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root salad f20 Commoners Choir

“Joyful descendants of the broadside tradition,” it says here. Chris Nickson mets some singing lefties.

explains. “We went to libraries where there aren’t many events, and ones that were under threat. Getting money from Arts Council England for the tour meant no-one had to pay. And that money belongs to us, so let’s use it.”

And now they have a CD, called Com-

moners Choir, with 21 songs that are funny, often moving, and very political, like The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song or the lovely Three Boats. It’s the human voice, as basic and uncomplicated as it can be – and yet filled with layers and harmonies.

“Left-wing community choirs are great,” Whalley says. “But most do estab- lished, known songs. There’s a lot of reliance on the tradition for many; it’s hard to get to that second step – what am I going to do with all this? We’re going to write our own songs in language people know.”

“Boff writes songs for other people to sing,” Whyatt observes. “They’re broadside ballads, to get out to as many people as pos- sible.”


et’s start with a contentious idea: there are two strands to the folk tradition. First we have the one where old songs were collected

and recorded, then disseminated and con- stantly reinterpreted ever since. And then there are the broadside ballads. Very topi- cal, composed, and sung and sold for a ha’penny on the streets. They commemo- rated victories, hangings, all manner of events. They were, perhaps, the first mass music media.

The classic tradition gets most of the folk heroes. But Leeds-based Commoners Choir are the joyful descendants of the broadside tradition. The Choir was the brainchild of Boff Whalley, the former Chumbawamba member (a band that release an unaccompanied album of Rebel Songs in 1988).

“I was doing more with theatre,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t writing songs of my own. I couldn’t work out what to do. I did some work at the Manchester Museum, then at the Tate for the Turner exhibition, and we got a group to sing a song I’d written about him. Writing for groups of people was inter- esting, and no-one else was doing it. So two and a bit years ago I had an idea for an a cappella group somewhere between the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Crass. I wrote a manifesto and put it on social media.”

Choir member Mark Whyatt’s introduc- tion to Commoners Choir was a little more blunt. “I got an email from Boff saying “Do

you fancy being in a choir?” It was too good an opportunity to miss. My first time with them was when we climbed Kinder Scout to celebrate the 1932 mass trespass. We had two songs. We walked up the hill and sang, and I was hooked. It’s very positive. We have great songs and people, and you feel like you’re hitting back.”

Kirsty McArthur joined “a year ago. I had no history of singing. It never crossed my mind to join. But I was in a choir doing a song for the Olympic refugee team. I sat next to Boff and he asked why I wasn’t in his choir.”

Although Whalley writes the songs, the choir is very democratic.

“He asks for suggestions,” McArthur says, “and we tweak what he produces.”

“He likes to be commissioned to write on a theme,” Whyatt observes. “He likes to be set a task. We all have an input, but none of us write a song better than him.”

These days the choir has 65-70 mem- bers, “but we’ve never had them all sing together. The core is 25-30. It’s very inclusive,” Whyatt adds. “It’s come when you can.”

These days there are plenty of choirs, but definitely none like this. How many mix walking and singing, or perform on a canal boat going to celebrate a corn riot (and also have a beer named after them)? They’ve also recently completed a library tour, which grew out of an event at Leeds Central Library.

“We performed there, doing a song about Gutenberg, and we thought we should do this somewhere else,” Whalley

“Other people have been singing them,” Whalley acknowledges. “They write for permission. Just do them!”

“Because there’s no cash involved, it does get to a lot of people,” McArthur says.

“But if they buy the album it lets us do even more,” Whyatt says.

And with that album now out, what next for Commoners Choir? “I think the plan is to see what happens and react to it,” Whalley suggests. “That’s a lovely place to be in.”

Rosselson blog bemoaning the lack of music lately around campaigns. At a Leeds demo last year, the choir marched and sang – and people joined in. It works.


“This song every month means we can be responsive to events as they happen,” McArthur points out. The first piece is about Theresa May, part-song, part-chant, the kind of thing to sharpen any crowd with its humour and point.

Commoners Choir is the kind of open- ended project that’s full of possibilities, and eminently accessible to all kinds of audi- ences, from Tolpuddle to Glastonbury and far beyond. They’re creating a new broad- side tradition, a real music of the people. And in today’s climate, we need as much of that, with compassion, passion, and humour, as we can get. F

ne project that’s underway is to release one topical song a month online, with accompanying video. The idea was sparked by a Leon

Photo: Casey Orr

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