Jennifer Reid’s 'Gongoozler' residency

To celebrate Milton Keynes 50th birthday in 2017, and with funding from the Arts Council, we appointed Jennifer Reid, a 19th Century Industrial Revolution broadside balladress, to create a song book about the canal in Milton Keynes.

After a rigorous selection process, we appointed Jennifer Reid as our artist in residence on the Grand Union Canal. Jennifer is a ballad singer who during her residency, inspired by 19th century literature, would create a book of songs and dialect stories about the canal and the people who use it in Milton Keynes.

Jennifer had a busy summer; she stayed on a canal boat for a week, received mentorship with Neville Gabie (a prominent artist, who supported the project), exhibited her work at the MK Gallery, and performed at many canal festivals.

Drawing on the experiences, opinions, feelings and people that Jennifer encountered, and in response to the unique Grand Union dialect, she brought her historical interests to the task of creating new songs in relation to current communities of the Grand Union Canal – something she had not done before. Some of these songs ie. ‘The row between the canal and the city’ – a conceptual piece, Jennifer describes as different from the work she usually performs or creates.

The project wouldn't have been possible without funding from the Arts Council and support from MK Gallery & Lionhearts Cruising Club.

The row between the Canal and the City
(Belly and back tune)

​Canal: This problem I have with the city,
I no longer can hold up my tongue,
Its with this brand new ditty,
I'll put all my feelings in song.
This city has been growing and crossing,
Truthfully, all over my path,
If you can restrain your growing,
You will be avoiding a bath.

City: The canal is an engineered relic,
He's certainly no match for me,
My improvements have proved psychedelic,
Compared to his blue and his green.
I won't be held back by indifference,
To progress and also to change,
If he has a problem please air it,
I welcome a healthy exchange.

Canal: You have seen the products of your evolution,
Wrapping an oak tree up in a shop,
I agree that this grim contribution,
Was not meant its life for to stop,
I understand your need for improvement,
I have undergone similar schemes,
But you have to think of these movements,
And how they can become extreme.

City: I was the first smart city,
That stands up however you fight,
You may have been built here first,
But you have to declare that I'm right,
Your simple design and construction,
May have been a leap forward at the time,
But I will not accept the admission,
That your skills are better than mine.

Canal: Now I see fit here to mention,
The case of the tortoise and hare,
And believe it is not my intention,
To label us circle and square,
Whilst we may not be so different,
And we do share some common traits,
I would ask you slow down your ascent,
Before it becomes far too late.

You can listen to Jennifer perform her songs here (credit: Jonny Hill, MK Gallery).

Or you can read the full songbook here.

As part of the project, we also appointed a writer to follow Jennifer’s journey, Jade’s interview can be read below:

Jennifer and I met first at the Venice Biennale, 2015 when she was performing acapella “Broadsides and Ballads of the Industrial Revolution”. We share an interest in the industrial revolution and its links to Imperialism and colonialism. Jennifer, working on the Gongoozler residency, culminating in an exhibition in November, spoke about her passion for canals and what we can expect.

Your adventures working on canals are enthralling...

I work on canals mainly around Salford. My friend and I, a pub historian, do this thing called Beer and Ballads, going to pubs along the canal where I sing canal songs. People are a little peeved initially, as we always arrive unexpectedly but soon they’re really into it. I worked on The Ballad Boat, a trip boat, with about 20 participants, writing canal songs about the area. There are so many brilliant and also gruesome stories attached to canal histories that I make accessible through song.

The Gongoozler Canal Residency could have been made with you in mind. What’s been happening?

I lived aboard the 50ft canal boat with Kathryn, the Canal and River Trust volunteer, who helped navigate us from Gayton to Campbell Park, taking us two days. You can only go four miles an hour, making the journey leisurely. I facilitated two community workshops, sharing my methods as a balladress. Together, the public and I wrote two songs!

What is the legacy of these canal songs?

The canal people were called banditti - travellers of their time. People looked down on them and their lifestyle and they were very insular as a result. But I feel this makes their culture more concentrated. Their songs, although not well preserved, are distinctive. When I write new material in that old traditional style they are instantly identifiable as having taken inspiration from the canal. The medium of song is such a good way to connect families and leisure boaters who now forget about the working industry part of the canal.

How can we connect with the histories?

The canal story needs to be heard; singing is a good way to do it and it engages children. Nailing down stories to geographical areas along the canal is a good way to bond and boost regional pride.

Tell me about the work you intend making

I’ve already written six songs. One really good song that came out of a workshop is a conversation between the canal and the city. In this song, the canal speaks to the city, teasing it, making jibes. It’s written in the old Victorian style, with way too many words in it, but that’s okay. The song book that i am going to write will include some traditional songs written to existing canal tunes to demonstrate the style. My plan for the exhibition is that songs are stencilled around the exhibition space plus a display of my friend Stuart’s massive portraits of old boatmen. I’d also like to get lots of traditional boat bits to show. At the opening I’ll be walking around singing. I hope everyone will join in.

The event wouldn’t have been possible with the support from local volunteers, organisations like Milton Keynes Gallery and funding from the Arts Council.

Last date edited: 6 June 2018