ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Entertainment and Media»
  • Music

The Unthanks-A Wonderful English Folk Band

Updated on January 29, 2013

The Unthanks - Fusion Folk Music

Let me introduce The Unthanks, a folk group from my corner of the world, north-east England.

The Unthanks are gaining a reputation for melding their strong northern English folk traditions with other types of music to create something which is gaining a reputation for being a cinematic trip into wonderful songs.

Don't worry if you haven't heard of The Unthanks, unless you follow English folk music, then you won't have heard of them. I hope you will find this article interesting and maybe take a trip over to You Tube later today (after reading this hub of course :)) and find some more of their music.

The Unthanks-Rachel and Becky
The Unthanks-Rachel and Becky

The Unthanks - Take A Sad Song And Make It Better

The Unthanks started their folk music lives as an all-girl band called Rachel Unthank and The Winterset.

Eventually, in 2009, Rachel, by then joined on vocals by her younger sister Becky became The Unthanks and their all-girl line up was joined by Adrian McNally (now Rachel's husband) and his childhood friend, Chris Price.

In the last six months, they have released a live album of a concert which featured songs only by Robert Wyatt and Anthony and The Johnsons's. This in itself is an unusual thing to do, afterall Adrian McNally writes songs.

What makes The Unthanks such a pleasure to listen to is their interpretation of other writers' and singers' songs. They take their song craft beyond just doing folk covers.

Indeed, they have layered their folk songs with rich orchestration and also interspersed their music with modern twists whilst retaining their Geordie dialect phrasing and their folk roots.

The first video featured is a song called 'Last' which was released to raise money for the Poppy Appeal (World War One and Two veterans charity). It is very, very poignant.

The Unthanks - Northumbrian Folk

Northumberland (or Northumbria) is the north-eastern most county of England. It is a place of great coastal beauty and has a history steeped in coal mining but is also rich in farmland. It is also covered in old battlesites (usually the English v The Scots) and although these are now just wild, open fields and moors, they are marked for visitors interested in the battle for the north.

Northumberland is most famous for open, wild expanses of undeveloped moorland and its astonishing, wild coastline.

The Unthanks father, George was a Northumbrian folk musician, a long time member of The Keelers, a folk band well-known in the North East of England whose songs are rich in the stories of the folk of the mining industry (now almost dead in these parts) and of their folk songs about the northumbrian shore. They are more solidly 'folk' than The Unthanks. They play guitars and occasionally northumbrian pipes.

Rachel and Becky grew up in Ryton, County Durham which borders Northumberland and they were raised on North-East folk.

Rachel has imbued her traditionalist north-east folk by borrowing from other folk traditions, not just in the UK but also from abroad. Here is an ad-hoc broadcast for a Spanish TV station in 2010, where Rachel and Becky are joined by another band member in an acapella version of the northern mining folk song 'Guard Yer Man Weel', listen to the lyrics rich in their storytelling of life caring for and loving a man who takes his life into his hands every day by working underground.

The Unthanks - Bringing Old Folk Music To The 21st Century

The Unthanks were featured on Jools Holland singing The Queen of Hearts, once covered by Joan Baez in the 60s.

Baez version is her singing with just a guitar and it is lovely.

The Unthanks have taken the song and added Rachel playing the kalimba (a 'finger' piano, actually an African instrument) but have orchestrated it with violins etc but listen to the drum beat. They have fused folk with something bordering on hip-hop.

They stand out as an original folk band because they embrace all that folk music has to offer in terms of its rich back-catalogue of songs but they have bridled folk with modern arrangements in order to appeal to a 21st century audience, but as usual, they only go so far - afterall, this is a 'traditional' type of music, you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Unthanks do not need to go in for on-stage histionics. Out front are usually Becky and Rachel, side by side, in their fairly ordinary clothing just letting the songs speak to us.

They have made folk music beautiful, even with a strong Geordie dialect (Geordie is the dialect of North-East England, think Mark Knoffler, Sting, Eric Burdon, Cheryl Cole) and they have taken it to a new place - all they ask is that we follow and that we trust them.

Rachel and Becka Unthank
Rachel and Becka Unthank

The Unthanks - Folk Songs Are About Real Lives And Real People

This is a nice video of the journalist, Paul Morley discussing what folk music is now in the 21st century. Becky and Rachel discuss its meaning to them and of its historical significance to the working classes - folk songs are rich in the oral, storytelling tradition and that doesn't change no matter what century they're sung in.


The Unthanks - A Mining Folk Song With A Difference

This video shows The Unthanks singing a song by Frank Higgins called 'The Testimony of Patience Kershaw'.

Patience Kershaw was a 17 year old girl from the north-east of England who worked in a Durham coalmine ('pit') near her home village. You can read her real-life testimony by clicking here.

If it doesn't break your heart nothing will. Patience was only one of the girls who was interviewed as part of the Ashley Mines Commission into the deplorable working conditions endured by children. It was published in 1842 and led to the prohibition of employing children under 13 from working in the coal mines in Britain.

The Unthanks version is sung in the Geordie dialect which Patience Kershaw would have spoken in so makes the song particulaly poignant I think.

The British Folk Awards take place on February 8th in Salford this year and even the BBC has been covering the event on their news programme; indeed sales of folk music albums rose by 25% in the last year. I hope The Unthanks get some recognition at these awards, they deserve it.

Thanks for reading.

The Unthanks-A Wonderful English Folk Band Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Stessily, Many thanks for your comment. I live in a former coal mining town which was also a busy port in its day (not now sadly). The Unthanks have kept their North East Geordie dialect and made it central to their folk experience. Their songs are more realistic delivered in the 'language' in which they were originally written. They are not very well known in the UK but are admired for 'keeping it real' in terms of the history of north east folk music, dialect and subject matter. I think the testimony of Patience Kershaw is a story in song well worth hearing. Sinead O'Connor did similar justice with her song 'I Am Stretched On Your Grave', the songs are more vivid because they seem to be about real people.

    • profile image

      stessily 5 years ago

      Jools99, In addition to sea songs, mining songs have particular appeal for me. Even though coal mining is not, to my knowledge, in my background, some of my ancestors settled near coal-mining areas. So since childhood I've had an affinity for the distinctive cultural geography of those areas and for the songs and other traditions associated with that hazardous occupation.

      Your tribute to the Unthanks is compellingly presented. Unthanks, such an intriguing family name!

      Also appreciated are my vicarious journey to Northumberland and the highlighting of your Hub by Alun (Greensleeves Hubs).

      Appreciatively, Stessily

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK

      My pleasure Jools. Hope the page helps with traffic to the hub. Alun.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Greensleeves Hubs, thanks for your comment - I would be hapy to be included in one of your hubs, wonderful :o), I will follow you so that I get to see your other ones. Many thanks.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK

      Very nice page, Jools about a group with which I was unfamiliar, but who produce a very nice sound. You provide good information about their development and some nice videos to demonstate their talent and their style. Voted up.

      I am writing a review of 10 favourite hubs in the folk music category, and would like to promote this one of yours (as well as giving 'The Weepies' a mention). I've done three similar reviews in the past few months, which can be accessed from my profile, and I always include a photo from the hub if possible in my reviews to illustrate what the hub is about so can I check it is OK to include a small image of The Unthanks from this hub? My review will hopefully be published in about one week, and hopefully it will bring a few more viewings of your pages. Alun.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      You mean regarding traditional folk music? I don't know of anyone new. There is a folk rock duo who are gaining buzz called Tegan and Sara, but I've personally never heard their music.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Lots of great information in this hub. I enjoyed listening to the music you included in the hub. With the exception of Joan Baez all the artists were new to me before reading your hub. I really liked The Unthanks singing The Testimony of Patience Kershaw. Voted up and very interesting.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Flora, thanks for your comments. The Unthanks are creating a good buzz in the folk scene at the moment along with other singers like Laura Marlin. Who's up and coming in Canada?

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      Great to hear that traditional folk music is still contemporary.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Goodlady, glad you like it. Try to have some fun between the working hard in LA!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Beautifully put together and SO much lovely new music to listen to, thanks.

      I'm bookmarking the page (voting up and beautiful) and bringing them with me to LA.

      Nice accents!

    • pmccray profile image

      pmccray 6 years ago from Utah

      I too have not heard of the band, but will check them out. Voted up, marked useful and interesting.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Eddy, thanks for your kind comments, looking forward to more of your hubs too! Cheers.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      Thanks for this interesting hub. I had never heard of the Unthanks but I have now and I will be looking out for their music.

      Thank you so much for sharing this one and I vote up up and away here.

      Here's to many more to share in the New Year ahead.

      Take care,


    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      phdast- thanks for your comment. I have been watching them for the last few years. I love the animated video for Last and it's nice that they're from my part of the world.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great Hub. I like them a lot, both acapella and accompanied. Thanks for introducing them to us. :)

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Hecate, thanks for your comments. The Unthanks are never going to be mega-famous but they are shaking up the folk scene in England at the moment.

    • hecate-horus profile image

      hecate-horus 6 years ago from Rowland Woods

      Thank you for introducing us to this little known band. I really like it.