I first met Ray Hearne at Sing-Folk-Speak at the Greystones Pub last year, where we had a bit of a natter in the interval and established that he’d gone to De La Salle College in Pitsmoor, just round the corner from where I was born and brought up. When Now Then magazine asked me for a follow-up piece to my article about Joseph Mather (there’s a longer version on this blog here) I immediately thought back to that night, where I’d been lucky enough to hear Nancy Kerr sing Mather’s alternative national anthem, God Save Great Thomas Paine. It struck me that Ray was a modern-day Mather, singing songs about industrial South Yorkshire and the great injustices of our times just as Sheffield’s original radical balladeer had done 200-odd years ago. I tried to track Ray down before I wrote the piece but he was away in the States, so it appeared in Now Then in this form, minus the final few paragraphs that I’ve added since meeting Ray for a couple of pints on Westgate in Rotherham.
Hearne was brought up in the Parkgate area of Rotherham. The son of Irish immigrants, he was steeped in the folk tradition and, like Mather, uses its centuries-crafted tunes as the scaffolding for distinctly contemporary content. The parallels don’t end there: both balladeers try to make the folk tradition speak to (and for) the specific locality of South Yorkshire and its industrial past and present; both adopt an unabashedly radical stance and repeatedly return to the importance of working-class representation; both combine a radical internationalism with a proudly local focus; and both achieve a potent mixture of melancholy and humour in their songs.
Hearne’s two albums to date – Broad Street Ballads and The Wrong Sunshine – are on the No Masters Co-operative label, which promotes the development of traditional and radical songwriting. The long list of folk luminaries who have performed and recorded Hearne’s songs – including Kate Rusby, Roy Bailey and Coope, Boyes & Simpson – is testament to his craft as a songwriter. Hearne himself is a great performer, yarning between songs with warmth and humour. His delivery is crisp and crystal clear in his beautiful Rotherham accent and he switches skilfully between seriousness and a warm, humorous tone. Recent songs include one about a murder in Attercliffe and one about the annual mock beach in the centre of Rotherham.
Hearne is adept at tackling serious global issues in a way that grounds them in local experience. The Wrong Sunshine features two of the best songs about the Iraq war you’re ever likely to hear. ‘Baghdad-on-Dearne’ graphically captures the traumas of war from the perspective of a soldier. The infantryman’s nightmare visions make up the verses and these are set against a chorus that evokes everyday opposition to the war and a sense of resignation at its inevitable grim logic. Hearne wraps up what could so easily be the banal “will they never learn love?” in the everyday warmth of a bus stop conversation in Broad Street: “Will they never learn, love, will they never learn?” The chorus reflects the down-to-earth decency of ordinary people’s responses to a brutal and unpopular war.
‘March of the Daffodils’ skilfully weaves the 24-hour rolling news representation of 21st century shock and awe warfare with the slower rhythms of the passage of seasons at home. Hearne draws on the well-worn poetic pedigree of the daffodil but turns it into a fresh and hard-hitting image of the globalised nature of conflict and communication. The song’s first verse exemplifies its energy and contrast:
Baghdad’s a bigger bad body-bag than even last night
Slowly the cistern fills
Till under the sound-bites suddenly it’s light upon light
Here come the daffodils
Over the unseethroughable mind-high hills
Here come the daffodils
The daffodils become grim reminders of the indifference of nature to human suffering and at the same time emblems of hope for new life emerging out of the barrenness of winter. Part of what is so hard-hitting about Hearne’s war songs is his disarming honesty in dealing directly with the war’s effect on him. “I need my late news fix every wine-dark night” – that sense of the need to bear witness, coupled with powerlessness and resignation, is one familiar to the millions in Britain who were anti-war.
But Hearne is far from just a protest singer. Other songs on The Wrong Sunshine deal with work (‘The Long Song Line’, ‘The Navvy Boys’ and ‘The Collier’s Elegy’), grief (‘Well’ is about the death of his father) and artistic inspiration emerging out of post-industrial renewal (‘Manvers Island Bound’). ‘Pudding Burner’ celebrates the hard work and resilience of women in the steel industry and ‘Things to Say’ is dedicated to Doncaster Advocacy, a charity that supports adults with learning disabilites. This is perhaps the unifying principal of all Hearne’s songs: he tries to give a voice to ordinary people, to reflect the lives of working-class people in South Yorkshire and to foster a sense of shared cultural identity inherited from a rich and important history. Hearne has said that it was the vicious policies of the Thatcher government that initially galvanised him to write radical songs about contemporary society. In the age of austerity we need his conviction, his compassion and his voice more than ever…
…and that’s where the Now Then piece left it. When I met Ray he’d just finished one of his writers’ groups – he’d been running several across South Yorkshire – and although he was sad to see it go he was very pleased to be writing as a full-time occupation. He’s writing more page poetry and I was priveliged to have a look at a few: the stand-out one for me was ‘Pollen Count Blues: The Opening Bars’, a wonderful skip through the wildlife that explodes from the verges of South Yorkshire that manages to invoke John Clare and skat singing all at once. Ray’s also working on a new album and sent me the words to one of his new songs, ‘Motes Art’, inspired by a well-meant event in Rotherham where they broadcast live opera in All Saints Square. All I can say here about the song is that if every one on the new album is as good, then it could be his best record yet.
As well as to discuss Ray’s recent work, one of the reasons that we met up was to talk about Joseph Mather. We never quite managed it because we had so much other stuff to talk about, so I’ll close with a brilliant anecdote he told me about how he brought the working-class hero of contemporary poetry, Tony Harrison, to Rotherham. During the Miners’ Strike, Ray read in a Yorkshire arts magazine that Harrison was embarking on a ‘tour of Yorkshire’, with dates in York, Harrogate and Ripon. Thinking this a slightly limited tour, Ray wrote to Harrison, describing the gist of the letter to me as: ‘Rotherham’s in Yorkshire too tha knoas. There’s a strike on down here. Bloody hell.’ Weeks later he received an Airogram from Miami: Harrison gave the details of his agent and promised to come. And so Harrison ended up reading ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ in Rotherham. The forthrightness, pride of place and love of language that prompted him to write to Harrison fuel Ray’s work. Talking about writing that tackles the current political situation, Ray cited the recent song ‘House of Cards’ – whose chorus continues ‘and a pack of lies’ – as an example of phrases lifted from everyday language that can simply and powerfully articulate important truths about our times, saying ‘we need to be in tune to it, it’s all there, these phrases waiting to be found – it’s there in the language of ordinary people’.
There’s a film about Ray Hearne, featuring performances of a few of his songs, here.
And Ray’s website is well worth a look too.