Cover Story (51). The Ballad of the Gliding Swan: Dylan, Ken Will Morton or Stuart Turner
Music from North Eastern England: (1) Lindisfarne, the Mighty Doonans, Terry Conway and Marie Little

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.

Unthanks02

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Some of it is hopelessly out of date (the imminent marriage she mentioned has been and, sadly, gone though it did produce two of the four children she said she wanted) but it remains a thoroughly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

Comments

Sue Nicholson

(Via Facebook, a challenge to my view of one of the versions) ....


Joy Dunlop version is my pick from these.

Bill Taylor

"The question of whether the Unthanks were any good..." That's not a question that would ever occur to me! I don't know how many times I've listened to their "Patience Kershaw" but it never fails to send a tingle down my spine. For me, they own the song.
It's the wrong song for Joy Dunlop's albeit admirable voice. Doesn't fit the words, doesn't fit the mood. As for Roy Bailey, he shouldn't have bothered.
But getting back to mood, I'm in two minds about the Ian Campbell Folk Group version. I've always been a fan of the band, especially back in the Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg days, and before Ian Campbell himself died of cancer in 2012. A while ago on Salut! Live, I flagged their version of "Dirty Old Town" as my favourite and I know I was in the minority.
With "Patience Kershaw," the banjo and uptempo turned me off at first but then I found it growing on me. I need to listen to it a couple more times to properly sort out my thoughts but I think it has something going for it. Maybe, just maybe, it should be slowed down a little but it is, at least, an interesting, even challenging interpretation.
There's a parallel dichotomy that I find interesting in the group's interpretation of "Geordie Black," on their wonderful "Coaldust Ballads" album of 1965. The song is done from the point of view of an old miner looking back - and a little forward - on life in the pit. It's done elegiacally, a lament, and it's a lovely song.
The wonderful Johnny Handle, though, used to sing "Geordie Black" (on his "Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny" and "Gateshead Revisited" albums) as a faster-paced jolly reminiscence of past times, bad and good. I prefer the Ian Campbell version but Johnny Handle's is still very enjoyable and a valid interpretation. I think the same can probably be said of the Ian Campbell group's rendition of "Patience Kershaw."

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)