With deep sadness, I must record the death of Barry Skinner. It is hard to believe that more than 40 years have been passed since I first encountered him on one of his many visits to perform in the folk clubs, including those I ran or helped to run, of the North East. Even at this distance, however, I recall his warm and intelligent presence as well as the professionalism and sheer entertainment value he brought to the amateurish setting of folk. You may read more about Barry's life and times by making the short journey to this link -http://www.salutlive.com/2012/10/barry-skinner.html - but let me start the process of paying homage with these moving reminiscences from Bill Taylor ...
“Mother get up, unbar the door, throw wide the window pane ...”
That’s the opening line to one of the best songs I know, of any genre. Beautiful and chilling by turns, it tells of a woman, married and settled with a family, who is visited, “outside in the vicarage lane”, by the ghost of an old lover, killed years before at the Battle of Alamein.
Don’t bother trying to find it on iTunes or YouTube or anywhere else that I can think of. It’s as obscure as Charles Causley, the poet who wrote it, and Barry Skinner, the folksinger/songwriter who put it to music and recorded it on an album, Bed, Battle and Booze, in 1971. Don’t bother trying to find that, either. The only copy I have any more is on a tape cassette, with no means to play it.
Causley and Skinner would probably both see the wry humour in that.
It’s deeply unfair but not particularly surprising that news of Skinner’s death earlier this month should filter out through a folk-and-blues musicians’ website (mudcat.org).
At least Causley, once described as “the most unfashionable poet alive”, was given his post-mortem due in 2003 in a long Guardian obit. He was noted for his bare-bones evocations of 1950s welfare-state England. Skinner, who knew him, had set another of his works, Timothy Winters, to music: “Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters, a blitz of a boy is ...” That one, at least, you’ll still hear from time to time around the folk clubs.
I met Barry Skinner when he appeared at the club I helped run in my hometown, Bishop Auckland, with Colin Randall, his brother Phil and a guitarist, Phil Steele. I had an ego and a fund of bad jokes but no musical talent so they made me MC.
Barry, active in folk music since 1962 and turning pro three years later, was guaranteed to sell out the backroom in the Aclet Hotel. He was more than an accomplished singer and guitarist; he was a great entertainer, full of fun and personality.
Not without his demons, though. I remember once during his first set of the evening, realising it was almost time for an intermission (and to draw the raffle) and signalled him to do two more songs. Barry shook his head slightly and mouthed “One.”
When he came off, he took me aside and apologised. He said he sometimes found performing very stressful, no matter how receptive the audience, and literally could not continue. He’d be fine after a short break, he promised, and he was. His second set was a barn-burner.
Based in the Midlands, he was crashing at my parents’ house that night. They viewed my folk club activities, and the concomitant heavy drinking, with jaundiced eyes. I was a little apprehensive about how they’d be in the morning, finding guitar and banjo cases under the dining-room table. But when I came downstairs, I found the three of them already having breakfast and chatting away, with Barry advising my mother on the purchase of a new space-heater.
“He can stay any time,” she said later.
With three under-appreciated albums under his belt, I don’t know whether he became discouraged by the lack of a breakthrough into a wider audience. But in later years, though he never gave music up altogether, Barry turned away from professional singing and moved to Wales. Always a talented artist, he drew, painted, worked as a wood-turner and built exquisite, individually designed dolls' houses to special order.
Colin wrote about him at Salut! in 2008. I commented on his music, especially his Causley songs (I wasn’t certain then whether he’d done the music for them), and was delighted when he replied: “It's nice to know I'm still alive. To update: I did write the tunes for Mother Get Up and Timothy Winters in fact I've recently been working on setting more of Charles's poems to music.”
How sad that we’ll never now hear those adaptations.
The closing line to Mother Get Up runs: “I’m had by a dove in the tunnel of love; I can never come home again.”
Barry Skinner has come home. Unbar the door.
* With thanks to Barry's partner, Anne, for the photograph, taken two years at Murphy’s Bar in Prince George, British Columbia, two years ago during a visit to Anne's daughter.
More details can be found on this site by reading the following article: A man of music and mountains, canals and craft* Barry leave Barry leaves his partner, Anne, his son Matt, three sisters and Anne's son, Tony, and daughter, Maria. Donations may be made - in lieu of floral tributes - to the Gwynedd Haematology and Cancer Relief Fund