Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners’ Hymns

In Rob Young’s excellent book Electric Eden, which charts the history of modern English folk music, the lines between the genres are blurred from the outset. The folk music of Young’s vision crop up in rock, mainstream pop, traditional music, dance and classical music. Whether it be the pastoral classical music of Ralph Vaughan Williams or the folk rock of Fairport Convention these musicicans take on traditional music share the same goal of respecting the past and creating something new.

It is this vision of English folk music that  Jóhannsson is continuing with this soundtrack to  Bill Morrison’s documentary  of north east of England mining communities, which uses original footage to show the brutal hardships of mining and the chaos of the miners strike of 1984.

Jóhannsson’s score, which is released on the indie label Fatcat,  was originally recorded live at the film’s premier at Durham Catherdral. It is a venue that Jóhannsson returned to for this live recording that once again features the magnificent catherdral organ and members of the union NASUWT Riverside Band, the colliery brass band that originally formed in 1877.

The results are quite simply breathtaking as Jóhannsson takes those traditional colliery band brass sounds and morphs them into a powerful, emotional and contemporary piece of music. At times the brass drones in the background but is constantly uplifted by a lone trumpet or the whole brass ensemble’s voice reaching out as one. Whether it’s a battle with police in 1984 or emerging from the mine into the sunshine during the 1930s depression the music beautifully fits the mood.

But it goes further than its original mining source. After the mines closed communities were left with nothing as the polices of Margaret Thatcher conveniently forgot to replace  the jobs and careers they had dismantled for whole communities across England. This could be the soundtrack to the lives of the call centre workers, who are timed and ticked off if they take too long going to the toilet, or the generations of unemployed families whose hope has been sucked out of them.

It is not out of place to consider this remarkable album alongside some of the great protest songs of the 1960s and certainly alongside Elvis Costello’s  Shipbuilding’, his bitter account of the demise of Liverpool’s shipbuilding industry and the Falklands war during the 1980s.

Even the messages contained in the tracklisting of the importance of community have a timeless political feel. ‘An Injury To One Is The Concern Of All’ and ‘The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World’ are as relevant now as they were when England’s mines first opened.

This album comes at a time when the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society seeks to recreate these ideals of community. But Cameron’s vision is weak in comparison, it has no emotion, no money to back it up and from a political party that caused the urban decay and generations of unemployment that the Big Society seeks to redress.  I hope Cameron hears this at some point, sheds a tear and realises how hollow his words are. I doubt it though.

Jóhannsson may be from Iceland but he may just have created the greatest English folk album for decades.



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