Ed Pickford: the big interview (1)
Chris Wood double at the BBC Folk Awards 2009

The big interview: Ed Pickford (2)

So we already know that Ed Pickford has a passion for songwriting, and that this passion somehow grew stronger still after he learnt that he had a life-threatening disease. When he complained to me that painting and decorating chores were getting in the way of valuable songwriting time, he was clearly only half joking.
Last night, even at a distance of 3,600 miles, as we both turned off our TVs in disgust, I imagined him sitting down to write a song about the eccentric refereeing that robbed our team, Sunderland, of its first double over Newcastle in three or four hundred years.
Webb's Blunder came to mind as a title, or maybe Howard's Way (of helping distressed Mags). Of course, we both knew that we didn't actually deserve to win, but that's not the point.
But before I am accused of veering off into territory that belongs at Salut! Sunderland, let me pass on a great story Ed had given me during electronic exchanges earlier in the day:
"How will we view the match in 20 hours time?" wrote "nervous of Roker" (the
nom de guerre he chose for himself). "After Newcastle were beaten by Hereford in the FA Cup years ago, I wrote a quick song called A Young Magpie Cut Down in his Prime [Young Sailor Cut Down in his Prime, The Dying Cowboy etc] and sang it to my old friend Jim Sharp, not realising the depth of love he had for NUFC. I don't think he has ever forgiven me."
In fact, Ed has told me many things over the past few days, much of it outside the confines of our interview. But I should return for now to the format I devised at the outset and resume our Q&A, adding only the postscript in which he deals with my concerned inquiry about his health in a way that develops into a fascinating discussion on how his songs are used, and how they may be remembered.

This has been a tremendous project for Salut! Live, and there is more to come. Return a day or so from now for the last chapter - a sort of Potted Ed in which he restricts his replies to a few words completing sentences offered by me.....:

.....the interview resumes:

(Before leaving the story of the Northern Front), let me ask this: lots of arguments arise in these cases about whether the sum of the parts equals, exceeds or falls short of the whole.... what was your assessment?

The Northern Front were three individuals with performing personalities ... plenty of energy. The “music” stopped for me when, in a very short time, it did not inspire me to write anything. It was great for Michael because he could practise his performing skills but I wasn’t bothered about “performing”; I always need – still do – to be working out a new musical problem. I then give what I’ve done to others. If that doesn’t get the material performed then I do it myself.
Once a month in Jesmond a group of musicians meet and – although I would not describe myself as a musician – the place provides a platform for new material. If I haven’t got anything new it’s not as much fun for me – I don’t want to sing Ah Cud Hew 999 times.

The Northern Front were a team in as much as everyone knew their role. I’m not sure what my role was after the initial excitement – a great team, as in football, is one where players work for each other.
Mick has gone on to a varied career in radio, film, performance (I remember seeing him once in Jersey, and he went down superbly). What became of Nick?
I last saw Nick in about 1981. I heard from a Birmingham group recently that he had stopped performing, but was preparing a comeback.
And how have YOU spent the past 35+ years? What are you up to now? Tell me as little or as much as you want about your family, your teaching career, your life.
I was a teacher for 30 years in a little former mining village called Boldon Colliery. The pit closed, new houses were built, Asda arrived with 24 hour shopping and the place was 90 per cent middle class when I left in 2003. I wrote pantomimes – some of them political – for the kids and now I get regular e-mails from pupils and they are always about singing. Hamster Sid is legendary for them. I am a dad. I have three girls. My life really revolves around songwriting and keeping track of past material.
Battles you once sang about may remain dear to the heart, but were they not effectively lost, or is that an unreasonably gloomy view?
During the Miners’ Strike of 84/85 I wrote a song, recorded on an album called Heroes (launched at The Albert Hall with Mick as compere in 1985) called They’ll Never Beat The Miners. It was sung by The Wildon Brothers and people were defiantly jiving in the Albert aisle. Yes I was wrong but occasionally still sing out defiantly – there is an old saying re footy “don’t leave anything on the pitch” . I think it means give it your best shot. I think as long as you do that – Edith Piaf like – that’s OK.

Following on from that question, I recall going down the shaft on last shift of closing collieries and listening to older miners saying they were glad their sons wouldn't have to follow them down. Less than 20 years later, they were on strike trying to keep another generation of threatened mines open. Is the paradox simply a function of there having been alternative work in the 1960s, not in the 80s, or is it more complex?

I think the reaction to a pit is summed up in my song Strange Lover is a Coalmine, recorded very well last year by Tom McConville. It is a dichotomy; most old miners I meet miss the camaraderie.

Are there causes you have found yourself drawn to more and more over the years, and what place does/did music have in that, if any?

I have always used my reactions to events –sometimes just personal – like a friend’s death – not always of course, but sometimes – as in “inspiration” to create a song – maybe it is just my way of marking an event.

Do you listen to today's folk artists? If so, who gives you pleasure and is there anyone - or any sub-genre - that leaves you cold?

I regret the demise of the socially conscious folkie. I think that role has been taken on by “pop” and new punk. If I was starting now I would be a punk singer going to open mike sessions and singing songs reflecting what is happening now. I love all singer songwriters: folk or non-folk old favourites like Tom Waites, Harry Chapin, Hank Williams, Tom T Hall, Springsteen, Rod Stewart ... everybody – the whole lot – even Paul Simon.
I remember you telling me about the extent to which "pitmatic" dialect has entered everyday usage in the North East, spoken more and more by people with no connection with mining. Will this - and accents - survive the homogenisation of language and what do you make of the theory I saw spouted on Mudcat: "There's nothing worse than the Geordie accent - makes even successful people sound thick and skint."? Obviously, Geordie can equally be "Mackem", "Smoggie", whatever.
What I have been doing recently is – as always through the medium of song – getting back to my pitmatic roots in Shiney Row and writing songs. The last one was autobiographical called Tommy Lie Down about advice given to an uncle of mine who fought all his life and never won a fight – he had a cauliflower arse – which contain “thee” and “thou”. I have no idea if people speak like that now but it puts me in touch with the past, and it makes people laugh ... so far.

I find I am contacted by a lot of young people who see no divisions in music. They might say they are off to an open mike session to sing Pound A Week Rise etc from the USA to Australia. I like that. Even a punk group called - wonderful name - The Dropkick Murphys sing a song of mine, The Workers' Song, which gives me a great street credibility with my daughter's friends.

On infinitely more important matters (than football, how to work MP3s etc), how is your health? Are you four years into that prognosis and doing well, and/or has the prognosis changed for the better?

Healthwise I have a regular checkups as part of a system. What one learns is very simple and not earth-shattering at all really. I've seen it many times at the cancer centre in Newcastle. People just get on with things; that's all you can do really.
Personally, I'm OK about 80% of the time and can do what most 65-year-olds can do and - like everyone else - today is another day.
Life is tenuous. I know of a few people - no longer with us - that were wishing me well four or five years ago.
This songwriting thing is very selfish really. I've always wanted to contribute - and I have - even to the extent of things like Ah Cud Hew and Farewell Johnny Miner being regarded as "traditional". Two examples recently: a group that had it's origins in Leeds University but seem to have an American recording company, reissued a CD in 2005 (the group is called The Mekons) - containing Farewell Johnny Miner and I wasn't named on the credits.
Another two hand American girl group called The Lady's Cutlass brought out a CD containing FJM and have it down as "traditional" in the credits. The CD was called We Be Pirates and I thought: "Yes, you bloody well are!"
An Irish singer did the same last year so for technical reasons, leaving royalties to my kids. I chase down these situations but if you stand back then you can see it is a compliment, being regarded as "traditional". That's how anyone wants to be remembered, producing work that is of some use to someone.
I have e-mail contacts with lots of people all over the world about songs I wrote specifically about Durham or the UK. There is a lesson for me here: I do not try to do anything other than what I feel like doing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not but I don't care. I just try to do the best I can.
Songs are very strange. Why is a song like Pound A Week Rise - rescued from my personal "scrapheap", because it was about a miners' wage claim in 1962 and I did not think it relevant in the 70s, by Dick Gaughan in about 1975 - still recorded by Americans, Australians etc - I mean it mentions seven and six [old money]?
I always say there is no such thing as an old song because it is new to someone if they have not heard it before.
Being "remembered" is not important to me. The songs being used, maybe remembered, is important. Remember Stephen Foster died penniless and a "failure" financially but his songs are still remembered although his genius is tarnished by some of the lyrics being of their time.


Pete Sixsmith

Great to hear about Ed Pickford. I saw him a couple of times in The Northern Front and enjoyed the mixture of good songs, great humour and sheer pantomime that they brought to the stage. Hope the remission lasts as long as it has been since we last won at SJP.

Maureen B Bennett

Once had the pleasure of an evening being entertained by this wonderful folk singer many years ago at Belford House, Sunderland. Seem to remember a song about the Seaham Lifeboat disaster (1962) about which he sang. Have just looked up the details for the Lambton Worm for my grand-daughter and my memory was recalled to Ed Pickford. Sheer pleasure and thanks for such a lovely memory.

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Kelly Davis

I am a very dear friend of John G Strachan - you will remember him as Ying Tong John and I am regularly in touch with him and your name came up so I thought I`d say hi!
I met you many years ago with Nick Fenwick and Ying Tong on a night out with John (about 1970 in Sunderland)
I hope you are well?



Kelly: is that message directed at Ed? I will pass it on if so. Anyone wop can remember the detail of a night out 45 years ago deserves a medal! See the other part of the interview where, in the Comments, someone asks about nick

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