Cover Story (52): The Testimony of Patience Kershaw. The Unthanks, Roy Bailey, Joy Dunlop or Ian Campbell Folk Group
Rachel Unthank was on her way home from Kings Cross. I was thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi. Un
As the train headed north, she answered my clutch of questions with great candour and eloquence. We didn't speak but Rachel was a dream interviewee, pouring out her thoughts even when I trampled on potentially dangerous territory.
From the archives of Roger Liptrot's folkimages.com
At the time, and we are talking about nearly 13 years ago, fevered debate was in progress at the Mudcat folk chat site, essentially on the question of whether the Unthanks were any good.
"People are truly divided," Rachel said after my question encouraged her to break a personal rule to stay away from message boards. "It’s quite unsettling to be the subject of such controversy! Some people obviously think we can’t sing for toffee whilst others think we are breath of fresh air!?!"
Rachel's responses to my questions were so interesting that I ran them over four parts.
Some of it is hopelessly out of date (the imminent marriage she mentioned has been and, sadly, gone though it did produce two of the four children she said she wanted) but it remains a thoroughly absorbing read and I shall provide links below.
I am, as I was then, firmly in the Unthanks are Good camp. I could have chosen from numerous magnificent tracks and clips showcasing the women's talents, immense charm and full-bodied Geordie accents.
In keeping with the spirit of the Cover Story series, I shall stick with one, The Testimony of Patience Kershawand, and maybe have a look at others later.
The roots of the song have become reasonably well known. Patience Kershaw was a child miner, doing dirty, dangerous and back-breaking work in pursuit of a paltry wage.
She was 17 by the time she gave evidence to a Children's Employment Commission (in 1842) and her words were adapted by Frank Higgins, a blues singer from Liverpool, 130 or so years later.
In the voices of the Unthanks, Patience's Halifax accent inevitably becomes Geordie so that many listening for the first time may assume that she worked in a North-eastern coalmine rather than in Yorkshire.
The words present a heartrending indictment of Victorian industrial malpractice, as exemplified by this verse describing the job of pushing the corf, or small wagon, laden with freshly hewed coal:
I push them with my hands and head, and so my hair gets worn away
You see this baldy patch I've got, it shames me like I just can't say
A lady's hands are lily white, but mine are full of cuts and segs
And since I'm pushing all the time, I've got great big muscles on my legs
The impact of the lyrics can be stunning. My friend and frequent Salut! Live contributor Bill Taylor, who usually disapproves of any music praised by me, raised his eyes from a book at my home in France and exclaimed: "That's just tremendous."
I can listen to the Unthanks singing this song over and over again.
There are other worthy versions, including one from a Scottish singer and teacher Joy Dunlop, who also works as a BBC weather woman.
Dunlop articulates the lyrics with clarity and respect. I am not wholly convinced this is a song best suited to her voice but her clip certainly deserves many more than the 31 views recorded at the moment I came across it at YouTube.
I preferred the rather more muscular singing of the late Roy Bailey. The Ian Campbell Folk Group performed the song, too, but I am afraid Lorna Campbell is far too jolly and the arrangement too jaunty for the subject matter, my instant view but reinforced by the one comment posted after the clip.
Whatever the Mudcat detractors felt and probably still still feel, Rachel and Becky Unthank capture everything Higgins (now dead, I believe), and of course the unfortunate Patience herself, put into this gripping and emotional testimony.
Among more than 100, mostly appreciative comments at YouTube, this from a Frenchman, Sylvain Rohaut, caught my eye: "Beaucoup d'émotions, en pensant à mon grand-père, mineur en France...Merci Unthanks."
And now, as promised, those links:
The Big Interview (1) Music from the cupboard under the stairs
The Big Interview (2) Frocks and mudslingers
The Big Interview (3) 'a fascinating interview with a young woman who really does know what she is talking about' (one reader's view)
The Big Interview: Potted Rachel - quickfire questions and answers