Folk Radio UK presents an exclusive interview with David Eagle from The Young’Uns in two parts, starting with Teesside, the healing power of a good biscuit and the journey to Never Forget, their new album.
Is it fair to say that a strong regional identity is important to you? Do you think it’s an advantage on the folk scene? Is there a local folk community that you are a part of?
When we were seventeen we accidentally stumbled across the Stockton folk club which was taking place in a pub that we regularly illegally drank at. We were so taken aback by what we were hearing – singers singing unaccompanied in their own accents joined by a chorus of in-your-face harmonies – that we vowed to return the next week. So the reason we sing folk music today and have the privilege of performing at folk clubs and festivals is down to us being inspired by our local folk community.
The man who organised the Stockton folk club back then was Ron Angel, part of the group the Teesside Fettlers and who wrote the world-famous Chemical Worker’s Song inspired by working at ICI in Teesside (we’ve heard versions of this song performed by bands from various European countries as well as Canada). Ron made us feel extremely welcome at the club, and it was he who gave us our first gig. If it wasn’t for Ron then we might not be here today answering these questions, and our relationship with folk music may not have been anywhere near as developed. So Ron and our local folk community has inspired and encouraged us a great deal.
Add to that our folk music epiphany at the hands – or more aptly the mouths – of the Wilson family. We first saw them when we were eighteen and were completely blown away. The power, the passion, the harmonies, the banter. The Wilsons were the major influence on our singing style and choice of songs when we first started out. They were also very friendly and supportive of us, and are great friends today.
Another Teesside folky who was really supportive of us was Richard Grainger, who has written lots of songs inspired by and about Teesside and Yorkshire. He asked if we’d like to be involved in his folk opera about Captain James Cook called the Eye Of The Wind. Richard also recruited us for his shanty group, the Endeavour Shanty Men, which featured Ron Angel along with other regular Stockton folk club singers. We toured various shanty festivals with the Endeavours and even went to Norway and Holland with them. Later, Richard booked The Young’Uns at his maritime festivals in Scarborough and Whitby.
As we became more accustomed to folk music and became regulars of the Stockton folk club, we became acquainted with Jez Lowe, Vin Garbutt and Graeme Miles, who have all been inspired by and written songs about Teesside and the North East. We are proud to come from a place with such a rich folk heritage and a folk community that were very supportive and encouraging of us.
I think it’s only natural that we’ve been inspired by the place we grew up and are keen to uncover stories about our local area. There are so many Teesside stories that
we have discovered but were never told about at school. For instance The Battle Of Stockton, when the people of 1930’s impoverished Stockton drove Mosley’s blackshirts out of their town in a defiant dismissal of fascism. This is an event that is largely unknown and not taught in schools, yet it is an important and defining local historical event that has the power to move and inspire people today.
Following that thread, where do your inspirations and the stories for the songs come from? The story of the York Mosque is particularly affecting amidst the almost constant hysteria about Islamists and immigration, it’s the first I’d heard about it. How did you come across it?
Our song The Battle Of Stockton came from a programme on radio 4 that someone alerted us to. Sean then went to Stockton library and found some newspaper reports from 1933. We knew we had to write about the event, as we were surprised that the subject hadn’t already been covered in a folk song, and we thought it was an inspirational story that people should know about.
The same is true for our songs about the situation that occurred last year outside Bull Lane Mosque in York where English Defence League protesters were met outside the mosque with a tray of biscuits and tea and invited in for a chat and maybe a game of football if they fancied it. Again, this story was given scant recognition in terms of news coverage, and we felt it was a very important and inspiring event. We were so inspired by the incident that we ended up writing two songs about it. Sean’s more serious song, the Biscuits of Bull Lane, compares and juxtaposes the lesser-known peaceful anti-fascist act of love outside the York mosque with the more well-known and violent antifascist demonstrations like Cable Street. The message of the song is that it is possible to fight fascism with gestures of peace and love and that sometimes this can prove very effective. My song is more of a comedy take on the situation, the song is sung from the perspective of an English Defence League member who has their prejudices challenged by a Muslim’s homemade biscuits and a lovely cup of tea.
[pullquote]…the local stories and the many colourful characters who drink in the pubs and have a great number of stories to tell about life in Hartlepool past and about working at sea.[/pullquote]Sean was really inspired when he moved to the old part of Hartlepool and became interested in the history of the place, the local stories and the many colourful characters who drink in the pubs and have a great number of stories to tell about life in Hartlepool past and about working at sea. The song Jenny Waits For Me was inspired by a conversation that Sean had with the wife of an old fisherman who had gone to sea. Her husband had spoke to her on the phone and bemoaned the fact that although he could see home across the water, he knew that it would be some time before he would be able to return. This sentiment also inspired the song the Sandwell Gate about how despite the many changes that have occurred over the centuries, languages changing, place names changing, even the name of the sea changed more than once, yet still, throughout history, the one unchangeable factor was that women would wave their men off to sea and wait nervously and hopefully for their safe return.
It’s interesting how because we’ve written songs like The Battle Of Stockton and The Biscuits Of Bull Lane, people are starting to view us as a political group, but really we are just singing about what inspired us and I suppose if you really want a universal theme that pervades our music then arguably it is Love, for even our political songs are in fact messages of love: the gesture of peace and love in The Biscuits Of Bull Lane and the anti-fascist stance of the people of Stockton born out of a love and acceptance for humanity.
As I iterated earlier, we are heavily influenced by the local folk community and we continue on this latest release to sing songs from the pen of North East songwriters Graeme Miles and Jez Lowe. On this album we sing Jez’s Hands Feet, perhaps an apposite illustration of a political love song: “the shoemaker says you can’t use my boots for marching off to war…the tailor says you can’t use my shirts for your fight-picking uniforms…let the children wear these boots and shirts to run around and kick and climb.”
How have the last two years since Grandfathers been? What has changed for you as a group and individually? Have your instrumental abilities and ambitions become more prominent in the mix with your singing?
Well the major thing that’s happened as a group is that we’ve now gone professional, which I still find rather incredible given how we simply stumbled across the folk scene 10 years ago, but things kept progressing for us and we got to the point where we were either going to have to turn down a load of gig offers or quit our jobs. So I went into work and told my boss that I was going to leave to become a professional folk singer, and she told me she thought that was a wonderful idea, which I was a little upset about to be honest as I hoped she might put up a bit more of a fight and make promises of a salary increase in order to try keeping me there. Fortunately for me, Mike and Sean hadn’t been joking to me about the professional folk music idea and they also handed in their resignation. So since July we’ve been a professional folk group that is in terms of official status, our performance style is just as unprofessional and ramshackle as it ever was.
As for whether I’ve become more ambitious with my instrument: I did go through a phase recently of watching a lot of Jimi Hendrix, and decided to try modelling some of his crazy guitar moves like playing behind my back, or with my teeth, only on the accordion. So I tried playing it the wrong way round so that I could play behind my back, but all that led to was some very excruciating physio sessions. I think part of the problem was trying to combine hands behind back and the teeth-playing technique at the same time.
[pullquote]My accordion playing has got better but I wouldn’t describe it as ambitious. I think our instrumental arrangements are rather the opposite really.[/pullquote]My accordion playing has got better but I wouldn’t describe it as ambitious. I think our instrumental arrangements are rather the opposite really. I know that probably sounds like the worst kind of advert for our music but the main purpose of the instruments is to support the words and sentiment of the song. Generally this means providing some basic but hopefully effective accompaniment. I do think our playing has become more intelligent though. Sometimes with this type of music it is better to favour intelligence over ambition, which is definitely something I think Katie Price (AKA Jordan) could have done with realising a long time ago, but I’m drifting from the point now.
Having said that, there are a few more instrumentally complex sections on the album, such as Graeme Miles’ The Running Fox which has a fast and more frantic instrumental section that is designed to convey the fox chase.
Tell me about recording the new album. I realise the set up, studio and so on are different but did you take a different approach this time round? You’ve certainly pushed the boat out with some of the arrangements.
We recorded this album with Andy Bell, who’s seemingly produced just about everyone in folk music recently. One of our reasons for working with Andy (other than the fact that he’s brilliant) was because he is based in Sheffield which is a somewhat of a haven for folk music, with James Fagan and Nancy Kerr, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Jon Boden, Fay Hield and Sam Sweeney all residing there. We had planned to possibly do quite a bit of collaborating on this album and had had a chat with people about them coming on our album. Our plan back fired however due to our failure to realise something else that was prevalent in Sheffield: pubs that served extremely good beer. On the plus side we did collaborate with all of the aforementioned folkies, but these collaborations were pub-based. Perhaps we should have relocated Andy’s studio to the pub and recorded our album at night. Maybe we could have done a double CD album, with our drunken collaborations forming the second disc.
When you say we’ve pushed the boat out, I assume you’re referring to the fact that we’ve got a brass band and a church organ on this album. We decided that if we are singing a song about a Yorkshire event – TheBiscuits Of Bull Lane – then we should have a brass band. It also works to conjoin the two moods of the song, the more military verses and the more bouncy ragtime-feel of the chorus. We also thought a church organ was a fitting instrument, given that one of the heart-warming aspects to The Biscuits Of Bull Lane Mosque story is that other local faith groups got involved, and so this was a collective act of love from more than just the Islamic faith. Priests and people from the local Christian church also stood by to welcome the protesters with open loving arms. So we start the song with a church organ to symbolise the religious aspect, and then move into a brass band to give the whole thing a more earthy, and military feel, although of course they were fighting prejudice with love rather than weapons.
Before we went professional, Michael worked as a teacher in a secondary school, and so we asked some of his ex-students from the school’s brass band to play on the album. Sean used to work in a primary school and some of the children he used to work with are singing on Jez Lowe’s Hands Feet, as we thought that it would be nice to have children singing the chorus of the final verse, “let the children wear these boots and shirts to run around and kick and climb …” To be honest I think the only reason the primary school children got involved in the collaboration process with us is because they thought there might be a trip to the pub in it for them. Don’t worry, there wasn’t.
Released 17 March via Hereteu Records
Order via: The Young’Uns Own Store