Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Pitmen Poets featured four veterans of the North East music scene, Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe. All belong to the first generation of their families not to work as miners and all within the generic folk tradition, but very different in vocal style, though blending perfectly when required. The concert was divided between contemporary and traditional songs and between a cappella solo laments, homely narratives and lively choruses of protest or jollity, with the occasional instrumental interlude. A rousing hornpipe performed on guitar, mandolin, concertina and mouth organ raised hopes, sadly unfulfilled, of more of the same.
At the heart of the concert were the songs of Tommy Armstrong, the original Pitman Poet who died in 1920. Along with laments for the all too frequent disasters and evictions, Armstrong did a nice line in comic slice-of-life songs that had more than a hint of the music hall of the time. Benny Graham’s droll high-speed delivery of the tongue-twisting Stanley Market, with its very English nonsense chorus, put the audience into singing mood early in the proceedings; Oor Nannie’s a Maisor and Birth of a Lad set the bar high for comic exaggeration; The South Medomsley Strike powerfully represented Armstrong’s serious political side.
In contrast, Billy Mitchell, ex-Lindisfarne, came up with a series of tales and songs about living with his grandparents in West Wylam before the pit closed in the 1950s and they moved to the big city, a strange world captured in his song Shiftin’ to the Toon. Graham and War Horse Song Man Bob Fox recalled the songs of other Pitmen Poets and songwriter Jez Lowe gave us everything from a moving love song/lament The Last of the Widows of the Duck Bill Seam to the country-style saga of the ex- pitmen’s pub quiz team.
The show proved to be more than just a series of fine Geordie songs, old and new. The tales were well told, the banter natural and often very funny and the rapport with the audience effortless – and the visual side was not forgotten. A fascinating series of photographs projected behind the singers ranged from posed groups of very young pitmento graphic images of disaster to atmospheric 19th Century street scenes. More effort to match the images with the songs would have been helpful, but they provided an engrossing backdrop to the music.
Then, in the final stages, the mood gradually changed and we came to the political meat of the evening, with songs, both historical and near contemporary, about strikes and black-legs, union anthems to solidarity and a farewell to a way of life in Fox and Graham’s Farewell Johnny Miner – a powerful, sombre, but uplifting end to an evening that was a lot of fun along the way.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed