Diversions by The Unthanks

The Unthanks have a complex recording history. One way of considering their releases is to break their 15 albums into three groups.

  1. They have released five studio albums. The first two are by Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (“Cruel Sister” (2005) and “The Bairns” (2007)) and, after Becky Unthank joined the group full time, they changed their name to The Unthanks (“Here’s The Tender Coming” (2009), “Last” (2011) and “Mount The Air” (2015)).
  2. They have released five albums of “Diversions”. Volume 1 consists of their covers of songs by Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt (2011). Volume 2 is an album recorded with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band (2012). Volume 3 was inspired by a soundtrack to a short film called “Songs From The Shipyards” (2012). Volume 4 is a mixture of the songs and poems of Molly Drake, Nick Drake’s mother (2017). Volume 5 (“Live And Unaccompanied”) was released in 2020 and includes songs recorded by Rachel & Becky Unthank along with Niopha Keegan – all songs are a cappella.
  3. There are five other albums. “Memory Box” was released in 2015 to celebrate 10 years of the group’s existence and is a mixture of unreleased live and studio songs. “Lines Part 1” consists of songs written by Maxine Peake for a play about the Hull triple trawler disaster in which 58 men lost their lives. “Lines Part 2” consists of songs taken from poems and letters from World War One. “Lines Part 3” features poems of Emily Bronte that have been turned into songs. The three “Lines” albums were released in 2018. The Unthanks wrote the incidental music for the updated “Worzel Gummidge” which was shown on BBC1 in 2019. Although this album is available to stream, it is not available to buy.

This post is focused on the five “Diversions” albums that they have released.


Diversions Volume 1 The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons

2011

In December 2011, The Unthanks recorded a gig at The Union Chapel in London and subsequently released this live recording. They played two sets; the first set consisted of six songs written by Anohni and the second set consisted of nine songs written by Robert Wyatt. The five members of The Unthanks were augmented by a violin, viola, cello and double bass. In addition, Lizzie Jones added some magnificent trumpet work and Jonny Kearney played some outstandingly sensitive piano playing for the first six songs while Adrian McNally played drums. In the sleevenotes, Adrian McNally links the two artists by writing that they “exude so much commitment and integrity in their music, their conversation with the human condition seems entirely selfless.” On the back of the album, Antony Hegarty (Anohni) is quoted as saying “I am flattered and mystified! Their voices are so pure.” Robert Wyatt said “I love the idea. It makes me happy just thinking about it”.

Songs by Antony & The Johnsons

Tracks 1-6 were written by Anohni when she was the lead singer with Antony And The Johnsons (and was known by her birth name of Antony Hegarty). All of the songs were originally released on the 2005 album, “I Am A Bird Now”, with the exception of “Paddy’s Gone” which was released on a four track EP, also in 2005. “I Am A Bird Now” won the Mercury Music Prize in 2005 and featured guest vocals from Lou Reed, Boy George, Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright and Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman).

Anohni identifies as transgender and is wary of being a spokesperson for a whole community. She is quoted as saying “I am speaking out about my experiences but I can’t speak for anyone else. Especially because my situation is ambiguous because I haven’t transitioned from male to female. My experience as a transgender person has been to become comfortable expressing my sense of difference within the identity of being trans. For a lot of people, that’s not their experience at all. They don’t want to be trans, they want to be the opposite sex. I have so much love for those people because their condition is very real. It’s almost like a sacred condition. Kids experiencing that are in a sacred crisis. They have all these gifts that boys and girls don’t have.”

Track 1: Bird Gerhl

At this concert, The Unthanks played “Bird Gerhl” first and on Antony & The Johnsons’ album, “I Am a Bird Now,” it is the last song, marking the end of a journey from gender confusion to acceptance as a girl. The bird has found its wings and is ready to fly. Becky Unthank sings this as slowly as possible over Jonny Kearney’s sympathetic piano playing and serene strings.

Track 2: Man Is the Baby

In this song, Anohni is hoping to overcome the struggles she has had with accepting who she is and wishes to leave behind the gender that has been forced upon her. Rachel Unthank starts this song quietly and, once again, Jonny Kearney’s piano playing is beautiful. A sublime instrumental passage feeds into the last verse, at which point, the song reaches an astonishing emotional climax.

Track 3: You Are My Sister

On “I Am A Bird Now”, Anohni sings this as a duet with Boy George. She said, “Well, I wrote that song for my sister. My actual sister. But yes, what’s nice about it is, I didn’t write it until George said ‘Yeah I’ll do a duet with you’. I’d already written the chorus, and it was then that I wrote the verses. Immediately, like splat! It was unbelievable how that song struck me. It was the least laboured song I ever wrote. There are so many levels of it for me. It can be about family, but obviously having George in the song creates a whole other powerful context and meaning.” The lyrics are very loving and, presumably, equally directed towards Boy George as much as her sister. When The Unthanks sisters sing together, they often look at each other but when they did this, during this song, there seems to be greater significance. Adrian McNally introduces it by saying “We weren’t sure whether to do this one. Here’s one to make you puke“. I guess he’s playing on his insensitive manly unfeeling persona, which, as it happens, doesn’t seem like him at all. It is very sweet and as Rachel and Becky Unthank sing loving words to a sister, I can find nothing but joy.

Track 4: For Today I Am A Boy

Anohni has said, “Well, you know, there’s an assumption that the record is entirely autobiographical. But when I sing, for instance, ‘For Today I Am A Boy’, I’m not necessarily singing it for myself. I can sing it for myself, and often do, but… it has a more open feeling for me. I like songs to be free, like a loose garment. Sometimes I sing it for the room. Sometimes I sing it for a girl in my mind. Sometimes I sing it for a girl I know. Sometimes I sing it for a ghost hanging from the rafters.” Lyrically, it is the hopeful consideration of a child longing for the day he can feel confident and happy by claiming the true identity she has known for so long. Becky Unthank starts this song, unaccompanied apart from some understated piano chords. When Rachel Unthank joins her sister for their trademark wonderful harmonies, it’s like drowning in honey: the beauty is overwhelming. The intensity builds as the strings start playing, Adrian McNally pounds on the drums until the song ends back where it started with Becky Unthank’s showcasing her remarkable ability to hold an audience in thrall to the sound of her unadorned voice. It’s a stunning arrangement and performance.

Track 5: Paddy’s Gone

This is a simple song, lamenting the absence of a good friend. When The Unthanks performed this, the whole band stood together at the front of the stage, away from a microphone, and delivered the song unaccompanied, apart from Jonny Kearney’s piano. It’s breathtaking.

Track 6: Spiralling

The preceding five songs have been loving and positive, if representative of confusion. However, “Spiralling” is more angry about the injustice that Anohni felt about gender assignment at birth. The performance of this song, the climax of the first part of the show, is a perfect encapsulation of everything that has gone before. The singing, playing and arrangements are about as perfect as you could wish for.


Songs by Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt was a founding member of Soft Machine. He was initially a drummer and singer before becoming paraplegic following an accidental fall from a window in 1973, which led him to begin a forty-year solo career. Between 1970 and 2003, he released 8 solo albums. He had hit singles with his covers of “I’m A Believer” (which reached Number 29 in the UK Charts in 1974) and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (which reached Number 35 in the UK Charts in 1983).

Jonathan Coe wrote about Robert Wyatt in 2014: “I shudder to think what the last few decades would have been like without the continuous, alternative running commentary that has been provided by Wyatt’s music and lyrics. He once said that he had no objection to songs not making sense, because when songs do make sense, more often than not he doesn’t like the sense that they make. As for his own songs, they can be oblique, certainly; sometimes eccentric. But to me, they make a better kind of sense than most things that are going on in the world at the moment. More and more, Wyatt sounds like the voice of sanity. Sane songs for insane times. No wonder that I, and countless others, have been inspired and uplifted by them for so long.

Track 7: Stay Tuned

Written by Anja Garbarek and released in 2007 on Robert Wyatt’s 9th album, “Comicopera”. Anja Garbarek is a Norwegian singer songwriter who sings wordlessly on his version of “Stay Tuned”. Robert Wyatt sings one song on her album, “Smiling And Waving”. The literal meaning of the song is hard to fathom but it may be sung by someone who has died and now consists of particles in the air. They are exhorting their lover to “stay tuned” to them because there is more to come – the two of them can still connect. Becky Unthank starts the song only accompanied by Lizzie Jones’ extraordinary trumpet playing. After one verse, the rest of the band play mournfully, regretfully, sadly, slowly. At the end of the second verse, a descending sequence on the trumpet accentuates the emotional impact of the whole band. A fantastic trumpet solo is followed by Becky Unthank’s sad denouement, promising that she will get back to her lover.

Track 8: Dondestan

Written by Robert Wyatt and the title track from his fifth album, released in 1991. The word “dondestan” comes from the Spanish expression “Donde están”, which can be translated as “Where are they”. There are not many lyrics in the song but the message is powerful and can be summed up by the statement that Palestine used to be a country. The Unthanks version is remarkable with six female singers only accompanied by a trumpet, featuring clog dancing from Becky and Rachel Unthank before the whole audience claps along for the last minute. Not like anything else you’ve ever seen.

Track 9: Lullaby For Hamza

Written by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge and released on Robert Wyatt’s 8th album, “Cuckooland”, released in 2003. Alfreda (“Alfie”) Benge is an illustrator and lyricist and has been married to Robert Wyatt since 1974. “Lullaby for Hamza” reminds the listener of the fear and uncertainty felt by Iraqi children during the Gulf Wars. Becky Unthank sings the first half of this low key song beautifully and, after a sensational Lizzie Jones’ trumpet solo, Rachel Unthank sings one verse before they combine in harmony to conclude this very sad song.

Track 10: Lisp Service

Written by Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper and released on Robert Wyatt’s 8th album, “Dondestan”, released in 1991. Hugh Hopper was in Soft Machine, with Robert Wyatt. In the song, the victims of war just ask to be left alone, complaining that the oppressors started the carnage and now they expect the oppressed to accept them. Although, Palestine and Israel are not mentioned by name, the inference is clear. Rachel Unthank starts the song and when Becky Unthank joins her in harmony with an imaginative string arrangement, the feelings of restrained anger take over.

Track 11: Free Will And Testament

Written by Robert Wyatt and Mark Kramer and released on Robert Wyatt’s 7th album, “Shleep”, released in 1997. Mark Kramer is an American musician, record producer and former member of Bongwater. I interpret this song as a musing on the meaning of existence. My favourite line is “What kind of spider understands arachnophobia?” Drumming is not normally a feature of Unthanks’ songs but Chris Price’s playing on this song provides a tonal variety over which Becky Unthank delivers a deadpan, sweet and satisfying vocal.

Track 12: Out Of The Blue

Written by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge and released on Robert Wyatt’s 9th album, “Comicopera”, released in 2007. “Out of the Blue” starts by welcoming a visitor into a house that has been bombed. There’s a warning that the oppressors have “planted everlasting hatred in my heart”. Rachel Unthank’s vocal tour-de-force on this song is astounding.

Track 13: Cuckoo Madame

Written by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge and released on Robert Wyatt’s 8th album, “Cuckooland”, released in 2003. This is an impressionistic song and it will mean different things to different people. To me, there’s a teddy bear impaled on a chain link fence, the solitary survivor of a bombing that has obliterated everything and everyone around it. There is an elusive melody in The Unthanks’ version, which is much closer to jazz than folk although the soaring harmonies ensure that the song’s genre is impossible to define.

Track 14: Sea Song

Written by Robert Wyatt and released on his 2nd album, “Rock Bottom”, released in 1974. Rachel Unthank And The Winterset released a version of “Sea Song” on “The Bairns”. Robert Wyatt said “I heard a beautiful version by Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. They cover the song in a strange modern way, just with piano and drums. Becky Unthank sings the song in a wonderful way that very much reminds me of when I wrote it. It’s not a copy but seems to understand exactly the spirit of it.” Again, the literal meaning escapes me, as I suspect is its intention, but it may be that he is comparing the sea with his lover and marvelling at the forever changing nature of both. Lasting for nearly seven minutes, this is the longest song on the album and builds from a low key beginning to an emotional climax, heightened by Adrian McNally’s piano playing.

Track 15: Forest (excerpt)

Written by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge and released on Robert Wyatt’s 8th album, “Cuckooland”, released in 2003. As I understand this, it is a tale of Gypsy persecution in Nazi Europe. A haunting, beautiful one minute of exquisite harmonies, ends this memorable album which has an imaginative choice of material, highly intelligent and sophisticated arrangements, truly great playing and deeply emotional singing.


Diversions Volume 2: The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band

2012

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.

i) George.

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.”

The Unthanks get tender with brass | The Unthanks | The Guardian

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.


Diversions Volume 3: Songs From The Shipyards by The Unthanks

2012

Richard Fenwick is a film director from the North East of England and in 2012 he was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema to produce a film which traced the story of shipbuilding in Britain. The narrative of the film mirrored the journey of Britain’s industrial cities and consists of archive film and still photographs. A significant part of the archive film that was used was from a 1973 film called “Launch” which was shot over a two-year period in Wallsend, North Tyneside and shows the construction and launching of two huge tankers. The Unthanks were asked to provide a musical accompaniment to the film and this album contains the songs that were either used in part or in full to enhance the film. As well as the brilliance of the music, one of the most impressive aspects to this album is the research that has taken place in order to find songs that truly represent the life experiences of working people who worked in the shipyards. Although the film covers shipbuilding in the whole of Britain, most of the music concentrates on the North-East. I was lucky enough to see the film in Bexhill in November 2012 and The Unthanks played live (although they were barely visible, the audience’s attention drawn towards the film). Here is a still from the film, showing a completed tanker dwarfing the houses on the road that leads to a shipyard on The Tees.

Track 1 The Romantic Tees (Prelude).

The album starts with a gentle piano piece composed and played by Adrian McNally. In the background, some industrial sounds can be heard, and these are from “Launch”. The soundtrack on the album is entirely artificial and was dubbed on in the garden of Amber studios with tin cans and other items. The film accentuates the difference between the people who actually constructed ships on the Tyne and the small number of people in power who benefitted from the hard graft of the workers. In the sleevenotes, Adrian McNally emphasises the point that the Tyne and the Tees are two different rivers, nearly 60 miles apart. Graham Miles wrote poetry, inspired by the River Tees and this, in turn, inspired much of the lyrical content of this album. However, as I wrote in the last paragraph, a lot of the archive material in “Songs From The Shipyards” is from “Launch”, which was shot on the Tyne. Adrian McNally writes “I like to think that this is a coming together of rival north-easterly regions – the Unthanks sisters; brought up 200 yards from the banks of the Tyne by parents raised on Teesside, embodying harmony across the North-East.”

Launch (1974) – Amber Collection (amber-online.com)

Track 2 A Great Northern River

A beautiful song, written by the aforementioned Graham Miles, who was a prolific writer of songs and poetry before his death in 2013. Becky and Rachel Unthank take turns to sing verses of this song which is wonderfully enhanced by Niopha Keegan’s violin. The song describes the hard work involved during the day before well-deserved relaxation in packed smoky pubs at the end of the day.

The Unthanks – Great Northern River on Vimeo

Track 3 Black Trade

Jez Lowe is a singer and songwriter from Easington in the North-East. His songs tend to be about the financial hardships endured by people of the North-East due to industrial decline. The “black trade” in the song refers to the workers (riggers, welders, metal-sheet workers, fitters etc) who are not appreciated for the work that they do. The black trade is what the workers who worked in the bowels of the ship called themselves. The draughtsmen and joiners, by contrast, end the working day all spic and span. As in the previous song, Rachel and Becky Unthank sing lead vocals on alternate verses and combine wonderfully well in harmony for a chorus which is a litany of jobs.

The Unthanks – Black Trade on Vimeo

Track 4 Fairfield Crane

The Fairfield Titan Crane was built in 1911 on The Clyde. It was designed to handle boilers, steam turbines and engine parts which could weigh more than 100 tons. “Fairfield Crane” was written by Archie Fisher and Norman Buchan and the original version consists of four verses, telling the story of someone who was born within the sounds of the crane, concluding with their feelings as they left school. The song is sometimes called “The Shipyard Apprentice” and was written for a BBC radio series called “Landmarks”. Archie Fisher wrote the lyrics, and he is a singer and songwriter, who was born in Glasgow in 1939. He has released seven solo albums and several collaborations. The Unthanks’ version is sung unaccompanied by Rachel Unthank and comprises the first two verses only. It is stunningly beautiful.

Track 5 Big Steamers

“Big Steamers” is a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1911 as one of 23 contributions to a book by Charles Fletcher called “School History of England”. It is a poem specifically written for children and attempts to explain the importance of merchant ships in maintaining an economy and putting food on the table of the population of a country. It explains why a country needs to defend itself if there is a threat to its waters. The music for this song was written by Peter Bellamy, who was a member of a folk group called The Young Tradition and whose first solo album, released in 1968 was called “Mainly Norfolk” which is also the name of a hugely informative website. The Unthanks’ version is sung by Niopha Keegan who rarely gets a lead vocal but has a superbly sad voice. Rachel and Becky Unthank provide their trademark harmonies. The Wilson family are a folk group from Billingham in County Durham consisting of five brothers and, occasionally, their sister. Their version of this song is authentically “folky”; The Unthanks’ version is beautifully sanitised.

Track 6 All In A Day

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” which was recorded by The Unthanks on “Last”, after Rachel Unthank heard The Wilson Family perform it. He wrote “All In A Day” about the launching of a ship and how little the elite passengers know about the toil that has gone into building the ship. The song was part of a 19-minute song cycle called “The Tyne Slides By”, written for the BBC series “The Camera and the Song”. The cycle covers the life of a working person in Newcastle from childhood and schooling, early experience of work, the excitement of seeing Newcastle United play on a Saturday afternoon, feelings about a working life as a ship goes down the slipway, grandparenthood, and death. Becky Unthank sings this song in her marvellously breathless voice with a simple piano accompaniment by Adrian McNally.

Track 7 The Romantic Tees

(i) The Romantic Tees

A beautiful blend of piano, melodeon (similar to an accordion) and fiddle provide the background to Graeme Miles speaking the title of this song with several different emphases. In the sleevenotes, Adrian McNally emphasises the point that to romanticise an industry is absurd. Although we all wish to show respect to the people who worked hard in the shipbuilding industry, we shouldn’t view their lives through rose tinted glasses because the work was hard and dirty, and lives were at risk. In this way, the most telling part of the spoken lines is the implied question mark at the end. The romantic Tees? As in, you must be joking – it was bloody hard work. The point is also made that we should not forget the contrast between the relative poverty of the workers compared with the wealth of those who profited from the construction of the ships.

(ii) Tyne Slides By

Industrial noises link all three parts of this suite and Becky and Rachel Unthank repeat the first verse of Alex Glasgow’s 19-minute song that was also sampled in “All In A Day”. It’s very slow and very lovely.

(iii) The Looking Back Song

Johnny Handle wrote this song about a ship builder who is looking back on his life. Johnny Handle is 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. He wrote a song called “Guard Your Man Well” which The Unthanks performed on “Diversions Volume 5”. Rachel Unthank sings the song only accompanied by a drone played on a harmonium by her husband. There is a remarkable YouTube video of Johnny Handle talking, unprompted and without interruption about his experience as a miner and his thoughts on community.

Track 8 Shipbuilding

The previous suite ends with the sounds of a marching band parading through a street. A few seconds silence is broken by a piano chord and Adrian McNally singing “Is it worth it?”, the opening lines to Elvis Costello’s well-known song with music composed by Clive Langer. Alan Wisntanley and Clive Langer have produced many albums including The Rockingbirds’ first album and “Too-Rye-Aye” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Robert Wyatt’s version snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40. The lyrics are quite sophisticated, pointing out the irony of a war bringing prosperity to the North-East while, at the same time, putting the lives of young men at risk by sending them off to war in the ships that the community had built. Adrian McNally has a good voice but is rarely heard on Unthanks’ songs. When Chris Price, Niopha Keegan, Rachel and Becky Unthank’s harmonies sweep in, the song reaches an emotional high on this already incredible album.

Track 9 Monkey Dung Man

In 2005, the BBC commissioned a series of “Radio Ballads”, conceived as a follow up to programmes made in the 1950s and 1960s by Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker. The first programme was called “The Song of Steel” and was written and produced by John Tams and John Leonard. The second programme was “The Ballad of The Big Ships” and Jez Lowe was invited to compose songs that could be broadcast in the episode. He became one of the principal writers for all the subsequent series and wrote nearly 60 new songs, two of which are “Monkey Dung Man” and “Taking On Men”. Most of the pipework on the ships was insulated by asbestos and the workers who mixed the asbestos were called monkey dung men. This song dramatically describes the deadly effects that exposure to asbestos has. The guitar, chiming keyboard and pretty harmonies combine to give a sinister air, as if we are exploring a toyshop when a jack-in-the-box is about to explode.

Track 10 Taking On Men

A more joyous song describes the feelings when a shipyard announced that they wanted new workers. Rachel and Becky Unthank take it in turns to sing the verses in this short song which is less than 90 seconds long.

Track 11 Only Remembered

“Only Remembered” is a song, written by John Tams, which begins and ends the National Theatre’s adaptation of “The War Horse”. John Tams is and actor, singer, songwriter, composer, and musician. He was a member of The Albion Band and Home Service. He acted in the ITV series, “Sharpe”, co-writing the incidental music. The song is a beautiful way of describing how actions speak louder than words and how nobody can take away the glorious achievements of working people. It is sung in wonderful synchronous harmony with Rachel Unthank singing one verse. The pace slows, the instrumentation recedes, and this magnificent album draws to a close.


Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake by The Unthanks

2017

Nick Drake recorded three amazing albums between 1969 and 1972. They each have their own individual style and his frustration with his lack of success combined with an increasing reliance on anti-depressants resulted in his third album (“Pink Moon”) being one of the bleakest albums ever recorded. A verdict of suicide in 1974 through self-administered overuse of amitriptyline has been disputed by his family who believe that the overdose was accidental.

Nick Drake’s mother was Molly Drake. She was born in Burma in 1915 and because both of her parents were in the military, she was sent to live with family friends in England, where she was sent to a boarding school in High Wycombe. When she left school, she returned to Burma where she met her husband, Rodney although she had to wait until she was 21 before her parents allowed her to marry. Five years later, in 1942, Japan invaded Burma and Molly fled to her uncle’s house in Delhi, trekking on foot along with her sister Nancy. It was here that Molly developed her singing and piano playing, the two sisters hosting a radio program on “All India Radio”. In the meantime, Rodney worked as an engineer in the war until, weighing less than 7 stone, he was granted sick leave and was reunited with Molly in 1943. Their daughter, Gabrielle, was born in 1944 with Nick following in 1948. In 1952, the whole family moved to England, along with a nanny, settling in a house in Tamworth-In-Arden, called Far Leys. Molly and Rodney Drake remained in the large house with beautiful gardens for the rest of their lives. It was in this house that Molly Drake wrote her songs and poems. She died in 1993.

While it is tempting to interpret Molly Drake’s songs with reference to her son’s depression and early death, it is worth remembering that most of her songs were written in the 1950s. The way in which Molly Drake describes the struggle between happiness and sadness, her nostalgia for a better past and her occasional travels into despair do not necessarily indicate that she was an unhappy woman. In her book of poems, she wrote “To me a poem is not a forever thing, nor the statement of long held views, but the product of a moment so suddenly and hurtingly felt that it has to burst out into words.” Although Molly Drake never released any of her songs or poems in her lifetime, Rodney Drake’s home recordings were re-engineered by John Wood (who had worked closely with Nick Drake) and issued on an eponymous 2013 release.

Gabrielle Drake attended RADA when she left school and after some minor appearances in “The Avengers”, “Coronation Street” and “The Saint, her first big break occurred when she portrayed a purple wig-wearing officer in the long running science fiction programme “UFO” which was broadcast on ITV in 1969 and 1970. After appearing in several sexploitation movies (including “There’s A Girl In My Soup” with Peter Sellers), she had a leading role in the first four seasons of “The Brothers”, before landing the role of motel owner, Nicola Freeman, in “Crossroads”. Alongside her TV career, she has an extensive portfolio of appearances in the theatre. In 1987, she was the subject of an episode of “This Is Your Life”. Rodney and Molly Drake appear after 9 minutes and Molly tells a little story about her daughter, just before 11 minutes. Nick Drake gets a brief but sensitive mention at about the same time in the program, at which point the buttoned up grief is apparent in the stiffened posture of Molly, Rodney and Gabrielle Drake.

Diversions Volume 3 by The Unthanks (“Songs From The Shipyards”) features several spoken pieces by working men from the North East of England. Diversions Volume 4, in contrast, features several of Molly Drake’s poems, read by her daughter, Gabrielle Drake, who has a perfectly enunciated Southern accent. She has been a staunch advocate of the magnificence and beauty of the work of both her mother and brother and when her mother’s songs were released, she gave an informative interview in The Guardian.

Nick Drake: in search of his mother, Molly | Nick Drake | The Guardian

“Diversions Volume 4” consists of 18 songs by Molly Drake that The Unthanks have set to music along with 10 of her poems that Gabrielle Drake reads. The album comes on two discs – the main album is 50 minutes long and an extra CD of 4 songs and 4 poems lasts for just under 15 minutes. It is only recently that I have really appreciated the wonder, magic, and the astonishing beauty of this music. The musical soundscape is fairly uniform, and I have needed an awareness of the lyrical content to properly love the album.

Track 1 “What Can a Song Do to You?” (with poem: “Lost Grief”)

“What Can A Song Do To You” describes the memories that can surface when hearing music.  Becky Unthank utilises her ability to slow a song down to dawdling pace to enhance the emotions while Rachel Unthank joins her in luscious harmonies. The song ends with a poem called “Lost Grief” read by Gabrielle Drake in which a small snatch of music heard whilst walking down a street brings someone to a halt and reminds her of a time when she could be sad.

Track 2 “Dream Your Dreams”

Rachel Unthank sings a song which celebrates how reality can be enhanced by the power of dreams.

Track 3 “Martha”

Gabrielle Drake reads a poem which hopes that by the time she comes to die, she will have learned to ignore the trivial aspects of life and has grown to appreciate the beauty that is all around us.

Track 4 “How Wild the Wind Blows”

Niopha Keegan (violin) and Faye MacCalan (clarinet) combine to provide a haunting instrumental section in this song which describes how fortunes in life are determined by the whims of chance.

Track 5 “Little Weaver Bird”

Becky Unthank’s voice nearly cracks with emotion as she sings a song about a mother building her home so that her family can thrive.

Track 6 “Bird in the Blue” (with poem: “Lost Blue”)

The song starts with Gabrielle Drake reading the poem, “Lost Blue” which asks us to consider how our perceptions change according to the time of day. Rachel Unthank takes over by singing “Bird In The Blue” in which she hopes that a lost love can be retrieved.

Track 7 “The Road to the Stars” (with poem: “Warning to Heroes”)

Becky Unthank sings a beautiful love song, acknowledging that with her lover guiding her, all her dreams could be realised. At the end of the song, Gabrielle Drake reads a poem warning us not to assume the role of a hero, lest we fail.

Track 8 “Set Me Free” (with poem: “Escape Me Now”)

This powerful and upsetting song tells the story of someone who cannot escape the grief of her loss. Rachel Unthank’s careful enunciation only serves to emphasise the desolation and desperation of someone who can see no end to her unhappiness. Adrian McNally’s piano and Becky Unthanks’ harmonies complete the emotional punch of this wonderful song. Gabrielle Drake reads “Escape me Now” in which she dreams of escaping her grief by running far from it only to be confronted by it at the end of her journey. For me, this is the highlight of this astounding album.

Track 9 “Woods In May”

Becky Unthank sings a simple song describing the beauty of a wood in the spring.

Track 10 “I Remember”

Another nostalgic song about a relationship, remembering the good times but with a bitter twist. Although she remembers lovely things, he can only remember the bad things. She remembers all the lovely images as a couple, and he remembers them from the perspective of two different people. Rachel Unthank sings the first two verses of the song and Becky Unthank sings the last two verses.

Track 11 “Never Pine for the Old Love”

Rachel Unthank sings this fabulous song in which she imagines meeting up with an old lover after many years, only to find that the magic has gone, and feelings have been extinguished.

Track 12 “The Shell”

Gabrielle Drake reads a poem about how we can all ignore the cruel outside world by focussing on our own worry, discontent, and joy. She realises that some people are able to break through the shell that protects us from the desolation of the cinders of the world and she wonders if the price of clarity is too great. My feelings about this poem are that, more than anything else, it describes the essence of Molly Drake. Her seemingly idyllic life sheltered her from the realities, heartbreak and despair that existed beyond her circle of family and friends.

Track 13 “Soft Shelled Crabs”

Faye MacCalman’s clarinet gives this song a jaunty tone and Rachel and Becky Unthank’s sweet harmonies create a seemingly jolly tune with only Niopha Keegan’s sinister violin playing indicating the fragility of the lyrics about soft shell crabs that are easily harmed because they have no way of protecting themselves from others.

Track 14 “Do You Ever Remember?” (with poem: “Time”)

This terrific song poses the dilemma of whether it is healthier to remember or forget past sad times. Gabrielle Drake reads “Time” which covers the same ground insofar as time can be a friend to help us with our healing. It’s very tempting to interpret all these songs and poems in the context of the death of Molly Drake’s son but “Do You Ever Remember” was written about ten years before Nick Drake died. In an interview with The Guardian, Gabrielle Drake said, “Mummy always believed there was nothing to be gained by going back. After my brother died, she always said about Far Leys: ‘We must stay on until we’ve made it into a happy house again.‘”

Track 15 “The First Day” (with poem: “A Prayer for Love”)

At over seven minutes long, this is the lengthiest piece on this remarkable album. It starts with water lapping on the shores of a beautiful lake on a hot summer’s day, or so I like to think. Lyrically, it is a suitably (slightly) upbeat and positive way to conclude an album that has been full of nostalgia, sadness, and regret. Today is the first day of the rest of her life and represents a new beginning. She has reached a point of reconciliation with the past and is prepared to let destiny take its course. This is one of Becky Unthanks most heartfelt and powerful vocals, underscored by Faye MacCalman’s clarinet.

The album concludes with Gabrielle Drake reading “A Prayer For Love” in which her mother yearns for a love which is true – to love what “is”.

Extra Track 1 “Dog on a Wheel”

Gabrielle Drake opens the “extra” album by reading a poem which proposes that travel can’t change who we really are.

Extra Track 2 “Happiness”

Rachel unthank sings “Happiness” and her perfect enunciation delivers a real punch to this song about the elusiveness of happiness.

Extra Track 3 “Two Worlds”

Gabrielle Drake reads a poem which recounts two worlds – one where polite conversation involves recounting the death of a loved one, only to receive an impersonal emotional response. The other world is where thinking of the same death brings us to the depths of hell.

Extra Track 4 “Night Is My Friend”

Following on from “Two Worlds”, Becky Unthank sings about how night time is a relief after a day of putting up a façade of calm and sanity when underneath she is suffering.

Extra Track 5 “Primary Colour”

A short poem read by Gabrielle Drake describes the imagination and precociousness of her young son.

Extra Track 6 “Poor Mum”

A riposte to Nick Drake’s “Po’ Boy”, “Poor Mum” is sung in close harmony by Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan. In an interview with The Guardian, 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.’”

Extra Track 7 “Well It Is Finished”

Gabrielle Drake’s voice breaks as she reads this poem about the end of a relationship.

Extra Track 8 “Love Isn’t A Right”

Uniquely on this album, an acoustic guitar accompanies Rachel Unthank on the final song which is a paean to the elusiveness and preciousness of love.

In the sleevenotes, The Unthanks write “Hearing a woman, a mother, from that time, expressing the struggle between darkness and light, so beautifully, with such artistry, confidently, and yet kind of from behind closed doors, is as compelling a listen as we’ve ever experienced“.


Diversions Vol. 5: Live And Unaccompanied by The Unthanks

2020

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.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

2 thoughts on “Diversions by The Unthanks

  1. Seeing all these together makes me realise what an important, innovative and profound, voice the Unthanks are in modern folk music. Excellent stuff, thanks.

    Like

  2. Thank you for a wonderful well researched resource.

    My favourite Diversions album is Songs from the Shipyards. I can listen to it over and over again; simply breathtaking. My least liked is The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake. The poems break the flow for me, and personally, I don’t like Gabrielle Drake’s accent (sorry).

    Liked by 1 person

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