Yusuf/Cat Stevens, My Dad, and Me

So for some reason this morning, Amazon Music decided today was the day to line up Father and Son for me. And it got me thinking about how music can freeze time, and act as a time machine to other places. My Dad had a record player and maybe about eighty records or so – and every so often we would have a Saturday night music night, where he would play the music he loved, so a mix of 70s Glam Rock (yes, he did do thumb in belt buckle dancing, yes I was increasingly embarrassed), mixed up with some 70s Christian music (hello Keith Green) and almost always Cat Stevens in there.

Morning Has Broken': New Year Of 1972 Breaks For Cat Stevens
Most of Dad’s albums had a man with a beard, and a vague 1970s photo effect going on.

But he did really love Cat Stevens – he definitely had Tea for the Tillerman album – and this was a song I remember him playing and having in the car. I have a surprising lack of things of Dad – a few short video clips – lots of photos, but not very much more than that. No recordings of him talking really, and in some ways I’m not sure whether I can remember it or I’m remembering what I remember (does that make any sense? like the echo not the actual sound).

But something about this one song, Father and Son, kind of knocks me for six every time. I remember when his father died, we were clearing the attic, and we discovered that his Dad had been slowly purchasing his railway gauge (the size of railway track he used, not his Dad). And I remember Dad being genuinely puzzled at why his admittedly shop-a-holic father had done this, and I said, well he was buying it for you. I remember Dad speechless, which didn’t happen very often. And just holding it and looking at it.

I know… that I have to go.

So as you might imagine, I avoid listening to Father and Son, because you know, I cry at music at the best of times. But I did go on a bit of Yusuf Stevens spiral this morning and even found myself listening to one of Dad’s true favourites, Morning Has Broken (seriously – check out the 1970s ah choir in the background). And I was thinking that even though I don’t have very much of Dad’s physically left (I have his cycling proficiency test certificate, not even sure why), I do have this toy theatre that was my pride and joy when I was about 9. It was a plastic amazing spectacular that had LIGHTS and MAGNETS and little people you could move around.

Anyway the batteries leaked and it was gross and sticky and I was heart broken, and there was no way to get any of it off. I had assumed that it had been thrown away – and while it’s fair to say my Dad was not what one would call, minimalistic, in his attitude to belongings, sometime after he died, it turned up in the back of the attic. He kept it for me.

Listening to Cat Stevens made me think of that.

Decolonise the Music Curriculum – Part 1

Resources for black ‘classical’ composers

This round up of some of the key black ‘classical’ composers is by no means a comprehensive list: but a starting point for music teachers and lecturers who want to know more about European and North American black classical composers. This is by no means a quick fix – the work of decolonising the curriculum is a big project that requires white people to think about how they have participated in structural racism and white supremacy. I have been asked by a couple of people to put together a starting point over a few categories: black ‘classical’ composers, black modernist composers, women composers, and a broader list of musical theatre composers. Over the next couple of weeks I will be sharing these resources and pointing you in the direction of key antiracist campaigns, particularly the work of teacher and anti-racism activist, Pran Patel, and musician and activist Nate Holder.

Continue reading “Decolonise the Music Curriculum – Part 1”

Jack of Spades: Uncovering lost musicals

Blog by Sarah Whitfield – Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre, Course Leader MA Musical Theatre – originally posted here

As a theatre historian, the dusty archives I spend lots of my time digging about in don’t always throw up work which retains any kind of urgency. Yet, over the last year or so I’ve been researching a musical which feels brutally contemporary in its portrayal of racism and immigration in Britain. Over the last week, The Guardian has revealed the plight of members of the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’ who have been threatened with deportation after a lifetime in the UK.

Jack of Spades, performed at the Liverpool Everyman in 1965, and set in the city, tells the story of Jack who arrives from Guyana at the start of the musical. His high hopes of life in Britain evaporate, as he faces engrained racism and social deprivation in the poorest areas of the city. He meets the local MP who is courting the ‘immigrant vote’, and falls in love with her daughter, Gillian.  He is beaten up by the police who threaten him:

You steal our jobs, our homes, and muck about with our women

Well let me tell you what, we none of us like your face

And our job’s to deport you from the sterling British race

The musical was composed by Norman Beaton (1934 – 1993), who went on to have a long career as an actor and was best known for playing the title role of Desmond’s, a Channel 4 sitcom set in a Peckham barbers. Before leaving Guyana, Beaton was a calypso champion – and the musical score fuses together calypso with the skills of Terry Hines’s more Beatles’ infused sound (they had also played at the Cavern Club). The book was by Ken S. Hignett (who used the name Sean Hignett afterwards), and the lyrics by Beaton and Hignett together. It was the only musical Hignett ever wrote, though he is also known for his account of the stark realities of Liverpool8 in the Swinging Sixties in A Picture to Hang on the Wall (1968).

The production was directed by Terry Hands, right at the beginning of his leadership of the Everyman theatre, and had been commissioned by him as the theatre’s contribution for the Commonwealth Arts Festival. The festival was meant to be a celebration of the cultural heritages of the former British colonies, with work performed in Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff and London. The festival has been considered at length by academics like Radhika Natarajan as a key moment of imagining what a post-British Empire future might look like, of trying to celebrate multiculturalism as an idea to sustain the commonwealth. Jack of Spades hasn’t yet been discussed, something which is particularly important given that seems to have been the only event in the festival which explicitly discussed the experience of immigration from the Commonwealth to the UK.

Almost nothing remains of the musical – or so it seemed when I started researching. It’s often described as a ‘doomed love story’, but in fact, Gillian does reject her parents and the couple build a future together. When I first visited the Lord Chamberlain’s collection at the British Library, the knot on the ribbon holding the script shut was tied so tight I could barely open it. The reader’s report and recommendation from the Lord Chamberlain’s office, who were in 1965 still able to censor plays they deemed improper, is dismissive of the musical as a whole. They were unimpressed by the script and its depiction of police brutality: the reader’s report notes ‘I’m tired of the police perpetually being presented as brutal and corrupt and suggest that this scene comes out.’

For years, no score was thought to exist – and certainly no written score survives. Since I pulled the ribbon open I have been able to find cast lists, been able to interview Sean Hignett about his work on his project, and listen to a recording of the score in a private archive. The reviews of the show in Liverpool were poor, but elsewhere in national press the importance of the musical was noted. The Times’ review noted that ‘the whole enterprise was courageously conceived and is unwaveringly courageous in presentation. There is enough here to outrage both West Indian and English opinion.’

The musical is shockingly direct in the way it stages and frames racial tension, it opens with a Fascist on the docks of Liverpool confronting the audience that the only way to make Great Britain ‘Great’ again is to ‘rescue it from the immigrants who are ruining our country’. Jack, fairly soon after arrival, meets a pimp (named only as ‘The Ponce’ in the script) who tries to sell the life of crime to Jack. ‘The Ponce’ is deported, and the final moments in the musical refer to the racist epithet ‘Spade’ in the title.

Spade ain’t being quiet no more. He been quiet too long. He been sleeping for centuries but a storm is coming up, a storm to wake him and the white man who climbed on his shoulders and then ground him into the dust, the white man who lives off the coloured man’s work in half of this world and steals, steals, steals, from him.

‘The Ponce’ calls for violent uprising: in a speech which is clearly informed by the Black Power movement, he says ‘it’s too late to fight with ideas’.

Shortly before his death, Norman Beaton gave an interview to the BBC where he described his career as ‘Being in a country and being in a profession, which is the arts, which resists black people being in it.’ This musical is largely absent from histories of British musical theatre, it’s often just a brief sentence in short sections describing multiculturalism. Yet the vital relevance of this piece to Britain in 2018 would suggest that much more needs to be done to reinstate this piece back into the story of the musical in the UK.

What else has been tied up in string, waiting to be opened?