logo Enthusiasms No 13
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The missing Radio Ballads

Some UK readers may have seen the Press coverage accorded to the re-release on CD of the Parker / MacColl / Seeger Radio Ballads in the Spring of this year.  There follows a letter sent to the Guardian by Ian Campbell in response to their piece - oddly titled 'The Voice of the People'.  The letter was never published - but it is here!  Ed.

Re: ‘The Voice of the People’ Guardian, 27 May 99

As an old friend of, and sometime collaborator with, Charles Parker of Radio Ballad fame, I find it disturbing that in none of the relevant press articles I have read over the years, nor even in the Charles Parker Archive in Birmingham Central Library, have I ever encountered reference to the two Radio Ballads he produced without the involvement of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.  That these programmes evoked no enthusiasm in MacColl and Seeger is perhaps not surprising, but that they should be excluded from the Parker canon seems odd, as they were Charles’ only attempt to utilise the Radio Ballad format in programmes with a local theme, treated by local follk revivalists.

As a prominent Midlands figure in the folksong revival I was enthralled by the Radio Ballad format, having been booked as a singer on Singing the Fishing and The Big Hewer, but it was in the interval between these programmes that Charles approached me with a plea for help.  He explained that he was in trouble at the BBC because the revolutionary RB techniques were so time-consuming that they required budgets more apropriate for a TV spectacular than a radio feature; getting these budgets accepted was a constant struggle, but even so they were always inadequate.  He implied that to balance the books and safeguard his job and future Radio Ballads he must produce an extra programme in the RB format as quickly and cheaply as possible.  To this end, he had already surreptitiously recorded the documentary ‘actuality’ for a programme about the craftsmen of the traditional Birmingham jewellery trade.  He had thus forgone the ten months of research, recording, and analysis that MacColl would have been paid for.

As a craftsman engraver as well as a recognised singer/songwriter, I was doubly qualified to work on this programme, and what Charles now required was that I should gather a team of creative amateurs - singers, musicians - who might convert his documentary material into a Radio Ballad, with songs written by me and another local folky, John Chapman.  Charles apologised for the fact that he could not afford the 10-15 days of studio time that MacColl would have required; instead, he could let us have one day to rehearse and record, which he had already booked for a Saturday which was a mere three weeks away!

So it was for the next three weeks John Chapman and I spent every spare moment with Charles’ tape, groping for the themes and the vocabulary from which to weave the lyrics to fit the traditional tunes, and on the appointed day we joined our little group of musical friends in the studio for a gruelling 12 hours session under Parker’s direction during which we cobbled together our very own Radio Ballad, The Jewellery.

Remarkably, the programme was broadcast shortly afterward to positive critical acclaim even though, inevitably, it was compared unfavourably with the MacColl/Seeger award-winning creations.  The accepted critical view seemed to be that, having collaborated with Charles in the creation of a new art form, Ewan and Peggy could not expect to exercise a total monopoly on its furture development and expression.

Consequently in the following year Charles approached me again with the actuality for a programme about the Midland canal communities, to be called A Cry from the Cut.  This time I alone was to substitute for MacColl and Seeger as writer, composer, and arranger of the music, and in the recorded performance, I would be joined only by my own group - Lorna Campbell, Dave Swarbrick, John Dunkerley and Brian Clarke.  This time I was given 15 days notice of our one day in the studio and, to put things into further perspective, my total BBC fee as I recall was £17.  A Cry from the Cut received even warmer critical acclaim than The Jewellery.

I have no way of knowing what tension these two programmes may have engendered among the creative triumvirate of the Radio Ballads, and I think I can understand why they were not included among the recordings for commercial release, but I think it regrettable that an apparent conspiracy of silence at some level in the BBC has consigned them to permanent oblivion.  Surely to students of the arts and the media they should be of at least historical interest, if only for purposes of comparison.

Yours sincerely

Ian Campbell - 30.5.99

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