The Unthanks are from the North-East of England and many of their songs reflect their personal history. A brass band may be considered the defining musical sound of the North of England and the marriage of the beautiful singing of The Unthanks with the haunting magisterial sound of a brass band produces a wonderful combination to enhance the songs on this album.
Track 1: King Of Rome.
The song tells the story of Charlie Hudson, who lived in a rough area of Derby, who didn’t have a lot going for him, but he kept racing pigeons. In 1913, he entered Charlie for a competition whereby pigeons are transported to Rome and must find their way back home. The song is sung mainly by Becky Unthank who, at times in the song, slows the pace to virtually standstill, resulting in a stunning and breath-taking mood of anticipation. The song was written by Dave Sudbury and is based on a true story which he wrote after seeing the pigeon in a glass case in Derby museum. Dave Sudbury was born in Derby in 1943 and entered a song writing competition organised by the Northern Arts Council where he sung his song but didn’t win. However, June Tabor was one of the judges and she liked it so much, she recorded it herself. Lots of other artists have recorded the song including Half Man Half Biscuit, who sung a wonderful version on a live session with Andy Kershaw. The version on the album was recorded by The Unthanks at The BBC Folk Awards in 2012.
Track 2: Trimdon Grange Explosion.
In February 1882, the colliery at Trimdon Grange, a village ten miles to the West of Hartlepool, suffered a major explosion. 69 men and boys were killed. This song was written by Tommy Armstrong, who was a songwriter and performer from County Durham. He was known as “The Pitman Poet” or “The Bard Of The Northern Coalfield” and he performed this song within a few days of the explosion which was caused by the ineffectiveness of Davy lamps. He also wrote a humourous Geordie folk song called “Wor Nanny’s a Mazer” in which an intended shopping trip by a husband and wife gets forgotten when they miss a train and end up in a pub. “Trimdon Grange Explosion” is a much more serious song which describes some of the horror of the explosion and has been covered by Martin Carthy and Alan Price amongst others. The song is mainly sung by Rachel Unthank and was recorded live at Leeds Town Hall.
Track 3: The Father’s Suite
This song is split into four sections and the whole was conceived when Rachel Unthank gave birth to her son George. She is married to Adrian McNally who is the producer of The Unthanks’ albums as well as being the pianist.
This instrumental was written by Adrian McNally when he was 16 years old.
ii) Jack Elliott.
Jack Elliott, who died in 1966 was a miner and a folk singer who lived in Birtley, a small ex-mining town in Tyne and Wear. Ewan MacColl was introduced to him and their association eventually led to the release of an album called “Folkways LP The Elliotts of Birtley: A Portrait of a Mining Family” in 1962 which consisted of songs recorded by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in Em and Jack Elliott’s kitchen. In the same year, The Birtley Folk Club was formed; sadly, it closed in 2014. This song includes a recording of Jack Elliott, talking about how he raised his family and how he instilled morality into his children. Adrian McNally plays piano to accompany the recording and it leads wonderfully into…
iii) The Father’s Song.
This song was written by Ewan MacColl and I first heard it on Dick Gaughan’s “A Different Kind Of Love Song”. On that album it follows “Song Of Choice” by Peggy Seeger which is a song that exhorts us all to get involved and not close our eyes and ears to injustice. Ewan MacColl’s song is in the form of a lullaby, helping his son get to sleep and encouraging him to save his energy for the battles ahead. He explains that, in his life, he won’t encounter witches, but he will find that there are “greedy sons-of-bitches”. The way that the songs are sequenced on Dick Gaughan’s album and in this suite are similar. The message is that life is hard but, with the love of a family, battles can be won, and happiness can be shared.
Dick Gaughan also recorded an album called “True And Bold” which included a song called “Farewell To ‘Coatia”. In this 1966 documentary about Jack Elliott, there is a brief glimpse (after 22 minutes) of Jack Elliott singing this song. He is also shown speaking the words that Adrian McNally used on this album. It’s a remarkably powerful film.
iv) George II.
The last part of this suite is another instrumental and was written by Adrian McNally’s father, Max, when Adrian was 16 years old.
The concept of this suite is sheer genius. The relationship between father and son is identified in four different ways. Adrian McNally wrote an article for The Guardian about the birth of his son and the shows that The Unthanks gave which starts with this paragraph. “He’s the best. A lovely midsummer’s baby. Beautiful like his mother, Rachel Unthank. My son was born nine whole pounds exactly. Bigger and older looking than the other babies on the ward. Not a wrinkle on him; skin feather-soft and sweet. Calm like his dad, apart from the occasional outburst, like his dad.”
Track 4 My Lagan Love
Niopha Keegan has been a member of The Unthanks since 2007, having completed a degree in Folk and Traditional Music at The University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. She plays fiddle on most of The Unthanks’ albums but, on this album, there is no fiddle and so her contribution is restricted to singing. On “My Lagan Love” she sings a lovely lead vocal. The song was written by Joseph Campbell and Herbert Hughes and first published in Belfast in 1904 and they claimed it had been handed down via a friend’s father’s workmate fifty years previously. The first line mentions the River Lagan which runs from the Slieve Croob mountains in County Down to Belfast. The lyrics tell the story of a “leannan-sidhe” – a fairy mistress who frequently crops up in Gaelic love stories. She tempts men, enslaving them if they fell for her but serving them if they refused. The crickets in the hearth that are mentioned in the third verse are generally considered to be good luck.
Track 5 Queen Of Hearts
The Unthanks have released three versions of this song. The best version is on “Last” and there’s also a sparser version on “Memory Box”. This version is sung by Chris Price (the bass player and guitarist with The Unthanks) who doesn’t normally sing lead vocals. He uses the scat style of Manhattan Transfer which initially sounds like a bad joke but suits the brass arrangements beautifully. “Queen Of Hearts” features in two folk song collections. Steve Roud, a former librarian from Croydon compiled a database of 25,000 folk songs and “Queen Of Hearts” is Roud 3195. Sabine Baring-Gould compiled various folk song collections and “Queen Of Hearts” appears in one of these called “Songs Of The West”. Martin Carthy recorded it in 1965 on his first album and various other artists have also sung it, including Joan Baez, Barry Dransfield and Josienne Clarke. Martin Carthy noted that Sabine Baring-Gould “learned it from a man working on the Burrow Tor reservoir at Sheepstor near Plymouth. The tune has a definite 17th century flavour and has been dated by some to the reign of Charles II.” Lyrically, it compares a heart-breaking relationship with losing at cards.
Track 6 Gan To The Kye
The Unthanks recorded another marvellous version of this song on “Last”. John Stokoe was another collector of folk songs and he was particularly interested in songs from Northumbria. “Gan To The Kye” appeared in a collection of his called “Songs Of The North Country”. The song also appears in Roud (3162). Rachel and Becky Unthanks’ father found it in a book called “New National And Folk Song Book” which is a book of folk songs for schools, put together by Desmond MacMahon. The brass band on this song is beautifully understated and gives an imperious and stately feel to the performance.
Track 7 Felton Lonnin
Rachel Unthank and The Winterset’s second album, “The Bairns” begins with “Felton Lonnin.” Although that album was produced by Adrian McNally, he does not play any instruments on it. The song appeared in another of John Stokoe’s collections, the more well known “Northumbrian Minstrelsy” and concerns a lost child and the worry of his mother. The song was recorded live in Bristol and, once again, the beauty of the brass band is overwhelming.
Track 8 Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk
This song was also on “The Bairns” and describes a victim of domestic abuse. It was sung by Shelia Stewart on the Stewart Family’s Lismor album, “The Stewarts Of Blair” when it was called “Mickey’s Warning”. She learned it from her mother who learned it from an old ploughman. Becky and Rachel Unthank share lead vocals and, as is common with Becky Unthank, her ability to slow a song down to funereal pace is great. On this song, Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band are used to provide dramatic emphasis.
Track 9 Newcastle Lullaby
This was the last song on “The Bairns” and is Roud 2644. Rachel Unthank was introduced to the song by Graeme Miller. It’s much more free form than any other song on this album and, in parts, takes the form of a round.
Track 10 Gresford
Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band play this haunting song without any involvement from The Unthanks. It commemorates the Gresford mining disaster of 1934 in which 266 men died.
Track 11 Fareweel Regality
The Regalities and Liberties of Hexamshire were lands which were given to the rich and powerful. This beautiful song was written by the Northumberland singer, Terry Conway, who died a year after the release of this album.