3 April 2019
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe takes a busk from Newcastle to Newfoundland.
Song collecting, the act of documenting rare songs that have previously been passed down orally from generation to generation, has been practised around the world for many years and is particularly prevalent in Ireland, Scotland and parts of England. These songs, usually referred to as ‘traditional folk songs’, have no copyright and often have no known composer. As a bit of a ‘folkie’ myself, I take delight in this tradition and love it when an artist introduces a song with a bit of history along the lines of ‘I got this song from …’. Song collecting is seldom a dry experience as the introductions often reveal not only from whom the songs came but from where and how that particular collecting session went regarding the amount of drink taken. This method of collecting songs and tunes continues today, mostly in gathering material from the travelling community.
Later, the traditional way of handing down folk songs and tunes evolved into a more popular format where new songs were written about local people and events and importantly, they were written down and accredited to their composers. Thousands of songs were written of an ephemeral nature and are long forgotten, or not perhaps, as the song collectors continue their work.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when professional rowing was at its peak, the North East of England gave birth to some fantastic folk songs about the great rowers of the region. In 2009, Tyne & Wear Museums released a CD called Champion Oars that brought together a collection of 11 songs (and three hornpipes) in praise of the rowing heroes from the locale. The album blurb sets the scene:
These songs portrayed the contests, the lives, and the deaths of the North East’s rowing heroes. Comic situations found in the crowd were also popular themes. This selection reflects the variety of songs that survive from the period 1840-1875.
Music halls were just becoming popular when the North East was at its height as a rowing centre. Songs such as these were an important part of the music hall mix, along with alcohol and tobacco. It was where the pub met the theatre.
The fiddle tunes were composed to celebrate the feats of the great oarsmen. A hornpipe dedicated to Harry Clasper, Bob Chambers or James Renforth would have found great favour with the local audience.
Many of the songs on this collection are referenced and quoted from in books about the history of the area. Books such as Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers: The Heroes, Seers and Songsters of the Tyne (2014) by Chris Dodd and works by David Clasper, Ian Whitehead and Peter Dillon.
My interest in the rowing history of Tyneside and the surrounding area dates back about 20 years. It received a big boost in 2007 when Ian Whitehead was a guest speaker at the first Rowing History Forum held in Henley and since then I have been an avid collector of books about professional rowing and the lyrics of the folk songs that it inspired.
As Peter Dillon quite rightly points out in his 1993 booklet, The Tyne Oarsmen:
The songs and drolleries of Joe Wilson, Ned Corvan and many others are a valuable resource, and not only for supplying the results of races, but for taking the emotional temperature of the crowd and giving an indication of the humour of the day.
When the stage play Hadaway Harry, about the life of Harry Clasper, reached London Rowing Club in February 2017, Keith Gregson, a former teacher, a passionate local historian, a folk singer and a proper song collector, entertained the gathering crowd before curtain-up. I spoke to him about the rowing songs that he had collected over the years and he agreed to listen to the Champion Oars CD and comment on the songs. The following is a list of the songs on the album including a few lines of their lyrics. Keith’s comments are in bold with quotation marks.
Champion Oars (2009).
“I have listened to them all and they all seem to ‘sing well’ which is what really matters. They seem to have all been set to tunes which were around on Tyneside during the great days of boat racing and, with one exception, put to the right tune where it was known.
Tracks 4, 8 and 12 are tunes alone so there are no individual comments. The references to ‘my tunes’ are ones I selected when I put a collection together in the late 1970s.”
The first four tracks are about Harry Clasper, the next five about Bob Chambers followed by one each about Aleck Hogarth and Teasdale Wilson. The final three tracks are about James Renforth.
Track 1 – Harry Clasper (J. P. Robson).
This song got a good airing throughout the Hadaway Harry play. The suggested air given on my copy of the lyrics is Famous aud Cappy. Here is the final verse of six:
Success to brave Harry an’ lang may he shine,
The champion o’ boatmen – the pride o’ the Tyne.
An’ when the time comes for his spirit to flee,
May Derwenthaugh lasses, wi’ tears i’ thor e’e,
Cry Fare thee weel, Harry, canny lad, Harry!
We’ll not see thaw marrow ae mair on the Tyne!
“J P Robson’s Harry Clasper has been set to Sweet Betsy From Pike not to the tune suggested by Robson – understandable as it is the same tune suggested by the author of track three and used for it.”
Track 2 – Clasper -v- Combes [sic] (Broadsheet).
Written in advance of Harry Clasper’s race on the Tyne against Robert Coombes on 18 December 1844. It anticipates a victory for Clasper which failed to materialise. Coombes won comfortably by six lengths after Clasper had steering problems shortly after the race began. I haven’t tracked down the official lyrics to this lively tune, but as far as I can tell from repeated listening, this is the first verse (I haven’t attempted the Geordie dialect):
All here that wish to hear me song come listen to me ditty.
About a man belong in this town and one from London City.
On Wednesday, they both agreed, if weather should prove fine, Sir,
To have a rowing match of speed upon the River Tyne, Sir.
“No tune recommended on original – I chose Mrs Casey but here it is sung to The Fiery Clock Face/The Coal Hole which sounds good.”
Track 3 – Harry Clasper’s Testimonial (John Taylor).
This dates from 1862, the year Clasper was presented with The Clasper Hotel, 1 Armstrong Street, Scotswood Road, Newcastle. This hostelry was bought with the proceeds of the testimonial fund, begun the previous year by an influential committee of local gentlemen. On the 5 June 1862, Mr. Balmbra’s Wheatsheaf Music Hall hosted the testimonial and no doubt John Taylor’s song in praise of Harry got an airing. The lyrics were published in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle and are quoted in full in both of David Clasper’s books Rowing: A way of Life and Hero of the North. The testimonial year culminated with the presentation to Harry at Balmbra’s on 27 November at which George Ridley first sang his most famous song – The Blaydon Races. Here is the first verse of Taylor’s ode to Harry as published in Allan’s Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings (1872, Revised Edition 1891) and as sung on the CD. Between this version and those mentioned above there are subtle differences to some spellings and ‘Time’ is female in both this verse and the one that follows it (Time’s tries a’ her dodges, and says he’s a square):
Times tried a’, they say, and they’re not se far rang,
Noo she’s myed a tyuf trial, she’s tested him lang –
Aw meen Harry Clasper, that weel chorised nyem,
For aw’m sure there’s nee body can coupl’d wi’ sh’em.
Faithful aud Harry – plucky as ever,
The still blooming posey iv wor coaly river.
“Probably the best known and sang to the original Cappy’s The Dog.”
Track 4 – Clasper’s Hornpipe/The Champion.
The first of three hornpipes on the CD. Very often a couple of tunes will be played together as a single track. To untrained musical ears like mine, its hard to tell where one tune ends and the second begins.
Track 5 – Bob Chambers (Rowland Harrison).
This song was written by Rowland Harrison in the 1860s and included in a song book, Rowland Harrison’s Tyneside Songs, containing over 50 pages of local songs composed by Harrison and published around 1871. The title in the book is given as Bob Chambers, Champein O’ The Tyne. The Chorus:
Here’s te the lad wi the bonny leet hair,
An’ lang may his nyem shine;
He’s luikt upon biv a’ his frinds
As the son ov Coally Tyne.
“Harrison did not recommend a tune, so I suggested Auld Lang Seyne – Here it is The Lass Doon By the Kee which sounds fine.”
Track 6 – The Adventures of Jim the Sweep (Broadsheet).
This is a real gem of a song and it is a great shame that the composer is unknown. It deals with the shenanigans of Jim and Dolly as they watch Bob Chambers race Bob Cooper in September 1864 – its full title is The Adventures of Jim the Sweep and Dolly Gray at the Great Boat Race. Part of the third verse will give a flavour of the fun that the song captures:
Young Dolly and her sweetheart Sweep,
Their trembling seats they could not keep,
They both stood up to see the race,
Quite heedless of their standing place.
The wind got up young Dolly’s clothes,
Then like a big balloon she rose,
And over the boat poor Dolly goes,
That day they pull’d the boat race.
“Not known to me – sings really well.”
Track 7 – The One Mile Race 1863 (Joe Wilson).
An earlier race between Chambers and Cooper produced a fine contest and despite Chambers losing, the locals still had something to sing about as Cooper was also a Geordie. The final verse:
Lang may Tyneside produce such men,
Te try the Cocknies’ paces,
But if they intend te pull athyem,
Lang may we see such races;
Tho cheers for Cooper ye may raise,
Bob Chambers still desarves greet praise,
For when two men like these contest
Wi’ honest pride, an’ de thor best,
Aw’s sorry that one shud give in,
Aw only wish that byeth cud win,
Then twad be a glorious race, lads.
“Sung here to the original Pawnshop’s Bleezin/XYZ”.
Track 8 – Chambers’ Hornpipe.
The second hornpipe is similar to the first but then again, I’m no fiddle player.
Track 9 – Chambers and White (Ned Corvan).
This memorable race took place on the Tyne on 19 April 1859 between local hero Robert (Bob) Chambers and Thomas White from London. After fouling a keel boat after half-a-mile, Chambers fell about 100 yards behind White and it looked like the locals had lost their bets and began to grumble. But by turning the race on its head, Honest Bob Chambers proved himself as the greatest oarsman of the age.
The song is a wonderful mix of storytelling both sung and spoken. This verse always makes me smile:
Spoken. – Comin’ doon after awl wis ower, aw meets one i’ wor chaps, an Irishman; they cawld him Patrick, but aw cawld him Mick for shortness. He wadent wait for the finish, altho’ he backed Bob; so aw hailed him, “Hie Mick, whe’s forst?” “Go to blazes!” says he. “Nonsense, Mick; whe’s forst?” “Och, sure, says he, “the Londin man was forst half-way before the race was a quarter over.” “Had on, Mick that’s a bull. Did you lay owt on tiv him – I mean Bob?” By me sowl, I did! An’ I’d like to lay this lump ov a stick on his dhirty cocoa-nut. The next time I speculate on floatin’ praporty may I be sthruck wid a button on my upper lip as big as a clock face.” “But Chambers is forst!” says aw. “Arrah! de ye mane to say that?” says he. “Didn’t aw tell ye he’d win afore iver he started?” “Hurroo! more power! fire away!”
The tune, according to Tyneside Songs is Trab, Trab.
“Appeared with music in my 1983 book on Ned Corvan – sung here to both tunes suggested by Ned”.
Track 10 – Aleck Hogarth – Champion of the Wear (Joe Wilson).
In Sunderland let’s sing,
What shud myek the whole hoose ring,
It’s a sang that’s sartin a’ the lads te cheer,
For it gladdens ivry toon,
When thor natives gain renoon,
An’ aw’ll sing ov one that’s deun se on the Wear.
Moving away from Newcastle/Tyneside, this track is about Aleck Hogarth, a Wearsider. The first (see above) of four verses introduces Aleck as a Mackem (a Sunderlander). The second verse has him a rower and the third as a swimmer; some sort of lifesaver perhaps. Whatever his line of work, he was as the ‘Kurus’ (see below) claims a ‘Champein’. The tune recommended by Tyneside Songs is Aull Sing Ye a Tyneside Sang – and there was me thinking there was no love lost between Newcastle and Sunderland!
An’ oh, me lads, it myeks me heart se glad,
Te sing ye a sang te please ye here,
Then, give a hearty cheer For the Champein of the Wear,
Ay, a hearty cheer for Aleck on the Wear
“Set to Joe Wilson song tune – not known? – I use a different one, but this works.”
Track 11 – Teesdale Wilson (George Ridley).
Sunderland, on The Wear, is about 14 miles south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and about thirty miles further south is Middlesbrough, set on the third great river of the North East, The Tees. Was Teesdale Wilson his real name or just a moniker? According to the chorus, Wilson is a Sandgit lad and “The blooming City Champion”. One of the verses has him rowing a cobble race “doon in Blyth” which is 17 miles north of Newcastle. The most interesting verse is about his race against “Dickie Clasper” who must be Harry’s younger brother Richard:
He licked little Dickey Clasper, tee,
This caused a great sensation,
‘Twas two to one on Dick that day,
For that there was no ‘casion;
Mind Dickey took the lead at forst,
‘An when they got to the shot tower,
Teesdale shut away a-heed,
Now isn’t he a “cure.”
“Set to one of Ridley’s favourite tunes – The Whole Hog or None.”
Track 12 – Champion No 2 Hornpipe/Durham Regatta.
Two tunes in two minutes!
Track 13 – Renforth the Champion (Joe Wilson).
Listed, as you would expect, in Tyneside Songs as RENFORTH, THE CHAMPEIN. It is an optimistic song about James Renforth when he was in his prime.
We lost poor Bob Chambers, then sadly we greev’d,
Thor wes nyen but what liked Honest Bob,
An’ we sigh’d for anuther te fillup he’s place,
Tho’ we knew twes a difficult job,
Till Renforth com oot like the man that he is,
For the honour 0′ canny Tyneside,
An’ te stop him frae tyekin Bob Chambers’s place,
The whole world he bravely defied!
“Not here to the original suggested Joe Wilson tune – The Postman’s Knock which was a popular Music Hall Song and has survived as a Morris Dance tune – do not recognise this one.”
Track 14 – Deeth of Renforth (Rowley Harrison).
Now this is a proper folk song, a lament for Renforth after he died ‘at the oar’ in Saint John, New Brunswick, on 23 August 1871. It was included by Harrison in his booklet mentioned above. Renforth is referred to as the “king ov scullers” and from the opening bars the sadness felt by his fans is clear to all.
There was thoosands waited eager to hear the news cum in,
Ivery one was sartin wor Tyneside lads wad win,
The paper sellers shaked thor heeds, thor fyees a’ turned reed,
Maw blud it run quite powerless when aw re’d the lad was deed;
“No tune recommended – this one is Tramps and Hawking Lads – I put it to one called Jeanette and Jeanotte.
And so, the CD ends on a sad note. Hearing the songs performed by Benny Graham, Johnny Hindle and Colin Ross not only brings the lyrics to life in a way that reading them cannot do but it breathes life in to the whole mid-nineteenth century period of Tyneside rowing history. As I mentioned above, many of the books about the rowing heroes of the area include references to the songs that sprang up as a result of their exploits. Chris Dodd’s book Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers dedicates a whole chapter, ‘Pulling clivor on the coaly river’, to them and writes that the singers “put people on the streets” and the songs “put flesh and blood” on the area’s “purple-prosed history”. The CD does likewise.
Part II will be published tomorrow.