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VARIOUS ARTISTS - Gannin’ To Blaydon Races - The Songs Of George Ridley

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Gannin’ To Blaydon Races - The Songs Of George RidleyMawson Wareham Music MWMCDSP107
DAVE HARKER - Gannin’ To Blaydon Races – The Life And Times Of George Ridley
Tyne Bridge Publishing ISBN 9781857952117

We took the bus from Balmbra’s and she was heavy laden,
Eighteen hundred and sixty-two on a summer's afternoon”

The 150th anniversary of the event which inspired the Geordie national anthem could hardly pass unnoticed, and here in print we have a comprehensive and thoroughly researched view of its composer 'Geordie' Ridley's world, including all of his surviving songs, and performed on CD by an array of Tyneside's finest singers. Ridley's Blaydon Races is a regional icon, and few can not have heard it, willingly or not - once in a Kent pub session, I was once asked for “that one you sang larst week, you know, about them bleedin' races!” Cushie Butterfield is the other of Ridley's songs to be still in general circulation, and indeed was a big pop hit in Ireland for Brendan Grace in 1972, while the book tells of its missing sixth verse, as well as its adaptation as a beer advert by Owen Brannigan on Tyne Tees TV in the early 1960s.

It's striking how topical most of his songs were, many about locally popular sports events like rowing and foot racing (this was well before its adoption by Newcastle United, who didn’t even exist then) and others celebrating long-forgotten local characters. Consequently it's hardly surprising that so many of these songs have not been heard of since Ridley's own time, but Dave Harker's book is a valuable attempt to put that right. It's full of little gems of information about those times, like the story of Balmbra's music hall itself - I well recall seeing Dick Irwin, the Geordie comedian there in the late 60s, when it was a real part of Newcastle's story as a city, while the work schedule of an entertainer in the 1860s puts us all to shame! The man was born in the desperate conditions which prevailed in central Gateshead, and lived only from 1835 - 1864, so his output was prolific, even if much is no doubt totally lost. The songs are all examined in detail, as well as their social context, and this is surely the main value of the book, which makes it essential reading to anyone with an interest in the social history of Tyneside, not only its musical tradition.

The CD is a very worthwhile attempt to re-create the original presentations of Ridley' s songs, from original arrangements as far as possible, and even if it's unlikely these songs will ever enter the public domain, the singing is excellent and the whole production is as near as we'll ever get to 'how it was then'. Ridley was really a music hall performer, and had no scruples about taking good tunes from Ireland or the USA - on the excellent principle that a good tune is a good tune. My overall impression of the CD is not of ‘folk' singers, but of real Geordie singers who have the nous to have really absorbed the feeling of the period - also the musical accompaniment seems appropriate, to my ears anyway - who can tell what these songs sounded like in the 1860s?

Overall the book and CD paint a fascinating picture of a man, his music and how it all came about.

Jim Bainbridge

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This album was reviewed in Issue 93 of The Living Tradition magazine.