Introducing…The Glee Club

Glee Club 2014The hundreds of new members making their way to Bournemouth might be forgiven for wondering about some of the exciting new events in store.

One of those is a Conference tradition that definitely isn’t unsung: the Glee Club. It predates the popular TV show by decades, having been founded when Liberals gathered informally in the hotel hosting the Liberal Assembly. In 1965, Michael Steed and Mary Green, both Young Liberals,produced the first Liberal Songsheet – a long-lost song from that document has been added to almost 100 other songs in the Liberator Songbook, the repository of song now in its 26th edition.

From those chaotic and humble beginnings the event has grown to one of the highlights in the Conference calendar, well-attended by visiting exhibitors and journalists, though only intermittently so by party leaders. Some like to come and lead or join in the singing; others are happy to do a comic ‘turn’. With help from our glamorous assistant on the keyboards, John Hemming, and others such as Richard Clein, John Bridges and I have jointly compered the event since its original compere, Ralph Bancroft, stepped back.

The songs sung date back from 19th century hymns adapted to rouse Liberal campaigners; songs made famous or notorious by the Liberal Revue, and others written more or less spontaneously. Not all songs pass the quality control required to make it to the Songbook. Not all are reverential towards their subjects, either!

The cover of the new Songbook remembers the late Charles Kennedy, ‘a man more singed against than singing’ with at least four songs written in his honour. We have had to think what the right thing was to do, given that some written well before his rise to become Party leader referred (fondly) to his illness. We are told by Charles’ family that he was fond of the songs about him; perhaps surprisingly! Out of respect, though, for this edition we have retired the ‘Skye Boat Song’… not that we expect that will stop members of the Glee Club singing it.

Over the years, the Glee Club has grown organically, fuelled on the liquid refreshment of its members’ choice, into the largest informal event of Conference. Sometimes it even raises money for good causes. It is also the only known active repository for British political song in any party.

Last year the Glee Club even made it into Buzzfeed. So please do come along. No particular musical talent is required. Just enthusiasm, a sense of humour, a Songbook and a willingness to share in this unique political event.

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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12 Comments

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 17th Sep '15 - 4:24pm

    My first experience of Glee Club was at the Glasgow Spring Conference of 1992. I wondered what on earth I had walked in to but, being of a fairly trashy persuasion, soon loved it. I have been to every single one I possible could since and during those long years I couldn’t get to Conference have begged friends to bring me back a songbook.

    I have very fond memories of the days of Ronnie Fearn doing his turn, Ralph, of course and the wonderful Liz Rorison on piano. Very much missed.

    I wonder if I could ask fellow readers what their favourite GC song is. I can’t pick just one, but two of my very favourites are “The week we went to Brighton” (which tells the story of a conference where the party frequently upset Paddy Ashdown by voting for policy options he was none too keen on, or “The Soggy Song”, that affectionate ode to the SDP.

  • Will there be a Liberal Review again?

  • My first Glee Club was in Bournemouth (hooray!), 2004. I’d been told previously by some fellow Liberal Youth’ers in Brighton 2003 to avoid it and I foolishly did so. I was therefore vaguely dragged along a year later to this event expecting something horrendous.

    What I found instead, was being besides myself in fits of laughter at some of the songs we were asked to sing. ‘Country Garden’ stood out as one of those!!

    I quickly realised that what Glee Club does is meld together beautifully my love of music and the mischievous, humourous side of my character. I’ve never known anything like it and I now adore it. I haven’t missed a Glee Club in a conference that I have attended, since. In time I even got up the guts to join in on the stage. Now you can’t keep me away! If you see a bloke in a Welsh rugby top leading a rousing rendition of Cwm Rhondda or Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, that’ll be me!

    As for my favourite tune Caron? Being Welsh, the ‘Liberal March’ to Men of Harlech it incredibly rousing! But, I have a ridiculous soft spot for ‘Shirl in the World’ about the SDP and it’s mainstays Shitley Williams and wonderful ‘Woy’ Jenkins!

    Brilliant!

  • James Ridgwell 17th Sep '15 - 6:59pm

    i went to Glee at my first conference (Liverpool earlier this year), and it is a lot of fun – defo recommended

  • I suspect there won’t be a dry eye in the house when the illustrious compere completely fails to stop us doing the Skye Boat Song this year.

    Favourites? I love Country Garden too, although it’s a sod to get the timing right on. Have we ever officially done The Eric Pickles Song (for he is the man, the very fat man, who waters the workers’ beer)?

  • Actually glee clubs go back further than the 19th century – they really peaked in the 18th century. The tune that is now the American national anthem (with the words “The Star-Spangled Banner”) was the club song of one of the most prestigious of glee clubs in 18th-century London, the Anacreontic Society (the original words began “To Anacreon in heaven…”).

    Still super to see this tradition alive and kicking in the LibDem world…

  • We have certainly sung ‘He his the man, the very bad man, who waters the workers’ beer’. Is there a special Pickled version, too?

    As far as favourite songs go, I am rather fond of the Twelve Days of Coalition, and the Lib-Lab Lie never gets old because shouting *that* line is rather too much fun.

    But the ultimate classic is surely the Letterboxes song.

  • Nick Collins 18th Sep '15 - 1:46pm

    “Losing Deposits” was always one of my favourites; and it’s topical again. And, perhaps with a suitable amendment to line 23, you might consider the “The Canvasser Cometh” apposite.

    In honour of LDV, you might reprise, or update, the last stanza of “The Liberal Leader”?

  • I remember David Steel attending Glee Club attended by two Special Branch men. Even though some songs made fun of him, David was in a good mood, but the two cops looked hilariously bewildered.

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