Interview with David Eagle from The Young'uns
Recently, FolkWords reviewed 'When Our Grandfathers Said No' by The Young'uns - the next step was to talk to them about the album and traditional folk music. In between his busy schedule we managed to get some time with David Eagle (vocals and piano accordion) and asked him about The Young'uns brand of traditional folk.
FW: First can you tell us what set you off on the traditional folk route?
DE: Good question. Mike and Sean knew each other since their school days, I met them through a mutual friend. One day we met up at this pub - we were only 16. Now it happens that the first person we met in the pub was Mike’s just-retired headmaster who told us we shouldn’t be there as we were underage. Thankfully we managed to convince him that he’d got our ages wrong ... I will answer your question in a minute. So we sat down for a drink and chat when this guy stood up, gave an enormous yelp, which then transcended into a song quite unlike anything we’d heard before. We thought any second now the landlord is going to come over and throw him out.
Then what happened was everyone else just started joining in and we were the only ones not singing. As soon as that guy finished everyone applauded. Then another guy stood up and called for another song and someone else got up - it just went on like that all evening. We thought what on earth is this? There were songs about a mining disaster, love and death and then a comedy song about a local hero ... we had stumbled on a folk club. So the answer to your question is pure coincidence really. To be fair Sean was always into acoustic and folk music but more the singer-songwriter stuff from America. We had no real idea about English traditional music.
FW: So what was the outcome of this unexpected folk baptism?
DE: The pub was the Sun Inn Folk Club in Stockton. We decided to return the next week and started to appreciate that form of music. Then one day someone said: “What about you young’uns then – why don’t you sing us a song?” We were rather taken aback and said we didn’t really know any songs but we did know some choruses. So we sang the chorus to ‘Roll The Old Chariot Along’ and people in the pub added improvised verses. Over time we actually managed to learn some songs. Then when people said: “What about you young’uns?” We stood up and sang. So not only did we find the music we also found ourselves a name ... yet another coincidence.
FW: And the inevitable question – what happened next?
DE: We heard the Wilsons at a folk festival in Croxdale in Durham. They made a huge impact on us. They appeared on stage and launched into an outstanding version of ‘Byker Hill’ – a song we had learned. But the Wilsons hit it like a hurricane and we thought they were exemplary.
We thought what do we need to sing like the Wilsons? We noticed they drank a lot of beer so we thought that was the secret. We decided what we’ll do is bring lots of beer on stage. What else did they do? Well they sang loudly, so we drank a lot and sang loudly ... and actually received some good comments - although someone did say: “You might want to turn the volume down a bit.” Eventually, we got our first booking from Ron Angel one of the founders of The Sun Inn folk Club and the man who actually created ‘The Chemical Worker’s Song’.
FW: Do you ever encounter any negatives about the way you sing the tradition?
DE: I think we managed to garner a reasonable amount of respect for the way we sang and although sometimes we may well add different takes to what we sing, we sing in a traditional style. You can take songs and sing them the way they’ve always been sung but still add harmonies and new touches to make them yours. I think the problem comes when you use a myriad of different ways to sing the same song and move it away from its origins or take it in a direction it doesn’t really want to go.
If there’s a way to attract the attention of the folk police that’s it. Personally, I don’t have a problem with embellishing a song and using your own style – singers have been doing that for centuries - it can add a certain freshness and vitality. I think because we sing songs in a traditional style, even if we use three part harmony, which would never have happened with shanties as the singers were working and out of breath, we retain the essential essence of the song.
FW: So you take the tradition but blend in your own style?
DE: In some ways we do. That’s not really a rehearsed or planned approach, it’s more organic. We try to make a song as interesting as possible and create our own feel within the basic framework. What’s interesting to me is how our songs evolve. For example, we sing ‘John Ball’ - about the Peasants Revolt and the Lollard priest who became associated with Watt Tyler and the Peasants Revolt.
When we first started singing it I thought it sounded rubbish. Now that’s changed. The song evolved as we sung it and as we worked within its framework. We’re still doing different harmonies to it today. When you’re comfortable with a song it’s easy to change the harmonies each time. We hear each other as we sing and the changes are part of that organic approach. With each performance we never do the same harmony, we insert different elements and changes naturally not artificially.
FW: Does that mean you are hearing the ‘whole’ all the time rather than individual parts?
DE: It means we feed off each other and when one of us makes a change the others either move together or in separate ways. That’s one point with unaccompanied singing you’re not concentrating on the technical aspect of an instrument as well as signing.
For me it’s like living completely within the song. It’s an evolving thing. Inherently, music works for me – although I’m sometimes rubbish at remembering lyrics. I love singing but when I’ve got the accordion there I have other ‘technical’ things to worry about. Unaccompanied it’s natural and to me there’s no technical considerations involved.
FW: The album track ‘The Battle of Stockton’ how did that come about?
DE: There was a programme on Radio 4 about that incident and we thought it was a rather underlooked period in Stockton’s history. We’d been singing songs about Hartlepool and Stockton but no one ever mentioned Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts being in Stockton. Sean went to the library and found an article in The Northern Echo. It’s interesting the way the article is written – it doesn’t extol the article in Stockton’s favour, in fact the attack on the Blackshirts is recorded as a hooligan act rather than men taking a stand for freedom.
Sean wrote the words and we thought it was a poignant part of Stockton’s history. We wanted to make it a raw song to convey the foulness of the incident and what it must have been like. Hence phrases such as: “Last night’s vomit warm on the ground.” We also wanted it to convey the violence of the attack. We didn’t live in those times and that makes it difficult to understand that their lives were hard beyond measure. At the time, this was an area of deprivation and unemployment and Moseley tried to take advantage of that but a group of Stockton men – men like our grandfather’s - said no. Hopefully, the song causes people to think.
FW: Are the elements in your songs relevant today or do you just enjoy the narrative?
DE: If you take ‘Jenny Waits for Me’ that’s a song with as much meaning then as now. Alright, so men don’t go off on ships so much away from home for months and months on long voyages fraught with danger. However, it’s still a song about people going away and leaving home. Those ‘going away’ and ‘out of touch for months’ themes may be less pertinent to our time but how many people, wives and husbands are going off to serve in the military or leaving to fight in some foreign war? There’s still the emotion of leaving home and someone waiting for a return and that’s just as pertinent today.
The feeling of seeing home fading away or even home coming back into sight, those are strong feelings, those emotions do not fade. Of course, now we have email and video links to enable people to keep in contact but there’s still no tangible link to home, and leaving carries the same sad emotions.
‘Love in A Northern Town’ is another example, look how stoic people were in those days. I think that we still have a lesson in there for how people work within the tough times. Does that have a resonance in these times of austerity? Perhaps it does, I would like to think so. One point that does remain is the idea of enduring love - that remains universal.
The basis of these old songs carries real weight and meaning. There’s something in there, a presence that remains powerful. I feel that most modern pop songs are transient and they lack that ‘presence’ and the strong link to something solid. Listen to modern pop and you can easily hear an album of songs with one stating ‘how much they love this person’ then the very next song will be ‘you bitch you’ve deserted me’ or something like that. It’s all a bit superficial.
FW: Is that because those ‘pop’ songs are manufactured?
DE: Yes, they’re written for the moment with little thought that they may have any longevity. Indeed most are not expected to last. The depth of feeling just isn’t there and there appears to be little real connection with issues that count. Once the moment is passed their popularity fades and they become the music of shopping centres.
FW: So for you the point is they lack a link with history?
DE: To me what’s really interesting is to look back at history about how people felt. It suddenly makes you realise everything has been emulated and done before. It’s the old adage of: ‘how do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?’ For me that’s absolutely fundamental.
For me folk music has the ability to pull from the past and make us realise that we are part of a much wider existence. People have experienced these emotions before. When you read books and hear music you understand that everyone feels the same. You feel vindicated in singing those songs and more at one with the world.
FW: Do you subscribe to the widely held description of ‘folk’ as ‘music of common people’?
DE: We were speaking to a guy in Bulgaria and he asked us to listen to some Bulgarian folk music. What he played us was not what we expected at all. It sounded more like modern Euro-pop to us, whereas, we consider folk music to be tradition-based.
For me, a description of folk music is more than the music of common people. Today, that’s probably more a description of modern pop - the music that’s being consumed by the everyday mass-market. Subjects from history – shipwrecks, going on a fox hunt, blowing the bugle horn, courting pretty maids, early pregnancy and parted lovers – remain relevant but today everyday music rarely covers issues that matter. Folk is perhaps no longer the music of common people in terms of any link with modern consumerism but it probably is in terms of its content when it really matters. The wider spread of communication today is perhaps responsible for a more ‘immediate’ and ‘easily disposable’ approach taken by pop music.
FW: So once songs were performed and listened to within quite close confines but today they can instantly spread worldwide?
DE: True, although there’s many ways to look at the modern spread of music, through people travelling and through the Internet. They offer an exchange of ideas and influence. Today, we can travel to other countries, speak to people on the other side of the world, instantly hear music and exchange ideas with virtually anyone. Communication can be instant and not too long ago that was impossible. The web offers us the immediate opportunity to listen to music from wherever it also allows people to take on the influence of different singers.
Take the larger festivals, somewhere like Cambridge or Shrewsbury, there are bands and audiences from around the world and a huge exchange results. There’s also television such as the BBC4 Folk programmes. There’s also the ready availability of channels such as YouTube, Napster, iTunes and Spotify. And when you hear a song there are mobile phone apps that can identify and download the music. I think that anything that helps musicians hear and exchange songs must help but perhaps that’s not really as romantic as going around and collecting the songs.
FW: Do people travel to search for songs anymore?
DE: There’s still that element of hearing a song in a different place, in our own country or a different one. We went to a sea shanty festival in Holland and listened to shanty singers from Poland. The way they sing shanties is absolutely brilliant. For them singing shanties is a liberating experience. During the communist years Polish people could only leave the country as part of a sailing team, so they would join, leave the country and get involved in singing shanties. They now call themselves the ‘neo-shanty movement’. We found them singing the song ‘Hard Times’ and it was brilliant – they had these massive bass voices and a choir-like sound. It’s another exchange of influences and that’s important.
FW: With the old songs are we sometimes in danger of losing the original meanings?
DE: With some songs having dozens of variations that can happen. Also, it can be hard to find the true meanings of some old military or work-specific references. Sometimes you get carried away with the beauty of the song itself and you sing it because of its uplifting quality. Then you find that you don’t know the exact meaning of a word or phrase and that can be embarrassing - especially if someone asks what you’re singing about.
Sean’s very good at researching his songs to discover and understand the original meaning and context. He’s into the history of our songs and what they mean and that helps to understand them. ‘Rolling Down to Rio’ has a few variations for example, but we chose to work with Peter Bellamy’s words and understand the context. I think it’s a shame when the context and relationship between verses, which is important, becomes lost. With narrative songs the stories behind the songs have to be taken seriously, especially if you want to be part of them and understand them.
FW: What about the theory that there’s an English folk accent?
DE: I’ve heard that before. I don’t know but I often think wouldn’t it be fun to take any song and sing it in a John Boden accent. It could be an interesting exercise. It’s a similar experience when you get people sounding like Peter Bellamy where you hear singers rising through a phrase. Do singers follow distinctive voices and does folk have to be sung in a semi-rural or regional accent? I think it’s interesting when you hear someone’s singing voice and it’s different from their speaking voice. Possibly it’s down the roots of the song or perhaps the roots of the singer.
Perhaps the accent goes with the song rather than the singer adopting a singing accent. We do it sometimes and find ourselves with different tones floating in there. There’s almost the feeling that it’s a spiritual thing to identify with the tone of the original singer. There is of course the horrible adoption of the mid-Atlantic accent which many people in the pop world adopt – a universal accent that actually has no roots at all.
It’s a little like the universal beginning to folk songs. How many begin with a date, a month or travelling somewhere?
FW: So why do so many songs start with: “As I was a walking ....” followed by the month or the date.
DE: Mostly the original songs were positioned in time because there wasn’t the instantaneous communication we have today and people wanted to record the date something happened.
FW: Does that mean there’s no longer a need to position songs around a day, date or year?
DE: I don’t think we’ll have songs written today that follow that same identity. It could sound flippant or ridiculous. You could take a traditional song and modernise the lyrics but I think you have to be careful. I think as a general rule that ‘time and date’ way of starting a song doesn’t happen anymore because it could end up like a comedy song.
That’s not to say there won’t be songs that talk about today’s issues - the recession, bankers, financial crises and the collapse of Euro - but these are songs written by a specific person and they will use their own style to present the song. As I said, perhaps, today no one feels they need to preserve the date of something happening because everyone knows what’s happening all the time.
FW: So is modern communication changing the tradition of the future?
I think that modern communication changes everything. Previously, listening to someone singing was the only way anyone would ever hear a particular song. Today’s communication channels and the various media available to record and transmit music displace the ‘singing of the song’ as the method of transferring it. When you only had ‘transmitting by ear’ as a method of communication, to a certain degree you needed a simple song so they could easily be understood. I don’t think you’re going to get too many songs today that follow that formula. Also in the past, fewer songs had a personal identity behind them that’s unusual today.
Our heritage is important, we have to maintain it but we have to listen to what else is happening today. There are already some excellent songs that deal with the avarice, the economy, injustice and oppression but similar problems have always existed. Perhaps today’s legacy will become a tradition and heritage that are just an extension of the past.
FW: How about your own heritage – what next for The Young’uns?
DE: At the moment we are happy where we are. There’s a lot more tradition to cover and I’m sure a lot more themes around to write songs ‘in the tradition’, even if they do have our particular edge to them. Other than that who knows? Personally, I can’t wait for the next performance to enjoy that experience I mentioned of ‘living within the song’ and the organic development of songs between the three of us. How’s that for an answer?
FW: Just fine. Thank you.
© FolkWords - 2012