The 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.
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‘con-tra-dic-shun’ – official video: