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The Radio Ballads – Making History Again
  
In 1957, John Axon stayed at the controls of his runaway freight train and struggled through clouds of scalding steam from the broken brake to bring it to a halt. He managed to shout to a signalman, who in turn succeeded in warning a train packed with school children further down the line. Although the children were evacuated in time, John Axon’s locomotive crashed into the back of a freight train and he was killed. 
 
This incident won Axon not only a posthumous George Cross medal, but also the attention of BBC producer Charles Parker, who commissioned  the folk singer and activist  Ewan MacColl to script a radio feature about him.
 
When MacColl realised the quality of taped material he had collected from Axon's family and friends, he persuaded his producer to use these real recordings, rather than have the words read by actors as was the practice of the day.
 
Furthermore, instead of writing a typical script, MacColl wrote songs inspired by the tapes he had collected. By interweaving the music and quotes he birthed a new format, dubbed Radio Ballads. The original series of eight programmes (extracts of which can be found on the BBC Radio website) took a year to produce and must now be considered historical documents, which also covered the herring fishing and coal-mining industries, building the M1 motorway, living with polio and the life of travellers.
 
50 years on, BBC Radio 2 revived the concept and covered a similar range of topics, adjusted to suit British life just after the turn of the millennium. This time, the ways of life under threat included shipbuilding, steel making and fox-hunting; the travellers covered were circus folk; the disease was HIV/AIDS and the social event was the euphemistically-named troubles in Northern Ireland.
 
Documentary-maker Sarah Parker, daughter of the original series' producer, was one of the two interviewers for this new run of programmes. On the BBC web site she gives an insight into her father's character and how she wanted to continue his approach to the series.
 
“My father always used to say that as an interviewer you should sit at a person's feet and listen. So I listened to his 1962 polio ballad The Body Blow before I set out to record my interviews for the HIV ballad, another condition which totally engulfs a human.

“As the CD played, I was reminded of an early childhood memory of my father taking one of his interviewees on holiday with us to Wales. She was in a wheelchair and I remember the nightly struggle getting her up the B&B's steep, windy stairs to bed. I don't know how my father came to bring her on our family holiday but he was that kind of person. It's this kind of humanity I hope comes out in my interviews.”
 
Along with Parker and fellow-interviewer Vince Hunt, series producer John Leonard and tape editor Annie Grundy edited the interviews into themes. Once these were arranged into possible song ideas, the musical director, John Tams, assembled a team of writers and singers to transfer the taped experiences into song. 
 
Tams was an ideal choice, as he was not only a soundtrack composer and driving force in The Albion Band, who rode the folk-rock wake of bands like Fairport Convention, but as an actor, theatre director and drama producer, he would be well aware of how the drama of the stories should be integrated into the music.
 
In a recent edition of English Dance and Song, Tams described the understanding he gained by attending the interviews, particularly when researching the steel industry. 
 
“Merely an observer, I could see the bits the microphone doesn’t pick up – hands, faces, how they carried themselves, eyes – was the fire still there? Pride, of course, was there, cut with an anger. Some of the questions Vince put had never been asked or answered out loud before. The common spirit of a community that knows itself so well, doesn’t always have the need to talk about it, but now it could.”
 
The musicians he involved in writing, singing and playing were high calibre folk artists, such as John McCusker, Karine Polwart and the honey-voiced Cara Dillon, while Tams added his own earthy vocals to several songs.
 
Julie Matthews' song that gave the AIDS episode its title is a fine example of the way that the music highlighted points made by the interviewees – in this case, survivors of oppression in Germany and Uganda: “I am an exile, I fled alone / From a civil war that tore apart my family and home  / These memories are bigger than the enemy that lives within / The shadow underneath my skin is not the sum of what I am.”
 
Another highly sensitive episode, the feature on the Irish troubles, shows how intricate the editing and how well disciplined the team were to capture a true reflection of thirty years of conflict inside an hour. 
 
After a brief introduction, two tracks – “Stone's Throw” and “Sing It All Over” – distil the roots of the recent problems in Northern Ireland. They eloquently describe the unspoken tensions in a community where the two sides would have to work together in the harvest fields, because so many hands were needed, but then they would go off to their separate lives (“So we grow together / A stone's throw from each other”).
 
The first hand recollections of life during the troubles tell stories from  perspectives that would never make the evening news, but which draw a vivid picture of what it meant to ordinary people: the political alienation of the nationalists, the incendiary effects of Bloody Sunday, the shock of narrowly missing death and efforts at bringing peace. 
 
It is testament to the failure of the church to rise above the pressures of patriotism and tribalism both that the second voice heard is the inflammatory sound of Rev'd Ian Paisley, and that rather than portray Christ's healing as being a solution to the problem, the producers took music as part of the solution as well as an allegory of the causes.
 
Here the imagery is of the lambeg – a symbol of the unionists – against the bodhran, representing the nationalists. In the wordplay of “Different Drums,” ”The sound of the stick on the skin in the street / Two different messages in the same beat / One man will answer another will run / We all dance to a different drum'.
 
The original series was considered to be a landmark for both folk music and broadcasting. This update, which could also be productive small group material, may be riding in its slipstream, but is none the less a fascinating and worthwhile listen that is rich in human stories and history in the making.
 
Original Ballads can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/musicclub/documentaries_index.shtml
 
Alongside the set of six CDs that are straight releases of the programmes, Gott Discs (www.gottdiscs.com) also has available a fine compilation of twenty songs from the series, disentangled from the taped interviews. 
 
 
Derek Walker
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
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