Article MT227

Tyneside Song

Print and be trad?

When I moved to the North East in the mid-70s, I already knew that in terms of the folk revival it was a bit special, with its highly characteristic, witty, down to earth songs and exciting tunes not found elsewhere in the country.  But I was not prepared for the sheer number and quality of the ones that had not yet been heard outside the area.  Relatively speaking, you just don't find the same sort of local traditional songs anywhere else in England.  The songs I'm talking about are represented in the Table (below), based on their popularity in the current revival, and are divided into 'folk' songs and 'written' songs.


'Top Twenty' North East songs popular in the current revival, distinguishing the older, anonymous, mostly rural songs akin to the 'folk songs' collected in the south of England in the early 20th century from the composed songs of the 19th century.

'Written' songsComposer 'Folk' songs Composer 
Lambton Worm, TheLeumaneA, u, Hinny Burd unknown
Aw wish Pay Friday wad cumAndersonBlow the Winds, Hi-O       ..
Toon Improvement Bill, TheCorvanBobby Shaftoe       ..
Fire on the Kee, TheCorvanBonny at Morn       ..
Cushie ButterfieldG RidleyBuy Broom Buzzems       ..
Till the Tide comes inH RobsonByker Hill       ..
Geordy BlackHarrisonCaptain Bover       ..
The Neighbors doon belawWeamsCollier's Rant       ..
Mally DunnWilsonDance to thi Daddy       ..
Keep your feet stillWilsonDerwentwater's Farewell       ..
Row Upon the Stairs, TheWilsonDol-li-a       ..
Sally WheatleyWilsonElsie Marley       ..
Landlord's Dowter, TheWilsonFelton Lonnin'       ..
Pawnshop Bleezin', TheJ P RobsonHere's the Tender Coming       ..
Pitman's Happy Times, TheJ P RobsonI Drew my Ship into a Harbour       ..
Drunken Bella Roy, O!NunnThe Keel Row       ..
Fiery Clock Fyece, TheNunnO the Bonny Fisher Lad       ..
Sandgate Wife's Nurse Song, TheNunnO the Oak, and the Ash       ..
Blaydon RacesRidleySair Fyeld Hinny       ..
Dance to thy DaddyWatsonWater of Tyne       ..

Hackles may be starting to rise at this point, so let me elaborate.  'Folk' was a convenient label used to describe the mainly rural songs collected from working people chiefly in southern England around the turn of the 20th century by Sharp, Vaughan Williams and the others.  Folk Songs have a particular language and music, have no known composer, and are national rather than local.  By this I mean that they rarely have a local dialect, nor do they often mention real people, places, or events; they are widely distributed over the southern half of England; and they have sometimes popped up further north where people went collecting.  There are North East songs which nearly fit this category, in that they have no known author, and they are mostly rural, or date back to a time before the Industrial Revolution when the difference between country and town did not really matter.  However, they are different in three respects.  They use local dialect, hardly any have been found anywhere else, and the tunes seem also to be unique to the area.  Let us call them 'Local Folk Songs' for now.

However, what marks the area out is the overwhelming number of songs written during the 19th century often by mainly Newcastle-based professional entertainers whose trade reached its apogee in the mid-1800s as the music halls rose to prominence.  These songs are quite individual in their tunes and their character, and most definitely celebrate real characters, real events, and the quayside.  The ones in the Table were clearly very popular when composed, and have continued to be so ever since.  They are 'Local Traditional Songs' whether or not people want to call them folk songs.  (To my mind, 'traditional' is a label that can be applied to those songs which, whatever their origin, have been taken up by large numbers of people and sung in communal situations over a significant period of time.  Keep the Home Fires Burning, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Pack up your Troubles fit the bill, though they wouldn't be called folk songs.)  Both terms have caused considerable trouble for those who like or need to label music, but for the purpose of this paper, all folk is trad but not all trad is folk.

So, not only could anybody walking down any English Street give you titles of several Tyneside songs (Blaydon Races, Cushie Butterfield, Keel Row), but we folkies knew a much bigger list.  If we look at Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, or any other large English city, how many songs could either group name?  So why is this region so unusual?  Reasons advanced go along the lines of: 'It was a melting pot of the Irish, the Scots, and rural people moving into the area as the industrial revolution gathered pace.  They needed something new in the way of entertainment, and so a new culture was bred.  The quayside was a 'cockpit' with its constant river traffic, pitmen, and all the associated trades'.1, 2, 3  But weren't these things true of Manchester, Sheffield, and Hull?  And Liverpool certainly had all these qualities - an even bigger port, plenty of Irish influence.  And yet, you'd be hard pressed to think of songs enjoyed in our revival which came from these cities, compared with what Newcastle has provided.  So where does that leave us as to an explanation?  Perhaps the Geordies have been uniquely creative musically?  Well, they are certainly canny folk.  But maybe there's something else.

Perhaps our explanation lies in the fact that these songs were published.  We know about these songs because people took the trouble to collect them.  The north of England has yielded very few of the folksongs of Sharp et. al.  Most would say that they were there to be had but nobody came looking.  Frank Kidson certainly found some of these in Yorkshire, and Anne Gilchrist got one or two from Southport, but none of the great collectors looked for songs elsewhere in the north, though I remain a bit skeptical on this point.  However, there were local collectors, and in the north east they had started much earlier than those in the south.  Not only did they collect, but they printed.  Certainly the publishing record over the last 200 years had been second to none, and is worthy of examination.

Joseph Ritson, 1793

Before 1800, there was little if any attempt to find out what ordinary people sang, and collections were full of the great ballads taken from manuscripts in stately homes and learned institutions, many of which eventually were set in aspic as the Child ballads.  Joseph Ritson, an eminent scholar from Stockton was the first to at least try to find out what people were singing, and produced a series of garlands entitled Northern Garlands in the late 18th Century.4  These still had many ancient ballads, albeit with a concentration on local ones, such as Rookhope Ride, but many of the more homely songs he did print rarely appeared again.  However, he was the first to print three songs which are still favourite traditional songs today: Elsie Marley was about the landlady of the inn at Picktree only a mile or two from Birtley, the iconic Collier's Rant, which was the first song about mining that we are aware of, and The Keel Row, which is almost as synonymous with the region as Bobby Shaftoe.

John Bell, 1812

Shortly after Ritson, John Bell, a Newcastle printer, surveyor, and obsessive collector of everything old, relied not only on contacts with the gentry to get rural songs, but also used his own personal contacts with the teeming life of the quayside to get together a splendid collection.  His seminal Rhymes of Northern Bards, published in 18125, printed Bobby Shaftoe, Buy Broom Besoms, Dollia, and Water of Tyne for the first time.  Given that mining was so important a part of life in the region, the number of pit songs included is surprisingly small, but did include Byker Hill, Footy Agin the Wall, and The Collier's Pay Week.

Thomas Allen, 1862-1893

About a third of the songs in Rhymes had a known author, which reflected the growing number of active songwriters in the area, encouraged by printers who paid or offered prizes, and published them in small garlands during the first half of the twentieth century, notably: Bass Newcastle Sangster, 1804; John Marshall Song Collections 1806-1829; Roxby and Doubleday Fisher's Garlands 1836; William Davidson Tyneside Songster , 1840; and William Fordyce The Newcastle Song Book 1842.  This tradition reached its height between 1840 and 1860, the most notable writers being JP Robson, Ned Corvan, Geordie Ridley, and Joe Wilson.  These artists performed during the first blossoming of music hall in he mid-19th century, say 1840 to 1860, when both singers and songs were local in flavour.  The Oxford Music Hall in Newcastle opened at the Wheatsheaf Inn in 1848 and was still going strong when the ex-miner, George Ridley, sang his own song Blaydon Races there in 1862.  Whilst each of these writers published chapbooks of their songs, it was the printer Thomas Allen who made sure that the songs came down to us.  He published his first edition of Tyneside Songs in 18621, a modest affair which got greatly expanded through several editions until the final one in 1891.  It is this book which helped to define Tyneside song culture for all time.  There was much worth singing about on Tyneside, and the people reveled in their own culture.  There are hundreds of songs in Allenn, with copious notes on the songwriters and quayside characters such as 'Blind Willie Purvis', all of which paint a wonderful picture of life in 'the toon' at the height of the industrial revolution.  Allen also published individual singers separately, mostly in garland form, but with Wilson, he published Songs and Drolleries in 1890.

Northumbrian Minstrelsy, 1882

Over 30 years in gestation, and organized by a Committee of the Society of Antiquaries, Northumbrian Minstrelsy6 was described as 'the first large-scale regional survey of traditional song to be made in this country'.  Many fine songs, such as Blow the Wind Southerly, Captain Bover, Derwentwater's Farewell, I Drew My Ship, The Fair Flower of Northumberland, and The Oak and the Ash were printed for the first time, though it omitted Byker Hill and The Collier's Rant.  It also contained many fine pipe tunes not previously seen, such as Bonny at Morn, Show's the way to Wallington, and Elsie Marley.  George Whittaker tells of the German musician who heard Wallington: "Do you mean to tell me that peasants in your district sing these songs?"  Why?  "If your peasants can sing such songs they must be the most musical race in the world".  "Who told you they weren't?" replied Whittaker.  Bert Lloyd saw the collection as 'a distinguished collection of English folksong'.  However, it was heavily dependent on previous collections, particularly John Bell on the song side and Cocks for tunes, it ignored what the quayside workers were already singing, (and Thomas Allen was publishing) and was dominated with a romantic idea of 'Northumbrianness'.  David Harker says they 'preferred the 'beauties' of Percy rather than 'truths' of Ritson and Bell', and goes on to add: 'And we then have to admit, I believe, that the central tradition of song is that which is genuinely popular with real people in a real place at a particular time.  Judged by this criterion, Bell's Rhymes is clearly an early and vitally important collection, for its editor attempted to come to terms with a culture in which he lived, and in which he shared; whereas the Northumbrian Minstrelsy, for all its plausibility and smoothness, cannot possibly be held to be representative of any area culture, being, as it is, an 'idyllic' amalgam of otherwise unconnected material, made for the lovers of miscellanies.  It then seems vain even to claim the Minstrelsy as an important collection of industrial folksong, simply because of its unacknowledged derivativeness.  Instead, it may be wiser to look at North-East song in a different way, and particularly at those songs popular with working people.' Whilst I agree with much of what Harker says, the fact is that the Minstrelsy gave us a great number of excellent tunes and songs.

Stokoe and Reay, 1893

Folk Songs of Northern England7 took almost all the songs from the Minstrelsy and added a significant number of other Tyneside and Northumbrian songs, inlcuding Blow the Wind Southerly, Captain Bover, Derwentwater's Farewell, I Drew my Ship, The Fair Flower of Northumberland, and The Oak and the Ash.  They also added some of the more robust Tyneside songs being published by Allen, in contrast to the worthiness and antiquity of most of the original Minstrelsy songs.  Here we have some real gems, such as Dance to Thi Daddy, John Peel, Skipper's Wedding, The Fiery Clock Face, and The Folks of Shields.  And there was full musical accompaniment to the songs.  (There were no dots in Bell or Allen.)

So, the 19th century saw more large collections published in Newcastle than in the rest of the northern counties combined, if not all other English regions.  So that is how we know about the songs.  Ordinary working people might have bought the garlands and broadsheets, or even remembered the songs , but it is unlikely that they could have afforded the books, so the songs might have died our come the 20th century, during the first half of which popular music got rather taken over by mostly American commercial recordings.  However, again Newcastle was the exception.

Catcheside Warrington, 1912-1927

Of the collections so far discussed, it is notable that both Bell and Allen have more 'street songs', i.e. those which appear to be the sort of songs that ordinary people like, and as both of them were in it for the money, they are more likely to have been the popular songs of the day.  Academics such as those on the committee that put together the Minstrelsy would have frowned on some of this material, but there was more to come.  Charles Ernest Catcheside Warrington was a latter day music hall singer and early recording artist whose four volumes of Tyneside Songs were published between 1912 a nd 1927 by the Newcastle music shop J G Windows, and which were still in print up till the 1990s.8  The books are not often mentioned in academic analyses, butthe collection is outstanding in two respects.  For most of the songs, it was the first time the music had been included, and it included songs like Cushie Butterfield, The Lambton Worm, and The Blaydon Races, which have been identified with Tyneside around the world for 100 years.  But these four slim volumes of Tyneside songs also contained some of those delights which the Geordies have tended to keep to themselves.  The Paanshop Bleezin, Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinnie, Wor Nanny's a Mazor, and The Fire Doon on the Kee.  It was these books which many a North East family had in the piano stool in the years between the wars, and afterwards in the late '40s and early '50s, and which played a crucial role in keeping this culture alive during the first half of the 20th Century.  No wonder Newcastle was so far ahead of the other cities, and no wonder it produced the High Level Ranters, who would take this material and present it to a new audience, the young people of the second folk revival.

Recordings, 1893-1930s

An additional reason for these songs' continuance was Catcheside Warrington's recordings of the songs.  A remarkable piece of research by Ray Stephenson, originally for the first Roland Bibby lecture at Morpeth gathering in 1999, has recently shed a little more light on these songs in the early 20th Century.9  By the time Warrington started publishing his books, he was already an established entertainer and the most prolific of Tyneside recording stars, having started making cylinder recordings as early as 1893.  Although a national entertainer based in London where he recorded many standard music hall numbers such as My Old Dutch, he eventually settled back in Newcastle.  Back home, he turned his attention to the vernacular songs of the area, but now he was recording on disc as well as cylinders.  For example, in 1907 he recorded Geordie Haud the Bairn, Last Neet and The Neebors Doon Belaw.  A lot of later recordings were stories and comic sketches, such as The Cullercoats Fishwife and the Census Man and The Fishwife and the School Inspector, and in 1911 Warrington recorded Hawke's Man at the Battle of Waterloo, an example of quintessentially Geordie humour still performed by Louis Killen and others in folk clubs today.  In the same year he made the first recordings of Cushie Butterfield, and The Paanshop's Bleezin'.  Another artist, J C Scatter, recorded Howden for Jarrow, The Row Upon the Stairs, and Blaydon Races in 1909, whilst Harry Nelson made a few recordings right at the end of his career.  These included Hi Canny Man Hoy a Ha'penny Out, an Elliott family favourite, and Oh Hey Ye Seen Wor Jimmie, another song still popular in Tyneside folk clubs.

There was a lull in the recording of Tyneside songs between 1914 and 1927, but there came renewed interest in the 1930s, with Warrington making a brief comeback in the late 20s.  His last recordings took place in London in 1931, mostly repeats of previous songs, but also including Tommy Armstrong's Wor Nanny's a Mazor.  It was also in the late '20s that W G Whittaker published his North Countrie Songs, which had traditional North East songs, many collected by him, arranged for choirs .  These became very popular in schools throughout the country, and helped establish such songs as Bobby Shaftoe and Billy Boy nationally.  A Jesmond singing teacher, Ernest J Potts, recorded some of these, notably Sair Fyel'd Hinny and Dollia in 1927.  Potts was a mentor to Owen Brannigan, who became famous for this style of singing through his records made after the Second World War.

Frank Graham 1970s

To bring the story right into the present revival, we should also mention Frank Graham, who reprinted many of the important 19th century collections in the early 1970s, notably Bell, Allan, and Stokoe & Reay, as well as the songs of Tommy Armstrong, the pitman poet.  The latter was particularly important, as his songs were otherwise unavailable.

Any Conclusions?

There can be little doubt regarding the sheer amount of printing of these songs, and this follows in the already-established vigour of the broadside and chapbook trade in the area going back as far as the 17th century.  So, printing's why we know the songs today.  But is it the reason?  If we look at the rest of the north of England for significant published 19th century song collections, Yorkshire has two: Ingledew of Leeds, and Holroyd of Bradford; Manchester has Harland and Wilkinson; and Derby has Jewitt.10  Sheffield Hull and Liverpool appear to have none.  And if one looks through these collections, precious few of the songs have passed down to us.  Most of the material has not lasted, for whatever reasons, whereas, as we have seen, several 19th century Tyneside publications have provided a treasure trove of material which continues to be sung.

One feels instinctively that people in similar situations, such as in Manchester and Liverpool, would have the same creative urges and produce an equivalent number of fine songs.  Surely if there'd been good songs somebody would have printed them?  So maybe there weren't.  Maybe there was something else.  If we look to Lancashire, we find a great popularity of dialect poetry in the second half of the 19th century.  Just as the Tyneside songs come mostly from a small area of central Newcastle, these poems were created in a small area to the east of Manchester, centering on the cotton towns of Oldham and Rochdale.  This area was already heavily industrialized, and much of the poetry is concerned with the miserable lot of the mill workers.  Whilst often having a Victorian sentimentality or 'homeliness' about them quite different from the Newcastle songs, the poems were very popular, printed extensively, and the writers such as Laycock, Waugh, Brierley and Wrigley were lionized.  Similar material was popular in Yorkshire and no doubt other areas.  But at the time, these tended rarely to be sung, i.e. have tunes.  Are we then facing the possibility that Tyneside is, after all, musically unique?  Ideas gratefully received.

(Based on a talk given during Whitby Folk Week, August 2009, and containing some material previously published in my 2008 book The Elliotts of Birtley, Ch. 6.)

Pete Wood - 9.12.09


Article MT227

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