The Unthanks produced a “Memory Book” a few years ago and one of the sections is called “Heroes And Influences.” Rachel and Becky Unthank write that their influences are folk singers that I’ve never heard of: Taffy Thomas, Alex Glasgow, The Voice Squad, The Wilson Family, Graham Miles and their Auntie June. Rachel Unthank is married to Adrian McNally who produced and arranged “Last”. He writes that his influences include “Spirit Of Eden” by Talk Talk, “Shleep” by Robert Wyatt, “Sketches Of Spain” by Miles Davis and “Islands” by King Crimson. He is particularly enthusiastic about the cornet solo in the latter. He writes that this solo is the main reason why The Unthanks’ music includes trumpets to such a large extent. It sounds like he and I share an obsession with this three minutes of music – I never tire of hearing it. In his review of “Last”, Graeme Thompson wrote that The Unthanks view folk music in the same way that Miles Davis viewed jazz. In both cases, the genre was simply “a launchpad for exploring the wider possibilities“. It seems to me that the reason for their unique approach is the coming together of the traditions and sensibilities of traditional folk music with the experimentation and imagination of classic progressive music. I can think of no other act who combine these two strands of music so wonderfully and successfully.
In this time of great change, it is important for us all, every single one of us, to learn lessons from our collective history. In his written introduction to the title track, “Last”, Adrian McNally opines that, although we are all the product of our past, mankind would have a better future if someone stuck their hand up and said “hang on, we’ve been here before, remember?” This is the only original song on the album and, at over seven minutes long, is the centrepiece. The lyrics concern looking back and feeling that all wisdom has been discarded and “the great unlearning has begun“. There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the song when Rachel and Becky Unthank sing about the loneliness of the people at Number 22, 23 and 24 – because we are all lost. Throughout the song, there is great wordplay. The girl at number 22 who is lonely is replaced by a boy at Number 22 who is lovely. There’s more wordplay with “lost” and “last” – the main narrative of the song is that we are all lost but because of that “we won’t last“. The final line which is repeated three times is that “man should be the sum of his story” which could also be written as “man should be the sum of history“.
Steve Roud is a folk song enthusiast who has collected together references to about 25,000 folk songs which have been collected orally. The songs come from all over the world but are restricted to those songs using English. Francis James Child had previously collected together a smaller number of songs (“The Child Ballads”) and these are all included in the Roud database. “Last” includes four songs that are referenced in the Roud database and they are “Gan To The Kye” (Roud 3162), “Queen Of Hearts” (Roud 3195), “My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up” (Roud 3181) and “Canny Hobbie Elliot” (Roud 8986).
“Queen Of Hearts” was recorded by Joan Baez but before The Roud Collection was compiled it was included in a collection published by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1894 who lived in Lew Trenchard in West Devon. He would invite men to come and have a glass of beer with him in his house and, as they sang their songs, he would make notes. “Songs Of The West” contained the music and words for over 2000 songs. Rachel Unthank’s voice is at its most pure and the trumpet and drums give the song a unique sound.
Alex Glasgow was folk singer from Gateshead who died in 2001. He railed against the tag of “folk singer”, generating his own style of political songs. He wrote a song called “Close the Coalhouse Door” for a play of the same name which was performed in Newcastle in the 70’s. The song was also sung by The Wilson Family who are a folk group from Billingham in County Durham consisting of five brothers and, occasionally, their sister; it was their version that Rachel Unthank heard before The Unthanks recorded their own version. It’s a bleak song which urges the coalhouse door to be closed because there are bones, blood and bairns inside. It starts with a beautiful tune played by Niopha Keegan, who is also a full time member of The Unthanks. There are two YouTube clips here. The Wilson Family’s version is authentically folk with no trace of King Crimson or Miles Davis. Both versions are powerful. Personally, I prefer the cocktail of influences that have informed The Unthanks’ version.
The Unthanks have now released 13 albums. The beauty, power, complexity and emotional depth of all of these albums has been influenced by a wonderful range of musicians and genres and the resulting body of work is magnificent.