On its 80-year anniversary, we explore the scene, icon and players associated with the oldest independent label in the world
To celebrate its upcoming anniversary, Topic Records released Vision & Revision: The first 80 years of Topic Records. From its origins in the Workers’ Music Association to its modern to its current position as a folk label with a unique spirit, Topic’s history is packed with great music and important artists. Here, Mike Mastrangelo and Glen Johnson provide some insight into the oldest independent record label in the world.
For 80 years, Topics Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music.” During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim of being the oldest-surviving truly independent record label in the world.
With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association (selling left-wing political music via mail order), through the mid-20th century folk revival, to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but also one which is widely respected throughout
Topic has undoubtedly released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times, by a host of revered artists, such as Anne Briggs, Peggy Seeger, June Tabor, Ewan MacColl, Martin Simpson, Nic Jones, Shirley Collins and many, many more.
Not content to merely rely on the undeniable splendours of the past, Topic Records continues to look forward to the future with considerable optimism for both itself and the genre to which it has long been central. The label has recently released acclaimed new albums by Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band (Big Machine), Martin Simpson (Trails & Tribulations), new signing Rachael McShane & The Cartographers (When All Is Still) and Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy With The Gift Band (Anchor). Its new An Introduction To… series, launched in 2017 has, to date, compiled 14 definitive primers of Topic artists such as Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones, Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson, June Tabor, John Tams, Martin Carthy.
The British folk scene is currently in rude health with young performers constantly bursting out from the undergrowth offering ever fresher takes on “the tradition” and pretty much all of them, undoubtedly, consciously or otherwise, in some small way, owe a debt to Topic Records.
Ewan MacColl was a true driving force and historically one of the most important figureheads of the folk revival of the mid-twentieth century. As a Lancashire youngster, he was surrounded by a huge repertoire of songs and stories absorbed from his native Scottish parents. These, along with their strong socialist views, helped shape the young Jimmie Miller (as he was known back then). Ewan gained an interest in politics and the theatre, becoming an actor and playwright with strong left-wing beliefs.
This led to his true calling as a singer-songwriter within the folk movement – a change in direction inspired by the work of the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Realising the importance of folk music and the folk music club scene, Ewan was able to use it as a platform for his political opinions and beliefs. In 1953, alongside Bert Lloyd, Alan Lomax, Seamus Ennis and others, he formed the Ballads and Blues Club in London, later to become the famous Singers Club.
MacColl’s recording career took off in 1950 with his first record for Topic Records Club – TRC39 The Asphalter’s Song; I’m Champion at Keeping Em’ Rollin. His most well-known track, Dirty Old Town was released in 1952, again as part of the Topic Records Club.
It was in 1956 that Ewan MacColl met Peggy Seeger and they embarked upon a romantic and musical partnership. Between 1957 and 1989, they toured
the world, giving concerts of traditional and contemporary songs. The duo recorded extensively and collected songs from traditional singers in Britain.
With over 300 published songs to his name, Ewan MacColl’s exceptional body of work is highly regarded and he is rightfully acknowledged as one of the most important figureheads of the British folk scene.
whether an artist on the label, a fan of its music, or a member of staff, topic records has a loyal following of fans. Here’s what they have to say…
“Topic Records, the oldest independent label in the world, has nurtured me since I was very young and started my solo music-making after years of working with my family with encouragement and unending support. The history of the company is in itself a thing to wonder at and celebrate, and my family’s long association with them makes me very, very proud. They are, in fact, as close to family as a record company can be and have always been open and willing to try new things in the service of creativity and the protection and promotion of their fabulous archives of traditional music. I feel privileged to have been a part of their journey and can’t wait to see what they will do next.”
“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For 80 years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own.”
“Topic Records is the oldest independent record company in the world, it celebrates it’s 80th birthday this year and I am deeply fortunate to have been associated with the company for 39 of those years. From its beginnings in 1939, Topic has been a label of left-wing politics and traditional music of the people. A very healthy mixture, if not a recipe for selling shedloads of music. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done for Topic – from my first recording with June Tabor in 1980 to my run of albums over the last 18 years. I’ve been supported and encouraged to make the best music I can, to take risks and to push.”
(TOPIC RECORDS CATALOGUE MANAGER)
“Having worked on the Topic Records catalogue for over two years, it has become evident very quickly that this is not just a record label, but a living breathing body of work which is as important to the United Kingdom as the American Music Library of Congress is to America – historical recordings which document so many factors of life, love, death and the working man’s struggle with oppression. It is a treasure chest I get to open on a daily basis…. each day discovering gems that sparkle so bright…but it does not end there, as the label still releases both the old and plenty of new music, carrying on the tradition.”
“I don’t know what the British musical landscape would have looked like without Topic Records being there all those years. A vital component of British culture.”
“Topic Records’ catalogue reads like the inventory of a national treasure chest of singers and musicians, both source and revival. As a young singer, it was there that I found the voices that initially inspired me and many of the songs that I still love and perform.”
(CHIEF EXECUTIVE & ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, ENGLISH FOLK DANCE AND SONG SOCIETY)
“Topic is a gem of a label that, through 80 years of publishing, has created the go-to archive of folk music. Its back catalogue is a must for anyone interested in folk music and particularly for the young singer wishing to gain an understanding of the genre.”