Singing the Changes - songs by Dave Rogers for Banner Theatre
Copies are available from the Banner office, price £12.50 plus £3 for postage and packing
Reviews of Singing the Changes
Roy Harris in Taplas 131 (Aug/Sept 05)
Eddie McGuire's review in Living Tradition 62 (May/Jun 05)
Dave Emery in the Folk Mag
Peta Webb, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House
David Kidman's review in NetRhythms, July 2006
Nick Burbridge in songbook eight
Chris Gray in Folk London
John Green in Morning Star, 18 Dec 06
Review by Roy Harris in Taplas
TAPLAS’ Out of the Question feature regularly asks "Does politics belong in your music?" gaining a range of answers from ‘you bet’ to ‘no way’, and all points in between. Ask this question of songwriter Dave Rogers and his colleagues in Banner Theatre and the answer would be a resounding ‘YES’, most likely followed by a battery of hard-hitting songs to back up the statement.
The West Midlands based Banner Theatre was formed twenty years ago by a group including Dave Rogers and the late Charles Parker, producer of the famous Radio Ballads and a passionate advocate for working class culture. Since then they have brought theatre and songs to every kind of political and industrial dispute.
Songs are a vital part of Banner's productions, each show contains an average of ten new ones. Eighty five of their fiercely committed pieces are in this book, songs wrought from the living experiences of people engaged in the struggle towards a better way of life. A look at the titles tells you what to expect — The Trentham Occupation, Sweat Shop, Nothing to do with Me (Banner's 1995 reaction to the Criminal Justice Act), Old Age Song, The Land Where the Dollar Runs Free, Union Banner, No More Killing in my Name, referring to the invasion of Afghanistan, and Maerdy, Last Pit in the Rhondda. Amidst all this it's pleasing to see a song in honour of Ewan MacColl, an obvious influence on Dave Rogers.
Songs of political comment have a history behind them, existing long before the brief fashion for protest songs in the 1960s. These songs are written in this tradition and they do it honour. You can also hear some of them performed with fiery passion by Banner's 1st of May Band on the CD Wild Geese.
Review by Dave Emery in the Folk Mag
I found ‘Singing the Changes', a collection of 85 songs written by Dave Rogers for the Banner Theatre group between 1974 and 2001, a sheer delight.
In 1973 Dave, along with his mentor Charles Parker, was a founder member of Banner Theatre and quickly became their resident songwriter. Charles Parker, incidentally, had found earlier fame working with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger to create the BBC's award-winning series of programmes, Radio Ballads. Following the folk tradition as espoused by that series, Dave's songs are about his own community – the real people who worked in the factories, mines, steelworks and sweatshops of late 20th century Britain. In particular, they tell of their struggles, injustices, disputes and tragedies and, throughout all, Dave is never in doubt as to whose side he's on!
The earliest song in the book, Flying Picket Song , written in support of the jailed Shrewsbury Three (who included a certain Ricky Tomlinson – whatever happened to him?) sets the scene well. That was quickly followed by Saltley Gate , a song that told of the mass picket in support of the 1970's miners' strike. Life on the Track , written 25 years ago, has a current poignancy, given the catastrophe that has recently overtaken the Longbridge car plant. Songs such as Song of Steel and Maerdy, the Last Pit on the Rhondda tell of industries that have all but disappeared during the period of Dave's songwriting and Little Red Mole , the story of a shop steward ‘troublemaker', tells of a time that now seems to belong to a distant past.
The songbook ranges across a wide range of subjects, including the Northern Ireland troubles: Soldier Boy ; Palestine: David and Goliath ; and sweatshops: Cotton Threads ; together with more than a few acerbic songs about British politicians: the Green, Green Shoots of Recovery (John Major) and Dedicated Follower of Thatcher (guess who); through to the most recent song in the book, No More Killing in Our Name , written after the invasion of Afghanistan but that could equally be applied to the Iraq war.
However, I can only skim over the surface of Dave's many songs in this short review. Every one of the 85 songs is accompanied not only by the full lyrics but also the musical notation and chords together with, in most case, a narrative explaining how it came about. This is a songbook that will be pored over by future historians as an alternative to the prevailing views as aired by the Men of the Media and I thoroughly recommend it.
Peta Webb, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House
Thank you so much for sending a copy of Dave Rogers' " Singing the Changes" for
The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. It will be a valuable addition to our stock.
Since MacColl's and Seeger's collected song books came out I have not come across
much covering the political side of the folk music movement.
As well as a song book it is valuable as a social document. So many protests,
strikes, acts of local rebellion are quickly forgotten by the world at large
though still of passionate interest to those involved in them. The songs sum up
the issues and encapsulate people's feelings about them. The photos add another
dimension. Demonstrations, theatre productions, Banner's contribution at rallies
and in the workplace are all very important and well documented here.
Review by Nick Burbridge in songbook eight, Summer 2006
What do we have here? A glossy commemorative book on the history of the Banner Theatre, Birmingham, with transcriptions of the songs of Dave Rogers, which have formed an integral part of their shows. And a CD of his collaboration with roots musicians also made to celebrate the company’s thirty years at work, and to launch the 1st Of May Band. They represent a highly politicised dramatic enterprise on the left (respect to Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East experiments), allied to issue-specific lyrics, and enthusiastic fusion music. Power to the people!
I said of John Gibbens’s Love Walk, in a previous issue of Songbook, that his truly poetic work seemed compromised by its through-line back-to-70s subjectivism. Dave Rogers couldn't be more immersed in the language of the streets if he was a busker by a run-down underpass. Inevitably this erodes ornately lyrical potential. But that isn't his pursuit. He wants to paint things as they happen, where and when they happen. Why, of course, is predicated politically.
It's an impressive canon and, if one's views coalesce, a source of inspiration. But to make an objective appraisal, I think we should invoke a little dialectic, and ask three questions: Where are Rogers, and Banner, coming from? Do they represent a genuine force emanating from underground, or a tailored production cultivated by the chattering classes? The facts are these: Dave Rogers’s stepfather worked in the foundry trade, and his first contact with folk music came at an evening class run by a BBC radio producer. He went on to be a club singer in his own right. Together they founded Banner. Since then it seems Rogers has written on every major industrial dispute and social injustice in the UK, and countless others across the globe. Engagement by Banner of workers in their productions has been extensive. One might ask if, given the extent of Arts Council and trades union funding they’ve received, this has been a purely spontaneous activity or a cosmetic exercise. By the way they’ve done it, the sense of integrity they've shown, and the longevity of the project, they surely identify themselves as genuine artistic activists, and not mere leftist opportunists.
If so, what has driven them for so long? For his part, Rogers could seem like a minor poet laureate, able to pen songs to order on every kind of protest – and the company just a part of the conscience-salving apparatus of a society good at mouthing in the name of justice and democracy, but willing to murder and corrupt for its own economic ends. It may be a role the songwriter has consciously developed, but it’s my impression he is thoroughly immersed in his material, and not dipping his toes in for form’s sake - while Banner go out of their way to authenticate what they do, and are well supported by those in whose name they raise their voice. This isn’t Harold Pinter on the Balkans. It’s a community theatre working for a huge multi-ethnic community.
Finally, given the regimental nature of his output, is Rogers a good songwriter, and does he inspire good musicians? Wild Geese shows evidence of a true, angry and sensitive voice, and a fine melodic ear. He collaborates with predominantly black performers, bringing reggae, dub, rap and dance styles to a colourful and persuasive collective. It’s clear Rogers appreciates the subtleties of street music from all cultures, which permeate the urban landscape of Birmingham. The CD is a fairly seamless product, for all that, which bears witness to the gently integrative process Banner represents. From the songs transcribed in the book, it's also clear the man is capable of strong personal expression, evinced in ‘Missing You’, for instance. Such versatility is always a sign of a complete writer.
So I think we have our synthesis. It's worth discovering. For if protest is to survive as a genuine force and not, say, like the Genoese march in 2001, become a loose movement easily penetrated by the powers that be, it must keep looking at its own authenticity and motivation. I'm glad to say, Dave Rogers and Banner Theatre represent the best of a long and brave tradition. Power to the people indeed.
Chris Gray, Folk London
This is a collection of 85 songs written—mostly by Dave Rogers but other collaborators are individually acknowledged—for Banner Theatre in Birmingham over a period running from the mid-1970s to 2001. The songs, as the note on Banner Theatre correctly states, are "powerful testimonies to the experiences of working people in Birming ham, Britain and the world, through very troubled times."
Fittingly the collection includes a musical tribute to Ewan MacColl, who taught us all so much by example how to write contemporary songs and how to sing them. It is good that his best contributions should be commemorated. But Dave and his comrades are not slavish imitators: one of the best aspects of their work is its openness to a variety of musical and poetical traditions—talking blues, jazz, rap, electronic instruments, for example. There are also a couple of excellent pieces utilizing tunes with a Central European flavour, one definitely Polish.
It is impossible to single out any song in this collection as having no contemporary relevance whatsoever: even if the events described are in some cases over 30 years old the same sort of things still happen. My personal favourite is a song about the NHS, "Not Quite, That's Right", whose first version was written in 1978: the song is bang up to date for all that.
Many of the songs listed (and some that aren't) are available on CDs and cassettes. I can personally recommend "Elixir of Life" (1992) and "Fortress Europe" (1998). "Wild Geese" (2005) is also available from the same source. If you like this kind of material and you haven't come across Dave Rogers and co. before, then you're in for a feast.