THESE COALTOWN DAYS
One can learn a lot about the writing of Jez Lowe’s songs while listening to the way he introduces them in concert, provided one can sift through the jokes and asides and access the threads of truth therein.
The introduction for THESE COAL TOWN DAYS has always told the story about a phone call from the BBC requesting a song to be written on the spot for a broadcast that night in 1992 following the afternoon announcement by Michael Hesletine in Parliament, that 80% of the UK’s existing coal mines were to be summarily closed down within the year. Even non-mining communities and individuals were reeling from the shock of this announcement that day, and BBC North East was keen to mark the event in a significant way. So, within 10 minutes, Jez came up with a song that was to become another stapleof his repertoire, as well as the repertoires of many other singers and groups around the world.
The performance, recorded in the late afternoon, featured Jez accompanying himself with guitar, on a song that itself was much as it is today, save for a significant difference in the last line of the chorus: not “when these coal town days are done”, but “when Easington’s no more”, specifying Jez’s hometown, which at that time had one of the most thriving mines in the country.
That was how the lyric ran when, a few days later, Jez performed the song for the first time in public, as it were, at the then thriving folk club in Hawthorn Village, a mile or so from Easington, when he was backed by the resident band, also called Hawthorn, and augmented by fiddler Chuck Fleming, in a fully instrumentalised version of the song. This performance was actually captured on tape by the mobile unit from Northern Recording Studios of Consett, who were at the club that night recording a set by Hawthorn for a (ultimately unreleased) “live” album. The tape still exists, apparently, in the Northern Recording vaults.
As far as Jez was concerned at the time, that was the end of the song. It was several months later, when The Bad Pennies began to consider material for the album that eventually became BEDE WEEPS, that it was resurrected, and retitled, and an accapella version of it considered. At this point Jez came up the unconnected line, “Haway man, they’re liars and they’re cheats”, which was something his father had said when the closure announcements had originally been made. He knew they could be fitted in somewhere, but was unclear how it could work. It was Bev Sanders who constructed the chant as it was to fit before, after and during the song, much in the style of Sweet Honey In The Rock, one of her favourite singing groups at that time. The arrangement was to develop and change in performance, but it ensured that the 10 minute-to-construct, throw-away song, was a standout track on the album when it was released in mid-1993.
Since then it has been recorded by around a dozen other groups of singers, and has become a recognised “standard” around the UK folk club and festival scene. The introductory chant is sometimes dispensed with, but that didn’t deter a number of co-respondents on an internet chat site last year, going into deep discussion about what the line exactly means….
THESE COAL TOWN DAYS is one of the highlights on the new “Live at the Davy Lamp” album, where typically the audience joins in throughout. Meanwhile, the original “coal town”, Easington, has become almost the darling of the media, with a lengthy article in the Sunday Telegraph, to promote the film “Billy Elliot” starring Julie Walters that was shot on location among it’s bleak colliery streets, and more recently in the Guardian, which showed things in a more positive light, focusing on the recalamation of the coast line in these post-industrial times. But which ever way you look at it, the “coal town days” are most certainly done, with little more than a few songs to show for it.
(Easington is situated on the East Durham Coast, and is served by the A19 highway, between Sunderland and Teeside.)