Composer Alan Bush – Our Third President

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Alan Bush

During the last years of his life, Paul Robeson disappeared from public life, and the choir had very little contact with him up to his death in 1976, following years of ill-health. Again the choir faced the decision about who was a worthy successor to Dr Bradsworth and Paul Robeson. This time the choice was simple.

In 1940 Alan Bush was an encouraging figure behind the setting up of the Birmingham Clarion Singers.  To this end he was in correspondence with founder-member Katharine Thomson, who herself had studied in Germany in 1933 and had experienced the rise of Hitler at first hand. This led to visits to Birmingham to direct choir rehearsals, as Elsie Marshall remembered:

“Our choir consisted of 90% working-class people, most of whom had never sung, except in their sing-songs around the piano, songs from ‘The Left Song-Book’ or escapist pop songs of the day. So you can imagine the impact the visit of Alan Bush made on us. His tall figure, his dark brown beard, which made his grey eyes look very piercing, his unbelievable energy had an electrifying effect on us. Alan was always very keen on impeccable diction, and he worked very hard to get it; we used muscles in our faces we never knew we had, practising b-b-b, k-k-k and rrrrrrrrrh, and every consonant with great gusto. This hard work stood Clarion in good stead, for we have always paid great attention to diction and have something of a reputation for it.”

Alan was greatly concerned at the rise of Fascism in Germany, and it was in response to this, as well as meeting like-minded musicians such as Hans Eisler and Ernst Hermann Meyer, that his political awareness and sense of conscience began to emerge, developing into a life-long commitment to Marxism and the Communist Party, the seeds of which were probably sown as far back as 1917, when he learned of the death of his brother Alfred on wartime service during the period leading up to the October Revolution in Russia.

In 1936 he and several friends established the  Workers Music Association eventually becoming its President in 1941.

After the war Alan’s work with the Workers’ Music Association continued with the establishment of their Summer Schools. The first had been in 1946 (run by Rutland Boughton), and thereafter Alan was in charge for 31 years. The musical education these courses gave to so many people from all walks of life deserves to be recognized, and it was certainly the first school of this kind helping amateur musicians to develop under professional guidance of the highest order.

Alan Bush died in Watford General Hospital on October 31st 1995, after a short illness. In 1997 the Alan Bush Music Trust was established by his family to further the cause of Alan’s music.

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Birmingham Clarion Singers celebrate Alan’s 80th birthday

 

Obituary for Alan Bush from The Times, Saturday 4th November 1995

 

Elsie Marshall

Elsie MarshallBorn 12th August 1915, the youngest of five children, Elsie Cox contracted rheumatic fever at the age of eight which left her with a heart condition. Forced to spend lengthy periods of time in bed, she read extensively, particularly nineteenth century novels and poetry. At twelve, she took up the piano and eventually went on to qualify as a piano teacher, passing the LLCM examinations as an external student.

She came from a family of committed socialists, and her eldest brother was active in the Unemployed Workers Movement and a founder member of the Young Communist League, along with her sister Bessie. Elsie herself joined the Communist Party in 1936 and campaigned vigorously for many causes, from the fight against fascism in Spain to the Birmingham Council tenants rent strike in 1939.

In 1939 she married Martin Marshall, a GWR railwayman who shared her political views and her love of music and theatre. Together with Bessie they joined Dr Colin Bradsworth to form the Clarion Singers in 1940. During the war they performed political songs and opera in factory canteens, on bomb sites and in New Street’s Big Top as part of the Holidays at Home scheme. Their joint performances as Figaro and Susanna, Papageno and Papagena, MacHeath and Polly and Master and Mistress Ford were highly acclaimed. At the end of World War Two they were invited to become part of a small professional opera company but this would have involved leaving Clarion which neither of them was prepared to do. They were to continue to be leading members of the choir and politically active throughout their lives.

In 1966 Elsie was appointed as a music teacher at WyndcliffeJuniorSchool. There she used her skills and experience to enable socially deprived children to perform to a high standard comparable with that of pupils from some of the most privileged schools in the city. Alongside this Elsie resumed her piano teaching, developing deep affection for all her pupils and establishing lasting friendships with many of their families. She was still giving piano lessons well into her eighties.

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Elsie Marshall

Elsie was closely involved with the upbringing of all her five grandchildren. For them she was a source of endless fun, laughter and above all great love. She taught them all to play the piano and encouraged and advised them with their other interests. Those of them who were active in youth theatre could always rely on her to support them in learning and delivering their lines. In every school holiday they were sure to be invited to stay with her and to be taken on some imaginative and exciting outing. In her final years when she in turn sometimes sought help and consolation from them, she still remained their confidant and mentor as well as their very dear grandmother. Elsie remained loyal to both the re-founded Communist Party and the Morning Star. She died at the age of 93 years on 22nd March 2008.

WMA post-AGM social, held at the Red Lion, Birmingham March 16 2013

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The Peacemakers

Well we did it! And what a success!

(original report printed in WMA Bulletin, written by Tim Martin)

 

I’m pleased to say that we raised over £300 towards a Scholarship for an individual to go to The WMA Summer School at Wortley this year.  Well done Birmingham Clarion Singers, well done everyone that performed, and well done all the people that generously came along to support the evening and to be a great audience.

The Concert had a true ‘International’ flavour as we were whisked around the world within a few short hours by our adept performers.  We started the evening with our hosts Birmingham Clarion Singers taking us to the devastation of a Hiroshima/Nagasaki-like Holocaust with “The Sun is Burning” then in an instant we were in Germany in 1931 standing up to the Fascists with Brecht and Eisler’s ‘Solidarity’.  Peace was restored as we were transported to the green fields of merry old England with the Moseley Village Band but before we could settle into a dreamy haze filled reverie we crossed the Irish Sea to hear Maria Caravanas enchant us with ‘My Lagan Love’ and then off to the East for a Russian song and even further afield to the Deep South of the USA for her excellent rendition of ‘I can’t help loving that Man’

Bourneville brass briefly brought us back to the UK before playing a Catalonian Tune, followed by a table thumping Wallace & Grommit Theme tune reminding us of Wensleydale – anyone for cheese?  Our world tour continued soaring over the Andes to Chile where we heard magical songs, – Sadi and his friend told us that one song had been sung by Victor Jara, and was followed by a rousing song about Che Guevara.

Dave Campbell – eldest son of Ian Campbell – strode into the centre of the stage took our attention and sang to us all about ‘The Boll Weevil’ and then propelled us on another voyage in a tall sailing ship around the horn to Cuba – where there was piracy on the high seas with the ‘Flying Cloud’.  Next we fought our way up through Italy with ‘The D-Day Dodgers’ and then back to North America for great depression with a Clarion favourite ‘Brother can you spare a dime”.

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Dave Campbell

Pentland Brig – a smaller more folk based version of the Peace Makers sang about leaving Liverpool before Kevin and Phil played a beautiful African inspired song about Child soldiers.  Finally we were back in blighty for a rousing ‘We’ll have a Mayday then’ and ‘The Horses Brawl’ (no meat jokes please).

The only bad thing about the night was that we had too many raffle prizes, I could see Sam – our resident host and comedian – losing the will to live, as yet another ticket was drawn out of the bucket – I’m sure the raffle went on for several days.  But at least there were plenty of prizes to go round,  Sorry to say Anne Lockyer didn’t win the ukulele she had set her heart on, her face was a picture as the person with the ticket drawn before her dithered and then waltzed off with it – looking as pleased as punch!

Even the mighty tome, the WMA bulletin, got a mention!  A reference to David Martin’s excellent and hilarious letter from the last bulletin was made by Phil about his partner, Isla, who is famous for her come hither looks- she tried to get us all dancing, but alas the magic didn’t work!  I’m afraid we were all too knackered from our world travelling!

                

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Paul Robeson – Our Second President

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In 1959, Katharine Thomson and several members of the choir sat around her kitchen table, staring at a letter drafted to the great black performer and civil rights supporter, Paul Robeson. They wanted to make sure the tone of the letter was just right; would this great man do them the honour of being their next president?

Dr Bradsworth had been killed in a hit and run traffic accident in 1958, and the choir wanted to ensure his legacy would be carried forward with the greatest respect they could muster. Birmingham Clarion Singers and Paul Robeson were no strangers to each other; they had performed at the same concert at Birmingham Town Hall in 1949, in a concert arranged by the British-Soviet Society.

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(Birmingham Clarion Singers perform with Paul Robeson at Birmingham Town Hall 1949)

They had continued their association throuImageghout the 50s, supporting him when his passport was confiscated by the US government, and keeping in touch via the choir’s welsh connections its anglo-soviet associations and political involvements with the communist party.

A delegation of Clarion members went to see Robeson at Stratford-Upon-Avon, where he was performing the lead role in Othello. He agreed without hesitation to become president of the choir, and performed with them again in 1960 at Reading Town Hall. He remained president until his death in 1976.

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Our Founder and First President: Dr Colin Bradsworth

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The Clarion, a socialist weekly, was established by Robert Blatchford, a Manchester journalist, in 1890. The paper first appeared in Manchester on 2nd December, 1891. Blatchford announced that the newspaper would follow a “policy of humanity; a policy not of party, sect or creed; but of justice, of reason and mercy.” The first edition sold 40,000 and after a few months settled down to about 30,000 copies a week.

The Clarion newspaper also became involved in a wide-range of different activities including missionary vans, cycling clubs, choirs, handicraft guilds and holiday camps. The various cultural, social and leisure activities promoted in the Clarion paper, offered a complete way of life outside the toil and drabness of the world of work and crowded urban living, and the weekly paper, with its announcements and reports, was essential in enabling Clarion organisations to get started and maintain their existence in the localities.

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The Clarion Cycling Club was founded in February 1894 by Tom Groom and five other young cyclists who were members of the BondStreetLabourChurch in Birmingham. Their aim was to ‘combine the pleasures of cycling with the propaganda of Socialism’. The next twelve months saw similar Cycling Clubs being formed by readers of The Clarion newspaper in many other industrial towns. The first Easter Meet of Clarion Cycling Clubs held in Ashbourne (1895) led to the formation of the National Clarion Cycling Club. The object was to be ‘the association of the various Clarion Cycling Clubs for the purpose of Socialist propaganda and for promoting inter-club runs between the clubs of different towns’.

Colin Bradsworth became a member of the Midlands Clarion Cycling Club, which also hosted Clarion Vocal Unions, as well as a range of other additional activities
The Midlands CCC opened its first clubhouse in 1915 at Lyndon End, Yardley, Birmingham, with a dinner to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the founding of the first club.

Colin Charles Bradsworth appears, according to the service record of King Edward’s school in Birmingham listing the record of old boys, to have served in the military during the First World War; if so, it is likely that this marked him out for life as an advocate of peace.

CCC moved its clubhouse to Wagon Lane, Sheldon, Birmingham in 1920, which was large enough to house dances, as well as containing sleeping accommodation, but it closed sometime in the early 1930s.

The decline of the Clarion movement after 1914 may have been a result of both the massive social changes that arose in the post-war period, and Blatchford’s support for British militarism. But Bradsworth, a Communist Party member from the early days, would indirectly resurrect the name Clarion so that it still resonates in Birmingham by a circuitous route.

Bradsworth served for two years on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. As “Doc” Bradsworth, he was part of the medical team for the Canadian section of the International Brigades, the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion, during the Spanish Civil War. On his return to Britain, he was the founder of a Birmingham branch of the Socialist Medical Association, which was one of the most active in the country.

Then, late in 1939, Bradsworth announced that he wanted to start a workers’ choir at a Daily Worker social dance at Bristol Street Schools. A large number of Communist Party members took him up on the offer and, in time the choir was named Clarion, in honour of Bradworth and his earlier associations.

Sources: Dennis Pye Fellowship is Life: The National Clarion Cycling Club 1895-1995; http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk

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