2016, and I interview the late musician and musicologist CP Lee. The subject of Ewan MacColl comes up, whereupon the air suddenly turns blue. Far from being the radical saint so feared by the authorities who was spied on by Special Branch – as the reputation always had – the fabled communist, playwright and folk music legend spied his pals even for the post-war top office, suggests Lee.
“How else did he quit the army and spend the war in Fallowfield without going to court martial?” He asks, adding that the MacColl file suddenly stops in 1941 and that its source on the famous Topic record label is impeccable.
This unexploded bomb slumbered under my outbuilding for five long years until I ran into an old colleague, the music writer Mike Butler. Mike was the jazz critic for City Life in its heyday and then the Metro, a humble and highly respected authority in his field.
When I ask him what he’s up to, he tells me that he has just published the first part of a ten-volume biography about legendary sound engineer Bill Leader, an icon of the folk music world.
“Mike … ten volumes from a sound engineer?”
“It’s called ‘Sounding The Century’. It’s Bill’s life, but also a social history of the past hundred years. “
So I read volume one: ‘Insights into Distant Things 1855-1956’ going back to Bill’s ancestors, the arrival of his grandfather from Ireland, the sociology of work in the early twenties, the Workers Music Association and their in-house record club Topic, the famous Folk label preceded. The young Bill Leader falls into this world at will. It’s great read.
When two journalists discuss a book that one of them wrote, it seems imperative that the other provide some support. I know Mike is one of those writers who is much more comfortable doing the actual writing than beating up the fruits of his labor when they’re done – which he wouldn’t have to do in an ideal world.
Reviews, he tells me, are therefore few and far between.
So I say, “Mike, I have an idea for your next book.” And then I tell him about CP Lee and the Ewan MacColl thing. “That little bit of unconfirmed slander … Mike, if you take it and put it through the rigorous journalistic scrutiny, it could be something that could sell your books in stacks.” I can see The Guardian post something like this on their home page for hours on a Tuesday afternoon. You would be there. ‘A new book claims …’ and so on. “
“I don’t know,” says Mike, a little suspiciously. “Maybe after I’m dead.”
I can see he’s a little appalled with me, maybe more than a little. But then he still has nine volumes of Bill Leader’s life to write and the last thing he needs is for all of his sources in the popular world and their descendants to quarrel with each other, as their ancestors did in ancient times, calling each other ‘Judas’ and so on. So I drop it
“What’s next anyway?” I ask, “I mean in the story. What exactly did Bill record? “
“What did he record? What did he not record? In his bedroom in Camden he recorded Bert Jansch’s first LP. He recorded Rambling Jack Elliot on a yacht off the Isle of Wight. He recorded MacColl’s demo of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. He recorded the album of the same name by Peggy Seeger. He blindly picked up Jesse Fuller. He recorded Son House … “
“Yes. Then he went to Salford University to teach sound recording. You can meet him if you like. He goes to the Folk Night at Middleton Archer most weeks.”
So we’re going down to this pub on Manchester Old Road. This is last week. Bill is there and I meet him, he’s ninety years old and sprightly, and the Folk Night at the Archer isn’t quite like any acoustic night I’ve ever experienced. The level starts with “very good” and goes up to “stunning”. Put your fingers to boxes and old guys singing navvy shanties with Irish accents and “this is a song about the demise of the horse and the advent of mechanical agriculture.” I’m the youngest man there and these classic cars are the business.
So I come home and look at myself in the mirror. Maybe I should bring it up again. Maybe I should start over. Should I face the fact that I intimidate Mike or gently encourage him to take on his responsibilities as a historian?
Just do it
When Popbitch wore that – who knows? – an equally apocryphal story this week in which Lionel Messi destroyed Pep Guardiola’s power base in Barcelona outside the locker room with an ostentatiously chugging can of Coke before the game (the coach had just told him not to). Wonder where City history is going this season? Since star names have been dropped for all sorts of elusive reasons and the manager has fallen out with the fan club over unacceptable audience numbers, Guardiolas could explain and then retract the departure announcement, knock a kink in his Mancunic story arc. The naming of your departure date rarely goes down well in public life, doesn’t it?
Still, there was something special about seeing a young foursome in their teens handle the Mac Truck muscle of Adebayo Akinfenwa and Co. how Wycombe was picked up at Petty-had on Tuesday evening. The 6-1 foot toast served to the League One team was high in terms of entertainment and optimism for Blues fans – despite knowing how many little prodigies in East Manchester will advance to regular first-team football. You are of course the future, that much is clear – but where?
To see Phil Foden perfectly stage a reverse pass … as if he were performing a trick that David Silva demonstrated for him personally … in these steep, uncertain times, some things in top football are almost worth the price of entry.
“Shrouded in secrecy,” a Manchester city councilor described the impending process by which the next chairman of the Manchester city council would be decided – with confused and contradicting reports even from supposedly “connoisseurs”. How is this secrecy anything other than anti-democratic and a scandal in itself?
Sounding The Century by Mike Butler was published by Troubadour and is available here.