We Sing United

 

Now that our virtual ‘We Sing United’ term is in full swing, it’s time to introduce the new members of the Green Heart Army to the stories behind the songs we’re singing (and a little refresher for the rest of us!) 

All the songs were chosen by the Green Heart Army in a vote of everyone’s favourites in Sing United’s back catalogue. All six of our Sing United shows are represented in the top 15.

Here is part 1 of ‘Meet the Songs’…

River’s Pride

Our first three songs featured in our “River’s Pride” show back in July 2018 at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle. All the songs in the show told the story of a river or it’s reliant community or industry.

Jimmy Nail – Big River. The shipbuilding industry on the Tyne – and so much more.

A tribute to the shipbuilding heritage of the Tyneside region. Released in 1995, the lyrics lament the decline of an industry that once formed such a strong part of the region’s identity, as well as providing employment to so many. The famous Neptune Yard founded in Walker in 1860 gets a particular mention.

As well as the sadness of the industrial decline and the effects on the people, the song has additional layers of emotion as it is couched in the relationship between a father and a son. This not only takes the form of the pride the son has in his father’s trade, but also the tale of the father being sent to war. “Then came a time for him to sail across the sea and far away, Finally when the war was won you brought him home and home he stayed, And when his days were done under a golden sun you carried him where he longed to be, back to the sea”.

After the emotional rollercoaster, the song concludes with a stated belief that there will be a rebirth. Whether a proud Geordie or not, I’m sure many of you can identify with the emotions contained in this powerful song. “In my heart I know it will rise again, the river will rise again”.

Sing United River's Pride Jimmy Nail

Kate Rusby – Bring Me a Boat. A love song to a lover across the River Tyne.

Following in the tradition of traditional Tyneside songs, Kate Rusby penned this beautiful folk song in 2003. What’s perhaps surprising, though, is that the singer-songwriter who has collaborated with such big names as Seth Lakeman and Ronan Keating, is in fact from Penistone, Barnsley.

As one of the few folk artists to have been nominated for a Mercury Prize, the lyrics of “Bring Me a Boat” give a clear nod to the heritage of Tyneside songs such as “Waters of Tyne”, when she sings “Bring to me a boat to cross o’er the Tyne, for its deep murky waters part his heart and mine”. As a result, our version includes a small section of “Waters of Tyne” in the final version as a short mash up, for an extra level of north east regional representation!

 

Jez Lowe – Black Trade (as recorded by The Unthanks). Observations on the decline of the North East’s shipbuilding industry.

Born in the 1950s, Jez Lowe is a folk singer-songwriter from County Durham. A prolific writer, his music has attracted widespread attention, including being commissioned to write a number of songs for the BBC Radio 2 documentary folk series ‘Radio Ballads’ in 2006. He has also been nominated for several BBC Folk Awards.

Having forged a reputation for his songs observing life in the north east, both the coal mining heritage of his home town of Easington Colliery and the region’s shipbuilding history have played a prominent part in his lyrics. ‘Black Trade’ sees ship workers listing the trades that used to be essential to the industry, and includes various examples of trades slang and dialect – how many can you translate? “Red leaders” or “piece-poke” anyone?

Power To The People

Our next two songs formed part of our “Power To The People” show in November 2018 at The People’s Theatre in Heaton, Newcastle. All the songs we sang were written in support of change for the better.

Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. Instrumental turned into an anthem.

It’s amazing how one song can mean something completely different depending where you are in the world. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is definitely one of those songs! This jazz song was written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas in the early 1960s. It was first recorded as an instrumental most recognisable to some of us as the theme tune to the BBC’s Film Review series. Billy Taylor was inspired by his daughter Kim to write the song when she came home from school singing a spiritual. Kim recalls her dad wrote the lyrics to the song soon after it was first released. The first verse being his and he invited Dick Dallas to collaborate with him and add the rest of the verses.

But to Americans, the moment Nina Simone recorded it on her Silk and Soul Album in 1967, it almost instantly became a freedom song and influential civil rights anthem. The passion that Simone performed the song took its meaning and influence to another plane. Most poignant when she sang the line, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me”. Not only did it strike a chord with the civil rights movement, it also resonated with struggles with identity and independence.

Billy Taylor & Nina Simone

Both Taylor and Simone were born in North Carolina and brought up with a strong influence of church music. They were also activists who campaigned for change. The sincerity in Nina Simone’s version has never been matched by later recordings. From John Denver and Mary Travers producing folk recordings to the more recent Lighthouse Family and Emeli Sande versions. The song was the theme for the 2004 Olympics and also featured in a Coca-Cola advert the same year. These were all light years away from the powerful preachings of Simone. She improvised with the lyrics in her live performances of the song showing her fearlessness. The way she performed represented the real meaning behind her feelings towards her own freedom.

civil rights

Joan Baez – We Shall Overcome. Gospel, protest and anti-war song.

It is widely thought that this song came from a hymn published in 1900 called “I’ll Overcome Some Day”. The modern version is a gospel song which went on to become a protest song. It is reported that it was first sung by tobacco workers during the 1945 strike in Charlestown, South Carolina.

From 1959, “We Shall Overcome” was linked to the Civil Rights Movement and became the unofficial anthem. American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger’s version focused on nonviolent civil rights activism. Seeger and other folk singers, including Joan Baez, took the opportunity to sing the song at rallies, festivals and concerts. Joan Baez’s version is the starting point for our take on a song that has provided the basis for protest songs all over the world.

This song also featured in our “Lest We Forget” show in November 2019. We’ll be covering more from that show in the next blog of this series. During that term, Sing United took part in a flash mob at the Spanish City in Whitley Bay. Take a look at this very special memory in the Sing United hall of fame…

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