In the Spring of 2019, The Unthanks gave 31 shows in which Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan sang unaccompanied. This album features some of those performances. There are no musical instruments on the album and the 13 songs merge together to form one continuous piece of unadorned beauty. Sometimes one of the women takes lead vocals and this is subsequently enhanced with a multitude of intricate, exquisite harmonies. Some of the songs are upbeat, many are sad. The overall impact of listening to the album is one of wonder, that such a seemingly simple concept of three people singing together can elicit a cornucopia of emotions. The Unthanks regard unaccompanied singing to be the truest way to capture the essence of the songs. Adrian McNally said “it is something for me personally that I still prefer to hear – Rachel and Becky unaccompanied. I still prefer my folk music unaccompanied. If we get a night off you’re more likely to find us above the pub in a room somewhere listening to some old boys and girls. However, had we stuck with that and moved no further than that, then Rachel and Becky would probably still be singing in the folk clubs and no further.“
Track 1: One By One. Written by Connie Converse
Elizabeth (known as Connie) Converse was an American singer songwriter, who was active in New York in the 1950s. Whilst the New York folk scene was dominated by political activism, she wrote songs about relationships and heartbreak. Arguably, she was the first singer-songwriter. Her only known public performance was a brief appearance on “The Morning Show” in 1954. In the same year, Gene Deitch, an illustrator, made a series of recordings on his reel-to-reel tape recorder which were unreleased until 2009. After a series of secretarial jobs, she disappeared in 1974 and has never been heard of again. The song describes how going for a walk by yourself in the moonlight accentuates feelings of loneliness but if she had a lover, she would feel less isolated.
Track 2: Magpie. Written by Dave Dodds.
In 1780, a clergyman from County Durham called John Brand published a book which has the abbreviated title of “Popular Antiquities”. This was a term that was a forerunner of the word “folklore”. One of the superstitions listed was that it was bad luck to see a solitary magpie. Nearly 70 years later, the verse was extended to “one for sorrow, two for mirth. Three for a funeral, four for a birth. Five for heaven, six for hell. Seven for the devil, his own self”. There have been many variations on the words and, in the U.K. , the most widely known comes from the title music to a children’s TV series called “Magpie” which ran between 1968 and 1980. The song was played by The Murgatroyd Band which was a nom de plume for The Spencer Davis Group. By now, the rather sinister words had been changed to “One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl and four for a boy. Five for silver and six for gold. Seven for a secret never to be told. Eights a wish and nine a kiss. Ten is a bird you must not miss.”
Dave (or Davey) Dodds was lead singer in prog rock band Red Jasper before he gave up the music business to become a fly fishing guide. Dave Dodds once gave an elderly lady a lift in his expensive Jaguar and every time she saw a magpie, she spat on the floor. This was part of the superstition: whilst seeing two magpies was good luck, when seeing a solitary magpie, one should either spit or flap your hands, pretending to be another magpie. An alternative reaction was to shake your fist and shout “Devil! I defy thee”. Dave Dodds’ generous driving experience inspired him to write “Magpie”. The Unthanks recorded the song on “Mount The Air” and sung it on “Later” in 2015 with a harmonium for backing. It was remarkable but their performance at The Royal Albert Hall in 2018, reducing the audience to an awed silence, is out of this world.
Track 3: I’m Weary Of Lying Alone. Traditional.
Timothy Connor fought against British shipping during the War Of Independence. He was captured and imprisoned in Portsmouth. During his two years of confinement he compiled a book of 56 songs he knew. The manuscript was not discovered until 1893 and in 1976 a book called “A Sailor’s Songbag. An American Rebel In An English Prison 1777-1779” was edited and published by George Gibson Carey. The book includes an early version of this song. Karen Casey and Eithne Ní Uallacháin’ have recorded Táim Cortha Bheith Im’ Aonar Im’ Luí which is an Irish Gaelic translation. The song describes a young single girl who is lonely and dreams of finding a husband. On “Live And Unaccompanied”, the song is sung by Niopha Keegan.
Track 4: Geordie Wedding Set (We’ll Aal Be Wed In Our Auld Claiths/Hi Canny Man). Traditional.
The song “We’ll Aal Be Wed In Our Auld Claiths” (we will all be married in our old clothes) appears to have many different titles including “Hexham Quadrille” or “My Wife’s A Wanton Wee Thing”. It’s not clear whether this song is from North East England or the Scottish Borders. The title appeared in a poem called “The Northern Minstrel’s Budget”, published by Henry Robson in the early 1800s. John Bell was a collector of ballads who played a major part in the recording of the lyrics of popular songs in the North East of England and the song may have first been published in his “Rhymes Of Northern Bards” in 1812. The Unthanks sing a jaunty version and combine it with “Hi Canny Man” which is a more well known Geordie folk song, written in the 19th century by Harry Nelson. The song describes a tradition from the North east whereby a bride and groom throw coppers to the children waiting outside. This explains the lyrics “Hi, canny man hoy a ha’penny oot“
Track 5: The Griesly Bride. Written by Manifold/Campbell.
John Manifold was an Australian poet, educated at Geelong College and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party. His strange poem, “The Griesley Bride”, tells the story of a newly wedded bride who, on the night of her wedding, leaves her husband and runs into the night. Enraged, her husband follows her only to find that her two footprints turn into four feet. The full moon and cries of dingoes imply that maybe she was really a werewolf. The song was recorded by Harry Tuft on his album “Across The Blue Mountains” in 1976. Harry Tuft was a leading figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and he ran the Denver Folklore Centre between 1962 and 2016 (although it was briefly closed in the 1980s). Harry Tuft learned the song from Tom Campbell, the writer of “Darcy Farrow”, a song that has been covered by over 300 artists including John Denver, Nanci Griffith and Josh Ritter.
Track 6: Bees (Honeybee. Written by Connie Converse/The Bee Boy Song. Written by Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy).
This song combines two songs about bees. “Honeybee” is the second song on the album written by Connie Converse. In the song, the singer urges a bee to fly to her lover and tell him to return home quickly. She admits that she was at fault in the fight that they have had but she is too proud to admit it. “The Bee Boy Song” has music by Peter Bellamy with words by Rudyard Kipling. The song tells the story of a man who has a particular affinity with bees and was first published in “Puck Of Pook’s Hill”. The song has been covered by Molly Evans, Corinne Male and Rosie Hodgson.
Track 7: Guard Yer Man Well. Written by Johnny Handle and The Unthanks.
Johnny Handle wrote “The Looking Back Song” on “Diversions Volume 3: Songs From The Shipyards”. He was a member of The High Level Ranters who performed between 1964 and 2004. They were instrumental in the revival of the use of Northumbrian pipes. Eric Burden first heard “House Of The Rising Sun” sung by Johnny Handle in a Newcastle folk club in 1964. In this beautiful song, a wife is advised to look after her husband who is about to start a shift at the mine. Each of Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan sing a verse before all three of them combine in the haunting chorus.
Track 8: Poor Mum. Written by Molly Drake.
This amazing song was also released on “Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake”. Nick Drake’s mother wrote this as a riposte to her son’s “Po’ Boy”, released on his second album, “Bryter Later”. In an interview with The Guardian, Molly Drake’s daughter, Gabrielle Drake, said, “I don’t think Nick even knew she wrote that song but, yes, she’s saying: ‘You’ve got those emotions. Well, I got ’em too actually. We’re not just sitting here in the background.’”
Track 9: Where’ve Yer Bin Dick. Written by Lee Nicholson.
This short, humourous song was included on “Here’s The Tender Coming”. George Unthank, father of Rachel and Becky Unthank heard the song at Redcar Folk Club in the 1960s by Lee Nicholson, who sung and played concertina.
Track 10: We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed. Written by Richard Dawson.
Richard Dawson is a folk singer from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne who has released six albums. “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed” is from his 2011 album, “The Magic Bridge”. He describes his main influences as being Oawwali (a form of Sufi devotional music), Kenyan Henry Makobi and folk musician Mike Waterson (Martin Carthy’s brother-in-law). The literal meaning of this song escapes me but the overwhelming sense of desperation, loneliness and the futility of living is remarkable.
Track 11: Bread And Roses. Written by James Oppenheim and Mimi Farina.
James Oppenheim was an American poet and his poem, “Bread And Roses” is associated with a successful strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. The phrase “Bread and Roses” was first used by Helen Todd in “The American” magazine, when she wrote about a group of women in Chicago who started a campaign for the right of women to vote. One of the women that Helen Todd spoke to said that their campaign was about “the women votin’ so’s everybody would have bread and flowers too.” Helen Todd explained that, to her mind, the bread was “home, shelter and security“, and the roses were “music, education, nature and books“. Having read the article, James Oppenheim wrote a poem about the strike. Mimi Farina was the younger sister of Joan Baez and in 1974 she set James Oppenheim’s poem to music. At the same time, she set up an organisation called “Bread and Roses”, which was designed to bring free music and entertainment to prisons, hospitals, juvenile facilities, and nursing homes.
Track 12: Caught In A Storm. Written by Graeme Miles.
Graeme Miles wrote “A Great Northern River” which The Unthanks recorded on “Diversions Volume 3: Songs From The Shipyards”. This song describes the plight of sailors who are far from home and caught in a storm.
Track 13: Farewell Shanty. Traditional.
This traditional sea shanty is sometimes known as “The Sailors Farewell” and this short performance features some lovely singing from the audience, bringing another remarkable album to a close.