Shaftesbury Choir Performs Songs That Helped Change British Life

‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, according to the saying. But the power of the protest song could be considered even more potent in demonstrating discontent, uniting activists and bringing about change.

And on Sunday evening, Shaftesbury’s Palida Choir will be joined by a ‘national treasure’ as they share the history of Britain’s social struggles through song.

Since the 26-strong group was formed in 2011, they’ve become much loved for their close harmony performances, which are sometimes jazz-influenced and occasionally follow a theme. “One theme we did was on birds and another one was on bees,” said Karen Wimhurst, the choir’s Musical Director. “We’ve also sung a set of Emily Dickinson songs, which I wrote based on her poems.”

Karen Wimhurst leading rehearsals at the Arts Centre

Karen says the choir will again be pushing the boundaries this spring. “Our spring term is one for exploration of new ideas and pushing the choir a bit further, doing some modern music. Then when everybody’s totally burnt out on that, we relax in the summer term and sing some close harmony jazz numbers,” she said.

The group is rooted in our town, as their name suggests. “Palida comes from Palladwr, which is, of course, the old Saxon word for Shaftesbury. Our choir is very much situated in this area,” said Karen.

You probably know of the Community Choir. Palida is different. “The Community Choir is often over a hundred. It’s a fantastic drop-in choir and the focus is, in part, on having fun and meeting people. Palida Choir came out of a request from somebody in the choir who wanted to do a bit more singing and wanted to be pushed a bit more,” said Karen. “Palida meets on a Tuesday in the Arts Centre. It’s a smaller choir. Some people read music, some people don’t. We do very low key auditions but the main thing is you just have to be prepared to work for a concert.”

On Sunday at the Trinity Centre, Palida will present ‘Dissent’. The show was inspired by the events of the Peterloo massacre, 200 years ago. “Peterloo was a big demonstration in Manchester, a demonstration for workers’ rights in which a number of people were killed and the army came in on horses. Knowing that there was that anniversary and with work I’ve been doing up in London in Cecil Sharp House, the centre for folk music in Britain, with Sally Davies who runs the choir, I thought it’d be nice to work with her on a project called ‘Dissent’ which really celebrated the British tradition of fighting for justice in all kinds of areas,” Karen explained.

‘Dissent’ presents a musical timeline, which shows how working people have reacted to, or risen against, injustice through the centuries. “One of the resources we have in Britain for this is broadside ballads, which go way back. The one which we start with is from the 1600s – ‘A Poor Man Pays For All’ – which is about how the wealthy skim off the money for themselves and leave everybody else in poverty,” said Karen.

Some people may argue that nothing changes. “I can’t say that our conditions are the same as they were in the 1600s. Obviously we’ve come a long way. However, we’ve got to be mindful that a UN report in 2018 specifically singled out Britain for its rates of poverty. In a country that is so rich, we have 14 million in poverty and we were specifically singled out to be criticised for this,” Karen said. “I think what struck me, the more I’ve done the songs in every section of the piece, there are parallels with our modern age.”

The show starts with a sense of optimism. “We start with a sort of enthusiastic children’s song to celebrate the fact that we’re all born free, creative, you can go anywhere in life. Then next song we have is about child poverty. This tells the story of a chimney sweep who was sold for a guinea as a child,” said Karen.

As well as subversive songs from centuries ago, Palida also perform a track by the Dorset-resident songwriter, Billy Bragg. “We’ve chosen to sing ‘Sophia Smiles’. This is about a recent demonstration in Birmingham by the far right in which a young Asian woman stepped in front of a very angry right-wing young man and disarmed him with a smile, as everything was getting out of control. She was just caught on camera and it was one of those lovely sorts of moments which became iconic,” said Karen.

You could think from the topic of the programme that it’s going to be quite an angry evening, but Karen says it isn’t. “Well, there’s quite a lot of humour in there. So there’s quite a lot of balance because, of course, we are British. We have a great sense of irony.”

Karen says she’s experimented with the concert’s staging. “I wanted to explore with the choir a different way of presenting things in concert. So we’ve hired the Trinity Centre, which of course has just been ‘done up’ and is a brilliant new performing venue. From a pure choral point of view, we’re looking at ways that you can move around the audience, which are perhaps a bit unusual.”

Inside the Trinity Centre

Karen says she is planning a theatre-in-the-round type performance. “Let’s say singing-in-the-round. It won’t be totally that but there’s an aspect of that and that’s what we’re looking to explore,” she said. “Aside from celebrating the kind of long marches through the ages, which the British public have taken part in, we’re also just exploring the excitement of the voice in space.”

Palida is giving you the choice of attending two shows. “We have two performances and I hope there will be perhaps forty people at each performance,” said Karen. They’ll also be accompanied by a guest musician. “Paul Hutchinson, who’s a fabulous folk organist, is also joining us. He was introduced to the Queen as a ‘national treasure’ on her birthday celebrations, so we’re lucky to have him also coming in and doing some playing.”

Sunday’s event takes place at Shaftesbury’s Trinity Centre on Bimport. You can book on 01747 850978 and tickets are also available on the door. There are two performances, one at 6.30pm and one at 8.30pm.