Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival 2013, ft. Billy Bragg – in pictures

Friday 19 July to Sunday 21 July, Tolpuddle (near Dorchester), Dorset


The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is an annual event organised to celebrate trade unionism in the place where six agricultural workers in the 19th century made many sacrifices in their struggle for decent pay and working conditions. Music plays an important part in the festival, and this year I enjoyed seeing an impressive range of bands (and not just folk bands, as many seem to expect!) as temperatures soared to 30 degrees. These ranged from reggae outfit Talisman to ska group The Skints, culminating in a great set by one of Britain’s foremost political songwriters, Billy Bragg. Here, then, is a selection of my highlights in pictures (and some words):

Tolpuddle Unplugged (open mic tent)



The open mic tent is a great place to see budding protest singers with acoustic guitars. One young agitator sang a cover of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution’, another sang a version of union-favourite ‘Pay Me My Money Down’, while covers of Clash songs could also be heard. I listened to one youth airing a slogan-based number that went: ‘Don’t fight the war; fight war’. And I later headed down to a songwriters’ workshop, where several people, angry at the education secretary’s restructuring of the schools system, sat around forging new lyrics to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’: “Gove, you have a hole in your soul”, etc.

The Dig It Sound System


I couldn’t help but notice the Dig It Sound System going around the festival site, this being a hand-built tricycle with its own generator and woofer-and-tweeter rig on an articulated trailer (as if you didn’t know!). Its job, as it appeared to me, was to spread positive vibes around the site with an array of cool, dance-oriented records.

Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers


I went to see Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers on the saturday night in the knowledge that he was a member of a group I had vaguely heard of called The Men They Couldn’t Hang, who, as I later found out from my Rough Guide to Rock, were signed by Elvis Costello in the 80s and had a punk-folk sound similar to that of The Pogues. I was very impressed by Phil’s a capella opening, which showcased his deep and mellow voice, and much taken by his soulful version of the Kris Kristofferson-penned ‘Sunday Morning, Coming Down’, included on his album The Godforsaken Voyage. His union sympathies had been made evident on the title track of this album, dealing with an uprising at a Coventry ribbon factory when new machinery threatened jobs and livelihoods.

Michael Roach


Tolpuddle often has a slot focused on American roots music on sunday afternoons, and this year I caught Michael Roach, a veteran practitioner (and educator) of 1920s-style East Coast blues who hails from Washington DC. Roach looked every part the bluesman in his white suit and hat, but he was unfortunately drenched in sweat after only a few minutes due to the intense heat inside the marquee, which he joked wasn’t a patch on the heat you got in Mississippi! In any case, his sublime guitar playing, affable nature and obvious knowledge of the blues were enough to distract the audience from the heat, as he offered up some Mississippi John Hurt tunes and got everybody involved on a spontaneous song he called ‘Nursery Rhyme Blues’. The compere said the gig was the best thing he had ever seen at Tolpuddle in this sunday afternoon slot, and I had no reason to disagree.

Billy Bragg


Billy Bragg performs at Tolpuddle most years, being a strong supporter of unions. He also only lives about ten minutes down the road, at Chesil Beach, so it is very handy for him. You can usually see him wandering around the site – talking to people, signing autographs and getting his picture taken with babies – prior to the big march through the village and Tony Benn’s address, and then his own headline set. And he put on a particularly fine set this year, I must say, while in the midst of a highly successful tour to accompany his latest album Tooth and Nail, which is a decidedly laid-back and country-tinged album in a similar vein to his Woody Guthrie-work with Wilco. He also wears a bushy beard now – partly inspired, so he said, by the hip and young folkies he came across at the South by Southwest festival in Texas (while also helping to “hide a multitude of chins”!). Pleasingly, Bragg performed the whole of his very first mini-LP Life’s a Riot, seeing as it had been 30 years since its release. It was splendid, therefore, to hear him play ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ (a song that I first heard on a Paul Young B side!). His new track ‘Handyman’ also went down well, before he got the crowd singing along to his big hit ‘Sexuality’ (made relevent again in view of the whole gay marriage debacle). He finished, as he often does, with ‘New England’, dedicated to Kirsty MacColl, as well as ‘There is a Power in a Union’, of course. And he signed off with a lyrically revamped version of ‘Great Leap Forward’.
Songs included in the set were:
‘Handyman’, ‘Upfield’, ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’, ‘To Have and To Have Not’, ‘Richard’, ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’, ‘Lovers Town Revisited’, ‘Sexuality’, ‘New England’, ‘There is a Power in a Union’, ‘Great Leap Forward’ (with new lyrics).

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