The World Turned Upside Down

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Review of 'The Writing on the Wall', Tony Benn and Roy Bailey

Tony Benn and Roy Bailey have been touring together for nearly 30 years. In 2003 they won BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards' 'Best Live Act'. So this, their first CD, could hardly be described as a rush job to cash in on their newfound fame.

Recorded live at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000, and previously available only on cassette, this CD is a good substitute for those who haven't yet managed to catch their show and a fine reminder for those who have. Benn's contribution is a skip through the history of resistance to oppression and exploitation in England from the Peasants' Revolt of the 14th century up to the present day. Using a mixture of readings and commentary, he ranges from More's Utopia through the English Civil War period with its Levellers, Ranters and Diggers. A quotation from a 19th century conscientious objector leads him to the first Gulf War and the soldier Vic Williams who, like others today, refused to fight in a war for oil. He then jumps from an 1870 poem on the law's bias against trade unions to the Great Miners' Strike of 1984/5. Oscar Wilde, 'Disobedience is man's original virtue,' and Rebecca West, 'On the way to business a man will give a woman his seat on the tube and then underpay her as soon as he gets there,' are brought in alongside pieces from George Lansbury and Gandhi.

All this is interspersed with, and illustrated by, songs from folk singer Roy Bailey. The bulk of the songs on the CD were written by the splendid Leon Rosselson. Bailey explains how Rosselson's classic song of the Diggers' rebellion during the English Civil War, 'The World Turned Upside Down', has become so widespread that the BBC broadcast it being sung in Spanish and described it as the traditional anthem of Nicaraguan coffee bean pickers. Two of Robb Johnson's songs also feature, including his 'Ballad of Vic Williams':

'The enemy ain't the other side
Wherever they draw the line.
The enemy is the ruling class
Who draw the bloody line.'

One of Benn's great strengths is his ability, amply displayed here, to explain the principles of socialism in such a simple and humorous way that their basic good sense leaves his audience both convinced and entertained. Let's leave the last word to a grudging review of their recent appearance in Kidderminster from the local newspaper: 'Benn's charm and passion - and the patent consistency and strength of his convictions - proved overpowering. And by the end of the first half Bailey had the apparently conservative audience singing the chorus of a song celebrating the life of one of the west's most famous revolutionaries.'