As we wave goodbye to 2016 there are many who will be glad to see its back. It has been a tough year politically, and we have lost several iconic names from music and the arts, many far too young and their passing takes a part of us too; but life, just as the times we live in, moves on and so must we, into new struggles as we do battle for the future.
I remember thinking 2015 had been such an incredible year it couldn’t possibly be topped. I spoke to a handful of people telling them I thought the new year would be quiet musically because who could possibly want to hear me again after all the miles I did…..how wrong I was.
I find, as I try to summarise the last 12 months, that I’m struggling to work out how it actually all fitted in! I know it did….I mean, I was there…..but when you add a full-time job, a wife and two teenage sons into the equation, it starts to look like I’m making it up! I assure you though, I’m not.
January started gently enough, its highlight being an incredible night with the young people of Hartlepool Holocaust Memorial Group as they put on an evening of speeches and presentations capped off with a performance from Sara Dennis, Gary Miller, Brian Barnes and myself together with the choir, of ‘Through The Wire’, a song we’d co-written and recorded especially for them. They demonstrated wisdom way beyond their years and could teach many people a thing or two about tolerance and understanding as they compared the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany to the plight of refugees seeking shelter in a Europe all too ready to shut its doors and guard its borders. Thought-provoking and inspirational. You can hear the song here:
February began with some filming at Corporation Club in Scarborough, as Michael Lee Toas travelled down from Durham to make a short documentary film called ‘Man Of The Left’, part of an ongoing project on community activism in the north east and soon to be a full-length documentary. You can see that here:
The following night was unforgettable, as Rebekah Findlay joined me to officially launch my album on the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike, ‘NEVER BE DEFEATED’, just yards away from where many of its set-pieces took place, and singing it to the lads and lasses whose stories it tells. To say it was emotional doesn’t begin to cover it. Great to see so many people who’d travelled some fair old distances to pack the place out (“Hasn’t been this full since Thatcher died.”) and a fitting send-off for a record I am tremendously proud of.
After that, the year went and got itself a bit amazing. I burned through gigs in Dewsbury and Bradford, With Banners Held High in Wakefield, a BFAWU event in Scarborough (where I met Jeremy Corbyn for the first of three times in 9 months….), Bury (where Andy Kershaw was among the punters), a lovely day over at The Station in Ashton-under-Lyne giving Big Sis Pauline Town a hug, and a People’s Assembly fundraiser in Doncaster for ASLEF President Tosh McDonald, then Bacup Folk Club, Belper and Hull. So far, so knackering, but 2016 hadn’t even got out of first gear.
Looking back I think it REALLY started on 25th April at 100 Club in London, my first trip to our nation’s capital in 18 years. I was delighted to have been asked by The Morning Star to play their 50th Anniversary birthday party, and duly obliged on a stellar bill featuring Thee Faction, The Hurriers, Grace Petrie, Attila the Stockbroker and Comrade X. An unforgettable night of incredible music and friendship and handshakes from people I’d never met but who had latched on to my music over the last year or two, or who had been a part of We Shall Overcome and wanted to introduce themselves. Genuinely moving night, and it made me feel a part of something very special indeed.
From there it was 0161 Festival in Manchester, always a great night, and on to May Day Festival of Solidarity a new event to celebrate International Worker’s Day, the brainchild of Tony Peter Wright, and put together by us both over the first months of the year. That was an unbelievable day of music and poetry and speeches as set after set the artists delivered and you couldn’t miss a moment. I think I just spent the entire day with a faraway look in my eye and a strange smile on my face. It was like dying and going to heaven, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
From there it was back up to Hartlepool; then the launch of Brigadista Ale at The King’s Arms in Salford; a set at the UCATT conference in Scarborough; the Labour Rooms in Rochdale; The Adelphi in Hull with TV Smith; then Leeds, Apollo Festival in York….
The only heartbreak was my eldest son being taken seriously ill following a collapse and being rushed to hospital, which caused us an awful lot of worry and forced me to cancel my first appearance at Glastonwick Festival at the 11th hour. After four days of tests Little Solo Snr was released and appears to be fine, though we are waiting on a specialist. Big thanks to the NHS for taking such good care of him, and to Attila the Stockbroker for being so kind when I was letting him down badly so late in the day.
Thankfully, from there it was the stuff of dreams.
I marched with the Hatfield Brigade at Durham Miner’s Gala before playing a post-gala gig to an amazing crowd thanks to the hard work of good folk who run The People’s Bookshop; and the following weekend I had an absolute BLAST at Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival where I met Tom Robinson and Maxine Peake as well as hollering on two stages and being accompanied on ‘We Will Be Free’ by Steve White and the Protest Family before joining Steve and the band, Robb Johnson, Paddy Nash and Diane Greer on stage to close the night with ‘Which Side Are You On?’ Loved every last second, and slept on the backseat of my car staring up at the stars with a great big grin on my face.
If I thought July was done with amazingness I was wrong. On the 23rd I sang the ‘NO PASARAN!’ album with Rebekah at the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston as part of the 80th Anniversary commemorations for the Spanish Civil War. A wonderful night capped with the news that Tom Robinson had played ‘Summer Fields & Riot Shields’ on BBC 6Music, my first play on the station. And I thought I couldn’t smile any wider!
Then on the 30th, one of the year’s defining images in my head, was created in Hull. I’d been asked by Joe Francis to sing at the Corbyn Rally next to Queen’s Gardens and, mischief getting the better of me, I asked the 3500 people present to raise their fists in memory of the International Brigade volunteers from the city. I took photos on my phone which were quickly doctored and the internet did the rest. Unforgettable scenes, and the chorus of ‘NO PASARAN’ ringing out from all those voices crackled with electricity. You had to be there. If you were, then thank you. I could have probably died happy right there on that stage.
From there is was Filey, Tottington, Ashton again, Cleethorpes; a wonderful day at Wigan Diggers Festival, where I met Ken Loach and Jimmy McGovern; Howden, Scarborough….the miles were clocking up.
So were the memories.
I played Hope Not Hate’s #MoreInCommon event in Manchester remembering the legacy of Jo Cox MP so tragically murdered by a fascist during the hateful EU Referendum campaign in June. I opened for Billy Bragg. I’d never met Billy before, but he was an inspiration from back in my youth so it was incredible to share a bill with him and even more so when he needed a loan of a guitar and borrowed mine.
There followed yet more magic. The #KeepCorbyn event at Cast Theatre in Doncaster; a performance of ‘NEVER BE DEFEATED’ at Glossop Labour Rooms; ‘NO PASARAN!’ in St Mary’s Church in Hull. Each unforgettable in their own ways, yet each so different.
I sang at a rally for UK Miners Pension Scheme for Justice and Fair Play Association in Liverpool on Tuesday September 27th helping spread the word about the systematic theft of millions by governments of all denominations.
BBC 6Music played my song ‘English Dreamer, American Dream’ after it was chosen by TV Smith as being one of his favourites during an interview with Tom Robinson, which meant one of my musical heroes choosing a song to be played by another of my musical heroes on national radio. If Cloud Nine had stairs, I was climbing them.
Then it was time for We Shall Overcome.
Since right back in January we had slowly being piecing together our second year of anti-austerity/pro-community events up and down the land and beyond; just as last year each was raising much needed help for those at the sharp end of austerity and struggling to make ends meet in #FoodBankBritain; and just as last year the response from people was just incredible. The ideas, the energy, the dedication, the mischief were inspiration itself. We ended up with 265 events in 115 towns and cities raising an estimated £110,000 worth of food, cash, clothing and bedding an everyone who was there and a part of what was a monumental week between October 3rd and 9th has my utmost respect and admiration for caring enough to lend a hand. Our committee this year was made up of Ste Goodall, Matt Hill, Jamie Bramwell, Val Colvin, Steve White, Pete Yen, Tony Peter Wright, the unstoppable Pauline Town and myself; and without a single one of them WSO wouldn’t happen; yet the hundreds of organisers running events under their own steam just to help their communities and to be a part of a movement for change are heroes all. I played Billingham, Hartlepool, Hebden Bridge, Barnsley, Stainforth and Liverpool in four days adding Scunthorpe, Middlebrough and Leeds over the coming weeks. It was really something.
Next year we’ll be back again, and the year after, and the year after that, until there is no longer a need for us. Sadly, there is little chance of that changing any time soon.
#WSO2017 is in planning.
From there I was proud and privileged to put on a presentation on political songwriting and activism through music for the RMT at the Bob Crow Education Centre in Doncaster. The union later donated £500 to WSO and saved lives in the run-up to Christmas through their generosity and solidarity. I had amazing support this year from the unions, with RMT, ASLEF, BFAWU and UCATT supporting me directly and plenty more helping sponsor events all over the country…..JOIN A UNION!!
And from there, if anything, the year went and got itself even more frantic. Having been unable to collect them because of WSO gig commitments I was presented with awards for ‘Outstanding Songwriting’ (for ‘NEVER BE DEFEATED’) and ‘Outstanding Contribution 2016’ (I was runner-up) by Joe Grint of Yorkshire Gig Guide Grassroots Music before going on stage for a storming set at the brilliant Musicport Festival in Whitby.
I burned through Scunthorpe with the amazing David Rovics (with Lorna McKinnon on harmony vocal…outstanding!) then Fulford Arms in York before arriving back in Stainforth for a day which shaped the remaining weeks of the year.
I’d been asked to write a Christmas song to help miners pay back a Debt of Honour they felt was owed the thousands who had fed them during the darkest days of the Strike in 84. I duly obliged and on Sunday October 30th we gathered at Central Club to record The Hatfield Brigade, a choir made up of former miners and their families. The song was released on November 28th and raised money for a new Hardship Fund to help those struggling to make ends meet in the South Yorkshire pit villages.
It was a magical few weeks in which we performed both ‘Merry Christmas From Hatfield Main’ and ‘No Pasaran!’ together twice, in Wakefield and Doncaster, the first as part of the #JC4PM Stand Up For Labour tour….
And the second as the ASLEF Annual Dinner where we were joined onstage by none other than Jeremy Corbyn himself….
In the meantime I’d burned through Cambridge, Scunthorpe and Sheffield again en route to a well-earned rest….or so I thought. I’d been running #SocksAppeal at all my gigs since the winter fell, and audiences were encouraged to bring gloves, hats, scarves and, yes, socks along which would be donated to those sleeping rough on our streets in the worst of conditions. The response, just like with WSO, was incredible and I have boxes and boxes and boxes flying out to Pauline’s teams in Ashton. So THANKS EVERYONE!
Let’s face it, that rest isn’t going to happen. Behind the scenes I’d been writing and recording a new album for 2017. ‘THE FUTURE NEEDS US NOW’ is 18 songs and poems for the times we live in, and I cannot WAIT to get back out there and play them. Plus the fact I’ve already started writing the next one.
So there we have it. That was the “quiet year” I’d anticipated back in January.
There is absolutely no chance 2017 could match that.
No chance at all.
To everyone who cheered and sang and applauded; to everyone who shook and rattled and hollered; to everyone who booked and promoted; to everyone who ran lights and sound; who did artwork and posters; who took photos and film; to everyone who kept venues running against the odds; to everyone who had faith enough to run those festivals when they knew it was a gamble; to everyone who kept the faith in our politics and didn’t run and hide; to everyone who walked it like they talked it; to everyone who bought CDs; to everyone who downloaded; to everyone who watched the videos; who shared the links; who retweeted; who commented; who messaged when they knew I was down; who drove miles in the cold and rain to be there; who stood at our side during We Shall Overcome; who wrote articles and reviews; who donated food and cash and clothing and bedding and furniture; who offered lifts; who held out their hand; who hugged; who rebuilt; who slept in the cold for Pauline; who was there and wore the t-shirt; who couldn’t make it and STILL wore it; who cared enough to ask for help and then smashed it out of the ground.
ALL of you made magic happen this year; and because of you that magic will go on.
Happy New Year.