Saturday, 4 May 2013

Book Review: Blaydon Races: A song and its writer

From LSHG Newsletter #49 (May 2013).

Blaydon Races by William Irving (1903)

Gannin’ to Blaydon Races:
The Life and Times of George Ridley

By Dave Harker
Tyne Bridge Publishing, Newcastle, 2011
ISBN 978-1857952117

Radio killed the music hall just as inexorably as video subsequently killed the radio star. But traces survive.

Those of us who listened to Two-Way Family Favourites in the late fifties recall that alongside Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde there would be requests for older songs, like Blaydon Races, sung perhaps by Owen Brannigan or the Five Smith Brothers. Today Blaydon Races is recognised as the “national anthem” of Tyneside and is a popular football song.

Now Dave Harker had written a fascinating little book about the history of the song and its composer, George Ridley. Harker will be best known to most LSHG supporters for his books on Robert Tressell and the Shrewsbury pickets, but he has also written extensively about folk song and other forms of music.

This is a short book – 150 pages of text – but its 486 footnotes are testimony to Harker’s remorseless labour of research, his accumulation of detail, biography and anecdote. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs and reproductions of documents.

Life was cruel for working people in nineteenth-century Britain. Harker does not spare us the horrors – overcrowded and insanitary housing, cholera and dangerous conditions down the pit. But there was also resilience – expressed particularly in various forms of working-class amusement. There was sport – as well as the racing at Blaydon, Harker mentions rowing and even quoits.

There were popular sportsmen, like the oarsman Robert Chambers, who aroused enthusiasm among workers without becoming overpaid and estranged from their roots like today’s footballers. And above all there was music. Harker describes the various places of entertainment on Tyneside, notably Balmbra's Concert Room, which offered "moral, instructive and rational amusement" and aimed to “promote virtue and truth".

Irish music was one important influence – Ridley was engaged as an “Irish comic vocalist” - despite the foul anti-Irish racism that was widespread. And though “blacked-up” minstrels now seem deeply  distasteful, this was one of the ways that African-American music first became known in Britain.

Politics as such plays only a small part in the narrative, though it is fascinating to learn that Joseph Cowen, who hired musicians for Blaydon Mechanics’ Institute, probably financed an attempt to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III of France.

The life of George Ridley, composer of Blaydon Races and Cushie Butterfield, sums up the contradictions of the age. Born in 1835, he went to work down the pit at the age of eight. Later he suffered a serious accident at work. He became a professional entertainer and song-writer, but died before reaching his thirtieth birthday. He symbolises both the enormous creativity present within the working class, and the way it was systematically crushed. Harker reproduces the lyrics of many of Ridley’s songs. The Tyneside dialect and eccentric spelling often makes these difficult for a (Yorkshire) foreigner to read. Music hall songs sometimes had complex and hidden meanings. (It was only a recent article in the London Review of Books that alerted me to the profoundly obscene message of Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow).

Harker does not discuss sexual innuendo, but he does draw attention to the antiauthoritarian references that occur in the songs. In one song Ridley derided the police:

A bobby’s the canniest job in the world,
He gets all his drink for nowt.

Another song explicitly approved a cabman cheating rich customers:

And when aw gets a swell in drunk that leeves
up West Parade,
Aw charge him a bob when he gets in and swear
he’s niver paid.

There is also some fascinating material on the impact and development of recording technology. Harker describes the working day of singer Charles Catcheside, who performed in Liverpool in the evening, returned to London by sleeper, sang forty songs in a recording studio (one every six minutes) and returned to Liverpool for the next evening performance. Closer to the lifestyle of a factory-worker than that of Elton John.

The nineteenth-century working class had a rich and complex history, far more many-sided than the mere chronicle of Chartist debates. Dave Harker is to be warmly thanked for uncovering a small part of the picture.

[Blaydon Races by Owen Brannigan is at
and by Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy and Inspector Lewis is at ]

Ian Birchall

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