Cover Story: (64) Here's the Tender Coming. Mighty Doonans, Unthanks, Dave Burland or Frankie Armstrong
I have said often enough that the Cover Story series is not intended primarily as a competition but aims to alert readers to different treatments of the same songs and instrumentals.
Inevitably, however, whether an item is written by me or a regular, occasional or one-off guest contributor, preferences are expressed. Not for the first time among the 64 instalments of the series published to date, this one ends in a scoring draw ...
Songs of impressment or crimping, and more commonly known as forced recruitment by press gangs, is a shameful feature of British military history, though it was not a practice restricted to the UK.
As with most ugly aspects of human behaviour, it has found expression in song. I haven't heard any about the US government's close imitation of Nazi interrogation techniques in its disgusting treatment of untried suspects at Guantanamo Bay (try to watch The Mauritanian, out on Netflix) but dare say some exist.
As for press gangs, it is difficult to find as compelling a song as Arthur McBride, gloriously reassembled by Paul Brady, applying what he called "word architecture" to what he found, while staying with a US musician pal Patrick Sky in 1972, in an old book of songs compiled by the Nova Scotia singer Carrie Grover.
Difficult, but not impossible.
If Arthur McBride's origins are clearly Irish, Here's the Tender Coming indisputably hails from North East England, where Sunderland and Newcastle were considered fertile ground for the supply of this form of slave labour. The song is of uncertain authorship but appears to date from the mid-1790s; it would not surprise me if both related to recruitment for the period of warfare that followed the French Revolution.
At YouTube, a specialist on films about seafaring set in the 18th and early 19th centuries. makes a rather curious assertion that it a "common misconception" that men were really snatched pretty much at random, "from hearth and home" or even from church on their wedding days, for involuntary military service. Signing himself Teverell, this YouTuber argues that only "'those who use the sea" were legally liable to such recruitment because the uninitiated would need extensive training.
It as well that he concedes that this could be a somewhat tenuous condition in practice. Encyclopedia Britannica tells of recruiters preying "to a great extent upon men from the lower classes who were, more often than not, vagabonds or even prisoners" with waterfront boardinghouses, brothels and taverns steady sources of supply.
The song is a gem, the lyrics recounting the fear that struck the hearts of families as naval ships approached shore.
Hide thee canny hinny, hide thyself away
Hide thee till the frigate makes for Druridge Bay
If they take thee Geordie who's to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead
And there are a number of fine versions to be found. Dave Burland and Frankie Armstrong recorded the song in the early 1970s, Kathryn Tickell and Corrina Hewat offered a fine version in 2006 and you will find in the repertoire of Norman and Betty McDonald, Sandra and Nancy Kerr with James Fagan, the High Level Ranters and Jez Lowe among others.
But for my own favoured interpretations, I turn to the Unthanks and the Mighty Doonans, two quite different North-eastern bands of comparable merit.
I could listen over and again to Here's the Tender Coming as performed by the Doonans, and indeed I do. The clip I have chosen is from the band's first of two sets at the Davy Lamp folk club in Washington, just outside Sunderland, in 2013. It closes with the trademark burst of Irish dancing from this marvellous Geordie/Mackem/Irish band and to any inclined to question the relevance, I would simply point out that this is par for the Doonans' course.
At YouTube, Ron Adams acclaims the (excellent) Burland, saying "it's great to hear this plainly sung instead of the Unthanks' affected version".
Affected or not, the harmonies are exquisite and irresistible, the sisters injecting the passion and pathos the song demands. It is a first-class treatment of a great song and I declare myself wholly incapable of choosing between them and the Doonans. Please feel free to disagree with anything I have said.