Cover Story: (60) The Apprentice's Song. Ian Campbell Folk Group or the Johnstons
February 17, 2021
In my first job, I laboured with tedious clerical duties in the offices of the railway wagon works in my home town of Shildon, County Durham.
After starting in a small office deep into the yards, in the “new construction” section, I was moved to personnel.
There I could look up employee records and marvel at how much skilled men earned.
From memory, tool-makers were the cream of the crop with fitters, welders and turners a little way behind but still on decent wages. Not for clerks like me but the apprentices of my age do doubt dreamt of reaching similar status.
Keep your eye on the older fitters
They're the boys who know their stuff
One day you will do their job
If you're smart and keen enough
With that verse, one of six in his composition, The Apprentice’s Song, the late Ian Campbell captured elements of the learning process that greeted these young lads as they began to serve their time on the way to qualifying in their trades.
Campbell died aged 79 in 2012, a committed old leftwinger who drew inspiration from Ewan MacColl and A L Lloyd (“both Marxists and socialists”, he said approvingly).
He led the Ian Campbell Folk Group, which developed from the skiffle boom, and wrote several fine songs.
One, The Sun Is Shining, became an unofficial anthem of the ban-the-bomb movement. It really ought to have him brought him some money, too, from cover version royalties, but didn’t.
Although duly recorded by Simon and Garfunkel, it failed to make it on to their Wednesday Morning 3am album that sold eight million copies.
The group's own cover, of The Times They Are a-Changin', got to no 42 in the UK charts but was blown off stage by the rush-released Bob Dylan original.
The Apprentice's Song, set in a gas works, would never be a moneyspinner; Campbell was ruefully aware that all his record sales put together lagged behind what his sons managed with their debut album with UB40.
But it's an outstanding song, deserving of much better than the paltry few hundred views I saw on checking some YouTube clips of his group singing it in 1963 or the 1,000 or so drawn to the Johnstons' version.
Of the two, though my friend Bill Taylor may strongly disagree (he usually does), Ian Campbell's group sounds more dated. His was an excellent group of its time, massively influential in the folk revival. But the delivery feels wooden and while the Johnstons recorded their version only five years later, the robust and utterly compelling harmonies reveal a song that shows its age only in lyrics evoking the days when my town had its wagon works, Britain generally had manufacturing industry and people had jobs.
For once, I'm not disagreeing, strongly or otherwise! I was a great fan of the Ian Campbell Folk Group, especially when Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg were part of the lineup, but they do themselves and Campbell's splendid song no favours with this limp-noodle rendition. The Johnstons' acapella version puts it into a different league. As you say, "robust and utterly compelling." I wonder what Ian Campbell thought when he heard it.
Posted by: Bill Taylor | February 17, 2021 at 07:30 PM