Teesside-based folk trio The Young ‘uns have been singing about injustices, historical and modern, for some years now, releasing four well-received albums and touring folk venues and festivals up and down the country. Their songs, written by the trio’s Sean Cooney, have covered everything from fighting poverty in the 1930s to fighting homophobia in the 2010s.
The Young ‘uns latest tour, however, The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff is devoted to a single theme. Johnny Longstaff was born in Stockton-on-Tees just after the First World War. Poverty and unemployment drove him to London as a teenager, via the Hunger March of 1934. Whilst in London Longstaff became more and more politicised, volunteering for the Spanish Civil War in 1936 as a young man of just seventeen. Longstaff recalled his experiences in a series of recordings in the 1980s. Using excerpts from these tapes and photo montages from the period interspersed with their songs, The Young Uns bring his story to life once more.
With sixteen songs composed by Cooney the trio sing their way through Longstaff’s remarkable life. Songs like ‘Any Bread’ and ‘Carrying The Coffin’ recall the poverty and destitution of life in the north-east in the Great Depression while ‘Cable Street’ retells the tale of the famous battle with Moseley’s fascists on the streets of London. As the show unfolds songs like ‘The Great Tomorrow’, ‘Trench Tales’ and ‘David Guest’ recall the experiences of fighting Franco’s fascists, from the bitter conditions and lack of food to the heroics of fallen comrades that Longstaff fought alongside. The show ends with a rendition of ‘The Valley Of Jarama’, a song song sung by Spanish Civil War veterans and written by Alex McDade, himself one of the volunteers of the British Battalion fighting the fascists. Although the forces against fascism were defeated in Spain, Longstaff, who died in 2000, was adamant that the Spanish Civil War was a vital prerequisite for the successful defeat of fascism in the guise of Hitler’s Nazism just a few years later.
I’ve seen the Young ‘uns on multiple occasions now and their live performances, in addition to their brand of movingly defiant songs, usually involve much hilarious ad-libbed banter, both between themselves and with the audience. With The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, however, the guys prove that their gift for storytelling and their natural affinity with the underdog also means they can pull of a project as ambitious as this and move an audience to tears in the process.
The Young ‘uns at Cecil Sharp House
The Young ‘uns at Great British Folk Festival
A bit of humorous banter between songs and a few amusing anecdotes do often help bring a folk gig to life and allow the artist to interact properly with the audience. But all too often the off-the-cuff “spontaneous” banter starts to become a bit repetitive when you see the same artist trotting out the same old carefully rehearsed lines gig after gig. No-one could ever, ever accuse the Young ‘uns of doing this, however. So side-splittingly hilarious are these three twenty-something Teesiders that a gig like tonight’s at times threatens to descend into riotous chaos. The music they produce together, though, is to be taken very seriously indeed. The three, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes, got into folk in their teens and have been performing together ever since. Beautiful harmony singing with simple accordion and acoustic guitar backing they are definitely one of the highlights of this year’s Great British Folk Festival, which comes to Skegness’s out-of -season Butlin’s holiday camp each December
Traditional sea shanties, juxtaposed with songs reflecting the north-east’s industrial heritage, mixed in with some biting but elegantly-written social commentary, together with a few well-chosen covers – it all makes for a varied and fascinating set-list. And given it’s almost Christmas we also get a few traditional wassailing songs thrown in as well. Tonight’s performance saw them introducing some songs from their forthcoming album (to be released next Spring). When a film crew from the notorious Channel 4 show, Benefits Street, descended on one street in Stockton-on-Tees they were physically chased away by local residents. You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street appears on the album and is performed tonight – celebrating proud defiance in the face of grinding poverty and humiliating set-backs.
Having already released three albums, the trio have now gathered a strong back catalogue of material to draw on. One song that always goes down exceptionally well at live shows is Cooney’s Love in a Northern Town, documenting not only the true story of how his grandparents met but also the wholesale decline of the Wearside shipyards “where all her ships and men are gone.”
Well-written meaningful songs that are beautifully sung it is well worth getting hold of the Young ‘uns albums. But for a real taste of the trio’s infectious humour and brilliant stage presence you have really, really got to see them live as well.
Previous review: Young ‘uns at Cecil Sharp House
Fascism. Fighting it, defeating it, singing about it. Fascism looms large in the life of the Young ‘uns, three twenty-somethings who’ve been singing together ten years now (hence the cringe-worthy name). But if anyone was expecting unsubtle diatribes, as ranty as a street-corner seller of the Socialist Worker, you couldn’t be further from the truth. What you get is beautifully sung, evocative and thoughtful songs. Their last album “When our Grandfathers’ Said No” marks the time poverty-stricken Hartlepool sent Oswald Mosely and his crew packing in the 1930s. Their latest album similarly reflects on how members of a Bradford mosque disarmed an EDL rally outside through the simple act of offering them tea and biscuits. Songs from each of these albums were performed beautifully at Cecil Sharp House, HQ of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
But as the Cecil Sharp House Director made clear in her introduction it’s not just the beautiful songs and amazing harmonies that you get at a Young ‘uns gig, a major part of it is their brilliant on-stage humour; three friends who are constantly taking the piss out of each other, the audience and fellow musicians in a warm but hilarious and totally unscripted way.
They sing a mixture of traditional and original songs and, don’t worry, it’s not all about Oswald Mosley or the EDL. One of my favourite songs of theirs is “Love in a Northern Town” describing how the group’s songwriter Sean Cooney’s nana met her husband and reflecting on the changing fortunes of Hartlepool. Highly recommended.