Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


TOPIC label

British folk label. Recording began early '40s growing out of the Workers' Music Association Ltd formed '36; in '44 WMA could boast composer Alan Bush (1900--95) as its president and Benjamin Britten and Hanns Eisler as vice- presidents; another left-wing luminary was composer Granville Bantock (1868--1946), whose Celtic Symphony was utterly inappropriately used by the Tory Party during the '97 UK election. Objectives incl. 'To foster and further the art of music on the principle that true art can move the people to work for the betterment of society'. The WMA published A. L. Lloyd's 'brief social-historical introduction to folk song' The Singing Englishman (undated, in '44) in its Keynote Series; expanded, revised and transformed, this became Lloyd's masterly Folk Song In England '67. WMA's debut 78 r.p.m. record was 'The Man That Waters The Workers' Beer' by Paddy Ryan (in fact a professional gentleman using an alias to conceal his leftist leanings); the B side was the Topic Singers' interpretation of 'The Internationale'. Artists recording for Topic included Lloyd, the Topic Male Singers, Ewan MacColl and Al Jeffrey, Alfie Bass and the Four Bailiffs, Michael Redgrave and Band, the Red Army Choir, Isla Cameron, John Hasted, Peggy Seeger, Margaret Barry (then credited Margaret Barrie), the Ironworkers' Ensemble and Jack Elliott. Presence of actors such as Michael Redgrave, Alfie Bass and Harry H. Corbett on Topic indicated the left-wing nature of the thespian community in Britain in the immediate aftermath of WWII; the horror of fascism was still fresh but times were hard for people's songs and the label didn't make any money.

Trading as Topic Records by the mid-'50s, WMA accountant Gerry Sharp took over '58. Writing in The Topic Catalogue Of Recorded Folkmusic '78, journalist Tony Russell recalled that by the late '50s Topic was describing itself as 'perhaps the smallest record company in the world'. Sharp's folly coincided with pioneering work by Lloyd, MacColl, Alan Lomax and others, coupled with a growing folk club scene (Harry Boardman opened his first club '54) and the emergence of new generation of revival singers; Topic released records (especially EPs) on a non-exclusive contract basis for revivalist acts such as the Ian Campbell Folk Group and the Spinners. The early catalogue still prided itself on picking up great records under licence from the USA by acts such as Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Woody Guthrie, who were persecuted by the US government, the releases marking solidarity as well as making available great songs of freedom. Lloyd remained an adviser and masterminded exquisite thematic or concept albums; The Bird In The Bush homed in on erotic song with Annie Briggs and Frankie Armstrong as the leading protagonists; Leviathan! was a collection of whaling ballads and songs; The Iron Muse looked to industrial folk song. For newcomers Lloyd's sleeve notes acted as both validation and fillip. Topic similarly championed the work of field recordists, releasing Lloyd's revelatory Folk Music Of Bulgaria and key international collections compiled by Wolf Dietrich. Folksongs Of Britain, a lend-lease series on ten thematic LPs from the Caedmon label '68--9, captured performances recorded all over Britain by Lomax, Peter Kennedy, Hamish Henderson and others; among the crŠme de la crŠme were Bob and Ron Copper, Cecilia Costello, Harry Cox, Seamus Ennis, Fred Jordan, Frank McPeake, Jeannie Robertson and Paddy Tunney. Topic's roster mid- to late '60s incl. Briggs, the Clutha, Shirley Collins, Fisher Family, Johnny Handle, Stan Kelly, Louis Killen and the Watersons, along with less obvious fare such as a single by Michael Redgrave's daughter, actress Vanessa Redgrave, on 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?'. Also important were Topic's collections of regional folk traditions such as Deep Lancashire, 'Owdham Edge and Along The Coaly Tyne.

Former civil engineer Tony Engle joined Sharp at Topic, taking over '73 on Sharp's death. Fed by Engle's interest in English country music the label took on a new lease of life, becoming a superb repository of trad. British styles, e.g. with field collections by the likes of Mike Yates such as Songs Of The Open Road, Sussex Harvest and Green Grow The Laurels; on the other hand the archival Art Of William Kimber captured Kimber (1872--1961), one of the greatest Morris musicians, in full flight, gathering his commercial output from '35 and '47-- 8; new folk bands with regional voices such as the High Level Ranters and Boys of the Lough would also record for Topic after matriculating from other labels. As time went on Topic captured the next generation of folk revivalists such as Martin Carthy, the Battlefield Band, Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones and June Tabor. Under the influence of Tony Russell, Topic also released prime reissues of western swing late '70s (Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, Emmett W. Lundy, the Swift Jewel Cowboys) on its subsidiary String label. The vigour, pertinence and timelessness of the tradition were nowhere better demonstrated than by the High Level Ranters' The Bonny Pit Laddie (with Dick Gaughan and Harry Boardman guesting) from '70s; the double LP was a treatment of 'A Miner's Life In Music And Song' and as important as Lloyd's pioneering Topic anthologies: the '84 miners' strike in Britain rejuvenated sales.

Increasingly the label became involved with distribution, its Direct Distribution becoming a major player under Richard Porter. By the '90s the label was releasing material by Lal Waterson and her son Oliver Knight, Waterson- Carthy and Eliza Carthy; seeing the success of Fellside's licensed The Classic Anne Briggs '91 (Jeannie Robertson -- The Great Scots Traditional Ballad Singer was also licensed to Ossian '94) Topic finally entered the reissue business, sometimes with dignity as with The Complete Brass Monkey or Martin Carthy's Byker Hill, at other times dismembering the unity of works by the High Level Ranters and the Watersons to extend to CD playing times. From precarious beginnings Topic had become the UK's oldest independent label and one of the longest-surviving indies in the world.