FOLK N’ COAL with North East musician John Wrightson

When did you first get interested in music and who were your influences ? My influences go back to 1956. Lonnie Donegan, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers, Cliff & the Shadows, then later The Beatles to The Eagles. At 14 I used to plonk on my older brothers guitar when he was out. I was the youngest of four and I wouldn’t say my family were musical like, although my oldest brother had a disco.

I left school Easter ’61, shortly after that I bought my first guitar, a Rosetti Solid 7. It cost 18 guineas, a fortune those days. Bought on HP (hire purchase) of course.

Can you remember your first gig ? My first gig was in the summer of ‘61 at Ryhope Welfare Hall, County Durham. It was more of a dance than an audience, in a band called The Rustlers, four of us were 15 and one 14. The band went on for another 3 years.

What venues were you playing then ? Most venues were welfare and village halls, and the odd workingmen’s clubs. Workie clubs seemed to take over from about 1962 onwards. I think the Mersey Sound had something to do with it. They seemed to be the main venues throughout the ‘60s to the ‘90s and beyond.

What type of songs do you write ? Contemporary folk or poppy folk. I like good melodies and good lyrics. Quite a number of well-known artists have recorded my songs. Some of which play all over the world – Vin Garbutt (now deceased) Flossie Malavialle, and Manchester band Other Roads.

Do you record any of your music ? The last two year has been a bit of a nightmare health wise with open heart surgery, so I never had much chance to write a lot of new material. But I record my own songs in my home studio and record a new CD every year to 18 month.

Tell me about your new CD… The new CD is called All the Fields are Green Again. This song is about when back in the mid ‘50s, a beautiful piece of countryside between Murton and South Hetton in County Durham was obliterated to make way for the massive Hawthorn combined mine, it was there for over 50 years.

Wildlife and everything else was destroyed and a grey layer of dust and slurry covered everything and the smell of burning coke was terrible. I know I lived near it. I suppose the only good thing was there were lots of jobs.

When it closed in 1991 a huge tidying up procedure began. Although it was better, it was never the same. Hardly anyone has jobs now but all the fields are green again.

There is a song called Living on a Widows Pension. In 1960 the Northern counties and G.C.E. exams were introduced to East County Durham modern schools. It was 5 shilling (25p) a subject, you had to sit five subjects. Of course this was a fortune those days, and some couldn’t afford it, including me as my mother was a widow.

The headmaster kept telling us we’d never get a job without these exams. A week after I left school I filled a form in for an apprentice electrician at the coal board. Within a month I had an interview, a medical, then started work.

Remain is a song about the Brexit row that went on all last year and after. Gift of Life is about how precious life is. Being an ex-miner I tend to write lots of true to life songs about the pits. I was there for 21 years. Life in a Pit Village is one such song.

Brave Young Soldiers was especially written to commemorate 100 years since WW 1 ended. True Friendship is a song about a mate I’d never seen for 53 years and just by chance saw him on the internet. Now he is living in Reading and making his own guitars. His customers were all fantastic musicians. I contacted him thinking he may not remember me, but how wrong I was.

He even remembered chords to songs I showed him when we were teenagers. To show his gratitude, he offered to make me an acoustic guitar for the cost of materials, which I accepted.

Have you any gigs planned for 2020 ? The John Wrightson band don’t do as many gigs now but when we do it’s nearly always in the folk and live music scene, with a small quality PA. We are a contemporary folk band with one or two covers thrown in. Sadly like many others we had to cancel a number of gigs through the coronavirus. We’ll wait and see what happens.

 Interview by Gary Alikivi   April 2020.