“The cards aren’t always kind,
Some they fold, but I always felt
That even if you’re bluffing, son,
You play the hand you’re dealt.”
It has been the cruellest of years for the cruellest of reasons, and 2020 has cost so many good people their lives or their livelihoods, so reflecting on this last 12 months would seem like the last thing any of us wanted to do. Yet this year has taught me so much about resilience and togetherness, and most importantly the ability of the human spirit to transcend separation, that it is worth picking over the ashes before we scatter them to the wind.
It started routinely enough, in fact I drove more miles in the first 3 months than even last year when I never seemed to stop. The mischief and mayhem hit Sheffield, Portsmouth, Belper, Otley, Hull, Nottingham and Ashton-under-Lyne before arriving at the King’s Arms in Salford knowing Lockdown was coming and this was likely the last show for a few weeks.
I finished that night standing in a circle of people singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ unplugged in the company of friends and comrades unsure of when and if we would see each other again.
These moments you tend to remember.
Then came 23rd March and THAT announcement.
To be honest, I knew it was coming weeks before, having followed the spread of the virus from Day One. That helped, because I’d been able to imagine a world with no gigs and make a mental list of what would need to be done in that eventuality.
Top of the list in block capitals was KEEP PAULINE GOING.
We Shall Overcome‘s heart and soul is Pauline Town and The Station Hotel in Ashton-under-Lyne. Losing them was unthinkable, but as the daily food parcels and rehousing operation relied on gigs to fund it, and with no live music, not only was the work there impossible, but without any income, Pauline was in grave danger of becoming homeless herself.
So we hatched a plan.
WSO ISOLATION FESTIVAL took place on Easter Saturday run in one Facebook group from a couple of laptops raising more than £28,000 to ensure Pauline‘s work could continue uninterrupted and meet the growing need as redundancies, furlough, and zero hours reality bit. It was a monumental effort of concentration and focus behind the scenes and would not have been possible without the solidarity, friendship and patience of Matt Hill and Pete Yen, nor the willingness of that fantastic roll-call of artists and the staggering generosity of everyone who threw in a donation.
The festival taught me a vital lesson in the psychological dynamic of live streaming. It wasn’t about the artist- it would always feel wrong to us, singing to a phone screen or a laptop with no response- it was about the audience.
We knew the festival would live and die on how much people felt a part of it, how much of the experience they could share with others. To this end we focused on the comments thread as much as the stream itself, encouraging people to use emojis and to type choruses in quotation marks to show they were singing along. We also asked for photos of makeshift campsites and bunkers which were shared all day creating a genuine festival atmosphere. Of course we were lucky, the experience was still new to everyone, but we gave it our best, and I’m so proud of what we managed to achieve that day. I sat there as Billy Bragg sang knowing I was exactly where I was meant to be, at that time, in that place.
These moments are rare in life.
It was unforgettable.
And it set the tone.
While WSO ISOLATION FESTIVAL was a genuine one-off, I decided to hold a series of fundraising gigs under the banner ‘Live From T’Shed’ and the first took place on Saturday May 2nd.
Running from a dedicated Facebook group I tried to encourage the same sense of belonging, of being in a venue around friends, that we’d had on April 11th and I have loved each and every one of them. So far there have been two all-requests shows and four dedicated to the history albums when I played ‘No Pasaran’, ‘Never Be Defeated’, ‘Headscarves & Hurricanes’ and the ‘Potter’s Field’ songs and spoke of the stories which inspired them. Each had a dedicated GoFundMe and each a cause we were playing for.
So far, those six live streams have raised more than £12,000 with a further £1000 from a WSO Songwriting Workshop. This money helped grassroots campaigns and frontline support networks up and down the land including Mesopotamia Cafe in Nottingham, Black Country Food Bank, Orgreave Truth and Justice, Hatfield Main Memorial Garden Fund, Hull Unity Shop and many more. If you missed them they are all archived on my YouTube channel. You can start here….
Or in the Facebook group under the ‘Announcements’ tab here:
Even the WSO Washing Machine Workshop which proved such a surprise hit…..
Though some of that fundraising was done in the face of a crisis of my own.
After catching water in buckets for months, from a series of leaks in a fatally damaged roof, T’Shed- my rehearsal room, recording studio, and now only venue- gave a great crack and the central joist snapped leaving the ceiling hanging precariously and in grave danger of collapsing completely. After securing the funding through one of the streams, Mark and Alfie McKay came to the rescue and transformed my beloved home from this:
So I have a new home, safe and warm and dry thanks to the solidarity of people up and down the land. I cannot thank those who donated enough as this genuinely means the world to me and I owe you big time on the other side of all this.
The ‘Live From T’Shed’ gigs were not the only gigs I did this year, and some weeks have been so busy I don’t know where I found time to actually drive to shows before!
So good to be a small part of events like Love Glasgow Hate Racism, Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, Punk 4 The Homeless all-dayers, and dozens of WSO events each raising funds for the ever growing need out there on out streets.
Following a series of Zoom meetings and rants, the amazing comrades of Hull & District Trades Council responded to my pleas and set up Hull Unity Shop. I had been banging the drum for Socialists to roll up their sleeves and get out there where we belong, in and around our Class, helping where help was needed, and guiding people lost to the pettiness of party politics and its cold shoulder to working people in precarious stages of genuine poverty and struggling without representation. I had been warning that if WE didn’t get out there the Far Right would and we all knew where that would lead. It took the patience and motivational skills of people like Joe Gibbins, Andy Stankard, Tony Smith and Ken McCall to make it happen, and our brothers and sisters at the Kurdish Community Centre to give us a home, but Hull Unity Shop is out there right now delivering food parcels to desperate folks fighting as hard as they can through these desperate times. I am so proud of what we have achieved there, and cannot thank those incredible comrades enough for hearing me out and responding in the finest way of all, by demonstrating Socialism instead of just talking about it.
Collaborative work has been a massive feature of this year, and I am so glad to have been invited to participate in three absolute BEAUTIES in 2020. First the incredible cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts’ by The Rolling Ramshackle Review put together by the incredible dedication and organising skills of Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds. This raised well over £500 for WSO and remains one of THE songs of the year. You can watch the video here:
But this was matched by Johnny Campbell whose similar hard graft and dedication to the cause produced the phenomenal re-write of the traditional ‘Hard Times Of Old England’ again raising funds for the front line for We Shall Overcome, and again, something of a stormer….
The last of three was a co-write with the fantastic Lewis Burner who wrote and recorded music to my lyric ‘The Other Side Of Christmas’ and asked me to add a bit of harmony vocal. Again the song has raised hundreds for food banks in the Leeds area as part of We Shall Overcome, and again the fighting spirit and sheer talent of my musical friends and comrades never ceases to amaze me. You can stream that here:
Which brings me to the #LockdownSolidarity campaign.
Started back in the early weeks of all this, Lockdown Solidarity is basically and extension of WSO which sees me give away all money raised by sales of music and merch to a different front line cause each week. Christmas week is WK37. It has taken the incredible solidarity of contributors and designers, without whom this would have faded away very quickly, but together we have built something very special which has fed and housed THOUSANDS of people throughout the Covid crisis. With the help of Steve Nevard at Re.Loaded, my comrade-in-crayons Kevin Pearson, the immense generosity of Chip Hamer of Poetry On The Picket Line, and my musical partner in crime Rebekah Findlay, plus the unbelievable support of all those who dug deep into their pockets and bought stuff from my Bandcamp, we have managed to raise the following:
WK1 £125 for Mesopotamia Cafe in Nottingham
WK2 £130 for Teardrops in St. Helens
WK3 £540 for Dundee Food Bank
WK4 £532 for The Florrie in Liverpool
WK5 £501 for East Worthing Food Bank
WK6 £335 for Help The Homeless in Glastonbury
WK7 £346 for Kitchen For Everyone in York
WK8 £915 for Feed Newport
WK9 £635 for LoveGlasgowHateRacism
WK10 £453 for DN7 Food Bank
WK11 £713 for East Durham Trust
WK12 £630 for Unity Shop in Hull
WK13 £462 for Tommy’s Kitchen in E17
WK14 £448 for IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Service)
WK15 £450 for Bradford Metropolitan Food Bank
WK16 £350 for One Heart in Bangor
WK17 £430 for Leeds South and East Food Bank
WK18 £400 for the Tony Smith Solidarity Fund
WK19 £330 for Little Sprouts in Stockton-on-Tees.
WK20 £364 for We Are One in Grimsby
WK21 £323 for Furness Refugee Support
WK22 £175 Helping Hands in Bournemouth
WK23 £238 for Fans Supporting Foodbanks
WK24 £143 for PCS Tate Commerce Strike Fund
WK25 £230 for Women Shall Overcome in Widnes
WK26 £110 for We Shall Overcome Sussex/Leeds
WK27 £240 for The Welcome Centre in Huddersfield.
WK28 £202 for Teesside Socialist Clothing Bank
WK29 £450 for 0161 Community in Manchester
WK30 £550 for Broxtowe Community Projects
WK31 £213 for Eggcup in Lancaster
WK32 £568 for The Station Xmas Appeal
WK33 £230 for Oasis in Plymouth
WK34 £351 for The Miners in Moston
WK35 £240 for ECHO in East Lincolnshire
WK36 £250 for Rainbow Centre in Scarborough
WK37 £205 for Louth Food Bank
That’s a total of £13,807 sent to 37 grassroots causes by your generosity and the combined support of some of the best friends anyone could wish for. Just incredible.
The campaign will run until it is no longer needed.
We also tried to support artists who had been there for WSO over the years, always so generous with their time and talents; particularly those who relied on gigs to make ends meet, and now found themselves without a source of income. We set up WSO Fight The Good Fight Club as a regular Wednesday night live stream with a tip jar for the artists and again, that welcoming family feel in the audience. These paused for Christmas, but will return mid-January and run until we are no longer required.
And throughout the second half of this year I have run, hobbled and walked a #mileaday4refugees looking to assist Hull Help For Refugees in their efforts to support some of the most vulnerable and victimised people on the planet. The campaign finished on Christmas Eve and has raised somewhere in the region of £4300 which will be used to supply shelter and warm clothing to folks abandoned by the world and homeless in a foreign land. It was an arduous task physically, but nothing to what refugees suffer on a daily basis and I was only too happy to be there for people who need our solidarity more than most.
And last but not least I spent a night under canvas on Saturday December 5th as part of the WSO Sponsored Rough Sleep helping raise enough to ensure Pauline’s homeless community, all the kids stuck in temporary accommodation, all those isolated by age or illness, and all the local Refugees got a present and a feed this Christmas.
So that’s my 2020. The year that in many ways wasn’t. But I’m happy I played the hand I was dealt, and so grateful for your ongoing support and solidarity as we move toward a new year and a whole new set of challenges.
This isn’t over, not by a long shot, but together we can get through it. We have proved that already. We just need to see these dark times through and help folks who need it whether that be material support or emotional, let us be there when it matters, whatever it takes.
As for me, well, the new album is underway. It will be called ‘A Northern Soul‘ and will be released as soon as it is finished. Hopefully late January, but watch this space.
If you want a taster, I’ll be performing it live on Saturday January 9th as ‘Live From T’Shed #7’ kicks off 2021 as I mean to go on.
Would be great to have your company in the hope that before too long we’ll be able to do it properly, in the flesh, and fill those empty rooms with laughter, shouts and cheers once more.
We did good.