THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

14 October 2019

Recording of the week: Dr John interviewed by Charlie Gillett

This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music.

Charlie Gillett, in his later years best-known as a World Music broadcaster, spent many years investigating the roots of rock music. He hosted Honky-Tonk on BBC Radio London in the 1970s where many of his guests were influential figures in the history of rock that Charlie traced in his book The sound of the city.

This excerpt is from an interview Charlie conducted with legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John, who describes a recording session in London where he had to find musicians at short notice – luckily he had some good contacts that resulted in some well-known names coming to his aid. The sessions were eventually issued on his album The sun, moon & herbs.

The entire interview takes place in the back of a taxi driving through New Orleans with all the background noise that entails plus the occasional interruptions of a small child who is also in the cab. It probably wasn’t good enough quality for broadcast use but does provide first-hand testimony about Dr John’s relationship with his fellow musicians and management and the problems they encountered with the stresses of touring and recording.

Excerpt from Charlie Gillett interview with Dr John (C510/46-48)

Open reel tape containing Charlie Gillett's interview with Dr John (C510/46-48))Open reel tape containing Charlie Gillett's interview with Dr John (C510/46-48)

The Charlie Gillett collection contains interviews and broadcasts from both his early work as a presenter and writer specialising in the history of rock’n’roll and his later interest and influence on the development of the world music scene in the UK. He died in 2010 and his collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @BL_PopMusic and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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07 October 2019

Recording of the week: No prisoners

This week's selection comes from Mat Hart, World & Traditional Music volunteer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This beautiful song is composed and performed by Madi Lehbib, who sings and plays percussion on this track, with accompaniment from guitarist Mahmud Bara. The song is sung in local Arabic dialect – Hassaniya. Madi’s lyrics reject the idea of political imprisonment and oppression, which his community – the Saharawi’s – have experienced as refugees living in exile in the Tindouf Province of South-Western Algeria.

The Saharawi’s are ethnically mixed descendants of Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans. They have been living in exile since the mid-1970’s after fleeing from Moroccan forces during the Western Sahara War. Today, their people and communities live in refugee camps set up across the Tindouf Province. Having lived for centuries in the deserts of the Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, the Saharawi’s land is, to this day, still occupied by Morocco and pending decolonisation.

Musical performances at the camps are common, as there are many musicians within the Saharawi community, though the lack of resources in the refugee camps forces musicians to constantly improvise with their instrumentation. In this recording, Madi is playing percussion on the body of his friend’s guitar. There is a humble beauty to his performance, which brings the Arabic voice and acoustic guitar together in gentle harmony.

No Prisoners performed by Madi Lehbib & Mahmud Bara, recorded by Violeta Ruano (C1640/1)

Photograph of Madi Lehbib during the sessionPhotograph of Madi Lehbib during the recording session

This recording was made by sound recordist Violeta Ruano Posada. Violeta spent six months staying in the various refugee camps during 2013 and 2014 conducting ethnographic fieldwork as part of her PhD research at London’s SOAS University - commissioned by the sound archive. This recording was made at the “Cape Bojador” refugee camp and was recorded at the camp’s shabiba (youth centre) with the help of a group of local Saharawi sound students.

To listen to more sound recordings of Sahrawi Music, browse the Violeta Ruano collection on British Library Sounds

Follow @BL_WorldTrad, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 October 2019

Cable Street and after: memories of antifascism

A red plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street

Image courtesy of Richard Allen

The Battle of Cable Street took place 83 years ago today, on 4 October 1936. The ‘Battle’ was a huge confrontation between antifascists and police who were protecting a march of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) through London’s East End – provocatively intended to carry Blackshirts into the heart of the area’s Jewish community. A vast counter-demonstration gathered, barricades were erected and antifascists invoked the slogan Dolores Ibárruri had used in July that year to galvanise defenders of the Spanish Republic – ‘they shall not pass!’

The Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) narrative of leading the counter-demonstration might be contestable (its original plan was to rally in Trafalgar Square against Franco and only after that to protest the BUF; after pressure from East End members, fliers were amended to urge gathering at Aldgate instead). Nevertheless, the communists played a key role on the day and the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical Project, archived at the British Library, is a rich source for oral histories of communist antifascism. There are over 150 interviews in the collection, conducted in 1999-2001 by academics at the University of Manchester. I find it particularly useful for researching the motivations of communists of Jewish heritage, like my grandfather, who were attracted to the Party’s antifascism – were they primarily driven by class struggle or ethnic particularism in resistance to fascist antisemitism?

A 1936 CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm

CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm', Wikimedia Commons

Despite the militancy of communist antifascism at Cable Street, there was some feeling among British communists that it was not enough just to ‘bash the fascists’. Instead, it was the role of the Party to address the socio-economic conditions that produced fascism – the kind of thinking behind communist initiatives like the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League (1937) which would support tenants against landlords even when tenants were BUF members, using this as an opportunity to prove that it was the communists and not the fascists who championed their rights. Hymie Frankel (C1049/50) observed BUF supporters at close hand and provided an explanation for fascist antisemitism when he remembered that, “they look[ed] lost – they had no jobs and no life...and Mosley whips them up and says Jews are to blame”. Here, he talks about the way the CPGB married resistance to fascism with its answers to the economic problems of the 1930s:

Hymie Frankel on the communist answer to mass unemployment and fascism (C1049/50/01)

In contrast, it was the CPGB’s practical antifascism in the first instance, rather than its ideology, that first attracted Esther 'Hetty' Bower (C1049/22/01-02). Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Hackney in 1905, Hetty was to be decisively impressed by the manner in which communists helped her brother-in-law after his brutal treatment at the hands of BUF stewards at Mosley’s Olympia rally in 1934: “He joined the Communist Party without knowing anything about it except that these were communists who helped him and bandaged him.” Hetty, disaffected with what she saw as the failure of the Independent Labour Party to engage with militant antifascism, joined the CPGB the next year, in 1935.

For some communists of Jewish heritage, their personal experience of antisemitism fitted into a much larger picture. Here, Harold Rosen talks about how for him antisemitism confirmed the ‘general idea’ – an ideological interpretation of world injustice – and how internationalism and the Spanish Civil War, rather than the East End and the BUF, dominated his thinking:

Harold Rosen on the Spanish Civil War and communist internationalism (C1049/128/01)

In an interview archived at the Imperial War Museum, Lou Kenton (33028) remembered antifascism as, “the major thing in the life of most active political people in East London, certainly of my group”. He also explained his arrival on the Left as the “natural result of the social background of the period...it arouse naturally that you were either Labour or communist, and there was never a very sharp division, certainly not in my mind”. For Kenton, improving and changing society were motivations for joining the CPGB which transcended reaction to fascist antisemitism. Indeed, he remembered realising that the Battle of Cable Street “had to be a non-Jewish thing”; he emphasised not Jewish antifascism but the Battle’s display of working-class unity: “a certain togetherness, of warmth”.

Kenton had a long involvement in antifascism, from Olympia to Cable Street and then volunteering with one of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was interviewed for the CPGB Biographical Project in 2001.

Here, in a sound clip archived at the British Library and taken from an interview in the Labour Oral History Project, Kenton talks about going to Olympia to heckle Mosley. It’s a wonderful extract, complete with a section of Mosley’s speech and the clamouring of the appreciative fascist crowd, as well as Kenton’s memories of the violence meted out to antifascist hecklers by the BUF stewards:

Lou Kenton on going to the BUF rally at Olympia in 1934 (C609/86)

Cover of an Independent Labour Party publication commemoration of Cable Street, titled 'They Did Not Pass'

Independent Labour Party commemoration of Cable Street, © Independent Labour Publications

My doctoral research explores motivations for postwar British antifascism, concentrating on the extent to which this was shaped by Holocaust consciousness. My interview with Monty Goldman, a communist of Jewish heritage, revealed some of the tensions between ideological and ethnic particularist motivations for antifascism that also surface in memories of interwar antifascism. Goldman was born into a Jewish family in the East End in 1931. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1949, aged 18. While still at school, Goldman got to know the militant Jewish antifascist ‘43 Group’. Here, he talks about the Holocaust as justification for the 43 Group’s violent tactics, although emphasising the Soviet, rather than the Jewish victims of Nazism (and conflating the wider war, the occupation of the USSR and the Holocaust):

Monty Goldman on the Soviet victims of Nazism, interviewed by Joshua Cohen

He remembered that communists were talking about the Holocaust in 1949 but as part of wider Nazi violence, as was consistent with the norms of the time: “You spoke about the atrocities; you didn’t speak about the Holocaust”. And when Goldman discussed Nazi antisemitism, he tended to follow this with immediate reference to the Nazis’ political victims, with reminders that the concentration camps were originally meant for communist prisoners.

All 154 CPGB Biographical Project interviews are available for listeners at the British Library. For more information on this and similar collections please see the collection guide to Oral histories of politics and government.

Dr Joshua Cohen has recently completed his PhD entitled ‘The Holocaust and British Antifascism, 1945-67’ at the University of Leicester.