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PETE WOOD - Johnny Handle: Life And Soul

PETE WOOD - Johnny Handle: Life And Soul
Private Label ISBN: 9780957618794

I’ve listened to, read and written many reviews over the years. Whilst it is possible to write about a CD after a few plays, a book takes a long time to read, especially one as well written and interesting as this one by Pete Wood about Johnny Handle.

The book is full of many anecdotes, some provided by other stalwarts of the Northumbrian music scene, some from Johnny himself, charting his early life during the Second World War right through to the present day. There are also some great archive pictures of Johnny together with various performers, as well as the locations of the clubs he played in. Along the way we hear about his life down the pit, having chosen not to follow his father as a teacher, which was probably the most important decision he ever made; the music scene would have been a lot poorer if Johnny had not become fascinated by the local dialect, something he used in his songs.

Ironically, after spending until 1965 at the pits, Johnny made another important change - he trained to be a teacher. This change, as Pete points out, allowed him more time to perform on the folk circuit and led to The High Level Ranters becoming the force that they were. It was in this group that Pete got to know Johnny well, after he received a call from him in the early eighties asking him to join the group. My own favourite section of the book concerns this time, as it was around then that I first became aware of Northumbrian music and the role of Johnny, both as a musician and as a songwriter. The bit about the trip to Australia shows the many sides to his character (something Pete does so well throughout the book).

By telling Johnny’s life story, the author cleverly also gives us a history of all the clubs at the time, illustrates the many musical projects Johnny has been involved in (the latest of which was a couple of years ago at the Hartlepool Folk Festival), and demonstrates the remarkable music that Johnny has been responsible for.

Pete’s writing clearly shows the respect and warmth he has for the subject (something that is evident all the way through), but also it shows the tremendous knowledge he has about the man and the Northumbrian scene. This book is not some academic work; rather it is a piece of oral history, written down for us to enjoy and to learn from. I found it fascinating. It is a book that can be read cover to cover, but also one where the reader can delve in and out. Anyone with the slightest interest in the folk scene over the years, and the real characters who shaped the tradition, will not only find it interesting but also a good read. Johnny Handle is one of those characters - in fact he is the Life And Soul.

Dave Beeby

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This album was reviewed in Issue 122 of The Living Tradition magazine.