Why those tunes?

At DERT this year I had the luck to be drafted-in to play for one of the two first-rate Black Swan teams - not the one, I must add, who's superb fiddler won the best musician award, but during the day several people expressed an interest in the tunes I used, so I thought perhaps a few words in this chronicle might be appropriate.

I realise that this article will be something of a waste of ink if you weren't at DERT, and worse, I have to confess that as I don't read music, l don't have any, so I can't include the ‘dots’ with this. But these days if you have the titles I suppose the internet is an inexhaustible fount of all such material.

The tunes I played were ‘Bellingham Boat,’ ‘Fair Jenny,’ ‘The Neighbours Doon Belaa’, and ‘Nipper.’ (The last of these is an anachronism, it was written by John Kirkpatrick, but it has the same ‘feel’ to it) There are many other similar tunes in the ‘Tyneside Tradition’, One enquirer asked ‘why’ I played the tunes, apparently implying I ought to have been playing something else, so here's why...

Going back a depressingly, long time to my callow youth in the sulphurous South-East of Northumberland, I remember the nightly problem of where to take the girlfriend after we'd seen that week's ‘flick’ twice already; this was as a prelude to the more important and exciting part of an evening, for which the venue was any shop doorway. But sometimes there'd be a variety concert, perhaps at Hartley CIU club or the local miners' welfare hall.

The quality of entertainment at these could be astonishingly high, with comedians and magicians, singers and players, all from the locality, but all quite capable of a Royal Command Performance - not that the Queen would have understood much of it! Sometimes local TV personalities Mike Neville and George House would be billed, sometimes top comedians Bobby Thompson or Dicky Irwin. I remember a ‘Shadows’ cover group called ‘The Phantoms’- at least as good as their progenitors. Occasionally there'd be a rapper team, perhaps Royal Earsdon, The Killingworth Sword Dancers or The Shiremoor Marras* If it was Earsdon, or The Marras the musician was invariably Joe Bennett, debonnaire in a smart blue blazer, and playing a full-size piano accordion; if you're inclined to deride that instrument as being in any way dull, Joe would have been the chap to change your mind. In his hands you could see it was probably the supreme instrument for the job (although a fiddle is ‘bad to beat’).

Back then, and back there, rapper often had to ‘cut the mustard’ alongside the very best in general entertainment. North-East Working Men's clubs were acknowledged as being the toughest places in the country for an entertainer to earn a living, but entertaining the rapper certainly was, faultless and dynamic, yet with a ‘throwaway’ attitude. And it was hard to stay in your seat once Joe got started, the tunes he used were all ‘music hall’, where rapper surely had a second home, if not it's first. The tunes were mostly from the North East, and had a wonderfully uplifting and exhilarating quality, which as well as being local – perhaps because they were local(!) – also seemed exactly as one with the atmosphere of the dance. I vaguely remember someone breaking into a song whilst the Marras danced, or perhaps it was the Marras themselves, and now I look back .1 can't help thinking THAT is how it should be. Whatever, at the end of these concerts, pop groups, comedians, magicians and all, you'd hear comments like, “By, but them sword dancers were good, mind,” as you filed out.

So I attempt to recapture some of this, albeit with a melodeon. I suppose I could put a rotten egg in the bellows, and puff out the reek of the Fenwick pit heap too - now that WOULD be nostalgia - especially if infused with the girlfriend's underarm spray.

*The Shiremoor Marras were a miners' comedy act; they performed in pit gear, but as they included retired Earsdon dancers (Nibs Pearson was one), there would be a rapper figure or two, or some clog dancing performed using pit shovels for extra percussion.

Frank Lee