Rochdale Cowboy’s and Old Man’s Tales…

Mike Harding, Comedian, Folk Musician,Writer a...

I would have to admit to not being a real folk buff – I like some of it but it’s just one of the many musical genre that I have dipped into during my life. That said, the folk music of England (and other Nations) is important from both social and musical viewpoints. This post is dedicated to the memory of one Folk Music legend and his legacy…

Ian Campbell (1933-2012)

I remember first being introduced to Folk Music during the early 1970s. This was mostly due to the fairly regular folk club events held at my parent’s pub in Skipton at the time but secondly, it was also probably thanks to a funny little tubby man from Lancashire called Mike Harding.

Known to many as ‘The Rochdale Cowboy’ after the title of one of his hit records, Mike Harding at various times in his life has also been a stand-up comic, photographer, traveller, filmmaker, playwright musician and, until the end of this year (see here), a popular BBC Radio 2 presenter.

Like me Mike is also a Yorkshireman by choice, a factor reflected in Mike Harding’s Yorkshire Dales. But Mike also has a passion for all things Yorkshire, not just the Dales. He enjoys the countryside and the environment and he values many of those traditions which are (thankfully) still often displayed in rural communities. He is an avid fisherman (see his Guide to Tying North Country Flies) and perhaps most importantly; we’re both members of the same political party, The STP (Stuff The Politicians)!

When the Yorkshire Post asked Mike – What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity? – He replied…

I think it’s to do with being far enough away from London not to take much notice of it, as Lancashire is too. We tend to look down on London and rightly so. Also, the Yorkshire landscape – the hills and moors – have bred people that have always been independent…(Read more)

The thing I like most about many examples of folk music is how the songs often tell real life stories, as opposed to many of today’s commercially contrived clap-trap records. These are usually designed for one thing and one thing only, to simply make money for people. But in addition to the ubiquitous story telling about tales of daring do and social trauma throughout history, folk music can also be fun.

Although purists will say that some of Mike’s musical work isn’t folk per se I for one don’t really give a stuff. Mike was simply putting a modern slant on that age-old practice of story telling by song. He came up with tracks like Rochdale Cowboy and Strangeways Hotel which were both forms of social observation. Wether they are considered to be folk music or not by ‘folk snobs’ matters not a jot to me; both told stories by music and people enjoyed them – good enough to my mind.

Mike Harding (like Bob Harris and Terry Wogan) is also something of a national treasure to many radio lovers of my age group.

My somewhat nostalgic memories of Mike and his humour, along with periodic visits to his Radio shows, are the main reason behind our virtual friendship on Facebook. That ‘friendship’ is also how I became aware of Ian Campbell’s sad demise today.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group were one of the most popular and respected folk groups of the British folk revival of the 1960s. The group made many appearances on radio, television and at numerous national and international venues and festivals. Ian was also the father of four sons, three of whom have became famous to the music world in their own right, all be it in a totally different genre.

But Ali and Robin Campbell (and latterly Duncan Campbell) all of UB40 fame have, like their father, created something of a lasting legacy for the music world. UB40 and the Campbell brothers should be seen as one of the most important influences on the popularity of Reggae music. Not just within the UK but probably the remainder of the world outside of the Caribbean.

But back to their father Ian… The following YouTube clip of An Old Man’s Lament is sung here by Jon Rennard but the words were written originally by Ian Campbell. The song is better known by the title “The Old Man’s Tale” (or “The Old Man’s Song”) and is famous amongst folk music lovers…

An Old Man’s Tale…

At the turning of the century I was a boy of five
My father went to fight the Boers and never came back alive
My mother left to bring us up no charity would seek
So she washed and scrubbed and brought us up on 7/6 a week

When I was twelve I left the school and went to find a job
With growin’ kids my ma was glad of the extra couple of bob
I know that better schooling would have stood me in good stead
But you can’t afford refinements when you’re struggling for your bread

And when the Great War came along I didn’t hesitate
I took the royal shilling and went off to do my bit
I fought in mud and tears and blood three years or thereabout
Then I copped some gas in Flanders and was invalided out

And when the war was over and we’d finished with the guns
I got back into civvies and I thought the fighting done
I’d won the right to live in peace but I didn’t have no luck
For soon I found I had to fight for the right to go to work

In ‘twenty-six the General Strike found me out on the street
For I’d a wife and kids by then and their needs I couldn’t meet
But a brave new world was coming and the brotherhood of man
But when the strike was over we were back where we began

I struggled through the ‘Thirties out of work now and again
I saw the Black Shirts marching and the things the did in Spain
But I raised my children decent and I taught them wrong from right
Then Hitler was the lad that came and showed them how to fight

My daughter was a land girl, she got married tae a Yank
They gave my son a gong for stopping one of Rommel’s tanks
He was wounded just before the end and convalesced in Rome
Married an Eyetye nurse and never bothered to come home

My daughter writes me once a month a cheerful little note
About their colour telly and the other things they’ve got
She has a son, a likely lad, he’s nearly twenty-one
Now she says they’ve called him up to fight in Vietnam

We’re living on the Pension now and it doesn’t go too far
Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry
I don’t know how to change things but by Christ we’ll have tae try

An Old Man’s Tale is a perfect example of social history story telling set to music. It must also have played it’s part in the award that Ian Campbell received earlier this year – the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Good Tradition’ Award. This recognition was given for, Campbell’s outstanding contribution to folk music over five decades. A fitting final tribute to valued member of the folk music world.

The damper for me, given the impending removal of Mike Harding from BBC Radio 2 Folk Music coverage, perhaps it was a little inconsiderate to have the award presented by Stuart Maconie (reportedly Harding’s replacement). It must have felt a bit like a smack in the mouth for Mike. Even more so if you consider his fifteen years plus of working to raise the profile and popularity of folk music amongst the listening public?

I suppose, as is often said, “that’s show business!”

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