Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American singer and songwriter, famously said, “It’s a folk singer's job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.” In a world dominated by the bland, commercialised music of the pop charts, it’s good to see that there’s still a place for folk music.
The release last year of Ordinary Giants: Life and Times, 1918-2018, by acclaimed songwriter Robb Johnson, brings home the continuing power of folk music to touch our hearts and engage with the real world. Based on the life of his father, Ron Johnson, who joined the RAF in 1939 and then worked as a teacher after the war, it offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by people over the last century.
A triple CD song suite, it’s a truly immersive experience which repays close listening as the story unfolds. It’s a testament to the endurance of ordinary people as they confronted extraordinary times. Starting with the Armistice, and the false promises made to returning soldiers, it spans the challenges of growing up in the interwar years, the growth of fascism, the Second World War and the birth of the welfare state.
In the course of the song suite, we are treated to thoughtful glimpses into how people lived, felt and experienced the changing world around them as well as satirical asides about ruling class fear of socialism and their contempt for working class people.
The album is dedicated to his father and the generations who lived through these times to fight fascism and build a fairer society. These were people determined not just to win the war, but to win the peace as well. It reflects the struggles and disappointments of these years, as well as their aspirations and achievements.
Folk songs are often said to be the songs of the people. And the album underlines Johnson’s ability to write songs of great sensitivity which address big themes through the prism of ordinary lives. As he said in a recent interview,
I think a significant function of art and entertainment is to engage with the social and political issues faced by ordinary people. The tradition of music generally labelled “folk” is particularly well-situated to do this as it is – or ought to be – the unmediated creativity of ordinary people that is independent of court, corporation & Simon Cowell. When you look at these issues from the perspective of ordinary people…you usually find a narrative that challenges the dominant version of events.
The album is a celebration of our hopes and dreams. And a reflection of our collective power to recognise our common humanity and make the world a better place. It is a tremendous achievement, very much for our times as, once again, the politics of hope offers a society for the many, not the few.
For more information on Robb Johnson and Ordinary Giants go to www.robbjohnson.co.uk