"I’ve been buying and scrounging Topic Records since 1954. It feels like Topic has always been there, quietly doing good work. Like a backbone." John Peel, 1999.
From the Topic releases of 1954 - industrial folk song by Ewan MacColl, Irish ballads, Chinese opera, Communist Party anthems - it is hard to guess what record Peel may have bought, but the discography shows that by 1957 the label was releasing material more suited to his tastes - American folk, skiffle and blues, notably an LP by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, which (given the paucity of blues records available then) may well be the one mentioned on p.132 of "Margrave of the Marshes".
After Peel's return to the U.K., Topic records did not feature in his programmes of the late 1960s. At the time, the traditional folk song revival was overshadowed by new folk-based musical styles - "psychedelic" folk, innovative guitar stylists, blues revival perfomers, contemporary singer-songwriters. Of the many acoustic artists featured on Top Gear and (especially) Night Ride, only Davy Graham, Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins had recorded for Topic, and all subsequently moved on to major labels. Topic was now associated not only with pure, uncommercial traditional music, but also with an old-fashioned leftist political stance which had little appeal for the generation growing up with pop and rock music.
This changed after Fairport Convention's "Liege and Lief" album (previewed on a 1969 Top Gear session), which fused traditional song and electric rock instrumentation and set in motion a renewed interest in folk music. (Fairport acknowledged help and advice for the project from the renowned folklorist and Topic stalwart A.L. Lloyd.) Other British folk-rock bands - among them Steeleye Span, Trees, the JSD Band and The Albion Country Band - followed, with LPs and sessions for Peel, and folk music became an integral part of his playlists throughout the 1970s.
In the second half of the '70s a new wave of traditional folksong interpreters emerged from the club scene, and, with major record labels now showing little interest, many of them were signed by Topic. Peel favourites Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins also revorded for the label and Topic's "star attraction" of the 60s, The Watersons, resumed their performing career after several years of silence. By now the label had become more liberal in its musical policy, so the likes of Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Martin Simpson and June Tabor, whose music showed contemporary influences, appeared in the catalogue alongside traditional performers with strong local or regional roots, such as The High Level Ranters, The Boys of the Lough, The Oldham Tinkers and The Cheviot Ranters. Most of these artists were featured on Peel's programmes either through newly-issued LPs or session appearances. He was impressed by June Tabor's 1976 debut album, Airs and Graces, particularly the track "The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda'", which he played repeatedly. Another Peel favourite from this period of Topic's history was a reissue album of old 78 recordings by the pre-war Liverpool music hall performer Billy Bennett.
After the 1970s the amount of folk music in Peel's programmes decreased - a reflection of a decline in interest, especially in England where mamy folk clubs closed. Folk became associated with negative stereotypes of beards, woolly jumpers and the beer-swilling unaccompanied singer with a finger in his ear. During the 1980s the label "folk" began to be abandoned and replaced by "roots" or "world" music - a genre heavily featured on the programmes of Peel's friend and Radio One colleague Andy Kershaw. Topic had pioneered world music in the 1960s with an "international series" of LPs of Eastern European and Indian music.
Peel was never shy of championing the unfashionable, though, so he continued to include Topic artists (June Tabor, Eliza Carthy, Waterson Carthy) and other folk and folk-based performers on his programmes, and in 1999 hosted a six-part series on Radio 2 on the history of the British folk revival - by which time Topic was celebrating its 60th anniversary, folk was becoming fashionable again and a new generation of folk musicians was emerging.
This list includes artists whose records feature in the Topic catalogue - although some of them were with other labels at the time of their sessions for Peel's shows. Dates and track listings can be found in Ken Garner's The Peel Sessions.
- Martin Carthy (8 solo sessions, plus others with Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band)
- Nic Jones (8 solo sessions, 1 with group Bandoggs)
- Boys of the Lough (7 sessions)
- June Tabor (6 solo sessions, 1 with Maddy Prior)
- Albion Country Band (5 sessions)
- Dick Gaughan (3 sessions)
- Shirley Collins (3 sessions, 2 with sister Dolly Collins)
- High Level Ranters (3 sessions)
- Cheviot Ranters (2 sessions)
- Anne Briggs (2 sessions)
- Oldham Tinkers (1 session)
- Davy Graham (1 session)
- Martin Simpson (1 session)
The list below is incomplete and researched only from the database of this site. Please add more information if known.
- 01 September 1976: JP features June Tabor's Airs and Graces LP as a new release, and comments that it is a good quality pressing - unusual for an LP in 1976.
- 22 December 1977: Oldham Tinkers: John Willie's Ferret (LP – Sit Thee Down) - 1977 Festive Fifty #52
- 23 December 1977: June Tabor: No Man's Land (LP – Ashes And Diamonds) - 1977 Festive Fifty #40
- 18 October 1978: Billy Bennett: Mottos (LP – A Gentlemen)
- 02 August 1978: Dick Gaughan The Recruited Collier (LP - Gaughan)
- 11 December 1979: Five Hand Reel: I’ll Lay You Down (LP – A Bunch of Fives) Topic - Peel mentions he had also played the track a couple of times the previous week
- 20 March 1980: June Tabor & Martin Simpson: Strange Affair (LP - A Cut Above)
- 24 March 1980: June Tabor with Martin Simpson: Le Roi Renaud (LP-A Cut Above)
- 19 June 1980: Nic Jones: Courting Is A Pleasure (LP - Penguin Eggs)
- 17 July 1992: Cheviot Ranters: Washington Quickstep (LP- Sound Of The Cheviots)
- 23 July 1994: Sonny Terry: Locomotive Blues (LP - Harmonica Blues)
- 17 February 1996 (BFBS): Eliza Carthy: Cold, Wet & Rainy Night / The Grand Hornpipe (CD - Heat Light & Sound)
- 09 September 1999: Waterson:Carthy: The Bay Of Biscay (LP – Broken Ground)
- 28 November 2002: June Tabor: The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda' (LP - Airs And Graces)
- 23 January 2002: Cheviot Ranters: Corn Rigs (LP-Sound Of The Cheviots) - track also appeared on Peel's FabricLive 07 compilation