The Times Article of Water music: the stirring songs of the River Thames

Times theatre critic Clive Davis, who lives on a houseboat on the Thames, writes in praise of the folk songs inspired by the river.

Here they are at last, eager to tell their stories in a new collection of folk songs, Working River: Songs and Music of the Thames, a time capsule that ranges from ballads about the lost profession of the lighterman and bargee to female factory workers and footloose characters on the razzle.

It’s a delightful journey. What gives the songs extra resonance is that the performers are not starry names from folk music’s aristocracy: instead, the disc’s curator, the journalist and part-time performer Brian Denny, has assembled recordings made by amateur musicians who turn up to perform at clubs as intimate as the Hoy at Anchor in Southend.

The aim, Denny says, was to document working people singing songs about working people, and the result is an album that brings the river back to life. I happen to live on a narrowboat on the Thames, on the picturesque stretch made famous in The Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat. The river can be an unruly beast here. When there are days of heavy rains my neighbours and I have to be careful to keep loosening our mooring ropes. And in the depth of winter there are often weeks and weeks when the current is running so fast that we can’t go out on the water. (That may not sound like much of a hardship, but bear in mind that we have to think about how to get to the local marina to have waste tanks pumped out once a month or so. Sit down with a boater and talk of toilets is never far away.)

When I open my hatch doors in the morning I might see a passing gin palace or yet another paddleboarder going for a jaunt. (During the lockdown summer of 2020 the river became a mini motorway, crammed with boards and marauding kayaks.) But working boats are a rarity. Every now and then the supply boat bearing sacks of coal comes looking for customers, and there’s the occasional dredger. My Thames, though, is something of a backwater.

Yet when I listen to Working River while I’m walking along the towpath, dodging hikers and rogue dogs, I’m reminded that the Thames was once a very different beast, particularly when it passed through London and made its inexorable way to the sea. In the 19th century the waterway, crowded, polluted and restless, was the beating heart of an industrial superpower. All human life was there.

And even when it was dolled up in gaudy recreational colours, the river could still be an unforgiving place. One of the songs on the album, The Wreck of the Princess Alice, is an account of the sinking in 1878 of a paddle steamer near Woolwich that resulted in the death of about 650 day-trippers in sewage-clogged waters. The disaster has been all but forgotten today, but it prompted reforms in the policing of the Thames and the disposal of sewage. We are, in short, a long way from the sedate world of Jerome K Jerome’s waterborne idlers or Kenneth Grahame’s cuddly creatures messing about in boats.

Amid the hardships and the striker’s anthems, there is humour too. Day Trip to Southend tells of a group of hardy souls who discover that the Thames Estuary is not quite the Riviera:

“Let’s take a day trip to Southend on Sea

Mother said the air would do us good

When we got down there, there was no sea anywhere

All we saw was miles and miles of mud.”

Denny insists, though, that he is not just interested in preserving museum pieces. While this brand of music may have one eye on the past, he emphasises that it is not just documenting a lost world. “It’s a living tradition,” he says. “People think of folk music as just old stories. But old stories can inspire new art. You can revisit old culture and create something new, something that people can feel a part of. It’s what’s missing in a lot of today’s music. People in this current climate are looking for something authentic.”

Strikers’ anthems and dispatches from the barricades are an unmistakable sign of the disc’s political leanings. Fifty-six-year-old Denny, a former Morning Star journalist, now edits the in-house journal of the RMT, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. The album is sponsored, moreover, by the General Federation of Trade Unions, which provides educational courses for members of smaller specialist unions.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1971

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1971 ITV/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Still, the best of the music in the set transcends politics and ideology. Ewan MacColl, the grandfather of the traditional British folk scene, may have been an unrepentant communist, yet he was also responsible for some unforgettably tender music, from The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face to the ballad that is featured on Working RiverSweet Thames Flow Softly, beautifully performed by the duo of Jolene Missing and Joe Hymas.

Denny, whose own contribution to the set is an original song about a 19th-century smuggler, Elizabeth Little, began planning the album about 18 months ago. He jokingly describes the business of recording the songs as being “an Alan Lomax experience”, a reference to the American musicologist celebrated for making field recordings in far-flung parts of the US. Of the 21 songs in the collection, 12 were recorded specially for the project; others were made by the musicians themselves.

In keeping with the traditional DIY spirit, the album was a word-of-mouth enterprise. Denny knows the musicians. Two of them — Kate Waterfield and Charlie Skelton, composers of the instrumental Lapwing to Shore — had played at his wedding.

Lockdown and social distancing added complications to the recording process, but the finished product at least begins to fill the vacuum left by the closure of so many clubs during the pandemic. Folk, after all, is the most communal of forms; bringing people together is its raison d’être.

The river’s connection to the wider world is reflected in a cover of London is the Place for Me, the calypso sung by the Trinidadian performer Lord Kitchener (alias Aldwyn Roberts) when he arrived at Tilbury Docks on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Working River is not a multicultural project, however. Instead, it reflects a more homogenous white working-class ethos.

It’s all about roots. Denny, who is considering making a second album of river songs, argues that the local clubs that he frequents offer a more authentic form of music-making than are found in more fashionable venues. “Real folk music is still in the clubs,” he says. “A builder can turn up and sing a song about his job. That’s where it’s at. We’re not looking for a virtuoso out of music school. It’s not about people noodling.”

Working River is the fruit of that philosophy. The songs are as timeless as the river itself.
Working River: Songs and Music of the Thames is available from folktreerecordings.bandcamp.com

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