IN 2019, Before Covid, singer and songwriter Steve Knightley got together with historian Michael Wood to explore the stories of English songs about the working people, and a prototype show was performed All sorts of plans were made to create a show and tour it, but the pandemic stepped in.
Now, thankfully, the idea has been revived and Songs of the People – the English Radical Tradition is on the road. The quartet played to an enthralled audience at the Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, at the start of a nationwide tour that also tacks on a couple of continental European performances and dates are being added to the end of 2023.
It all starts with The Cutty Wren, a strange old folk song about the hunting of the wren, traditionally sung on Boxing Day and dating back to the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The wren is supposed to be the young king Richard II, who is killed and fed to the poor. The engaging Michael Wood tells the stories behind the songs as freshly as if they happened yesterday, drawn from events in our history including the Diggers, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Jarrow March, the Suffragettes, the Great War, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War … all events when the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised were highlighted and the inequalities of their lives particularly hard-felt.
It’s the perfect subject for Britain in 2023.
Some of the songs are familiar, some less so, but the audience joins in with choruses that immediately prove their timeless relevance and enduring power. All of them are illuminated by Michael Wood’s poignant and impassioned narrative, and by simple and heartfelt performances.
Wood and Knightley describe the show as a work in progress, so more songs and stories may be added as the tour makes its way round the country. The south west is home territory for Knightley and Beer, better known as Show of Hands, and they are joined again by singer and harpist Kirsty Merryn after her debut with their Cathedral tour.
Catch this journey through history via music at Wimborne Tivoli on 24th May, with 19 more dates so far scheduled, and counting.