CD review by Tony Smith
Jez Lowe is a prolific songwriter from England’s north-east. Steeped in the traditions of the coal mining communities, Lowe’s songs are sometimes gritty, sometimes witty, but always rooted firmly in sympathy for and pride in the working class.
Lowe is renowned as a member of the Pitman Poets and also as the winner of numerous awards and accolades in folk circles.
The paintings on the album cover are by Durham artist, Tom McGuinness, who was conscripted into the mines in the 1940s. His social realism provides a perfect backdrop for these songs.
As a ‘bonus’ tracks 13-18 are from Banners a work commissioned by East Durham Regional Council celebrating the disappearing mining culture. There is a slightly different feel to these tracks which understandably have a more middle of the road instrumentation and reflect perhaps the brass bands of the mines.
Tenterhooks 2005 is a re-mastering of an album originally produced a decade earlier.
The Bad Pennies line-up was Lowe, the left-handed guitarist and singer on cittern, harmonica and whistle, Bev Sanders on vocals, whistle and percussion, Bob Surgeoner on double bass, keyboard, accordion, slide guitar, banjo and vocals, Billy Surgeoner on fiddle, keyboard, whistle and vocals and Graham Bell on didgeridoo. While Lowe wrote most of the songs, other Bad Pennies contributed as well.
The sleeve notes provide the song lyrics and these are always powerful and sometimes provocative.
In ‘Sons of the Century’, Lowe points out that the rebellious spirit of young people of his generation was a result of the world which they inherited.
In ‘Sweep Horizons Clean’ he notes the abandonment felt when mines close and appeals; “Black mountain grow me some green”.
In ‘Crake in the Morning’ Lowe describes miners in their Sunday best heading off to a community meeting but ‘I saw them fade at each step they would take’.
One of the most powerful songs is ‘The Guilts’.
The singer meets a ‘well fed face from a hungry past’ who boasts that his conscience is clear because he fought his way to the top of the tree, ‘this is the age of the self-made man, do unto others before others can’.
The singer feels that this means abandoning principles and expresses the hope to be there when they chop the tree down. It is hard stuff.
On the other hand, there is the whimsical tale of ‘Aloysius’, a stray dog with opinions.
Nostalgia can seem maudlin but Lowe manages to express without sentimentality regret for time passing.
In ‘Bait Up’ an old man wants to paint the town red ‘but the town isn’t there any more’.
And in the title track ‘it gets so you wonder where the years are going’.
The condition of women is expressed well in ‘Weave and Worry’; ‘We patch up their clothes and stitch up their wounds, and make them ready for tomorrow’.
The final track ‘Ready for Tomorrow’ features the voices of primary school children.
The miners’ way of life might be fading, but its influence remains strong in the works of Jez Lowe.