Ordinary Giants : A Life & Times 1918 – 2018  – Robb Johnson (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Songwriting is the perfect vehicle for telling stories, a form able to blend poeticism, dynamic, drama, emotion and everything else need to spin a good yarn. But rarely has the music of a singer-songwriter covered such an epic slice of history. Essentially a tribute to his father, his life and the events that he lived through, Ordinary Giants is so much more.

Whilst documenting the post-First World War Britain that Ron Johnson was born into, his service in The RAF during the following war, his teaching career and beyond, it also acts as a wonderful commentary on key events of the last hundred years, as viewed from the ground up. It looks at such times with a socialist and liberal eye, from small kitchen sink dramas to world shaking events, taking the wonderful line of having a proper gander with the listener than the propaganda that less informed artists might seek to force upon them. To think of this as a musical continuation of the conversation started in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is probably not pushing the point too hard.

And as you might expect to tell such a rich and detailed saga, Robb has called upon the great and good of the left-leaning community, musician and non-musician alike and whilst you might not be too surprised to find the likes of TMTCH’s Phil Odgers, Chumbawamba’s Boff Walley, Miranda Sykes and Justin Sullivan playing their parts, the inclusion of Dennis Skinner MP and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady are sure to bring a smile to your face.

Musically the songs are suitably delicate, the narrative being the important aspect but often wrapped in simple, effective and gorgeously spare textures. Styles range from music hall pastiches to traditional folk to spoken word to sparse acoustica and often a perfect blend of all. Robb Johnson has taken some sensitive and personal material, often garnered from diaries and memories and created a song suite, a saga if you like, that is both nostalgic and a perfect point of reflection for those who might wonder what has happened to that brave new world that was built for the post First World War generation. Not only a gorgeous and wonderfully heartfelt story but a poignant and important one too.

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