A thematic companion piece to the new album by Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones, while they celebrate women in Scottish history, Howay The Lasses highlights and honours the contributions made to society by women from the collective’s native (or in the case of ex-pat American Tertell, adopted) North East.
An all-acoustic work with Annie on piano and accordion, Gareth on guitar and mandolin, daughter Bronwen on whistle and Katie on cello, and all contributing vocals, it opens in suitably shanty form with Bronwen taking lead on ‘Janet Taylor’, a mathematical genius from Wolsingham who, in the mid-19th century, established herself in London and launched a career in the male dominated field of nautical education and invention. In 1834 she was granted a patent for her Mariner’s Calculator, making adjustments to sextants, etc., in response to her discovery that the Earth was spheroidal which became, along with books such as The Luni-Solar and Horary Tables, an essential part of navigation (“those on the ocean could know their position/With latitude, longtitude measured like they’d never been”), confirming her as “mistress of science and sea”. However, although the song remarks that she had “Trust and respect, from the Admiralty”, in fact it rejected her invention as unworthy of patronage.
Moving up the years, sung by Gareth to a slow, harmony laden melody with a sparse guitar arrangement, ‘Sheila Graber’ tells off the South Shields-born animator who, in 1985 created the cut out animation for the Paddington television series and went on to single-handedly make 10 animated short of the Just So Stories for World TV with, as the song says “From testing movements, throwing shapes/The tiny little changes everything makes/To watching felines, insight brought/Into how an elephant walks”.
Written and sung by Annie to shuffling percussive guitar and a jaunty rhythm, ‘The Female Muffin Man’ recounts the 19th century newspaper report of an unidentified well-educated young woman (Miss Emily in the song) from merchant stock who, when her father forbad her marrying one of his sea captains, fired him and confined her to her room, escaped to Newcastle and walked the streets dressed in male attire of black surtout coat and trousers, and hat, selling muffins and tea cakes, before running into her lover who recognised her, the pair marrying forthwith.
Digging considerably further back in history, accompanied by cello and guitar Gareth sings about ‘Claudia Severa’ reflecting on the discovery at Hadrian’s Wall in the 1970s of a birthday party invitation written around 100 AD by the wife of Aelius Brocchus, commander of a fort in northern England and sent to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda. Believed to be the oldest example of a woman writing in Latin, in the telling here she’s the one going to Lepindina’s bash (“Did you go Lepidina we all wonder/Was there joy when you arrived/At the party in its prime/And Severa did it match your expectations/As set out in your own clear hand”).
Returning up the centuries to May 22, the jaunty title track, written by father and daughter, strummed on mandolin and guitar, accompanied by accordion and sung by Bronwen, sings the praises of the Newcastle United Football Club’s women’s team who, making their debut at St. James Park stadium to a crowd of 20,000, trashed Alnwick Town four-nil marking, as the song points out “The beginning of an era, the changing of the guard/The lasses taking centre stage/To do the city proud”.
Perhaps the most astonishing story, however, is that told in the six-minute, cello accompanied drone-styled Bronwen and Gareth duet ‘Fiona Hill’ who, as the song puts it went “from the coal house to the White House”. Born in Bishop Aukland, the daughter of a miner and a midwife, rejected by Oxford on account of her clothes and accent, was accepted into Harvard where she earned both a Masters in Russian and modern history) and a PhD and went to be an intelligence analyst under Bush and Obama, was appointed to Trump’s National Security Council (“Europe’s woes gained your attention/Saw the danger/For Zelensky/You testified to make that clear”), leaving in July 2019 and subsequently describing the assault on Capitol Hill as “Trump pulling a Putin”.
Arranged for piano and accordion, Annie’s ‘Lady Mary Eleanor Bowes’ spins the 18th century tale of the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorn, raised in County Durham, who became the wealthiest heiress in Britain, was widowed in 1777 and left with crippling debts by her profligate husband and pregnant by one of her many lovers (she had three abortions), was duped into marrying an Anglo-Irish opportunist who, allegedly subjected her to physical and mental abuse before, with the help of her maid, she escaped and filed for divorce, paving the way for a reform of the divorce and custody laws.
Another piano ballad, written by Gareth and sung by Bronwen, ‘Rachel Parsons’ pays tribute to the East Riding woman who, following in her father’s engineering footsteps (he invented the steam turbine) became a leading member of the National Council of Women, and campaigned for equal access for all to technical schools and colleges, regardless of gender, going on to become a co-founder and first president of the Women’s Engineering Society, She was murdered by a vengeful former employee in 1956.
The story of the Society and how it promoted the retention of women engineers after the First World War as well as supporting engineering as a career for women, is also the subject of the Gareth’s energetically strummed anthemic closing father-daughter duet ‘The WES’ (“Resisting all the pressure to release/Women from the engineering field/The end of the war meant men returning to before/Even Government believed they should take back the factory floor/But this is how it was meant to be/The Women’s Engineering Society/Raising up new leaders in technology/Inspiring other women on the way/Their vision for tomorrow starts today”) with the rousing declaration of “With no one to tell young women that it can’t be done/If they want to go and change the world through science/Bring it on!”.
Sandwiched between, sung unaccompanied save for some wheezing accordion, the only number not adopt a generic perspective rather than to relate to an actual person, they return to the mines with Ball’s arrangement of the 19the century broadside ballad ‘The Collier Lass’, sung in the person of Polly Parker from Worsley giving an account of the appalling conditions of a girl working in the Lancashire mines (“By the greatest of dangers each day I’m surrounded/I hang in the air by a rope or a chain/The mine may fall in I may be killed or wounded/May perish by damp or the fire or the train”) but “though we go ragged and black are our faces/As kind and as free as the best we’ll be found/Our hearts are as white as your lords in fine places”.
A testament to true stories of female empowerment set amid the stereotypically patriarchal landscape of the North East, this is a terrific and highly listenable album, the fact that it is just Howay The Lasses Vol 1 fuelling anticipation of what other unsung heroines they have to illuminate.
Artists’ website: www.howaythelasses.com
Promo video (all there is at the moment):
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