A Lancashire Mon
Harry Boardman in interview with Derek Schofield
This article was published in Folk Review magazine in April 1975. (Some sections of the article were printed in the wrong order but this version corrects that). It includes some interesting comments on the very early days of the folk revival, especially in Manchester, as well as details of Harry Boardman’s repertoire, the performance of Lancashire songs, Harry’s recordings, 1970s television programmes featuring folk music – and Harry’s outspoken comments on some other folk song performers (there was a response by two of those performers in a subsequent issue!). As such it’s an interesting commentary on the folk scene of the day. At the end of the article, I have added some additional links and information.
Harry Boardman – best known in the folk revival as a singer of Lancashire material – is a native of Failsworth, between Oldham and Manchester, where he was born in 1930. He now lives with his wife Lesley and two sons, Tim and Robin, in Gatley in South Manchester.
The interview took place in November, 1974.
DS. Harry, you’re known primarily as a singer of largely industrial Lancashire material. Did the interest in folk music come first, or was it the interest in Lancashire life and lore?
HB. Folk music. There was no question of being brought into the folk song revival in any other way. I first became concerned with folk music in – I think – 1943, when I heard foreign folk music on the radio. I remember particularly the Indian classical music programmes for Indian forces in Europe.
I always likes music that was, to me, strange - that is unusual. I remember listening to American folk song – Burl Ives and Josh White – and thinking that if only in Britain we had singers and songs that sounded as real as the American songs, then it would be marvellous. I’d never heard an English song sung as though it was really being sung by an ordinary bloke – it was always BBC choirs. Then I heard a radio programme called – I think – Scouse in the very late forties. I remember Ewan MacColl singing ‘Blow the man down’, and he sounded like a working man, like a sailor. That was the first time I thought British folk song was as real and as concerned with real people as American folk song had sounded to me up to that point. From then on, I was influenced by Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd more than by anybody else.
The early interest was nothing to do with Lancashire at all. The Lancashire thing was too close, and too real for me to think about.
DS. So you started off listening to the music on the radio, but when did you actually begin singing it yourself?
HB. Well, early really. I went to a Summer School of Music run by the Workers’ Music Association in about 1951. Ewan MacColl was to have been there, but couldn’t make it, so Bert Lloyd took over. From then on, I decided I wanted to, and would sing. The whole concept of being able to sing songs that were characteristic of one’s own country seemed to fascinate me. I suppose that later this narrowed down to singing songs from one’s own region.
I remember attending a series of lectures by the WEA with workers from Scandinavian countries. At the end of the series there was a social gathering, at which the Scandinavians sang their own songs. All the British songsters could do was to sing songs like ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’, and I thought, why can’t we sing our own songs and seem as interesting, and as interested as the Scandinavians.
There was always a feeling of wanting to represent, or be one of the people representing, a region or a country. That was a very early influence.
DS. When, then, did you start the first folk club in Manchester? Was that about this time?
HB. That was a bit later, in 1954. We didn’t even know the term ‘folk club’. It didn’t exist. There was a classical guitar session in a Manchester pub called the Guitar Circle, so Lesley and I thought of starting a ‘folk circle’.
I sang mainly MacColl and Lloyd songs. There was a friend of ours – a taxi driver – who was obsessed with Lead Belly songs, and there was Pauline Hinchcliffe from the Derby area who sang English and Appalachian songs.
I was not even aware of MacColl’s ‘Ballads and Blues’ club until 1957.
DS. Where, then, did you get your songs from at this time?
HB. There were the Lloyd and MacColl radio programmes – I remember one on Tommy Armstrong, and there was the Ballads and Blues series with Humphrey Lyttleton, Bert and Ewan. There were also early records – I remember buying an LP of sea songs in about 1952.
DS. If you started your first folk club in 1954, and if you didn’t know of Ballads and Blues until 1957, when then did the interaction between regions, between towns and between clubs and singers begin?
HB. An interesting question. I remember a hilarious experience. There was an EFDSS folk song competition on the top floor of Lewis’s in Manchester in 1957, and amongst the competitors were Tony Davies, Mick Groves (now of the Spinners), Stan Francis, Pauline Hinchcliffe and myself. I think we all won this competition and received certificates to say that we were ‘certified folk singers’. We all went down to London anyway, and sang at Cecil Sharp House and at the Festival Hall. That was the first time I met Cyril Tawney, who was a slim, clean-shaven young man!
That was the beginning of a feeling that there was a folk movement. The fact that the EFDSS was so deeply involved must have meant that the revival was underway, because the EFDSS has always been a little behind what has been going on.
There was a feeling that there was a national notion – a feeling that folk song was beginning to be known more widely. To me, between 1951 and 1957 a lot happened, which was quite significant: the revival really started going. People say to me these days ‘You must be a very old man because you, no doubt, came into folk music through skiffle’. Of course, we were involved in the folk song revival quite a few years before skiffle. To me, that period was the beginning of the folk revival as we now know it.
DS. Were you running a continuous club during this period?
HB. Not really. We started in the Waggon and Horses, and later moved to the Pack Horse, but there were other pubs. There were gaps; we packed in clubs for all sorts of reasons.
There was a period when I thought that folk was catching on in an unfortunate way, and I pulled out for a while: I appeared very very briefly, with two groups The Ozark Mountain Trio and the Texas Drifters - playing banjo!
But you talk of folk clubs – I still would rather (I know it’s more popular to say this these days) go into a pub and have an informal session than run a folk song club. Although, I suppose, if it weren’t for the club organisers, there wouldn’t be a folk revival.
I don’t believe in being smarmy about folk club organisers: many of them are very aware, but many are stupid and inane. I’m not often invited to clubs where the organisers are desperately inane!
I think that club organisers have – in a way – a great responsibility, but I don’t think anybody should ever be told that they have a great responsibility, because it makes them very self-conscious about what they are doing.
DS. You’ve mentioned, Harry, that in the beginning you were very interested in singing the songs of your own country. When did you become interested in the songs, the traditions of your own region? Had you not come across the North-west Morris Tradition through Manchester Morris, or the Bacup Coconut Dancers?
HB. Well, my knowledge of Morris, which obviously is just one aspect of a tradition, was based on my mother and father telling me about the Failsworth Morris team which collapsed around the time of the First World War. I remember my mother describing the concertina players who danced ahead swinging their concertinas over their heads. It was very real. My mother knew the Coleman brothers, who are mentioned in the studies of North-west Morris.
I know that there had been a Failsworth team, which started from, what my mother called the ‘German Houses’ which was the side of a pub called the Half-Way House in Failsworth. But traditions, in the way we understand them now, didn’t mean much to me as a youngster. The ‘tradition’ was born in Failsworth. They were very well known. At any sort of ‘do’ – in a Church Hall or in somebody’s house – somebody would inevitably get up and recite ‘Bonny Brid’ or ‘Bowton’s Yard’, or sing a setting of a poem.
DS. It was a case then, that you knew this dialect material independently of the folk song, and that at some stage you connected the two.
HB. Absolutely. I knew the works of the dialect poets and the sayings and stories. I’m not suggesting that this was a ‘folky’ early life. Clogs and shawls were part of my life. It was only many years later when I realised that Geordie, West Country and Scottish singers were singing about their own regions, that I thought about introducing the good songs, stories and sayings of Lancashire.
I remember discussing the idea of using dialect songs with Mick Groves of the Spinners and with Tom Gilfellon, and they both thought it was a good idea. I remember writing to Bert Lloyd to see what he thought of the idea, and he replied saying he thought most of the songs were of antiquarian interest only, and were not really suitable. He’s changed his mind since – under pressure! (Bless him).
I must admit that I’ve become a victim of image. I never intended to concentrate on Lancashire songs – but rather to introduce a few songs into the general repertoire I was using at the time. Often, I would rather sing many sorts of songs, which are not necessarily from Lancashire. But it’s not that I don’t enjoy the whole thing: it’s tremendous, because previously no-one sang Lancashire songs in the revival – apart from MacColl’s not too impressive attempt at dialect in ‘Droylesden Wakes’.
I don’t think Lancashire material is on a tremendously high level – it can’t be compared with the ballads for intrinsic quality.
DS. It isn’t what we would term traditional, is it? You’ve written in a previous edition of Folk Review questioning the idea of the Lancashire dialect material as being ‘folk’ because it was essentially written, and did not pass into the oral tradition.
HB. The material comes mainly from books. However, in a number of cases, I already knew the songs and poems in an oral sense. Where I wanted to sing or recite the same pieces that I had heard, I could easily find them in published collections. The oral and printed traditions were often very close together. I’ve heard several different versions of Sam Laycock’s ‘Welcome Bonny Brid’, simply because it’s been passed on from one person to another and has thus changed. But at the same time, everybody knew that they could get the book out of the library and read the original.
DS. Tell me about Paul Graney; he has supplied you – and many other singers – with many broadsides and songs.
HB. I was already involved with Lancashire song before I knew Paul. In fact, the Topic record New Voices with Maureen Craik and the Watersons had already been released. That has now been fortunately deleted – I say fortunately because of my part in it – so that I’ve known Paul for over ten years.
Paul really added a new dimension to my interest, because my knowledge of dialect songs and poetry was based on, or developed from, what I knew as a child. Paul brought to my notice a large number of broadside ballads which were not in dialect, but which were printed by famous Lancashire or Manchester printers – Bebbington, Swindells and so on. He is absolutely dedicated – he’s even spend his annual fortnight’s holiday in libraries digging out broadsides.
DS. In comparatively recent years there has been a tendency for the younger singers in the revival to delve into their local traditions and music. One thinks of people such as Roger Watson in Derbyshire and Peter Coe in Cheshire, who are researching the music of their own areas and basing their song-writing on this.
It has obviously been important for you to build up a regional identity. Do you think it is important for revival singers generally to develop a regional identity?
HB. Well, it’s only important so far as the singers you’ve mentioned think it’s important. If I came from a county which didn’t appear to have a very strong surviving tradition, I don’t think I’d really be concerned with trying to create one. I believe very strongly in emphasising that different people are influenced by their own background. I’m a bit doubtful that there’s much point in trying to create a tradition where it doesn’t really exist. But one must judge by results. Some of Roger Watson’s songs are very good but songs about Wizards of Alderley Edge leave me absolutely cold – as do songs or poems by Rudyard Kipling, but that’s something else.
What is fascinating, if one is from an area strong in dialect, is to be able to talk to the old people and get something from them that is real and there already. Maybe creative people might want to develop that. But anybody can write a song that includes a few local place names, and it seems very jolly and regional, but is not very impressive. John Howarth’s song ‘Owdham Edge’ is absolutely in the tradition of dialect writing, with its modern references to Eddie Waring and so on. But if Peter Coe writes a song about the Wizard of Alderley, he’s not really basing it on a tradition that’s been there. It doesn’t have any associations for the people of Cheshire unless they’re impressed by the very mention of something that they know is a legend.
I go and sing songs in pubs in Lancashire that are not folk clubs, and the older people recognise the songs in many cases, and perhaps say they know a better version. This gives me a feeling of continuity with the past – but there again, I’m in my forties and maybe the younger singers don’t need this.
But I would hate to discourage Peter Coe, Roger Watson or anyone else.
DS. During the 1960s, your singing of Lancashire material presumably inspired several other younger singers, which was crystallised if you like in the record Deep Lancashire in 1968.
HB. I remember the Oldham Tinkers coming to see Lesley and me in Failsworth when they were just like any other folk group of the time, singing a lot of Clancy Brothers material. We put them on to several things, but some time later they were only doing a couple of songs with any Lancashire connections. Lesley and I were so impressed that we said, for Christ’s sake, you do this so well. Why not sing more Lancashire?
Mike Harding I remember as a young fellow singing at a youth club. He showed, very early I think, a tendency toward a creative comedy. He was described, not too long ago by a reviewer in the Guardian as ‘a very vulgar funny little man’. I go along with that, and agree with him that ‘vulgar’ is a complimentary term. He’s very very talented, but not really involved in what I’m concerned about, which is a fascination with an older Lancashire tradition.
Deep Lancashire was originally, I think, Bert Lloyd’s suggestion. I just got all the singers together, and they did their own thing. The influence I had on these singers was basic; but there was never a question of imitating Harry Boardman in the way that there is a Ewan MacColl imitation school, I’m glad to say.
DS. With New Voices, Deep Lancashire and so on, there must have been an increase in demand for your services as a folk club booked guest. Did you ever consider becoming a professional singer?
HB. No, because I was well established with family and so on from the early days. I’ve never been very very popular and just couldn’t make a reasonable living from singing. I remember Louis Killen as a professional singer when a single man, and his fortunes were very varied. In terms of making a living, I suppose I envy Ewan and Bert who combine journalism, production, field recording, radio and TV scripts.
An old saying of mine is ‘I wouldn’t like to swap the boss of my firm for a folk club organiser’. I’d hate to feel like a salesman and always be pleasant to people because they might give me another booking. I’d rather work full-time for a living, and sing as much as I wanted to, or needed to, as a spare time activity.
DS. Owdham Edge was really – as you yourself say – a son of Deep Lancashire. It was of similar design and seemed to be cashing in on the success of Deep Lancashire.
HB. Deep Lancashire was the best seller for that particular year for Topic. After that, they tried to concentrate too hard on Lancashire LPs, and on records from other regions. But you just can’t produce a Deep Derbyshire or a Deep Cheshire or a Deep Sussex. I think The Wide Midlands was perhaps disappointing because there weren’t the regional singers with the natural accent or ability to really do the thing in the way in which it was done in Lancashire. I’m sorry, but Lancashire is pretty unique in this respect. People don’t need to strain a gut to sound as if they are from Lancashire.
DS. After Owdham Edge several of the singers on this record and on Deep Lancashire made solo LPs – The Oldham Tinkers, Mike Harding and Bernard Wrigley. Your next record, however, was the joint Lancashire-Yorkshire anthology with Dave Hillery, Transpennine.
HB. Yes, this was my suggestion to Dave a long time ago. I’ve known him for many years – he used to be a resident at our clubs – and I’d mentioned to him that he should sing Yorkshire songs – he comes originally from Ripon.
I thought the contrast on the record between Yorkshire and Lancashire material was quite distinct, although to a lot of people – particularly from the south and Midlands – it probably sounds the same. Dave doesn’t have a very strong Yorkshire accent, but I think he got the mood of the Yorkshire songs very well.
DS. Well, you finally got the solo LP out in late 1973: A Lancashire Mon. Now a few years ago, I remember you saying to me that if ever you did a solo record, you would not want it to be strictly Lancashire material. Of course the final result was entirely, blatantly, Lancashire in concept.
HB. It was the late Gerry Sharp of Topic who said from the very start that it must be all Lancashire. I mulled it over and thought that it might be a good idea to keep it strictly Lancashire, and complete what was perhaps an inevitable series. Any solo LP I might do in the future would include probably one-third to one-half Lancashire material anyway.
DS. In 1973 you and Lesley edited a book of Lancashire songs published by Oak. How did this come about?
HB. The idea goes back several years to when I was taking part in some concerts that were recorded for the BBC by Frances Line and Jim Lloyd. It was Jim who in fact suggested the song book, and some time later, the publishers gave us two months to produce it. So, Lesley and I just collected all the material that we basically used, plus a few things that we thought should be more widely read and sung and rushed it together. It was really a book of songs that I sing – we couldn’t put into it some of the very good songs people like the Oldham Tinkers have used, because they might want to bring out a book themselves – I’m surprised that they’ve not already done so.
I didn’t like the title really: Folk Songs and Ballads of Lancashire, because I shy away from the term ‘folk song’, but the publishers said that it was part of a series, so I wrote a blurb describing the songs as being not strictly folk songs, but rather a combination of broadsides, dialect verses and bits and pieces of urban ditties.
DS. In recent years, you’ve been involved in several television programmes. I remember a programme some years ago about Peterloo, but more recently you’ve been very much involved with BBC’s Ballad of the North-west. How did you become involved in that programme?
HB. I think the original idea came from Alan Bell for a radio series, but he sold the idea to Douglas Boyd, the BBC producer. I had been recommended as a singer, and ended up being asked to narrate the series.
The idea of combining local history and songs, where possible of the period, but in some cases specially adapted and written was excellent. However, there were a number of disagreements with the producer. I thought some of the singers in the series were very mediocre, typical folk groups. I didn’t like going from location filming to a folk group on a stage, which was the method used.
The producer seemed to think it was necessary to have a young girl with long hair in a long dress in almost every programme, no matter what her singing style was. You can ask me, ‘Why do the programmes at all?’ and many friends thought I made too many compromises in making the series. But I think one is faced with either doing something of value, or leaving it entirely to the smaltzy pop-folk that one tends to get. I think it was a worthwhile attempt.
Situations were a little too contrived and corny phrases were inserted into the scripts on the spot. The two programmes on lead and coal-mining had some very similar phrases. There was a tendency to ‘folkise’ many things that were just basic human experiences. There were too many obvious links, and I think the producer was, to say the least, a bit out of sympathy with the basis of the series that he was producing. Generally speaking the singers tended to be comprised of resident groups from various north-west folk clubs. Many of them seemed to be more concerned with getting on the television than with anything else, and the BBC seemed to encourage this.
DS. You were involved in another series, this time for Granada, called What about the Workers? There were programmes on iron and steel, coalmining and railways, for which I remember Paul Connor wrote some material.
HB. Very much better done – the concept was totally different. They used straight documentary with songs recorded over, and I never showed my hairy face in any of the programmes!
The Ballad of the North-west lacked coherence because it was neither straight documentary not dramatization. It was like saying ‘Here we have a story about canals’, and you would see some filming. Then you’d have folk singers on a rostrum singing about that situation, and then you’d move to a bit of acting.
DS. There was no attempt to use a Radio Ballad concept and interview the miners, canal-workers and so on.
HB. No, that’s quite true. I really believe that if the people doing the job are still alive, then you don’t need to recreate them using actors. You can talk to them – much more convincing.
TV producers tend to live in a world of their own. I remember saying ‘what about the words of this song – they don’t really fit the situation’. The producer said ‘They never listen to the bloody words anyway’; well, you can’t get more cynical than that.
DS. On many occasions in the past when we’ve had a pint and a chat, we’ve discussed the state of the revival and so on. As someone who has been involved in the revival since the early days, what are your views on the direction in which things are going?
HB. I think we must realise that we do not exist within a revival and that it is artificial, by definition. I believe that there is room for the strictly traditional clubs, for the not-so strictly traditional clubs, and for the very open policy clubs. I’m not really impressed by what I would label (as you know, Derek, I believe in labels, because everybody says they don’t believe in labels) the charismatic young traditional style singers. I believe in naming names, and I don’t really take to the exaggerated pseudo-traditional styles of Martin Carthy, Nic Jones and so on. I like straight singing and I like to hear the story. When somebody puts their hands over their ears, I want to put my hands over my eyes.
In a different way, I’m a little put off by the attitudes of Bob Davenport, the Stradlings and Tony Engle. I believe in a great deal of what they believe in, but I think they can be very ‘holier than thou’, and some of their imitations of country singers are frightening. Nevertheless, I would far rather have the charismatic young men and the Bob Davenport syndrome than the folk entertainers.
It’s a personal reaction, but I would prefer to listen to singers who are naturally closer to their own tradition, like Tim Lyons. Young men with leather pouches swinging from their belts and skinny ribbed vests are not what really impresses me, unless their singing is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m concentrating on attacking the younger traditionalists but this is because I do care about what they are doing, whereas the folk entertainers I don’t wish to comment on – and I hate Rudyard Kipling.
DS. What about the clubs?
HB. I very mixed situation at the moment. I tend to be booked by clubs that know what I’m going to do anyway. I prefer clubs that are reasonably broadminded and not strictly traditional, but I always look down the list of coming and past singers at a club and if I see too many Stan Arnolds and Jasper Carrotts, I think I’d be better staying downstairs for a pint.
I’m sometimes irritated by club organisers who’ll say ‘I hope you’ll forgive us, Harry, our audience is a bit ropey and a bit noisy’. When I’ve got up there, I’ve found that they’re absolutely marvellous and have responded very well – but are just bored with the resident singers.
DS. What about the future of the Lancashire ‘sub-revival’, as you call it?
HB. Although I’m convinced that I was an early catalyst, I never really influenced the way in which particular individuals approached the subject. I’d like to see a little less playing on the comedy – there are many other aspects of the Lancashire tradition. I’d like to see a bit more consciousness of the industrial history of Lancashire expressed in the songs. After all the post-war revival started as a left-wing movement, with Lloyd and MacColl who were members of the Communist party. Most of us, in those early days, were left-wingers, and we were concerned with expressing the beliefs of working-class people in folk song. It was later that the EFDSS brought in the middle-class notion of a revival, and the political aspect was whittled away.
There’s still room for field recording – there are still people singing old time and modern popular songs, as well as dialect songs. As for myself, I’ve never believed in looking for new ‘angles’ and I don’t think I’ll go through any new phases now. I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with the folk song revival, provided we realise that it is a revival. Before any of us get over-excited, we should remember that music doesn’t really play the important part that it once played in ordinary people’s lives. I think if they seem to take it, if they seem to respond, if they laugh in the right places, and what’s more important almost cry in the right places, then we’re getting over.
Subsequently, Harry Boardman recorded several solo albums: Golden Stream (AK Records, 1978) and Personal Selection (1986). The latter was released on CD, with a bonus track, as Personal Choice (Cock Robin Music 2008). Harry and Roy Palmer edited Manchester Ballads: thirty-five facsimile street ballads (Manchester: City of Manchester Education Committee, 1983). There is more information on the life of Harry on www.library.folknorthwest.co.uk/harry_boardman.htm Harry died suddenly, at the age of 57, on 21 December 1987.