Edward II, the English roots band that uniquely blend the rhythms of the Caribbean with traditional songs from the British Isles, have just launched an exciting new project ‘Manchester’s Improving Daily’. Temporarily turning away from the rural songs of the middle England Morris teams, this time around the band has been delving deep into a repertoire of songs born of the industrial revolution, specifically of their home town, Manchester.
The album, a collection of Manchester Ballads features broadside ballads dating from the time of the industrial revolution. The ballads are in many ways an early equivalent of social media and bring the social and political struggles of the time into sharp focus, seen from a present day perspective. Not surprisingly, many of the themes are still relevant today with songs of love, loss, poverty and political rights featuring heavily, but in the hands of Edward II, these have been turned into an uplifting celebration of the working people who really forged Manchester and transformed Britain into an Industrial powerhouse.
Beautifully designed, packaged and presented, the physical CD is the culmination of a 15-month project. ‘Manchester’s Improving Daily’ is accompanied by a book, written by social archaeologist David Jennings, explaining the history of the songs and providing an informative commentary to these rare glimpses into the lives of working class Mancunians in the Victorian times.
The songs have been completely reworked into modern roots reggae classics, featuring Glen Latouche’s seductively honeyed lead vocals at the fore and a rock solid rhythm section led by T. Carthy providing the irresistible force at the rear. Of course, the band still roam free across the musical spectrum, bringing in dashes of jazz and soul alongside the reggae and folk, but always with an air of good humor and, more than anything, a desire to make you dance. Jennifer Reid’s readings of the ballads in the original style offer a poignant contrast to the band’s re-worked versions.
The original Manchester Ballads was produced in a handsome hardback card case, and is in the form of a folio collection of loose- leaf facsimile prints of the original penny broadsheets. There is accompanying text with many of the ballads, giving the biography of the song and, where necessary, a glossary of dialect terms. There are tunes suggested to allow the ballads to be sung communally in pubs and at home, and whilst penny broadsides were produced in the hundreds, many were written to be sung to well known tunes. The impoverished audience would, with few exceptions, have no ability to read music (Boardman and Boardman 1973) and many would also be totally illiterate, only learning the songs through the oral tradition of singing in pubs, at markets and in local homes.
The Manchester Ballads are, in essence, a snapshot of Mancunian life in the industrial era. However, they are a snapshot from a very selective source, and the themes, events, places and characters that are outlined within the lyrics of the ballads should be seen in the context not only of their chance survival, but also of the reasons for publication.
The themes in the Manchester Ballads speak of struggle (The Spinners Lamentation 1846), poverty (Tinkers Garden 1837), civic uprisings (The Meeting at Peterloo 1819) and communal tragedy (The Great Flood 1872). However, they also recall good nights out (Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night 1861), day trips around the region (Johnny Green’s Trip fro’ Owdhum to see the Manchester Railway 1832) and the various innovations and achievements of industrial Manchester are mentioned, and praised, throughout.
The new repertoire features such unlikely classics as ‘Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night’ and ‘A New Song on the Great Demonstration, which is to be made on Kersal Moor September 24th, 1838’, and give remarkable insights into the lives of our those living through a time of great change almost 200 years ago.
Edward II have a rich musical lineage, starting out as an English country dance band playing tunes from the Welsh borders, before blending with The Mekons to add punk attitude. A trio of young horn-blowing jazzers were dded alongside the infusion of south London dub overlord The Mad Professor on their second album ‘Two Step To Heaven’ and as the 1990s arrived the band added the ‘Moss Side contingent’ to hone their sound into its current roots fusion melting pot.