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Maggie Holland – two national anthems

Jali House Rock cassette cover

Every now and again I get angry about how overlooked Maggie Holland is. I’ve been a fan of hers for about 25 years, when I heard her song ‘Salt of the Earth’ on an great obscure cassette compilation called ‘Jali House Rock‘ that I’d found in the bargain bin in a record store. This is my own small attempt to draw attention to her work, so I’ve put down as much information as I can for people who may be interested.

She’s a fantastic songwriter and musician, and at least these two songs of hers should be considered as alternative national anthems for England. Although she’s won folk awards and June Tabor’s cover of ‘A Place Called England’ got a lot of radio airplay, her work has not penetrated the national (or international) consciousness as much as it should have.

In my view, with these two songs alone, she should be championed alongside Billy Bragg, Crass, New Model Army, and the Levellers as a particularly English songwriter fighting for the common folk and resisting the greedy and the oppressive with passion and outrage and music. Because she’s seen (or marketed) as folk, she gets pigeonholed like so many other artists.

This is a problem that often comes up in folk, where people don’t find out about an artist because they’re somehow stuck in the folk scene – but they don’t really fit the folk scene as they are too aggressive or weird or modern, while rock or punk fans might get much more out of it. (It’s how Croydon prog-folk band Comus languished mostly in obscurity since 1971. They may well have had more success if marketed as prog or rock, as their influence through the weirder end of the underground music scene managed to inspire Opeth, Nurse With Wound, and subsequently many other dark and metal musicians.)

Anyway, rather than rant off topic and blether on about it too much, I’ll let her songs speak for themselves – as they should. Here’s the studio versions of the songs, followed by the lyrics, followed by live versions, which are also superb. Please give them the time and attention they deserve!

Written around 1999, ‘A Place Called England’ is an angry but hopeful and uplifting song, railing against “fat landowners,” inequality and the sad, toxic state of the English landscape. It’s not easy to write something that is both angry and positive, but Maggie Holland manages to make it sound effortless, while avoiding preachiness or any overt political association. It sums up the state of England and most of Britain both then and now. It’s a song of, and for the people – and it’s particularly inclusive and inspiring in who it regards as English people – “whatever the land that gave you birth… as long as you love the English earth”. And it sees hope in the very earth and land itself – something missing from far too many conversations about what makes a country what it is.

‘Salt of the Earth’, from her old band Orchestre Super Moth (aka Tiger Moth and a bunch of other names), is also a song for and of the people. It’s in the style of an African praise song, but rather than being praise for a wealthy patron or a local leader, as African tradition normally would have it, it’s praising the downtrodden ordinary people of a nation. Its power comes in large part from being written in a simple, straightforward style – an open, inclusive intelligence at odds with the smug posturing of so much songwriting. Again, the earth and land itself is where hope survives and grows.

A Place Called England

I rode out on a bright May morning like a hero in a song,
Looking for a place called England, trying to find where I belong.
Couldn't find the old flood meadow or the house that I once knew;
No trace of the little river or the garden where I grew.

I saw town and I saw country, motorway and sink estate;
Rich man in his rolling acres, poor man still outside the gate;
Retail park and burger kingdom, prairie field and factory farm,
Run by men who think that England's only a place to park their car.

But as the train pulled from the station through the wastelands of despair
From the corner of my eye a brightness filled the filthy air.
Someone's grown a patch of sunflowers though the soil is sooty black,
Marigolds and a few tomatoes right beside the railway track.

Down behind the terraced houses, in between the concrete towers,
Compost heaps and scarlet runners, secret gardens full of flowers.
Meeta grows her scented roses right beneath the big jets' path.
Bid a fortune for her garden—Eileen turns away and laughs.

So rise up, George, and wake up, Arthur, time to rouse out from your sleep.
Deck the horse with sea-green ribbons, drag the old sword from the deep.
Hold the line for Dave and Daniel as they tunnel through the clay,
While the oak in all its glory soaks up sun for one more day.

Come all you at home with freedom whatever the land that gave you birth,
There's room for you both root and branch as long as you love the English earth.
Room for vole and room for orchid, room for all to grow and thrive;
Just less room for the fat landowner on his arse in his four-wheel drive.

For England is not flag or Empire, it is not money, it is not blood.
It's limestone gorge and granite fell, it's Wealden clay and Severn mud,
It's blackbird singing from the May tree, lark ascending through the scales,
Robin watching from your spade and English earth beneath your nails.

So here's two cheers for a place called England, sore abused but not yet dead;
A Mr Harding sort of England hanging in there by a thread.
Here's two cheers for the crazy diggers, now their hour shall come around;
We shall plant the seed they saved us, common wealth and common ground.
Salt of the Earth

This isn't a song for your leader
To hear at their victory parade
This isn't for the politicians
They can always sing their own praise

Sometimes they might even glimpse
As the black limousine rides past
Filtered through air conditioning
Their vision distorted by bullet proof glass

Pity your simple leaders
They can only do simple sums
They equate power with money
And estimate strength in numbers of guns

Why don't you lie down and die quietly?
Instead of persistently staying alive
Cluttering up their statistics
When against all the odds you survive

They only see that you have nothing
They cannot see what you are worth
I sing in praise of the scum of the earth

There's not much that I can offer
Here's a song for what it's worth
I sing in praise of the salt of the earth

Woman who goes to bed hungry
So that your children can eat
Boy whose mother is dying
So you beg for her out on the street

You are the wealth of nations
You are the power in the land
You have the strength to move mountains
You carry the earth in the palm of your hand

They only see that you have nothing
They cannot see what you are worth
I sing in praise of the scum of the earth

There's not much that I can offer
Here's a song for what it's worth
I sing in praise of the salt of the earth

I couldn’t find the lyrics for ‘Salt of the Earth’ anywhere else on the web, so I transcribed them myself. That’s how relatively unknown this song is!

And here’s the live version of ‘A Place Called England’, from 2012, with Maggie Holland’s introduction to the song as well:

And finally, here’s the live version of ‘Salt of the Earth’ from the same gig in Antwerp in 2012, also with Maggie Holland’s introduction:

Please visit Maggie Holland on Facebook and on her website.

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