Their feet planted firmly in the same local folk soil as Jon Wilks, Nick Comley on guitar and vocals and lead singer Ian Grafton are a couple of Brummies with Black Country roots who play industrial and social songs from the West Midlands and neighbouring areas.
They’ve recorded a full album of such songs, currently only available as a Bandcamp download (see below) that, like Wilks, both celebrate and keep alive the area’s rich folk song heritage. Their respective albums have two songs in common. ‘The Brave Dudley Boys’ tells of the Dudley Colliers, a rowdy late 18th century bunch, and their rioting against high food prices around the end of the 1780s. Unlike the Wilks version, which is laced with effects and of an industrial inclination, this is a simple voice and strummed guitar arrangement. The other is ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’, written in 1816 by music hall entertainer James Hobbs about finding the city greatly changed on his return after a lengthy absence. Wilks reworked some of the verses to give it a contemporary edge, but this is the original complete with its mention of Pudding Brook (a stream that ran along what is now the A458 from Stourbridge to Birmingham and turned water-wheels for small mills grinding corn and, later, forging metal) and jack-bannils (sticklebacks).
The album opens with ‘A Drop Of Good Beer’, a drinking song (as if you’d not guess) collected by John Ashton in his 1888 Modern Street Ballads and is followed by the swayalong ‘New Navigation’ which the notes say was written by David Garrick to celebrate the opening of the Birmingham Canal in 1789. That’s only partly true; the text was actually by Birmingham poet and publican John Freeth who borrowed the tune of ‘The Warwickshire Lads’, composed by Charles Dibdin for The Shakespeare Jubilee, a 1769 production presented by Garrick, the acclaimed eighteenth century actor and playwright, which put Stratford-upon-Avon on the map.
Another song written in commemoration of the opening up of a waterway is the self-explanatory ‘Dudley Tunnel Song’, albeit of rather less traditional vintage having been written in 1966 during a trip through Dudley Tunnel by Glyn Phillips and other members of the then Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society under the title ‘Push Boys Push’.
Another celebration is to be found in ‘John Wilkinson’, a traditional number from 1800 written about Cumbria-born ‘Iron Mad Jack’ Wilkinson whose skill in the manufacture and use of iron (including a blast furnace in Bilston) helped Britain become the leading industrial power of the 19th century.
The duo draw upon a shared source with Wilks, that of Birmingham-born Irish traditional singer Cecilia Costello whose work was collected by the BBC in 1951 and 1954, and it’s from her repertoire that, sung unaccompanied, comes the Irish traditional love song ‘Come Write Me Down’.
Previously recorded by Chumbawamba on their English Rebel Songs album, ‘The Bad Squire’ is a setting of a poem by Charles Kingsley in defence of poachers forced into their illegal actions by incompetent or bad landowners, followed by another social protest number in ‘The Bromsgrove Nailers’ written about their 1862 strike against low pay and harsh working conditions set to an almost lullabying melody.
Colliers, whether from Dudley or elsewhere, get a second hurrah with ‘Brave Collier Lads’, the setting of an anonymous poem written between 1838 and 1859 that, rather than the usual unfaithful sailors and soldiers of the folk ballad, declares colliers “do their best endeavours for the wives and family” and “if that you do use them well they’ll do the same to thee”.
Both Comley and Grafton’s families have bargees and boatmen in their ancestry, so ‘Tommy Note’ has a particularly personal resonance, the title referring to the practice of paying boatmen with promissory notes that could only be spent on extortionately priced goods from their employers’ stores and pubs. The text was a broadside ballad collected by Theo Vasmer in his Ballads and Broadsides and thought to be the only song in the British industrial song tradition to deal at length with the “truck” system. It was formerly set to music by Jon Raven, but for their version, which includes spoken narrative, the duo’s borrowed rather more obviously from The Who.
From canals to carpets, the attention turns to ‘The Funny Rigs Of Good And Tender Masters In The Happy Town of Kidderminster’, a jaunty, cautionary tale for employers in the textiles business not to replace skilled workers with low paid apprentices to increase their profits, collected in a book of the same title by folklorist Roy Palmer. Which just leaves ‘The Rounding Of The Years’, a poem by E.M.Rudland, which, taken from Poems Together with Ballads of Old Birmingham, was published in 1914 for the Birmingham Central Literary Association’s Jubilee to mark its contribution to Birmingham’s cultural and artistic progress throughout the 19th century, and here set to music by Comley.
For anyone with an interest in the history of the West Midlands and the folk music it produced (and the folk tradition as a whole), this, like the work of folk song collector, singer and author Jon Raven in the mid-60s, is an invaluable – and hugely entertaining – collection, sung with authenticity and a real passion for the material and its origins.
The Rotundas live: