Starting a new job is never easy and I always seem to take a long time to settle. I found my first year at Oakmeeds, in 1998/99, particularly difficult. This was my third job as Head of Maths and I put pressure on myself by assuming that I would find the job relatively straightforward. I didn’t find it easy. My colleagues were wonderful but some of the students I taught were quite unwilling to welcome a new teacher and gave me a hard time. As winter drew in and the hours of daylight shortened, I felt that I would never escape a claustrophobic feeling that threatened to overwhelm me. I seemed to live in a perpetual darkness – both literally through the Winter, and emotionally, while I was struggling to cope with the job. Slowly, as the academic year progressed, my classes became easier to manage and one day, when Spring finally dawned, I said to myself “we’ve done it“. I’m not entirely sure who “we” were or what we had “done” but I have a very clear memory of standing outside the back door on a Friday evening, with the sun out and saying to myself “we’ve done it.”
During early 2021, Rachel Unthank felt that she had never in her life spent so much time away from other people. The pandemic and the lockdown had been hard for The Unthanks because they had lost their studio (presumably, for financial reasons), they weren’t touring and they had had to postpone their singing weekends which were a source of income for them. One day in the Spring of 2021, she went for a walk along the banks of the River Tyne and came across some ruins which had been coke ovens that fed the coalmine at Throckley. The sun came out and she suddenly felt that there might be light at the end of the tunnel. She wrote “The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens” in an attempt to capture a moment of positivity, hope and sunshine and if times got difficult again, she could reach back for that memory. The lyrics include an acknowledgement that these times don’t last forever but that the times of melancholy only enhance the joyous moments.
“Sorrows Away” is The Unthanks’ 16th release but only their sixth full band album (their fifth being “Mount The Air“, released in 2015). No two of their albums are similar and they are constantly seeking to reinvent their sound and musical style. Their five “Diversions” albums each focus on a particular theme. 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.
“Sorrows Away” is more upbeat and positive than many of their previous albums and appears to be a deliberate attempt to find a positive route out of the pandemic that we will all find uplifting. The wonderful harmonies are still in evidence, Lizzie Jones’ trumpet playing is to the forefront and the eight traditional songs are a mixture of the obscure and the well-known (but only for listeners from the Northeast). The 57 minutes of music are completed by two original songs, one each from Becky and Rachel Unthank.
The opening two songs last about 17 minutes and sound like a symphony in two movements. Adrian McNally’s piano provides a warm embracing backdrop to the vocals of the three singers, whose synchronicity is so perfect that they not only sing every note in exact harmony but even draw breath concurrently. The three violins, two cellos and violin create an exquisite charm and Lizzie Jones’ trumpet provides flourishing augmentation to a sound in which every instrument is identifiable whilst combining to accomplish a unified whole. In short, these two songs are magnificent, and the rest of the album isn’t far behind.
1: “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 7:44
“The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry” (sometimes known as “The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry”) is a traditional folk song from Shetland and Orkney. A woman has her child taken away by its father, the great selkie of Sule Skerry which can transform from a seal into a human. The woman is fated to marry a gunner who will harpoon the selkie and their son. There is also a greatly embellished and expanded version of the ballad called “The Lady Odivere”, comprising over 90 stanzas, and 7 verses from its transcription were published by Capt. F. W. L. Thomas in the 1850s. It was later included in Francis James Child’s anthology, and catalogued as Child ballad number 113.
The best-known tune today is non-traditional, having been written by Jim Waters in 1954. Child was interested only in the texts of the ballads he collected, and Jim Waters explains that the tune was “just the best I could do as a way to get a fine ballad sung”. Over the next two years, he introduced the ballad to the Boston area at a time when “hootenannies” were immensely popular. Jim Butler added the song to his repertoire and taught the song to several people. Joan Baez recorded it as “Silkie” on her 1961 album “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the poem “I Come and Stand at Every Door” by Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet to Jim Waters’s tune for “The Great Silkie” in the early 1950s. In this version, the song takes the point of view of a child victim of atomic warfare. The Byrds included the Hikmet/Seeger version on their third album, “Fifth Dimension” in 1966 and it was also recorded by Trees (on “The Garden Of Jane Trelawney), This Mortal Coil (on “Blood“) and The Misunderstood (retitled “I Unseen” and released on “Children Of The Sun“).
2: “The Sandgate Dandling Song” (Trad/Adrian McNally / Arr The Unthanks) 8:48
Rachel Unthank also sang “The Sandgate Dandling Song” on Stick in the Wheel’s 2019 anthology “From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2”. She says: “Dandling songs are common in the North East, singing to a bairn while bouncing it on your knee. I heard Anni Fentiman singing it. I can’t remember if it was in person, but we definitely had it on a tape at home when I was a kid and I love her singing. It’s been one of my favourite songs to sing since I was a teenager. I like how unapologetic it is, it’s a slice of life—it’s complicated. Domestic violence is a taboo and dark subject, yet the woman in the song asks for no sympathy. She tells her baby, this is my life. I find it really moving. It’s the kind of song you can play with—each time I sing it, I probably sing it slightly differently. My relationship with it has changed as now I have children of my own. You think about those moments when you’re looking at your kid, your beautiful baby, and being in that situation would be horrendous. It’s a song that I’ve always sung, but it’s never been quite right to record. Now, I’ve decided to just do it. It was written by a blind fiddler from Tyneside called Bobby Nunn in 1842, to a local traditional tune. It may sound familiar as Stan Kelly used the tune to write ‘Liverpool Lullaby’, sung by Cilia Black, which is like an updated version of the same song.” Adrian McNally has written a new verse, which he sings, in which he takes the part of the drunken, violent husband. The words convey guilt at his behaviour and promises his child that he will change and give more love. Adrian McNally thinks the song is one of the best songs that The Unthanks have recorded and I agree.
3: “The Old News” (B Unthank/A McNally) 3:56
It was never Becky Unthank’s original plan to write songs as she regarded herself simply as a harmony singer. The more songs the band recorded, the more she learnt about the particular style of songs that she liked singing and what interested her, musically. The words of “The Old News” were inspired by feeling lost and looking for answers during lockdown. In particular she felt moved by being outside in the natural world and noticing how nature changes with time. Adrian McNally feels that although the song could be thought of as describing an ancient way of living, it also has a modern interpretation since we now live in a world of misinformation and a lot of us want to get back to a more honest and truthful existence.
4: “The Royal Blackbird” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 4:01
Becky Unthank came across this song when looking at an online archive created by The School Of Scottish Studies sung by Jock Cameron. It is a love story in which a girl is crying over the loss of her lover, a blackbird. After the Jacobite rebellion, people weren’t allowed to sing political songs and the blackbird in this song was used as an allegory for Bonnie Prince Charlie.
5: “The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens” (R Unthank) 4:05
6: “The Bay Of Fundy” (Gordon Bok) 4:29
“The Bay Of Fundy” is often sung by The Keelers, a sea shanty group from the Northeast, that includes George Unthank, father of Becky and Rachel. The Keelers heard the song from Louisa (born “Lou”) Killen who started one of the first folk clubs in Newcastle in 1958 and emigrated to the U.S.A., subsequently joining The Clancy Brothers. (Shortly before Lou Killen’s death in 2013, Lou Killen underwent a gender reassignment to become Louisa Killen (hence my clumsy avoidance of pronouns)). Louisa Killen had got the song from Gordon Bok, the New England writer of the song, who had worked in the boatyards around Maine. The Bay of Fundy is a bay between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with a small portion touching Maine. The extremely high tidal range of The Bay of Fundy is the highest in the world. The singer in the song is contemplating his life, whilst being stuck on a boat in the high tide at nighttime.
7: “The Month Of January (Uncle Rat)” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 4:38
“The Month Of January” is the story of a young girl betrayed and abandoned by her wealthy lover and cast by cruel parents into the snow. In 1967, the song was recorded by Sarah Makem, a traditional Irish singer from County Armagh and her version inspired many other recordings, especially by Irish folk singers, including John Doyle. Adrian McNally arranged the melody of the song to be a slowed down version of “Uncle Rat”, which he heard when working with the great granddaughter of Elizabeth (“Bess”) Cronin, who had recorded the song over fifty years previously. “Uncle Rat” is more commonly known as “Froggy Went A’Courtin'”.
8: “My Singing Bird” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 7:05
Niopha Keegan is the fiddle player in The Unthanks and she sings lead vocals on “My Singing Bird”. She learned the song from the McPeake family from Belfast, who recorded it in 1963. The words are by the Irish poetess, Edith Wheeler. The song came to the McPeakes from Cathal O’Byrne, an Irish singer, poet and writer, who died in 1957. Adrian McNally was proud to use the original drone-like melody of the song, noting that other recordings use a different melody. The first verse is sung almost acapella, apart from a quiet single note keyboard accompaniment. Rachel and Becky Unthank join Niopha Keegan for the second verse to provide their trademark gorgeous harmony. As the verse finishes, strings heighten the tension before Lizzie Jones’ trumpet invokes a bugle call of immense poignancy. For the last verse, all the musical elements of the song combine to create a gloriously understated conclusion.
9: “Waters Of Tyne” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 2:58
This has been voted as the favourite folk song of the North-East. It was first printed in 1812, although no author is known for it. The Tyne divides the counties of Durham and Northumberland, and to the lovers facing each other on opposite banks, the river must have seemed very wide.
10: “Sorrows Away (Love Is Kind)” (Trad/Arr The Unthanks) 9:10
The song is often called “Thousands Or More” and has been in and out of Rachel and Becky Unthank’s lives since they were children. Becky Unthank said “We’ve sung it so many times. I was reading about it being a drinking song. It’s a song about dealing with and facing whatever’s going on in your life. Facing it and going okay, I’m going to accept it and I’m gonna move on from it with the comfort of my friends. Or with a bottle in my hand. It is an incantation where, through the power of song, you’re trying to drive sorrows away. It helps you to channel your emotions, to express joy, sorrow. It’s been a therapeutic song for me. I just presume everybody knows it but outside the folk world, not many people know it. It’s a bit like doing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas. I feel really happy to put this out into the world. It feels like something warm to give to people“.
“Thousands Or More” is a song from the repertoire of the Copper Family. It can be found in the Copper Family Song Book. Jim Copper sang it on 24 April 1952 in a BBC recording made by Séamus Ennis, which was included in 2001 on their Topic anthology “Come Write Me Down”. This anthology’s booklet noted: This song was known by some of Mervyn Plunkett’s Sussex singers in the 1950s, but, surprisingly for such a singable song, no other versions have been reported, and nor have any broadside printings come to light.
On a recent tour, “Sorrows Away” elicited an audience singalong reaction that felt to Rachel Unthank like “an incantation. We were all singing our sorrows away. And people really meant it as well. People are looking for that, audiences are coming with open hearts and wanting to connect. The first couple of times we did it, I burst into tears and couldn’t sing any more.“
Rachel Unthank describes the feelings that inspired the album like this: “We were really drawn to songs that gave us comfort or reminded us of singing with other people, that’s such a big part of our lives. We’ve run singing weekends on the Northumberland coast for the last ten years and we’ve sorely missed those, so some of those songs like “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry”, we’ve sung on the beach with lots of people, and recording it reminded us of that. Or “Waters of Tyne”, I never really thought I’d put that on an album, but I live right near the Tyne and in lockdown, the kids would go and explore the river and I’d be thinking about how it connected me to friends and family further down in Newcastle or my Mum on the coast, and it took on new resonances. “Sorrows Away” is the sort of thing we’d normally sing together in a pub, with the line ‘since we’ve learned a new song to drive sorrows away’. When we decided to record it, it made sense of all the other songs.“