Johnny Campbell performing at the Working Class Movement Library, Salford,

The Working Class Movement Library celebrated Engels Week last Thursday (24 November) with an evening of empowering songs by Joe Solo and Johnny Campbell.

Immortalising the struggles of working class people throughout history, Joe Solo and Johnny Campbell shared stories about the Spanish Civil War, The Battle of Orgreave, The Winter Hill Trespass, The Peterloo Massacre and more. 

Huddled in the intimate space of Salford’s Working Class Movement Library, the pair of songwriters played an unplugged set of rousing songs, telling tales that too often are left forgotten.

Johnny’s song The Winter Hill Trespass tells the story of Britain’s biggest mass trespass which involved 10,000 people protesting the public closure of Winter Hill in Lancashire. Johnny shared with the audience that the protest sparked a mass movement which contributed to the formation of the UK’s famous National Parks. He also shares how people who live locally to Winter Hill often tell him they had never even heard of it.

“People who live right next to this hill just don’t know about it. And I think it’s where these forgotten stories are brought to life. And that’s what the Working Class Movement Library does. It brings those stories to life.” 

Talking about the everlasting power of music Johnny adds: “storytelling is something that’s gone down through the millennia, and it’s something that, if you’re a songwriter, is the art form we all subscribe to.”

Discussing the role their songs play within the narrative of the working class struggle, Joe Solo adds: “it connects people to the people and places around them. Real people went through this stuff and they have an emotional connection to what [we’re] talking about, which even if you don’t agree with politically, transcends that disagreement, and makes it a human connection. And I think that’s what songs do better than any other art form.

“I hope that in 50 years time people will find [my] songs and think that those voices were worth remembering and those stories are worth telling. And I think that’s what it’s all about, and what the Working Class Movement Library does as well. It plants markers for working class people in history because [otherwise] we just get forgotten about.”

Joe Solo performing at the Working Class History Library, Salford,
Joe Solo

Songwriters like Joe and Johnny remind us that the working class struggle is a constant battle that binds us with the people that came before us. Between songs, Joe Solo reminded us of the stark similarities between the illustrations of the sword-wielding Yeomanry Cavalry at Peterloo in 1819 and the truncheon-swinging policeman on horseback in John Harris’s famous photograph at Orgreave 163 years later.

“One of the best things you can do is to remind people that the struggles they’re going through today are exactly the same struggles as people went through before and the successes and failures of generations past have led us to this point. And it’s not enough to stand on the shoulders of giants. You’ve got to earn the right to stand there and you’ve got to inspire the next generation to clamber up on your arms when you’re done.”

The Working Class Movement Library holds an extensive archive of materials published by the Workers’ Music Association which span its 86-year history. Salfordian songwriting folk legend and activist Ewan MacColl is found throughout the archive and is a major inspiration of Johnny Campbell’s work. In ‘Personal Choice of Scottish Folksongs and Ballads’ published in 1950, MacColl beautifully summarises the power of song.

“Men and women sing for a variety of reasons; sometimes because they are happy and sometimes to give utterance to a dream. They sing because they exult in the joy of living and because they are lonely and unhappy. Sometimes song is a protest against the misuse of power and sometimes it is an affirmation of the singer’s belief in humanity. It can be all of these things and it can be a cry out of the night, a savage cry compounded of hatred, bitterness and despair. Poverty and humiliation have made our people familiar with these emotions and if many of our songs are violent then that is because life can be violent too.”

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All images: Eddie Toomer-McAlpine

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  • Eddie Toomer-McAlpine

    Eddie is from Manchester and will be starting an MA Multimedia Journalism course this year at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has a background in music, poetry and theatre and is interested in how the arts can help to strengthen our communities. Eddie also likes to read and write about local working class history and natural science.

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