In spite of a love of folk music in general, and The Unthanks in particular, that has lasted for many a year, I’ve as yet to write about it – having had no particular “angle in” other than my considerable enthusiasm, I’ve shied away from blatant fan-writing on the subject. When you’ve loved something so much and for so long that its simply part of your make-up, there’s always the risk that sharing that enthusiasm with the world will be be akin to a train enthusiast passing around his Hornby carriages in a room full of polite yet uninspired relatives during a duty-visit at Christmas time…
The reason I’m inspired to write about folk now is that, since downloading a new album by The Unthanks last week, I have found myself listening to it again…and again…and (yes) again in the car – which is not something that general happens to me as I prefer not to “flog” a piece of music just because its a new addition to my collection. This set me to wondering what it is about The Unthanks that I find so unfailingly appealing – after all, some of their themes can be more than a tad gloomy; death, poverty, broken hearts, sailors lost at sea, collapsing mine shafts… On the other hand, isn’t that what folk music “is”: a story well told, a gripping tale (more often than not, a tragedy or something that will prick a tear) set to music? So, why do we listen? Why is the folk-revival one of the biggest (and most exciting) things that is happening in contemporary music today? Why do more and more people that I know seem to be announcing that they are “off to a folk festival” some time soon, that they are listening to exciting new hybrid-bands like “The Imagined Village“, for instance (who, by the way, are tremendous – if you long to hear what a sitar sounds like aside an English folk fiddle, and an eclectic mix of material and “band”-members that makes for a dynamic, cross-cultural sound, I would heartily recommend that you go and see them live). Folk seems to have found a new relevance, and a whole new audience, over the past few years and I found myself wondering “why now”.
As I considered this, a thought came to mind prompted by my recent re-watch of the excellent film “The King’s Speech” in which Colin Firth plays Bertie, the future George VI, an emotionally-contorted individual who is wracked with an inability to express himself clearly in the public arena that circumstance is irrevocably forcing him towards (his brother is about to abdicate and World War II is imminent). Bertie has a severe speech-impediment and, in one memorable scene, speech therapist Lionel Logue suggests to him that he try singing the difficult childhood memories that he is struggling to give voice to: and so we hear the future King of England half-talk, half-sing about his nanny (to the tune of “Swanee River“): “She’d pinch me so I’d cry, and be sent away at once, then she wouldn’t feed me, far far away. Took three years for my parents to notice. As you can imagine, it caused some stomach problems. Still.” By singing his past traumas, Bertie is somehow able to over-ride the pain sufficiently to “get out” some of what he has been through. Maybe that’s what folk music has always been about: the ability to “get out” our saddest stories, all that “stuff”, that baggage that makes up our human story – at the same time as presenting it in such a way that it is easily digested by the listener, who is given a choice as to how much (or little) they wish to identify with the story since the words can be “switched off” and the sounds of the music focussed upon at will when the going gets tough. This is classic “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” type of stuff – the stories of all that we have been through get told, but in such a way that they are made palatable. It is perfectly possible to listen to The Unthanks, for instance, without close scrutiny of the harsh tales that are being told – but those stories are always there for the finding, woven into the music.
Their latest offering, Diversions Vol 3: Songs From the Shipyard, is a collection of music gathered together as a soundtrack for the film of the same name, which traces the story of shipbuilding in the shipyards of the North-East. There is a perceptible narrative running through the songs, some of which are backed by audio-footage of actual shipyard sounds taken from the archives. Neil Spencer, in The Observer Review, described it as “a stark creation, using little more than piano, violin and voices” with a minimalism that “lends poignancy to songs and poetry narrating the glory and grime of a vanished era”. For my own part, the fact that my family-tree research has lead to the discovery that my great-grandfather, George Benson, was a Tyneside shipyard labourer brings a poignancy of a very personal kind to this set of songs, just as The Unthanks’ other material, dealing with coal mining and loss at sea, has done for other family members that I know to have been miners and sailors around that part of the world a century or so ago.
Having considered so very hard what my own “story” means to me; having realised that, in order to move forwards, I need both to accept it as part of “who I am” and to release it, I also believe this to be a universal truth and that to grow and to move forwards, we all need this balance between acknowledgement of our past and release from its chains. In light of this, should we all be wallowing like this, dredging through so much of our past in such a way that brings raw emotion back to the surface to be felt all over again? How do we achieve the full and healthy acknowledgement of our past that is a prerequisite of moving forwards into the new and exciting times ahead that promise to be quite different from what has come before?
My conclusion (and perhaps this is some clue as to the popularity that folk is enjoying right now): that maybe this is where music manages to strike the perfect balance. In stirring our emotions for a while, in its presentation of the many tales of abject hardship that coloured our past, music helps us to accept all that we have been through – to acknowledge the journey that got us all here – in such a way that we are both aware of our story and, simultaneously, enabled to let go of it and make room for something different. In the words of the final (quite jolly!) ditty of this new offering from The Unthanks, those immortalised in the song (that is, the “we” that we all were, in an earlier chapter of our human story) are “only remembered for what we have done”; we can’t really get inside the particular, personal experience of each of our forebears, but we can tip our hat at them in recognition of the fact that they walked what was often a brutally hard stretch of the road on the journey to where we are right here and right now.