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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.


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