-we’re-doing choir. We just released our second video. The Boris Johnson one. I wasn’t in it, I had a broken arm. But that’s sort of how the choir works, everyone is subsumed into the bigger idea.
We have all sorts of plans as to where we go next, and I’m as curious as all the other Commoners what that means. We’re playing in Bradford at ‘Threadfest’ and, in the light of the decision to move the Media Museum’s photography collection down to London’s V&A (where it will be “part of the national collection”) we’ll be singing about the Northern Poorhouse, erm, I mean Powerhouse. We’re heading down to Ely in Cambridgeshire to commemorate the Ely and Littleport Riots of 1816, again with a special song. I’ll be taking up residence at Leeds Central Library in late summer to prepare a Commoners event based around the history of literacy and print, access to words and the democratising role of the libraries. Oh and we’re going to record as many of our songs as possible and somehow let them loose on the world.
And that’s the Commoners Choir, as it stands, one year on. I’ve no idea where it’s going. I can’t start to thank the people in the choir who’ve put their shoulders to the wheel and made things happen – I’d have to list everyone. Getting this far really has been a team effort. And you, if you’re anywhere nearby, you’re welcome to come along if you want to sing about the world… and have fun doing it. It doesn’t have to just be a healthy lifestyle activity, y’know.
Boff, March 2016
commoners & Trespassers
real change comes from below, april 2015
Walking with history stuck to the soles of your boots. That's what I call it when you get the chance to re-trace the footsteps of those who marched, battled, struck, demonstrated, petitioned and trespassed so that we can enjoy the freedoms and victories they fought hard for.
The 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder – organised by the Manchester branch of the British Workers Sports Association – was a gathering of over 400 people who purposely walked up and onto the privately-owned land around the Kinder Plateau in the Peak District. They were met by gamekeepers hired by the land-owners, who began to beat back the walkers with sticks. A brief fight took place before the ramblers continued victoriously to Kinder summit. After sandwiches and a sing-song the trespassers returned to Hayfield village.
There they were confronted by a small army of policemen who arrested six of the ramblers, five of whom were subsequently tried and sentenced to between two and six months in jail (the jury consisted of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains, two aldermen and 11 country gentlemen).
The arrests and imprisonment had the effect of galvanising the public, and a few weeks after the trial a mass trespass in the Peaks assembled with 10,000 walkers defying the landowners. These mass trespasses continued until Parliament bowed to populist opinion and began to legislate to grant access to large areas of open land, establishing our National Parks and supporting the development of long-distance footpaths.
Last Sunday a group of 40 of us – some from the Commoners Choir, some friends and family – met in Edale and set off to walk in the footsteps of those trespassers. We carried the Commoners flag up Jacob's Ladder, stopped to eat sandwiches and shared cake, and stomped along to the rocky outcrops of the summit skyline. There we gathered and sang a song for the first Kinder Trespassers: its repeated refrain of 'Real change comes from below!' hurled into the breeze and scattered right across the valley below us.
What's important here isn't just our sense of history, our respect for the past. This isn't laying wreaths and giving thanks. It's understanding what links us to those trespassers, what line has been drawn across the years to make this pilgrimage relevant. Land ownership, with all its attendant themes of access, power and wealth, is still incredibly important, because it's still unfair and imbalanced. So we can celebrate the pioneers, mavericks and trailblazers who faced the gamekeepers' sticks (and especially those five ramblers who spent up to six months in jail in 1932 for the crime of walking in the English countryside) but we can't – or at least, we shouldn't –commemorate without looking around us from that Peak District skyline and wondering what we ought to be doing here, and now. Earlier I talked about the 'freedoms and victories' that the Trespassers won; which isn't to say, in this age of corporate wealth, media power and political chicanery, that there aren't still a thousand more victories to be won.
So the Commoners Choir gathered up there under the bluest of April skies and we sang our hearts out, and the singing gathered us and rooted us and tied us to both the past and to the future. Then we headed off down the trail and back to Edale, nine miles of flag-bearing, harmony-singing, nattering and gazing. A right good day out. With a point.
FIRST GATHERING, march 2015
is good for you. Singing with other people is even better for you. If
I was wearing a journalist's hat (a trilby with a ticket stub in the
band, obviously) I'd throw some quotes into this article ('A
study at Cardiff University in 2012 found that lung cancer patients
who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who
didn’t. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system,
reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the
Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic
pain. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one
step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had
increased residents’ life expectancy' etc etc). But I'm not a
journalist (too opinionated, I think). I tend to snatch at disparate,
personal, poetic, cultural, anecdotal and philosophical ideas as they
swirl around, collecting and storing all the interconnecting stuff
until it forms itself into a proper, cohesive idea.
One of those ideas is that singing with other people is not only good for you but is one of the ongoing wonders of our (present) age: that it represents revolutionary potential both individually and collectively. Potential is a big word here. I don't think 200 nine year-olds parrot-singing 'All Things Bright & Beautiful' at school assembly along to a pre-recorded CD of midi keyboard music has much in the way of revolutionary spirit. But the potential in gathering kids and getting them to create something communal and loud that doesn't need technology is enormous.
Mentioning kids is important – because singing with other people is one way we can allow ourselves to play again. Playing is something we're encouraged to 'grow out of', and our social lives as we get older revolve more and more around entertainment that's spoon-fed to us, that's one-way. Part of me dies every time my football team score a goal and, instead of allowing the crowd to sing their support, the over-loud tannoy blares out the regulation celebration music that we have to la-la-la along to. But in an age where it's difficult to escape the clutch of 24/7 digital communication, people are trying to find ways to rediscover how to play. Heading for the countryside; learning to play an instrument; gardening; riding bicycles; singing.
One of the things I enjoyed most playing in Chumbawamba was singing, acapella, in rehearsal rooms or in backstage warm-ups. Being able to feel the knitting, resonating voices (a physical buzz, timbres and breaths rubbing against each other) was always a joy. I love loud guitars and drums and rock 'n' roll, too. But singing in harmony fitted in perfectly with my love of fell running, or debating, or riding a bicycle, or chatting in the pub, or being in the middle of a demonstration… physical, natural, things that connect us.
Working at Manchester Museum last year with Dan, Sarah and Josh and a hundred-and-odd singers taught me something else that fed into this sense of the natural and physical – through the ethos of organisers People United (in short, 'promoting kindness through art') I realised that choral singing was something to be messed with, spun around, played with. That it could be taken out of context and thrown into the world of ideas. That choirs could be revolutionary. I'm not talking about manning the barricades (although…) but about challenging the way we think about things, about the way we think about the world.
Following the Manchester stuff (and what inspiring stuff it was to be involved in) I ended up at Tate Britain in January this year with a group of quickly-assembled singers who stood in front of one of Turner's huge Yorkshire skies (sketched from the top of the hill that overlooks my town) and sang about art, space, creation and genius to surprised gallery-goers. There was a pattern emerging, and the pattern was to take that idea that communal singing is good for you and couple it with other stuff that's good for you: it's good to shout about the world around you, both as self-expression and as part of the collective shout for a better world. And blimey we need a better world – both the Manchester and London projects meant I walked daily past the winter's streetfuls of homeless, blanketed people that successive governments flick derisively into the margins. “Change, mate?” “Yeah, the sooner the better.”
So this week, Commoners Choir was born in a big strip-lit room in Leeds city centre and a bunch of people turned up not knowing where this was all going. I brought the kettle and the tea but forgot to get milk. I was nervous. I don't usually get nervous. I needn't have been, because our singing together, according to that report in the Journal of Music Therapy, was boosting our immune system and reducing our stress levels. And it was fun. Physical, communal, energising fun. Like playing, but with a point.
And the point is to take all the joy and bundle it with purpose, sing words that mean something, then walk those words up hills and onto the streets and into places we haven't even thought of yet. To plant our flag with big choruses and whoops. Reclaiming our sense of place and our collective voice whilst singing (in four-part harmony, naturally) 'Get off your aaaaarrrrrrse!'
As I write this (really, right now. I thought 'Aaaarrrrse' was the punchline to this piece, but now...) there's a class of school kids being walked in a crocodile down the front street past my window, their Hi-viz-jacketed teachers doing their best to retain some control. I heard them coming a good two minutes before they appeared in front of my house, and I can still hear them as they disappear back to their schools, all babbling, sniggering energy and yells and exclamations. You can hear the power of collective human noise in that crocodile, and it's a thrilling, vibrant noise. And what I'm trying to say with all this stuff about singing and choirs is that as we get older we don't need to swap that thrill of human noise for the ordered, restrained hum of being a grown up; and that if we can fill that noise with shouts and sniggers at the world around us, then the singing isn't just good for us, it's good for everyone.