46,000 people, 121 conversations, 1 song. A song for you. A Song for Trowbridge.
The Making Of: A Song for Trowbridge
In April 2020, I was working in my other job at Wiltshire Rural Music, when Trowbridge Town Hall director David Lockwood asked if I would be part of a series of YouTube conversations, with comedy-folk legends Jonny & The Baptists, as part of their ‘Song For Trowbridge’ project. We talked about what it was like to come from small, unloved, slightly forgotten towns. None of us are actually from Trowbridge itself, but we were all trying to dig down into what makes small towns tick. Why do so many of us feel a need to run away? Why do many of us later feel the pull to return? These YouTube videos are still available, and they are wonderful, as Jonny and Paddy talk to artists like Meg Mosley about why she returned to Trowbridge, and why she created an entire show about ‘Trowvegas’. The idea behind it all was to capture the town, its people and its stories, in just one song.
Over the course of their time working on the project, Jonny and Paddy met a huge variety of people: shopkeepers, market traders, business leaders, councillors, café owners, as well as many people in and around the town they just bumped into on a dog walk, the local barman or someone on a bench having a smoke.
Unfortunately, the pandemic derailed the Song For Trowbridge project, and Jonny & The Baptists were unable to finish their work. Luckily for me, I was asked to try and pull together their research and undertake more of my own, to write and record the song itself.
Some of the people I spoke to included; Tracy the owner of Leykers, Wafaa Powell the belly-dancing Lebanese chef, David Birks at the newly opened Trowbridge Museum, Josephine Corcoran the poet, Emma Webb from Trowbridge Rock Choir, Gill Cooper from Historic Trowbridge, as well as artists Jen, Alex and Cath from Cloth Road. I spoke to people in their teens and people in their eighties, pulled together interviews with everyone from publicans to drag artists. There were verses and lyrics sent in by people like Merv Grist, whose “Trowbridge, Trowbridge this town is flyin, if we all pull together and we all keep tryin’” was definitely an inspiration for the chorus we ended up with. The key takeaway from all these conversations was that there was – beneath the cynicism and self-deprecation – a lot of love for the town, and a sense that things could be better if we pulled together a bit. Almost everyone I chatted with wanted to mention the past – the massive slide in the park, the temperature of the old Newton swimming pool, the feeling that “there used to be” good gigs here like The Who and Radiohead, or that “there used to be” a decent turn out for the Christmas lights, or the endless happy memories of wonderful carnivals, Airsprung and Bowyers floats going by whilst kids threw their spare change at them from paper cups.
In terms of the songwriting itself, history buffs may note that the ‘Humphrey’ who walks down Fore Street in the opening line of the song, is meant to be Humphrey I de Bohun, who built the Trowbridge Castle during the 1100’s. The fact that he does this ‘as Trevor the Town Crier shuffles his papers’ is intended to make it clear that the song meanders through time periods, drawing in characters from Trowbridge past and present. For some reason I had Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ in my head as a lyrical starting point, for how to create a melting pot of characters that align in one location.
When conversations with residents turned from past to present, invariably people would be a little more critical of their town. There is a dry humour to how many people see Trowbridge, and I kept returning to something Meg Mosley mentioned in her interview: “We’re the only ones who are allowed to put it down”. That line stuck with me as the hook. As thriving industry left for greener pastures and left the community struggling to bear the weight of its loss, Trowbridge has perhaps not had the same investment or infrastructure as bigger, more prosperous areas nearby. Many residents have been here through it all, see the many problems and yet still have an innate love for their town and hope for the future. It’s not for an outsider like me, or any outsider, to come and poke fun or criticise (see the furore caused by the ‘armpit of Wiltshire’ comment on an ilivehere.com article for evidence of that). The residents are quite capable of criticizing it themselves. Meg’s line also spoke to that sense of humour that exists in Trowbridge, present in so many of the conversations, emails and Zoom chats. All this made me determined not to write some sappy feel-good song, but something that celebrated the town, warts and all.
In terms of recording, I enlisted the help of my band mates John Hare (piano and brass) Paul Hodson (bass) and was lucky enough to get the Trowbridge Rock Choir to sing on the chorus. When we recorded the choir it was absolutely pouring it down, and we recorded outside in the Sensory Garden (back when groups weren’t allowed in big numbers indoors). I am extremely grateful to everyone who contributed for all their work on the finished version.
To the many, many people we spoke to directly and those who got in touch with thoughts, comments, reminiscences and questions, thank you so much. You have all written this song with me, and I only wish I could’ve included everything you suggested. As you’ll hear, it’s already over 6 minutes long but could’ve easily been ten times that! Hopefully I can find ways to make your stories sing in the future, and try to give a voice to more of the many wonderful things happening in Trowbridge. As for the video, it was made by Jamie McDine over a few days in late July/August, partly inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video, in which he has song lyrics on cards. Combining this with a desire to feature as many of your faces and places as possible, we took a walk through Trowbridge and hopefully captured a sense of it. I’m sure you’ll watch the video and spot many people and locations you know and love.
One memory that stands out is asking the kiosk owner who runs the Crazy Golf if we could film him holding a lyric from the chorus. Not only did he say yes, he gave us free drinks and snacks and asked if we’d like a free game of golf. Incredibly generous, full of community spirit, he summed up my experience of meeting the people of Trowbridge. Thank you all for chatting with me and taking time to share your memories and plans for the future.
I really hope you enjoy the song as much as I enjoyed making it.
Gavin Osborn, September 2021