NORTHERN MINSTRELS

Historian Dave Harker talks about his new book which tracks the history of North East popular music and song. 

“The Northern Minstrels draws on a wealth of research to tell the story of North East pipers, minstrels, choristers, street singers and dancing masters, covering the duels, disputes and riots”.

Newcastle based Dave, who turned 74 on November 5, has previously published 16 books, eight of which cover the history of North East music, including biographies of  Geordie Ridley and Blind Willie Purvis.

Also Joe Wilson and Ned Corvan, both were used as a basis for successful plays Mr Corvan’s Music Hall and The Great Joe Wilson by playwright Ed Waugh.

What inspired you to write the book ?  This is the richest region in England in terms of singers and songwriters whose audiences were predominantly working-class.

Terms like ‘North-Eastern’ ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ and so on to describe songs ignore the fact that while what survive today may have been sung in a given region or country, that does not mean that they originated there.  

I had to put the musicians in a social context to show the ways in which music making and printed balladry helped shape the politics of their day.

This included general literacy, printing presses, religious upheavals, employment of official minstrels, as well as laws relating to vagrancy.

Did you have any challenges when writing the book ? The book is by far the most challenging I have ever written because there are so few sources and I had to research what was happening all over England and southern Scotland. I felt it was important to collate the information that survives so others can expand on my work in the future.

What is your background Dave ? I was born in Guisborough in what was then the North Riding of Yorkshire on 5 November 1946. I won a scholarship to Guisborough Grammar School in 1958.

In 1966 I went to Jesus College, Cambridge, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I was awarded a BA in 1969, and in 1970 became a senior scholar at University College.  

I later declined the offer of a fellowship at a Cambridge college and accepted a temporary lectureship at Manchester Polytechnic, since I wanted to give something back to students less privileged than myself.

I joined the Labour Party in 1975 but left in disgust and joined the International Socialists. In 1976, to my surprise, Cambridge University accepted my PhD thesis, ‘Popular Song and Working-Class Consciousness in North East England’.

In 1977 as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party I organised buses to both Anti-Nazi League carnivals in London.

The ‘80s saw more academic work for Dave including the Trades Union Council, Senior Lecturer in Trade Union Studies and building  miners’ support groups in 1984-85….But by then I was thoroughly disgusted with my colleagues’ careerism. By the early ‘90s I built the largest travelling stall of second-hand socialist books in Britain, and probably in Europe, for Manchester district Socialist Workers Party, and supplied Bookmarks bookshop in London.

I drifted away from the SWP, though I became the founding secretary of the North West Retired Members’ Branch and an officer of Manchester Trades Union Council. In 2015 I moved back to Newcastle, and in 2017 I received the Robert Tressell Award ‘For Services to Working People’.

What does the North East mean to you ?  A few years ago I researched the history of the word ‘Geordie’ and discovered that it had been used to patronise working people on Tyneside for over 200 years.

Virtually all ‘definitions’ had no historical accuracy or conceptual content, and the best one I know was that ‘Geordie’ was the name by which Tynesiders are known outside the district, either geographically, or culturally, even if they live there.

What bothered me was the tribalism in the region – Mackems (from Sunderland), Smoggies (from Teeside) and so on – not least because it did not serve the interests of working people, but on the contrary helped to divide them.

Only 100 copies of The Northern Minstrels have been printed.

They are available for £25 (plus £5 p&p) per copy from Dave at d1harker@btinternet.com

Interview by Gary Alikivi  November 2020.

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