British songwriter and musician Adrian Renton decided it was time to confront the outrages of our time by resurrecting a classic form – folk protest music. Inspired by a 1960s album, “Moving On,” by Scottish musician Nigel Denver, Renton pulled together some friends from Essex, Berkshire and London to re-record some very old English songs. They also wrote some new songs in the same spirit of protest.
The result is the Wicca Men's recent album Albion’s Darkness, a moving history lesson and contemporary political commentary wrapped in some haunting music. The album draws a straight line from the peasants’ revolt in Essex in 1381 to contemporary struggles against neoliberal capitalism and Boris Johnson. The dynamics of enclosure are brutally similar then and now, even if the means used today – international trade law, intellectual property law -- are sometimes different.
One song, “Goblins,” is particularly timely even though it was inspired by a Piers Plowman song, “a complex and satirical allegory written by William Langland around 1370, which denounces the greed, falsehood and hypocrisy of the Church and State in England, and also gives the first recorded mention of Robin Hood.” In the new lyrics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and several Cabinet members are ridiculed as “this troupe of clowns, dressed in friars and wise men gowns / Lying to people to profit to themselves and to keep…/ The Bumpkins down.”
Another song, “By Moonlight,” is a mournful reflection by songwriter Steve Lake about an actual conversation he had with a Syrian refugee whom he had met. The man had fled from military conflict in his town and found his way to safety and welcome in Bristol, England.
I also liked “The Mansions of England,” which tells the story of press gangs that spirited men to serve on slave-trading ships. One stanza goes:
Pressed into service I was punished and whipped and was beaten.
But the fate was much worse for those wretches that we were transporting.
I loathed all the captains, the merchants, the fine men and ladies
Who lived off the work and the backs of the slaves and slave wages.
Out in the meadows, the valleys the moors and the fenland,
Where lay the fine gardens, the grounds and grand houses of England
Planted with trees and with flowers imported from far lands.
They stand in the landscape that once had been held for the commons.
In the liner notes for the album, Renton writes:
“One strand of British history has been constant over the last centuries. The theft through privatization and commodification of life, initially by landowners and the church, later by business. The enclosures drove self-sustaining farmers into towns to work in factories, some dissidents were ‘transported’ to Australia and people were enslaved. Today, theft moves in additional ways, through the enclosure of ideas and knowledge by corporate power, and the distorted narratives of a media owned by a handful of the super-rich.”
Renton provides an etymology of the word “Tory” that I had not known: “Tory derives from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóral; modern Scottish Gaelic Tòraidh: outlaw, robber or brigand.
The message of The Wicca Men is to “Take Back the Commons” and “bring an end to the unrelenting privatisation of public property; the NHS [National Health Service], education, council housing and the green swards of Albion that once belonged to ‘the commoners.’” Here's a link to the group's website, where you can order the album.