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Songs of the Coalfields

Six mining folksongs given a prototype pop video treatment

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In 1952 A L ('Bert') Lloyd, seminal presence in the post-war folksong revival movement, published Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields. The National Coal Board helped: Mining Review itself ran an item appealing for songs to be sent in (then co-producer Leslie Shepard was himself a folksong scholar). In 1957, Data filmed the great Ewan MacColl (whom Lloyd deeply influenced) plus Isla Cameron performing sample songs, illustrating them with little proto-pop-promos featuring local people in the relevant regions as their casts. These six 'Songs of the Coalfields' were released as stories in separate Mining Review issues. Proving quite popular non-theatrical bookings, in 1964 they were released as a single 16mm compilation film.

Culturally and politically, the folk revival was less simple than it appeared. Lloyd and MacColl spurned Cecil Sharp House - home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society - for fixing village-England in aspic, proffering industrial folksong as a radical alternative. Yet they too sometimes stand accused of wishful, contradictory thinking. Such debates play out in Mining Review's song choices. Four were in Lloyd's anthology, two of them ('The Sandgate Nursing Song' and 'The Row Between the Cages') Tyneside-sourced, North East England having proved his most fertile territory. Scotland's 'The Blantyre Explosion' was another obvious choice. But 'The Plodder Seam', from Lancs, was not Victorian, having been penned by MacColl in 1937 when he was still plain Jimmie Miller from Salford.

Among major coalfields, Yorkshire and the Midlands are absent. And two songs hadn't featured in Come All Ye Miners. Wales had been the biggest field-research disappointment, which was speculatively blamed on the dissipation of its indigenous language, and its deep musicality having been channelled into Methodist choristry. However, 'The Best Little Doorboy' was later unearthed, by legendary American musicologist Alan Lomax (another MacColl collaborator).

'Sixteen Tons' illustrates purism's pitfalls. Billed as last-century West Virginian, it was written in 1946 by rising country star Merle Travis, actually from Kentucky coal country, on request for a traditional-style Appalachian ballad. Slicked-up by Tennessee Ernie Ford, it stormed country and pop charts, going Transatlantic in competition with Frankie Laine's even poppier cover. Here, it was a hit too for Lonnie Donegan (skiffle being a uniquely British take on the US music Lomax had done so much to popularise), prompting in turn an opportunistic cover by... Ewan MacColl, a year before this screen rendition.

MacColl was a multimedia artist. Three songs reappeared in his splendid (sadly out-of-print) album The Shuttle and the Cage. His friendship with the NCB filmmakers was in keeping with his many experiments combining folksong with documentary radio, television and film. The Mining Review songs are among the most innocently, plainly presented (though helping inspire The Big Hewer, among the best of the complex BBC Radio Ballads by Charles Parker, MacColl and Peggy Seeger). They were hastily shot, their editing's sometimes a wee bit on the sloppy side - and they're great. Lloyd had written of the songs themselves that "they remain as coarse and awkward as the day they were first sung... Their very crudity and clumsiness is a virtue... "

Patrick Russell

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