As we have found to our cost when compiling this series of (relatively) in-depth looks into his songs, Jez Lowe is a man who does not like explaining himself, or talking about such concepts as “inspiration” or “background information” with regard to his writing. He has been heard to say, to the disbelief of those present at the time, that he’d sooner someone misinterpreted what he was trying to say in a song, rather than he himself have to explain to them the meaning of something that he’d already laboured on long to set out to his own satisfaction. Harsh words, not to say rash words, but indicative of a timid reticence rather than a bombastic carefree attitude on the part of the writer, we’d like to think.
There are however a number of occasions every year when Jez has to forgo such qualms and tackle these things head on! We refer of course to those early morning sessions at Folk Festivals around the country, listed in the programme of events as “Songwriters’ Workshop”, two words known to strike terror into the hearts of many composers of the idiom, but none moreso than Jez. We recall with fondness that workshop session in South Wales about ten years ago, when as one in a panel of six, Jez managed to get through the 90 minute session without contributing a single word and was first off the platform when the M.C. called time!
However on those occasions when such an escape eludes him, Jez inevitably produces an ace from the pack, with a much repeated, much practised examination of the composition of his most “covered”, most revered song, THE BERGEN. Thus, much of what you read here may already be familiar to you, coming as it does from our recollections of hearing Jez talk about this subject on many entertaining occasions.
The story starts at the turn of the century, when a ship called “The Berger” (note spelling) sank in heavy seas off Tees Bay on England’s North-East coast. It was a fishing vessel from Finland, though some think it may have been a type of merchantman called a “barquentine”, many of which ploughed the waters in that part of the North Sea. All hands were tragically lost, and their remains buried in the churchyard at Seaton Carew, at the very mouth of the River Tees on the northern bank.
To this day, the gravestone marking this tragic turn of events can be seen from the roadside next to the south-facing churchyard wall, bearing the barely legible words in weathered sandstone, “The Bonny Barque The Berger”. And this is what Jez Lowe saw one Winter’s day in early 1986, a mere 100 meters from the cottage where he lived at the time, in a row called, somewhat ironically, “South End”.
Events were beginning to catch up with Jez at that time. His third solo album GALLOWAYS was released that very week, but he was now contracted, as part of his partnership with Jake Walton, to record a new album to which he was expected to contribute four new songs. He had only two, “Japs and English” and “The Brockie Lads”, and inspiration and time were short. It was then that the words “Bonny Barque the Berger” apparently sang off that gravestone and on to the page of his notebook.
By the time Jake Walton showed up at South End for rehearsals in mid-January, Jez had come up with a long, long narrative ballad about the tragic loss of The Bergen, now renamed for the sake of “singability”, detailing the frantic fight of crew versus waves, with a suitable break where a “storm sequence”, to be played by Jake on the hurdy-gurdy, could be inserted for maximum dramatic effect, coupled with a dynamic melody in a suitable sombre minor key compatible to the ‘gurdy’s deep bass drone.
Jez played it for Jake. Jake listened and gave his reaction. “Don’t like it,” he said. In Jake’s estimation, the song was too long, too dreary, and was trying too hard to be a folk song. It just didn’t work. Jez was shocked and not a little hurt but in retrospect, he says, this was the strength of their partnership – that each was an admirer of the other’s talent and knew when they could do better – so if Jez should take notice of anyone it would be Jake.
So within a very few days Jez reworked the song, brutally slicing away “around 75% of the lyrics”, keeping only the relevant details and once again adopting that oblique angle from which to view the story, turning it from sea battle to love song, replacing the minor melody with a major one, and telling the whole story in around 20 lines. For added cohesion, perhaps, there are rhymes at the BEGINNING of lines as well as at the ends, though not all of those who have subsequently “covered” the song (30 plus worldwide at last count) have recognised this curious feature. Jez recalls first performing the song at Maidenhead Folk Club a week later, (with old friends Jim and Sylvia Barnes in the audience) and the reaction was such that “I knew we were on to a winner with that one”. The reaction when it was released on record, on TWO A ROUE in August 1986, confirmed that feeling, with Jake’s dulcimer and Jez’s keyboard backing adding just the right amount of atmosphere.
Within six months the cover versions began to appear, by people like Pat Ryan, The Tannahill Weavers, Gordon Bok and Cherish the Ladies in America, and other versions in Australia, Canada, Germany and Ireland. In 1992 The Bad Pennies recorded it as part of an unreleased “live” album, slightly outshining the original to these ears. (This recording was circulated by the London-based Celtic Connections Agency as part of a promotional tape in early 1993).
The original version of THE BERGEN is unavailable now, but a new version by Jez is included in the forthcoming “live” double album. The best of the cover versions we’ve heard are those by Cherish The Ladies and Canadian singer Marie du Fresne, though The Tannahill’s version is pretty good too.
As a postscript to all this, in the summer of 1999 the wreck of the Berger was located resting at the bottom of Tees Bay, and efforts are in hand to exhume her from her watery grave for relocation in Hartlepool’s new marina dock complex as a historical artifact. Whether the instigators of this project are aware of Jez’s song is not known.