Commissioned by the British Tunnelling Society for their 50th anniversary year Tunnellers comprises four self-penned songs and one instrumental. Nancy Kerr is joined by James Fagan on guitar, bouzouki and mandolin, Tom A Wright on drums and bass and Matt Quinn on concertina, with everyone contributing vocals, for what’s described as a mythical-industrial song cycle.
Tunnellers were/are, as the name suggests, workers who dig tunnels under and through the ground and who, of both native and international background, were, primarily in the Victorian era, instrumental in shaping the UK’s waterways (and as such the economy), indeed, for some time Kerr herself lived on the Kennet and Avon Canal.
The collection opens with ‘My Sweet Teredo’, the title a reference to and celebration of the shield used to protect workers while tunnelling, designed by the famed engineer Brunel after observing how teredo, a mollusc also known as shipworm, had burrowed through a rotten piece of ship’s timber by shoving the pulp into its mouth as it went and the excreting it as hard, brittle residue to line the tunnel behind it. In the song, the narrator described Brunel’s discovery and offers thanks in allowing it to “Keep the air above my miner laddie’s head”.
Driven by a military drum rhythm and with all voices on the refrain, ‘Gettin’ a Rise’ is based around the tune Hopping Down in Kent (to which practice it refers), delivered as a lively shanty-style rhyme that recounts the physical efforts demanded of workers in the construction of the Dartford Tunnel, but also the compensation paid for a job well done.
Kerr’s fiddle-led two-minute instrumental provides the EP’s mid-point, comprising two tunes, The energetic ‘Shipworm (Donegal Highland)’ based around a traditional style popular among Donegal fiddlers and akin to a Scottish strathspey, while ‘The Shield’ is a reel composed in honour of Brunel’s invention. Returning to vocals, with concertina and fiddle laying down the tune, ‘Tunneller’s Hymn’ has a Salvation Army feel as it pays tribute to tenaciousness of miners of all nations, from “Tideway to the Medway/From Blackwall up to Clyde”, from Victorian times to a global community future connecting “the tunneller and the tide”.
It ends, Fagan on lead vocals, with the rousing Guthrie (or indeed Merry Hell)-like acoustic strum, mandolin picked and fiddle skirling of ‘Walk My Boots Clean’ as the tunneller introduces himself, his work (”I laid the ground for the new Jubilee/The Mersey and Thames owe their soundness to me”), his brothers in the trade and the places they call home, from Buncrana in Co. Donegal, the Rhondda and Botallack in Cornwall to Brno in the Czech Republic and Gdynia in Poland. It also mentions Trimdon in County Durham, the site of a devastating colliery tragedy in 1882.
Available as a digital Bandcamp download, it’s something to really dig into.