Leeds-based Commoners Choir are off on a tour of the country, stretching from their roots in the North to the foreign climes of Brighton and Glasgow. Writer, musician and former lead guitarist with Chumbawamba, Boff Whalley looks at the origins – and the characters – of this unusual group that acts more like a band or a gang than a choir.
Around a decade or so ago I’d finished with Chumbawamba and was working in theatre and arts projects, writing music and plays and enjoying this way of working that didn’t involve tours and press releases and humping guitar amps around. I didn’t want to start another band. But then I had an idea – or possibly half an idea. It was the thought of a punk choir. A huge choir of people who could marry four-part harmony singing with a punk attitude.
So I wrote a manifesto – knowing that all the famous twentieth century art movements had a manifesto – which called on people to gather and sing in the name of change. The manifesto declared that this choir (whatever it would be called) would keep to the ethos of the original punk movement; to challenge and to change.
I tentatively put out a call, and set out the plan; fifteen people came along. We had one song, which I’d hastily arranged as a three-part harmony of an old Johnny Rotten quote: ‘Get off your arse…’
Within a year we were 50-strong. We now have over 150 people on the books. All of them committed to this mad, chaotic, wonderful gathering of like-minded people. We are Commoners, and Commoners volunteer for jobs in the choir, taking responsibilities and ensuring it all runs smoothly.
“Commoners Choir? It’s a beautiful chaos that keeps me sane and gives me space to shout about the world.” (Choir member Alison McIntyre)
And it’s really not my choir anymore, it’s our choir. We don’t do cover versions (that’s in the manifesto), we have a couple of albums and a ton of T-shirts, mugs and even beanie hats on sale from our website. We have an allotment where we gather to dig and sing. We have a Commoners ‘wild swimming’ section. We’ve done a tour of northern libraries threatened with closure. We publish our own zine. We do concerts where we cook on stage and feed the audience. Every year we climb Kinder Scout to sing on the summit in celebration of the people who fought to make the hills accessible. We’re a very unlikely army of doers – not just singers, but people who want to get involved, who want to help out and make a noise.
We have a broad range of characters, from GPs to food-writers, from traditional stone-carvers to gardeners. Allan Clifford, choir member and a teacher at a busy sixth form college, says that, “Singing in this choir has made me much happier. Life for ordinary working people at the moment is tough. Like many jobs, teaching is an often-thankless task that can easily take over your life. Commoners Choir is a shared experience with other ordinary folk that helps me realise my isolated experiences are common. My newfound sense of joy comes from the way that we have a clear sense of Britain’s radical history and our proud place within that.”
At root we’re just a big bunch of people trying to sing about the world around us. And lest anyone be unaware of the fact, the immediate world around us is the north of England, and we draw our members from right across Yorkshire and the Pennines. Our song ‘True North’ was written for the Great Exhibition of the North, and is our hymn to our northern culture, our heritage and our future (Oh, and our sense of humour).
Our version of ‘northernness’ is part angry, part celebratory. Angry about the continuing joke of the ‘levelling up’ project and celebratory of the north’s history of innovation and challenge… and its mountains and lakes. As the song ‘True North’ says, “…all our favourite seats of power are trig points on the peaks.”
Choir member Alan Smith (yes, we have several Alans…) says: “The struggle to make things better, in our different ways, can be tiring and draining. Commoners choir is a warm hug, a hearty soup, time shared with friends, replenishing ourselves so we are strong enough to go out again and try to do good in the world… a less nice way of saying this would be: Commoners choir is Ready Brek for the left!”
It’s well-documented that singing with other people has great benefits for our mental health, improving our sense of wellbeing. It also fosters a fantastic sense of community, feeling part of something bigger than us as individuals – and in Commoners Choir, we all chip in ideas for the things we want to sing about, whether that’s celebrating NHS workers or damning inept politicians.
I’ll leave the final words to Choir member Liz Maddocks, who’s been with the choir for several years and works with refugees and asylum seekers:
“Commoners Choir has helped me ‘find my voice’ – singing together about the issues we care about, challenging those in power and bringing hope. I don't want to be in a choir, I want to be in this choir!”