As The Pitman Poets embark on their second farewell tour (probably not worth asking) they release a new album, Bare Knuckle. For the uninitiated, the Poets are Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe; three string players and an accordionist with Mitchell adding harmonica. All four, as you’ve noticed, are from the north-east and you may be expecting a certain degree of rowdiness but fear not. These chaps are the genuine article, not stereotypes, and perform these songs with real feeling. That’s not to say that they are po-faced about their music, it’s a question of authenticity.
Take the opener, ‘Byker Hill’, which most club singers could belt through without a second thought. Here, the Poets sound like a bunch of miners swapping stories in the pub after a shift, real and natural. The title track is by Lowe and he can be a bit political, you know. Here he is of the opinion that we’re in for a bare knuckle fight – as Pete Bond said, “Jarrow lads v ruling classes”- and he is probably right. Talking of which, ‘Marshal Riley’s Army’, Alan Hull’s song about the Jarrow March, takes up the theme and pointing out that when he wrote the song in the 70s nothing had changed. And still nothing has changed. ‘The Driver’ is a 19th century dialect piece by poet Alexander Barrass. I think that’s Graham singing lead but I’m not certain. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong and possibly supply a glossary.
The focus moves briefly away from the north-east with Idris Davies’ ‘Bells Of Rhymney’ given a tougher arrangement than we are accustomed to hearing. Of course, there is a spiritual link between the pits of the north-east and south Wales and they shared the same fate. Lowe’s ‘The Checkout Queue’ starts on his home turf but expands his thoughts on the eviscerating of towns and the attitudes of the people who voted leave and got us in this mess. Sample: “I only drink Yorkshire tea…grown on the slopes of Ilkley Moor”. I need say no more but there’s a lot more good stuff here.
‘Sailing To Philadelphia’ reminds us that Mark Knopfler spent his formative years in Blyth as he writes about Mason and Dixon of the eponymous line who, having mapped Northumberland and Durham, crossed the Atlantic and unknowingly caused a lot of trouble by settling a border dispute in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. Who knew?
‘A Very Funny Thing’ is a humorous song from ‘Uncle’ Reece Elliott. It sounds like a music-hall song but that’s all I know about it apart from the local references. Then we move to the USA and Canada with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Factory’ and Rita MacNeil’s ‘Working Man’, both celebrating the dignity of the working classes. Then it’s back home for Ed Pickford’s ‘The Worker’s Song’ and Jock Purdon who chose a great American union organiser for his song, ‘Joe Hill Blues’.
Bare Knuckle is an album rooted in the lives of working people wherever they happen to be. Many of the songs are familiar and some are new to me. The sequencing is immaculate and would, and probably does, provide the spine of a live set. They are on tour now but sadly for me they are not coming far enough south.
Artists’ website: www.thepitmenpoets.co.uk