Farewell Durham, Yorkshire tooNottingham the same to youScotland, South Wales say "Adieu"Farewell Johnny Miner
With the four-line chorus quoted above, and the verses either side of it, Ed Pickford summed up in the starkest terms the impact of "rationalisation" and "reorganisation" of the British coalfield on the men who worked in it.
Sung (above) by George Welch, Farewell Johnny Miner is only one of many great songs of working class struggles and concerns written by Ed (seen performing in the second of the YouTube clips). And it is high time Salut! Live recognised his contribution to what might be called English protest music, since the battles and sufferings of ordinary men and women have inspired some of the noblest additions to the folk tradition.
What follows was prompted by the determination of a York academic to have the man and his work acknowledged. The format of the interview allows Ed, in his own words, to tell the story of the life and times of a songwriter who has dedicated much of his artistic effort to championing the miners - and many more besides.
It was at the folk music internet chatroom Mudcat that Dr Mary Garrison*, a specialist in early medieval cultural history, contacted me with a request that I should step in to act where Mike Harding had failed to act, despite her pleadings, and interview Ed Pickford.
Ed, with bags of commitment and integrity, was active in the folk clubs of North-eastern England around 1970. I first encountered him as a solo artist; then came Northern Front, a sort of Durham equivalent of the Cambridge Footlights revue bringing together three mighty talents: Ed, Mick Elliott and Nick Fenwick. They were uproariously funny, an obvious precursor to Mick's successful career in comedy (when not being a controversial radio presenter or popping up in such films at Billy Elliot, in which he played Billy's boxing coach).
And Ed's songs have endured - and multiplied
Mary wrote of his work: "Pound a Week Rise, Farewell Johnny Miner, Ah Cud Hew are sung across the world and have really and truly entered the tradition. Most recent versions I know are Strange Lover is a Coal Mine on Tom McConville's newest CD, and a version of Pound a Week Rise by John Doyle and Liz Carroll, about to appear. I really think these songs are on the level of Woody Guthrie's best..."
In the end, I couldn't resist it. And fortunately, Ed - despite having had to fight serious illness - was up for it, too. Between walking the dog on Roker seafront and keeping tabs on the football team we both support, Sunderland, he came up with some terrific answers to my questions.
Ed's answer to the first question - everything you ever wanted to know about the Northern Front - is superbly detailed and serves as an excellent introduction. The remaining questions will form part two and appear, along with the traditional Salut! Live bonus track in which he expresses himself in a series of quickfire one-liners, in the coming days.....
A long time has passed since Northern Front days. To me this was a quite brilliant trio drawing on humour, protest, politics, regional pride, musical talent and probably a lot more besides. What are your memories of the band, and your partners?
The Northern Front was really just a year long experiment with something called “folk music hall”. To this end we started a club in The Londonderry pub in Sunderland – Elliott was the driving force as organiser and compere – I only wrote some material along comic physical performance lines because I thought it would be interesting – long forgotten songs like The Cement Bag Shuffle, You Can’t Wear Your Knickers in the Ascot Ring etc. The group became a platform for Mick’s eventual career as a comedian.
All I’ve ever wanted to do is write songs. Long before I met Mick & Nick I started a skiffle group at school called The Yaffles [Yaffle was a satirical writer in the old Reynolds News newspaper].
When – through Lonnie Donegan – I heard Woody Guthrie, that’s what I wanted to do: write my own songs. This time period coincided with the rise of the folk club movement. I began to hear British folk at The Liberal Club in Newcastle – the residents were Louis Killen, John Reavey, John Brennan and Laurie Charlton. Reavey taught me some songs.
There was no chance to perform at that club but when the Elliotts of Birtley started a more sort of democratic-inclusive club that was my chance to write and perform; I was in the 6th form at the time.
In a short time period in the early 60s I wrote Pound A Week Rise, One Miner’s Life, Ah Cud Hew and Farewell Johnny Miner. All these songs are still being recorded; an Irish American called John Doyle is bring out Pound A Week Rise in March for example.
Birtley was the starting point for me – the reason for writing and I drew on my home experience – being the son of a miner.
In order to get a job to support my songwriting ambition I went to a teachers' training college in 1965. Nick Fenwick was in the year behind me and I was aware of him. He was a good musician but did a lot of Paul Simon stuff. Now Simon is a great and successful writer but he did not have the political content I was looking for. I preferred Ewan MacColl; incidentally, Ewan started to sing Pound A Week Rise after hearing me at Birtley.
A good book has been written by Pete Wood called The Elliotts of Birtley – it came out in 2008 and covers the Elliotts’ role in folk in the North East.
I mention all this stuff to illustrate that I was then what I am now: just a person who for some reason wants to write songs.
The folk club scene hit Sunderland and Mike Elliott got involved as an organiser and performer. I had no interest at all in running folk clubs.
I started hitchhiking with Mick in Ireland and Europe and that's how we influenced each other.
Somehow or other the idea of a group – to pursue this idea of mixing folk with music hall came about and Mick used his enthusiasm and organising skills to develop a club. I came up with the name Northern Front because it was supposed to represent opening a new “front” in folk and we were all from the north. Fenwick's dad was also a pitman.
We did have a problem in Birmingham once when a misprint in the Birmingham Evening Mail billed us as The National Front – and we were appearing at The Birmingham Communist Party Club.
After our year long experiment – very successful mainly because of Mick – The Northern Front continued for a while, but it was too restrictive for me. It was all too repetitive, so I left. Occasionally we got back together just to have some fun.
Nick went to work as a teacher in Birmingham. Mick went into acting, broadcasting and performing as a comedian. I just went away and did some writing but I wasn’t interested in performing much unless I had some new material.
Some other events occasionally dragged me back. The Oldest Swinger in Town went to No 6 in the charts in 1981. It was a minor old song of mine that Fred Wedlock worked on and with which he made a “name” for himself in the process.
Also in 1981, Dick Gaughan recorded The Workers’ Song on a CD called Handful of Earth. The CD became the CD of the decade in Q magazine [that is what someone told me]. Dick’s recording has resulted in The Workers’ Song being recorded all over the world – even a street punk group, very popular all around the world, called The Dropkick Murphys. They did the song on their CD Blackout. If you Google The Workers’ Song, you can see how it has travelled. But it all started with Dick’s recording.
I didn’t write or perform really for a lot of years but started writing again furiously after being whacked with cancer in 2004. I was only given a 20-50 per cent chance of surviving five years and I’m four years into that. Hence trying to write as much as I can ... just back to what I always wanted to do: write songs.