The Radio Ballads by Charles Parker, Music by Ewan MacColl

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BBC Radio 7, 4 July 2009
This award-winning documentary combining real-life interviews with folk songs (first broadcast in 1960), told the story of Britain's herring-fishers in East Anglia and Scotland. At first the lack of a narrator seemed disconcerting, but as the documentary unfolded, however, it became evident that the music not only described the fishermen's lives, but also emphasized the importance of community.
Parker's documentary foregrounded numerous themes. The fishermen enjoyed their way of life but realized at the same time that they were at risk from the fretful elements. They cultivated a respect for the sea, which could yield shoals of fish one day and buffet the fishermen about in their little boats on another. A good fisherman had to combine a knowledge of local conditions and a belief in fate: sometimes there would be occasions when nothing could be done to cope with the sea, other than trusting in an higher power.
Parker placed great emphasis on the act of catching fish, which required a combination of skill and good equipment. The fishermen did not cast their nets haphazardly into the water, but worked out in advance where the best catches would be. The fishermen's trade had to be learned from an early age: young boys were taken to sea, where they undertook menial tasks while acquiring their sea-legs. Only when they were good and ready were they permitted to work with the nets. Several fishermen were quite elderly - some had first gone to sea during the Victorian era and were still at it six decades later.
The fishermen's world was a gendered universe; their wives were expected to stay at home and look after the children. They let a fretful existence, being left alone for weeks on end while their spouses worked at sea. Many interviewees admitted that if they were young once more, they would never marry a fisherman.
This was not a romantic celebration of a long-forgotten trade: several interviewees commented on the changes wrought in their industry during the twentieth century, from the days of plenty during the Edwardian era through the Great Depression, recovery after World War Two and the uncertain future of the 1960s, as the demand for herring amongst British consumers began to decline.
The experience of listening to this programme was partly nostalgic, evoking a forgotten world unfettered by quotas or EU-mediated fishing wars. On the other hand Parker showed that local popular cultures still existed, even in a rapidly industrializing and/or media saturated world. Such cultures exist to this day - even if we have to look harder for them now as compared to the late 1950s.