BACK IN DURHAM GAOL
A recent article in the southern English magazine “Folk On Tap” referred to Jez Lowe’s song BACK IN DURHAM GAOL, as “the type of song that you feel you’ve known forever”. In fact, the song is barely a decade and a half old, having received it’s premiere at the Cornwall folk festival of 1984 at a singaround in a high street pub. By the end of the weekend, no doubt, most of the festival-goers were feeling pretty much like the “Folk On Tap” journalist would feel about it 16 years later.
At the time, Jez had just ended his brief stint playing in Tom McConville’s group DAB HAND, and was trying to establish a partnership with Jake Walton. As it happened, all these musicians were at the same festival and a photograph exists of McConville, Tom Napper and Gordon Tyrall (Jez’s replacement) jamming with Jez and Jake in a bar at some point over the festival weekend. Also present was Martin Carthy, Dave Burland, and The Doonan Family, though the highlight of the event was the visit (in a non-performance role) by the recuperating Nic Jones with his family, down from Yorkshire. In such illustrious company, the debut of a new Jez Lowe song was small beer indeed.
The origins of BACK IN DURHAM GAOL, as explained by the author to us, are typically various and varied. Jez was at that time playing tenor banjo with a local dance outfit, The Trimdon Folk Band (something he did for most of the 1980’s, yet this is rarely mentioned in his biogs of the time). The band’s repertoire for the ceilidhs and barn dances they performed at most weekends, was apparently growing stale by the mid – 80’s, yet the various members were strangely reluctant to introduce new material into the act. Jez speaks of making up the melody to BACK IN DURHAM GAOL on a harmonica one day at home, and then percistantly playing it in between dances at the bands’ shows, in the vain hope that they would pick it up and bring it into the set.
It is quite obvious then, that the origins of the tune at least lie in the North east of England’s dance tradition, and even today there are several dance bands in the UK who have adapted the tune to accompany dances. Anyway, it evidently became apparent that the Trimdon Folk Band were uniquely unimpressed by the tune, so Jez decided that rather than waste it, he would try putting a lyric to it. The North East Of England writer Tommy Armstrong had written a song called “Nae Good Luck In Durham Jail” in the late nineteenth century, apparently from personal experience. Jez knew the song from the singing of Geordie vocalist Bob Davenport, for whom the Trimdon Folk Band were a sometime backing group at gigs in the North East of England. There is no doubt, as Jez himself admitted in the liner notes to the original vinyl version of GALLOWAYS, that Armstrong’s song was an influence (Armstrong’s birthplace was the village of Tantobie in County Durham by the way), but Jez himself claims there was another over-riding theme to the song that many people miss: at the time it was written there was a sudden upsurge in the number of singer-songwriters on the UK folk scene, many dealing effectively with a wide range of social questions and political themes, while Jez himself found that he was continually being labelled as an exclusively North East of England writer, a role that was becoming something of a burden for him, he felt. Thus, he decided that this was to be the point that he moved away from North East England in his songs, and that never again would he be found in the artistic prison that his Durham identity had created for him! As an ironic result of this uncharacteristic bout of poetic petulence, Jez found that this very song would be the one that made that label stick forever, and that simultaneously taught him that the stories of small town County Durham were perhaps more effective in hitting the universal ear than any attempt he could make to write on a universal scale.
Jez has probably performed this song more than any other in his career. At one point he developed a startlingly different version, played like a slow ballad with guitar backing, a spontaneous attempt one night at a gig in Leeds to try something different with the song. He toyed with this version for several months before reverting to the usual arrangement. One other spontaneous change has stuck, that is the lyric change at the end of the last verse, which is now captured on record as part of the “Live at the Davy Lamp” CD. Few, if any of the 24 recorded cover versions of the song include this change. Don’t be surprised if more changes follow.