Doreen Henderson

Fri, 06/03/2022 - 16:00
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Doreen and her husband Bryan were the last survivors of the pioneer leadership. They kept the folk-fire burning – never deviating from the original family concept and ideal that folk music is about people and community as well as about songs.

Doreen Henderson, daughter of Jack Elliott and a member of the Elliott family of Birtley, passed away on 20 March 2022 at the age of 94.

There is a line in the 1915 Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, inspired by his walks in England with friend Edward Thomas - writer and poet, killed at The Battle of Arras in 1917 - which states, “knowing how way leads on to way”.  I reflect on that line now – “way leading on to way” – thinking about the passing of Doreen, a friend for almost 60 years, and how fate and circumstance led me into her orbit, and into the wider influence of the Elliott family.

It all started in the very early 60s when, with one or two of my skiffle friends, I visited a folk club run by Johnny Handle, Lou Killen, John Brennan, Colin Ross, John Reavey, Foster Charlton et al. It was held in The Newcastle Liberal Club and it was there that I first encountered British traditional folk music. My initial reaction was shock. It drove me and my Rock Island Line friends into the cloakroom – yes, a cloak room… it was a Liberal Club after all – to sing American folk songs and Woody Guthrie songs. This Land Is Your Land rang out in the cloakroom as some sort of instinctive act of spiritual cleansing.  Many years later Graeme Miles told me he was in that cloakroom too.

As in not liking your first taste of beer but ending up joining CAMRA, so with us. We went back to The Liberal Club the very next week. The club was run on a Ewan MacColl franchise model - a concert in reality. The singers sang and audience sat. I suppose you could put it this way:

“Sit - boys - sit

don’t you dare to say a word

Remember where you are now lads –

you’re in the house of God

And I’m your guardian angel –

I’ll teach you the rights from wrongs

Don’t you dare to enjoy yourself –

you’re here to listen to songs.”

Only the occasional well-behaved young person (in this instance my old school friend Ian Fraser and the sadly missed Newcastle singer Maureen Craik) was allowed to perform in a carefully controlled way so as to reassure the folk gods that the future of the folk revival would never change or depart from rules - carved in Keswick stone - that had been brought down from the mountain. Way leads on to way.

One night at The Liberal Club they advertised ‘The Elliott Family’. It was not long after they had been ‘discovered’ by Ewan MacColl (with the help of Johnny Handle, I believe) and had recorded for the MacColl & Seeger Radio Ballad, The Big Hewer). They sat behind a long table as I remember it - not unlike The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. But what a ‘supper’ they served up. Jack, Em, John, Pete, Len and Doreen bounced off one another - nothing staid about them - boisterous, quick witted and a bubbling cauldron of sibling rivalry. Little wonder Doreen was a strong woman.

I remember an earnest BBC Newcastle reporter turning up one night at The Liberal when Jack Elliott happened to be there. The reporter was seeking folk fans’ reactions to a new single that was coming out called Keel Row Rock. He questioned Jack. Jack said, “I think it should be recorded on a dustbin lid and bashed over the head of whoever recorded it.” Exit reporter.

The Elliotts spoke a language I understood. Penshaw / Shiney Row/ Fatfield / Washington / Birtley Pitmatic / Pit Yacker.  A Damascene moment.

For those who want to understand the historical context of the Elliotts within the north-east folk revival, there is a fine book written by Pete Wood - The Elliotts Of Birtley. Death Of A Miner is a 1966 film (which can be found on YouTube) with footage of the Elliott family that brings you to an understanding of who they were and what they passed on. Individuals but essentially one unit - a family.

Shortly after their Liberal Club ‘happening’, the Elliott family started the iconic Red Lion Folk Club in Birtley and on reflection this was a pivotal moment for me and others like me. The Birtley Folk Club diaspora created there has spread far and wide, and all wax lyrical about those days of sitting on beer crates crammed together in a way that would give any present-day fire chief nightmares.

Ewan MacColl asked for the words of Pound A Week Rise in that club and told me, with relish, that he’d sung it in Franco’s Spain. Today The Red Lion Birtley - tomorrow the world.

The Birtley Folk Club members were an extension of the Elliott family. Ewan MacColl may have initiated the folk revival, but the Elliotts democratised it in their club as a social manifestation of their political philosophy. Audience and performers were one. All the Elliotts took pride in the development of their new folk flock - especially Doreen and her husband, Bryan Henderson.

For my part - sharing the same background as the Elliotts – I felt as if I’d found a platform for song-writing. A few years ago, Doreen gave me a tape recording I made in the Elliott home in the early 60s; you can hear the approving voice of Em at the end of Pound A Week Rise. That was the magic of the Elliott family in dealing with younger folk - warmth. No mentoring - only space and encouragement.

Doreen and her husband Bryan were the last survivors of the pioneer leadership. They kept the folk-fire burning – never deviating from the original family concept and ideal that folk music is about people and community as well as about songs. Old battlehardened Birtley-ites are a tribe that wear - justifiably - rose-tinted glasses.

And now? Well Doreen may no longer be physically with us, but the strength and light of her personality will only leave me when I leave the building.

I will end with three aspects of this wonderfully strong woman who was my friend for so many years.

Family & Justice

If you’ve ever watched Doreen ‘work the room’ at a music session you can appreciate her ability to draw people together and create an instant family - unionising was instinctive in her. Doreen was principled - this is a word people use again and again in reference to her. She was fiery too - more blast furnace than a ‘warm glow’ gas fire when confronted by injustice. Principle and passion.

Laughter & Humour

What artist would not pay to have Doreen in an audience? Especially funny songs. I have a live recording from Birtley of the first performance of a song called Tommy Lie Down. It is based on a story my mother told me about her troublesome pitman brother. The recording captures the immediacy of Doreen’s lightning reaction - with laughter - to a song she’d never heard before. I didn’t think anyone would understand the song, except perhaps Bert Draycott, but Doreen did - immediately. This link takes you to that Birtley Folk Club moment in time that I treasure –

I have never met anyone who ‘lived’ a music session in the way Doreen Henderson did. In a live situation she was super-alive; totally immersed in the moment. Laser focus and intensity personified.

The Voice

I used to joke with Doreen by telling her that she was the north-east Hazel Dickens (West Virginia singer-songwriter) with a voice out of Birtley but via Appalachia. To me she had a mountain voice that was a haunting cry. It was clear and cut through. A voice that told the truth in a plaintive, honest and open way. It was piercing and to the point, and a reflection of herself. Doreen had another voice - a writing ‘voice’. I have some of her writings. Here is a random snippet: “Like me Dad and uncle Reece I collected mushrooms and blackberries on the way home. The mushrooms had a flavour I’ve never tasted since, maybe because it was pit pony manure they grew in - I don’t know, but they were lovely.

When I was asked for these reflections about Doreen, I realised that I am but one voice - one traveller - and can only travel one road. Unlike Robert Frost - who had two paths to choose from - I had only one. My path is that of bearing a simple personal witness to the gratitude I feel for having been a speaking, listening friend of Doreen over many years. What I write here are the only tracks I can make, but I hope others follow and, by making their own tracks, tell their own story about Doreen. I am grateful for her friendship and her life.

“Way leads on to way” - so here we are, nearly 60 years after I first saw Doreen. She will remain alive in my mind until I leave the building. I feel blessed that I ventured into her musical and political universe.  Doreen was a day-to-day practising Socialist whose actions were governed by her political commitment.

Doreen and Bryan Henderson have long been the grandees of the north-east folk scene - supportive of each other too; both with the gift of intellectual curiosity that belies any chronological age. Bryan put their love story into a beautiful song.

Someone once said, “The reason for life is to find your own gift and the purpose to give it away.” Doreen had a life affirming gift - never subject to thrift - and she gave it away every day.

For all who loved her.

Ed Pickford