"Devon singers celebrate women's work"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 18/03/17

Wren Music celebrated International Women’s Day 2017 in style at Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre. A capacity audience, aged from eight months (take a bow, Indigo!) to eighty plus, watched Her Story 2, exploring the theme of women at work. The hugely talented Her Story project team members are: Sarah Owen, a vocal coach, choir leader, composer and performer; co-founder Marilyn Tucker, singer, songwriter, oral historian and storyteller; singer/songwriters Emily Howard of Torbay’s Common Folk Choir and Amy Wilson who grew up singing with Hocus, Wren’s youth folk group and a splendidly diverse women’s choir drawn mainly from Common Folk Choirs all over Devon.

We were treated to a treasure chest of inspirational songs and readings from across the world (including Italy’s lively ‘La Lega’ and Denmark’s catchy ‘Hosekonen’) and across the centuries. From the traditional English ‘Doffing Mistress’ to the magnificent Kate Tempest by way of Maya Angelou, with the blessing of Peggy Seeger, women’s voices rang out with stories of working together to effect change, reminding us of the positive work done by individual women like Mary Seacole; informal groups like the Devonshire Bidlake Farm landgirls in WW1 and Trade Unions. I very much liked Marilyn Tucker’s ‘Women of the union’.

Bang up to date was ‘I’m gonna walk it with you’ by Ellie Grace and Brian Clafin, which emerged during the Women’s March on Washington, opposing the present encumbrance in the White House. Marilyn adapted Peggy Seeger’s ‘Naming of Names’ to present a powerful, moving roll of honour of women of courage and integrity: Peng Wan-ru; Rosa Luxemburg; Murielita Dockendorff; Karen Silkwood; Jo Cox; Malala Yousafzai; Sandra Bland; Anne Frank; Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, Susannah Edwards and Alice Molland; Harriet Tubman: Sojourner Truth; Rosa Parks; Emily Davison.

In the 1990s I was passionately involved with Somerset’s ‘Just Women’ feminist magazine co-operative. I remember celebrating the brilliant Chard Festival of Women in Music, and the Birmingham-based catalogue of women’s music, WRPM (Women’s Revolutions Per Minute) now archived at Goldsmith’s. In 2017 it gladdened my rather tired spirit to sit in one of my favourite West Country theatres and see women of all ages tending the flame and singing their hearts out; I was particularly delighted to see three school girls, full of talent and commitment, and the excellent, youthful Emily Howard, whose witty, tuneful songs entertained and impressed. I recognised the suffragette colours worn by the performers, but had forgotten the mnemonic - (G)ive (W)omen (V)otes – Green, White, Violet. Green, white and purple were the colours of the Women's Social and Political Union; purple symbolised dignity, white purity, and green hope. And oh my, do we need their message today.

Would I change anything in the programme? I would shorten the readings and tip the balance of the evening to hear more of the choir. I yearned for some blues, rock and country – but maybe that’s just me. Two of Emily’s three songs, although very, very good, didn’t follow the theme...

Every member of the audience will have taken away a particularly special jewel from the treasure chest. Mine was the beautifully arranged chant/round incorporating Holly Near’s ‘Gentle, Angry Women’, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s ‘Telling our Stories’ and Peggy Seeger’s ‘Reclaim the Night’.

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