Sunday, February 16, 2014

I sang with the Unthanks

I went to another one of those singing weekends hosted by popular band The Unthanks. We flew into Edinburgh and took the train down to Berwick on Tweed, noting how the town's fortifications are already being renovated in advance of the referendum's outcome.

In broad terms this singing weekend worked like the last one (an account of which is linked to below). Attendees hung out with the Unthanks, Rachel and Becky Unthank taught us songs and got us to sing them in three part harmonies, other members of the Unthanks cooked for us, we went for a walk, sacrificed one of our number to Gruad, had sing-songs, and so on. This time the weather was good enough for us undertake a good long walk, that brought us by the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, where we sang a song; then we walked on to Newtwon-by-the-sea to visit a pub called The Ship Inn, where we drank pints and sang sea shanties, to the delight of regular attendees. Yarrrr!

There were some novel elements this year. As well as having George Unthanks (father of Rachel and Becky) and shanty superstar Jim Mageean along, we also had as guest stars the local geordie singing group The Young'Uns. These fellows are amazingly good at the vocal harmony business and are also of the roffler persuasion. What was most amusing about them, however, was that they look like three young hipsters, the very last people you would expect to be singing songs about mythical personifications of Newcastle industrialism or mediaeval radical priests until they open their mouths and do just that.

The other innovation was the addition of an early Burns Night element to saturday night festivities (combined with a bit of wassailing and the like). We were treated to not one but two separate instances of Scottish people performing Burns' haggis poem. The combination of highly deliberate delivery and extreme actions had me wondering whether this was something that all Scottish people learn in school. Hearing a series of Burns poems (including the one about the mouse and all that) had me thinking that maybe there is something to this national poet of Scotland; I also found myself wondering some more about Scots English.

Saturday night also saw some unusual festivities. I was secretly pleased that there was no Finnish Sailor Wrestling this year, but there was a re-run of Face To Face. This game sees two people stand very close together, eyeballing each other, and they then both sing at each other until one of them forgets their words or is disqualified (for jigging around, smiling or being over intimidating). It is a popular diversion in a certain folk club of the North East. I gave it a go, psyching myself up to sing 'Your Party' by Ween in as deadpan a manner as possible and was I think on the brink of winning when I had a blank with the words; oh well, a clear moral victory. My beloved, on the other hand, treated her opponents to some terrifying Georgian yodelling tunes, bludgeoning them into submission until she won the coveted prize: a mug made by Becky Unthank herself. As I won such a mug myself at the Finnish Sailor Wrestling last year, we are now a two mug household and I am thinking how we can have a competition to establish which of us is the greatest champion.

I will mention a couple of the songs we practiced over the weekend. One of them was the simple round 'The Waters of Babylon', which I remember from folk masses of yore. It has the same words as the Boney M classic but a different tune. The god bothery theme continued with 'Dark December', a Graeme Miles tune that starts off being about how winter is rubbish before suddenly reminding us that the little Baba J was born in December. Then there was an odd Alasdair Roberts tune called 'The King's Hand', about meeting the King on the beach alone, drinking his wine, touching his hand and then snuggling up to him. What King, was this, I wondered. In some ways it was like a continuation of the religious stuff, with the King a divine figure, perhaps Christ returning to the world. But the lyrics had the King bearing a wedding ring on his finger. Perhaps the sense of the lonely King still having this aura of quasi-divinity is an evocation of the mediaeval sense of monarchs as above lesser mortals. Either way, this song was a bitch to sing, with odd phrasings and harmonies that jumped all over the place.

Alasdair Roberts sings 'The King's Hand', without the harmonies

I think that the real star tune was 'The Magpie', a composition by David Dodds. The cunning corvid is here presented as a clever and mocking presence who must be placated lest she bring terrible bad luck down. If you are singing the low parts this was a real corker as the chorus features a repetition of the line 'Devil, devil, I defy thee'; on the third repetition the low part goes low that it felt like I was no longer singing but channelling a subterranean vibration. The effect was rather eerie, which is funny for a line that is meant to express defiance of the Evil One.

The Unthanks - The Magpie from Anthologies on Vimeo

Another memorable tune was 'Shallow Brown', where we sang the refrain ("Shallow, Oh Shallow Brown") while Becky Unthank sang the verses. It is a simple enough tune and I think we sang it with it without any big harmonies or fancy stuff like that. It did not need them, such is its beauty. The words tell of a sailor bidding farewell to his true love as his ship departs for the sea. While we all know what sailors get up to while away from port and we all know the stories of their having an endless series of lady friends in every port they visit, yet there was something wonderfully poignant about this piece, largely down I think to Becky's subtly expressive delivery.

I had a crack at singing myself when it got to party piece time on the Saturday night, treating the assembled throng to my rendition of US Civil War classic 'The Battle Cry of Freedom' (Northern version). People joined in a bit and someone asked me about it the next day, suggesting to me that I did not completely butcher it.

So it was all good fun. I was particularly pleased to renew acquaintances from the previous year, and so on.



Your Party

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

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