MEGSON – con-tra-dic-shun (EDJ edj023)

con-tra-dic-shunThe eighth studio album by Stu and Debbie Hanna again delves into the personal and the political with an even balance of self-penned material and Tyneside traditional lyrics set to new tunes. Taking the latter first, with Debbie on vocals and accordion and Stu providing banjo and mandolin, taken from the 1812 collection Rhymes Of The Northern Bards, the swayalong ‘Voice Of The Nation’ may have been written by an unknown author (it’s credited to JC) in 1810, but its bitter condemnation of Parliamentary wrangling over representation, council disgraces and courts of corruption cannot be help strike a very timely note.

Featuring fiddle and with John Parker on bass, lead again sung by Debbie, collected in Songs & Ballads Of Northern England, the mournfully paced ‘I Drew My Ship Into The Harbour’ is a traditional song on the well-worked theme of absent sailor lovers, the twist here being that he returns home to his true love only for her to take so long getting up to answer the door he gets fed up of waiting and walks off, leaving her full of pain and sorrow.

Lifted from 1882 collection Northumbrian Minstrelsy and with the pair trading lines, ‘The Keach In The Creel’ is a lively bandola romp peppered with northern dialect (a creel being a large basket and, in a fishing context, a keach apparently a Geordie pronunciation of catch) in which the obligatory fair young maid catches the eye of a young lad who follows her home, only to be told her parents keep her safely locked up. However, he enlists his brother to make a long ladder, a cleek (hook) and creel to lower him down the chimney. Hearing a noise, her father walks in only to be admonished for disturbing her prayers. Not convinced, mom goes to have a look, catches her foot in the hook and is hauled up the chimney, the song revealing her husband had cottoned on and is well glad to be rid of her.

‘Toast: Jackey & Jenny’, is in fact two songs in one, a coming together of a traditional drinking song (“I have drunk one and I will drink two”, etc.) with a lyric penned by James Rewcastle, the first secretary of the Newcastle temperance movement, in which the wife sings the praises of being teetotal and that since the old man gave up going on the fiddle they’ve been canty (cheerful) and crouse (lively) and now have food in the house, decent clothes, household good and can even afford to go out to a show. As you’ll have worked out, the track also embodies the contradiction of the album title in the raising of a glass to the perils of alcoholism.

And talking of the title track, that too is a non-original lyric, a bluesy folk strummed mandolin and bass drum driven duet about the divisions caused by stubbornness (with a clear Brexit relevance) written and originally sung by Joe Wilson, a Victorian Newcastle upon Tyne concert hall performer, and published during his lifetime in Songs and Drolleries.

The album opens with the duo’s own ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’, the title a reference to vintage BBC radio’s children’s programme Listen With Mother, the pair duetting against a simple acoustic guitar and bass arrangement on a whimsical lyric about the never ending tasks that consume our waking hours, leaving us little time to actually have a life.

The most lyrically potent of their own material, ‘The New Girl’, another starkly arranged number, touches on migration and acceptance, drawing on the experiences of those who came to build the new town Teeside during the industrial revolution and the expansion of the railways, and were welcomed into the wider community, birthing a new language and a people. A reminder that we are all “travellers stumbling through a life” and “before the very first new girl there was no-one here at all”, it strikes a resonant chord with today’s migrant and refugee issues, a call for open arms rather than closed fists.

On a lighter note, but still exploring the album’s themes of division and finding agreement, the amusing ‘Two Sides To Every Story’ is essentially their rework of ‘I Remember It Well’, a song from the 1958 musical Gigi in which Maurice Chevalier’s memories of events are distinctly in contrast to the accurate ones of Hermione Gingold, here Debbie setting Stu right about how they met, where they married and honeymooned, and his recollection of being at the birth of their daughter rather than forty miles way!

Just as one would assume the opposing accounts are invented, so too is the equally playful ‘Barrington Social Club’, a fictional account of a clash between the titular Cambridgeshire village club, “a motley collection of warriors strummed and great and small” meeting weekly to learn self-protection, and the local bridge and rotary team who also used the village hall and who bring pressure on the council to shut the club down. As per the lyrics’ David and Goliath allusions, the underdogs emerge triumphant as they enter a competition and, beating their Comberton rivals, use the “championship haul” to buy the hall off the council and now practice every night they can. Whether, having thrown their man down, they are magnanimous in victory to their nemeses the song never says.

It ends in direct thematic opposition to the way it began with ‘A Week Away In The Caravan’, a banjo-coloured music hall-styled slow waltz that, celebrating the joys rather than the drudgery of life, that draws on memories of the first of their regular holidays on wheels (here on a site near Leicester) with both its pleasures and pitfalls (not least dropping the car keys in the porta-loo) and the company of fellow caravanners, albeit with a warning not to get them started on caravan accessories!

The album may well mine themes of division and opposition, but one thing that can been agreed upon is that it’s yet another triumph of the perfect consistency of brilliance Megson always bring to their work.

Mike Davies

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MEGSON – Good Times Will Come Again (EDJ Records EDJ021)

Good Times Will Come AgainFor the first time in the twelve years they’ve been making music together, Teeside husband and wife duo Stu and Debbie Hanna have, in response to fan demand, recorded an album of all original material, although, as you would imagine, these are, like previous self-penned numbers still influenced by the Tyneside folk tradition and sung in a distinctive regional accent. The songs that make up Good Times Will Come Again are not autobiographical, but rather a collection of observations of the life of your average working man and woman in contemporary Britain. As such, there’s plenty of political input as subjects span the plight of Teeside steelworkers (all the more pertinent in the light of the current Tata situation), refugees and zero-hour contracts.

The album kicks off with ‘Generation Rent’, a lively mandolin-driven number about the property ladder and how, with rising house prices and static wages, the younger generation is finding it increasingly hard to get a foot on the bottom rung, condemned to rent or live with their parents, even when they have families of their own. Yet even here, they find room for wit in the lines ‘on that glorious day my darling daughter comes to say I want to introduce gran to my fella. I say go down and tell her, she’s living in the cellar.’

The musical mood takes a more melancholic tone with ‘A Prayer For Hope’, a simple guitar strummed sketch of those risking their lives to cross oceans in search of a better life, the duo’s harmonies bearing testament to their early choir days. There’s an equally sorrowful air to the traditional colours of ‘The Bonny Lad’, a number inspired by the Northumbrian pipe and fiddle tune of the same name, as a mother lays to rest her son, another victim of ‘the worst of men and all they can destroy.’

Returning to their own backyard, featuring John Parker on double bass, ‘Burn Away’ is the first of two songs addressing the Teeside steel industry, a traditional flavoured, banjo-led snapshot of the daily routine in the steelwork furnaces in which you can almost feel the heat and taste the sweat, the line ‘the day there is no use for steel will be the day the world stops turning’ a prescient rallying cry to save the homegrown industry. Debbie also takes lead on the second of the two, ‘Patterns’, a gentle ballad laced with sorrowful fiddle inspired by last year’s closure of the Redcar steelworks sung in the voice of wife offering her support to a husband struggling to find work after being made redundant, but trying to keep up his family’s spirits by not showing his despair.

Unsurprisingly the effect of unemployment and poor wages on ordinary families plays a prominent part in the songs. Sawing fiddle drives the throbbing ‘Pushing On’, Stu taking lead on a song about families working all hours just to stay afloat and how “life is surely meant for living not just coping day by day”, while ‘Zero’ is a jaunty mandola and fiddle led morris-like counting song romp about being stuck with the uncertainty of a zero hours contract.

It’s not all so downbeat. Despite its mournful tune and the sparse guitar and fiddle accompaniment, ‘Rap’er Te Bank’, the lyrics derived from the industrial dialect of the 19th century Durham pit yards and the title from the cry miners would give for the cage to be sent down the shaft to bring them to the surface, is actually a love story about one of the pit workers and the lass he meets one July day. There’s love too in ‘The Bookkeeper’, a simple acoustic ballad with Patrick Duffin on percussion that tells of a Billingham bookkeeper’s undeclared love for the chief accountant’s clerk and features the uplifting chorus of “you can put a price on gold, on almost anything for I’ve been told, but the love that the true heart holds never can be sold”. Only when he learns she’s leaving does he summon up the courage to tell, her how he feels. Whether she returns his affections is never told, but given the album’s gospel country tinged duetted closing title track, Debbie on accordion, optimism rather than seems to be in the air. Of course, paying off your debts and every man and woman standing as equals may all be pipe dreams, but without hope what would be the point of getting out of bed. Megson know there are dark clouds in the sky, but they still set their alarm clock.

Mike Davies

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MEGSON – In A Box (EDJ Records EDJ019)

In A BoxTwo years on from their ‘children’s album’, When I Was A Lad, Teesside husband and wife duo, Stu and Debbie Hanna, get back to what might be termed grown up concerns, addressing birth, death, love and the passing of time with their customary mix of self-penned and traditional as well as a lyrical smattering of C19th Tyneside songwriters.

The album gets under way on a downbeat note with their stark arrangement of ‘Clifton Hall Mine’, the pair alternating verses on the traditional mining ballad about the tragic explosion at a pit near Salford that claimed 178 lives. Joined by Seth Lakeman on fiddle, like all the songs here, ‘Bet Beesley & Her Wooden Man’ has its roots in their native North East, a spritely traditional arrangement of Newcastle writer J.P. Robson’s tale of a sailor’s widow marrying a well to do Nabob only to find, on the wedding night, that he had two wooden legs. Written by Tyneside poet Thomas Wilson, Debbie takes lead and plays whistle on ‘Charlie The Newsmonger’, a sober celebration of a renowed Gateshead stonemason and gossip that has Stu backing on scratchy mandolin.

Starting in 1941 and taking in notable events of each decade up to the 90s, ‘The River Never Dies’ is the first of the wholly original numbers, Stu up front for a tradition-rich song that traces the connection between the featured events and the River Tees and its people. Also by the duo, the lullabying ‘Songs To Soothe A Tired Heart’ strikes a different, warmer and more yearning musical note, doubtless because it was originally intended for the previous album, a song about the connection between parent and child that showcases the duo’s harmonies and features three members of local outfit The Willows on dobro, fiddle and backing vocals.

Previous albums have featured the writings of Tommy Armstrong, aka The Pitman poet, and this one is no exception, here represented by ‘Old Folks Tea’, a lilting account of an old folks tea party (plenty of jelly) in West Stanley, County Durham that comes with an added sting of mortality in the tail. There’s one further traditional number in the shape of ‘Still I Love Him’, another mining song, with Debbie in plaintive, aching form to a backdrop of bluesy guitar.

The remaining tracks are all originals; ‘Dirty Clothes’ a mandolin strummed reflection on childhood, of growing old, but not growing up, that calls to mind fellow Northerners Lindisfarne; ‘Moses Carpenter’ recounting the story and funeral of a Native American who, somewhat ironically, died of a fever while visiting Middlesbrough in 1889 as part of a travelling medicine show; and, finally, the title song, a lovely, six minute duet meditation on the things we accumulate in a lifetime, memories “stuck up in the loft in a box”.

It is, perhaps, not as immediate as some of their previous offerings, but, for those who have followed their steady career, it will prove no less enduring.

Mike Davies

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MegsonLiveStu Hanna (Vocals, Octave Mandola, Banjo, Guitar) & Debbie Hanna (Vocals, Accordion, Whistle) are the husband & wife duo MEGSON.

Named after a dead dog and comprising a former punk and classically trained soprano, MEGSON were an unusual commodity on the London acoustic scene of the early noughties. In 2004 they quietly released their debut album ON THE SIDE on their own EDJ label. Not expecting much, they quickly won fans in Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris and the then rising star of the UK Folk Scene Seth Lakeman. Radio sessions and support tours soon followed. 2007 saw the duo turn professional with the release of their second album SMOKE OF HOME, but it was their third, TAKE YOURSELF A WIFE, which established the duo as “A force in the folk revival” (The Observer).

The following years saw three BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Nominations, three spiral earth awards, international tours and the release of the critically acclaimed THE LONGSHOT. “The most original duo on the British folk scence” said the Guardian, “A marriage made in Heaven” said Songlines. They wowed fans with performances at Cambridge Folk Festival, Green Man Festival, Larmer Tree Festival and all across the UK, even winning over passengers of the tugboat MV Ella in Hartlepool.

The birth of a baby girl in 2011 wasn’t enough to slow down the duo with the release of WHEN I WAS A LAD – A Collection of Childrens Folk Songs, and the formation of the unique FAMILY FOLK SHOW series. And during all this time, Stu even managed to get involved with other artists producing records for LUCY WARD, FAUSTUS, THE WILLOWS, THE YOUNG’UNS, MAWKIN CAUSLEY, THE CECIL SHARP PROJECT & SHOW OF HANDS.

MEGSON are now celebrating nearly 10 years on the road, by releasing MEGSON – LIVE.  Recorded at the duo’s regular haunt, The Hitchin Folk Club, it is a limited release containing 16 tracks from across their career.

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ON THE SIDE      (2004, EDJ011)
MEGSON EP    (2006, EDJ012)
SMOKE OF HOME    (2007, EDJ013)
THE LONGSHOT    (2010, EDJ016)
WHEN I WAS A LAD   (2012, EDJ017)
MEGSON L I V E    (2013, EDJ018)

Artist Website: