February 11, 2017 by Matt Hill Songwriter
Election Day 1929.
This song was similar to Manchester Rain in that it was written with a specific job in mind. Whilst Manchester Rain was written to be a scene setter, to open the show and set up the themes to follow, this song was written to close the show and to draw the threads together.
The General Election of 1929 was the first one held when everyone had an equal vote. Despite some women being given the vote in 1918, it took until 1928 until things were made equal for men and women and finally everyone over 21 had a vote – Universal Suffrage. I scoured the museum and did a lot of reading about this election but was failing to find inspiration. The best I could manage was this rather comical postcard.
Satire as a starting point
It’s satirical and expounding the view that women are incapable of making up their own minds, that wives and daughters will simply vote as their father tells them. Nonsense of course, but no doubt a popular view at the time. I tried some ideas playing around with that bigotted view of women and then somehow trying to explode it. I failed to come up with anything decent – it’s a complex position to try and do satire like that. I already had the song “the sly suffragette” so I changed tack.
So looking at the postcard again, I decided to remove the satire and look at it simply as a family off to vote. I imagined an old man who is able to take his grown up sons and daughters to the polling booths for the very first time. I tried to imagine the emotion he would feel, especially if he’d been involved in the fight. But then what if his whole family had been involved? What if his wife was a suffragette, his father a chartist, his grandfather at Peterloo? Suddenly I had a way to pull the threads together.
So it is 1929, our man is an old man of 75, he is voting possibly for the last time in his life. Accompanying him are his grown up son and daughter. She is voting for the first time. Their late mother had voted in 1918 but has since died.
Creating our character’s backstory
Could such a person have existed? I wanted the song to be rooted in reality so I got my calculator out and tried to do the maths. Here’s what I came up with for the character in my song
1853 – Our character is born. His father is 28 (Born in 1825, making it feasible that his father, our man’s Grandad had been at Peterloo)
1884 – Our character is 31 and likely to have been involved in the huge demonstrations that led to the Reform Act
1888 – Our man marries. His wife is 23 years old (Born 1865). He is 35.
1890 – Our man is now 37 and his Daughter is born
1892 – Their son is born
1905-1914 – His wife, then aged in her forties is involved in the Suffragist and Suffragette campaigns
1918 His wife can vote for the first time. His daughter, by now 28 cannot vote, although her brother can.
1925 His wife dies aged 60.
1928 Universal Suffrage is finally granted.
So that was my timeline, although hardly any of this detail would make it into the song, it was important to me that it was at least feasible.
Historically I think some of this character sketch is very unlikely. Certainly looking at my own family tree for this period, it’s unusual for a man not get married until he’s 35, unless of course it’s a second marriage, so let’s assume his first wife died. I think it’s also very unlikely they would have only have had two children. He would likely have children from his first marriage and more children in his second. But those things aside it is feasible that a man voting in the 1929 election was the son of a Chartist and had a Grandad at Peterloo.
So that was my background in writing the song. Sadly I decided I had to kill off his wife (possible second wife), I felt it would add some emotional punch to the song. Emotional punch is what I was after here, there’s no room for subtlety with this song – it’s a finale, the big finish, the showstopper. Someone had to die!
The musical choices
I wanted the final song to remind everyone of the central struggles I had explored throughout the sequence of songs. I wanted to recall the sacrifices made and the lives lost. In trying to make the music emotional I settled on very simple major key chords. I used a seventh when moving between the verse and chorus, it’s a well tried device that lifts the melody and creates anticipation in the listener, therefore giving the chorus more punch.
When we came to record it Mike Harries added some beautiful piano chords. We wanted emotional punch and we were both thinking of Rick Rubin’s production on Johnny Cash’s recording of ‘Hurt’, a very emotional song. Rubin used strong simple piano chords to great effect so we echoed that and it gives the song a hymnal church quality. And that then set our tone for the recording – to make it like a hymn, an article of faith.
This is what producer and arranger Mike Harries had to say –
“The lyric informed the instrumentation and arrangement decisions, certainly regarding my input. I imagined front rooms in back-to-backs with a piano in the parlour, meetings in local halls, blokes in mufflers. J S Bach was an influence – certainly regarding my input to the record – my accordion part harmonises your motif in the grand tradition of a horn passage, and I avoided consecutive 5ths and 8ves to maintain best movement of parts. Years of study put to good use!”
You can hear that if you listen to the recording
Given I had already set up the context the lyrics came quite easily. I added words like ‘lass’ and ‘lad’ to show how that this man was vaguely of the North, and talked to his grown up children with affection. I wanted us to identify with them all by focusing on small details of the voting day that are common to all families – getting their coats on, holding hands walking down the road.
The lyrics of the chorus were altered at the very last minute. For a couple of months, the first line had always been –
“I don’t care who you vote for, just make your voices heard”
My point here was to try and make the message non-party political. I beleive stringly that everyone should vote, even if you spoil your paper, I think that the vote itself is precious regardless of who we vote for. Whilst it made my point here in 2017, it somehow didn’t feel right for my character. A man who is steeped in a cross-generational fight for rights, in which people had lost lives, been imprisoned, I thought it unlikely he would not care who you voted for. I suspect he would’ve been voting for Ramsey MacDonald and the Labour Party. So at the last minute, ahead of the launch I changed the line to
“The ballot is your birthright, so make your voices heard”
I much prefer this. It references the title of the show “The Battle for the Ballot” but it also harks back to Thomas Paine and the ideas in Nothing less than revolution, that rights are ours from the moment we are born. What had been achieved in 1928 with Universal Suffrage was a different kind of ”birthright’, one that belonged to all of us, and so different to the ones that had granted hereditary power to the ruling classes for all those years before.
This performance is from December 2016 in the museum.
You can download the album ‘Battle for the Ballot’ for free. When asked to name your price simply enter £0.00