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BBC Radio 2

'Some kind of superman'

Assistant Producer

This week’s show - Part Of The Union – We All Stand Together – is focused around a song which  throws up several paradoxes. Performed by The Strawbs, everyone remembers the song but not so much the band. They weren’t exactly one-hit wonders (they’d scored a number 12 single with ‘Lay Down’ earlier) but possibly suffered from their catholic tastes and genre-straddling output.

Beginning as The Strawberry Hill Boys (with Fairport Convention legend, Sandy Denny in their ranks) they managed to touch on rock, prog (Rick Wakeman was a member briefly), glam and folk throughout their long and varied career, which continues to this day. Not only that but ‘Part Of The Union’ - the jovial singalong which made the number two slot in the UK singles chart in the Winter of 1972 – wasn’t remotely representative of the album which spawned it (‘Bursting at the Seams’).

Based on a Woody Guthrie song (‘Union Maid’) written nearly 40 years beforehand, ‘Part of the Union’ obviously has a good lineage as a working man’s anthem. But what may confuse many who remember those days of strikes, picket lines and three-day weeks is that ‘Part of the Union’ was written (according to the Strawbs themselves) as a serious ode to the righteous power of the left.  It’s confusing, because the song was often regarded as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at some of the lyrics from the song:

Before the union did appear
My life was half as clear
Now I've got the power to the working hour
And every other day of the year

So though I'm a working man
I can ruin the government's plan
And though I'm not hard, the sight of my card
Makes me some kind of superman

As I wrote last week: I grew up in the West Midlands and was surrounded by daily reports of car factories on ‘work to rule’ and local news footage of rallies and speech-giving. My memories of that time resound with labour movement terminology that no 12-year old today would understand and a father who had no love for the ‘workshy lefties’ depicted every day on the BBC’s Midland’s Today.
 
Yes, my dad was no unionist, but he DID love that record by the Strawbs. To him those lyrics depicted sarcasm and satire. Coupled with a painfully catchy chorus, it proved to be a hit with him (and just about everyone else I knew at the time). And this is undoubtedly why ‘Part of the Union’ is the perfect tune to encapsulate those grim grey days. By appealing to both sides of the divide, it somehow pulls off the trick of being a political record that became a theme tune for opposite camps.

Of course to a kid, the strikes meant little (apart from the grumbles over the evening news from the parents) but one of the major results of the strife – the weekly power cuts – was certainly memorable. In fact it was great fun! Torches! Candles! Etc. It even proved grist for a young mind doing his English homework. I recently found a school poem I wrote which was written at the time. It’s title? ‘Black-Out.’

And, as this clip from contributor Catherine demonstrates, it was strangely enough a time that drew families together, albeit in pitch darkness.

Contributor Catherine remembers the three day week and the power cuts that went with it.



This week’s show, drawn as ever from eye witness accounts, paints a picture of a nation riven by troubles, and seems all the more remarkable when you consider how such things would affect our 21st century digital world.

 

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