Every Friday during school terms last year the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage sound studio was full of the noise of protest. We’re on the third floor, directly above Library Walk, so when anything is happening in St Peter’s Square, we hear it loud and clear.
The songs the schoolchildren sang were inspiring. But what moved me most of all was their persistence. There was something humbling about their presence out there, while we worked away. They made their statement, again and again, every week. And each week they spoke with the same urgency as the first.
This year, of course, we have been away from the studio for long periods of time during the Covid lockdowns. But the protests continued through the city centre, including Black Lives Matter, Disabled People Against Cuts, Extinction Rebellion and anti-lockdown.
One strand in our project is to get sound archives used by new audiences, in particular musicians and other creatives, to make new works. The idea is to use the recordings to inspire the creation of new songs. So of course we have opted for the theme of protest.
Most of the life stories we are digitising and cataloguing from around the region involve political engagement at some level – whether it’s being the shop steward for a union or simply expressing views about the politicians of the time.
Often politically-involved people can trace the events or views that first switched them on engagement in politics. Edith Pepper, born in 1890, describes the scene outside a meeting at the Free Trade Hall where the Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney had been thrown out and arrested and why she was inspired by this to become a suffragette.
Alongside oral histories, we are also processing collections of live music which include protest songs. This song, written by Paul Graney and performed by Marie Little, tells the story of child labour in the cotton mills of Lancashire.
Twelve hours a day they were working
Famished on watery gruel
But they were only working class children
So nobody thought it was cruel
Now the thing about mighty Empire
It lies not on its guns nor its ships
But on the backs of the Lancashire children
A-strugglin wi’ buckets and skips
This next song takes the viewpoint of a little boy to show the social consequences of demolishing housing on Scotland Road in Liverpool to build the second Mersey tunnel in the 1960s. We don’t know who sang it or where it was performed.
Alongside songs of protest are recordings of performers whose very presence is the result of a struggle to be heard. Jacqui and Bridie were the first female folk duo of the folk revival in the 1960s. Here they are playing Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Hello Friend at the Coach House club in Liverpool in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement.
We are also digitising local radio broadcasts. These often document local political issues and demonstrations. Here is BBC Radio Manchester’s coverage of the Clause 28 demonstration in February 1988 cut with disco tracks of the time. Copyright BBC Radio Manchester. All rights reserved.
We will be sharing more political stories from the sound archives here through 2021. We’ll also be posting updates on our work with music groups around the region using the archives to inspire new works around the theme of protest.