Argo Records

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Best known for its classical and spoken word catalogues, Argo Records was one of a handful of independent UK record labels (including Topic and Melodisc) that began life catering for new minority tastes such as folk music in post-war Britain.

From its founding in 1951 until its takeover by Decca UK in 1957, the label was at the forefront of introducing the British public to what was then called 'ethnic music' (now known as 'world music'), issuing LPs of folk music and song from the USA, the Caribbean, South and Central America, India and Bali. This aspect of the label's output continued unabated following the Decca take-over with a remarkable (for the time) series of field recordings from the Middle East, Asia and Europe ('The Living Tradition') by musicologist Deben Bhattacharya.

Apart from the one-off recording of Shirley Collins' first LP ('Sweet England', 1959), Argo's involvement with British folk music began with a series of educational projects in the 1960s. Collaborating with educationalists and book publishers, the label brought recorded folk music and poetry into the classroom by producing LPs that were innovative teaching/learning aids – 'Songs for Children' (1964) and 'Rhyme and Rhythm' (1965) for primary school children, 'Poetry and Song' (1967) for the secondary school and the ground-breaking 'Voices' anthology (1968).

Among the contributors to these anthologies were Pat Shuldham-Shaw, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and members of The Critics Group.

MacColl and Seeger moved to Argo from specialist folk label Topic after Argo won a protracted battle for the rights to issue the BBC's Radio Ballads on vinyl. Amongst their major recordings for the Decca subsidiary were a 12-LP set of Child Ballads ('The Long Harvest', 1967) and a 3-LP series of songs in 1968 about sex ('The Wanton Muse'), love ('The Amorous Muse') and protest ('The Angry Muse'). From 1966 to 1971 The Critics Group contributed themed recordings of traditional songs of London, fishing and the sea, women’s lives and the Napoleonic era – largely the fruits of their own research.

From 1969-1975 Argo's folk output was somewhat less scholarly and much more catholic. While maintaining a focus on traditional music and song with recordings by Cyril Tawney, Martyn Wyndham-Read, The Druids, The Clutha, The Songwainers, The New Deal String Band, The Garret Singers and The Yetties, the label also promoted contemporary artists such as Gothic Horizon, Talisman and Rick Jones. It continued too to take on adventurous projects – like Peter Bellamy's first settings of Rudyard Kipling's poems, the first anthology on disc of British soldiers' songs ('Songs and Music of the Redcoats') and the experimental early music/folk-rock collaboration 'Giles Farnaby’s Dream Band'.

By 1975 Argo had by and large stopped issuing new folk recordings. After years of serious financial difficulties, parent company Decca was bought out by Polygram in 1980. In the ensuing rationalisation, Argo was, in the words of its founder Harley Usill, 'snuffed out' by its new owners.

External links

[1] Argo label's folk discography - work in progress

The World of Kevin Daly provides a huge amount of detail about the folk recordings produced by Argo producer Kevin Daly.

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