The Geordie soundtrack of my life

Half-remembered but wholly loved, the popular songs of the North-east are part of every Geordie's character, writes Lee Hall
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I always thought I had an "unmusical" upbringing. Neither of my parents or my grandparents played instruments – in fact they professed themselves to be resolutely unmusical. And as far as I can recall no one I knew – apart from the few other kids at school who were reluctantly taught by the peripatetic music teachers – counted themselves as "musical" either. Certainly the Tyneside I grew up in was not burgeoning with musicians gathering in every street corner pub, as in rural Ireland.

I felt deprived and found my own way to people and places where I could learn about music and how to play. It was not until much more recently that I realised Tyneside had a very unique culture of song that was so much part of the cultural furniture that I was not aware of its existence.

Everybody I knew knew the same songs. In fact, everybody I knew had been sung the songs before they could speak, but somehow their ubiquity had almost made them invisible. I can think of almost no area in the British Isles whose cultural identity is so saturated by the culture of song. It is not that Tyneside has a tradition of "singing" – the culture that Terence Davies presents of post-war Liverpool, where the pub singsong was central to daily existence does not pertain to Newcastle. It is not that when young people get together with guitars that they forgo the obligatory Dylan covers to sing traditional ballads. What makes the tradition of Tyneside song unique is that it is really a domestic tradition, one passed on from father to son, grandmother to granddaughter, while the bairns are dandled on the knee.

Some of the songs might be recognisable to people born elsewhere – "The Blaydon Races" has been adopted as a sort of regional anthem, "The Keel Row" and "Billy Boy" might be familiar to fans of Kathleen Ferrier's beautifully austere 1950s versions. But what is interesting to me is that to people in Newcastle the appropriation of these songs by classically trained musicians means very little. To those born on Tyneside there is no definitive version of the songs – the recordings by the likes of Ferrier and Owen Brannigan have a faint ring of the ridiculous and overblown about them, however affectionately they are held by aficionados.

The truth is, growing up in this invisible tradition it is impossible to imagine a definitive or superlative version of a song. Even the version you heard from your granny – or someone else's granny – was usually corrupted by them being a bit drunk or tone deaf or too decorous. The fact is there is no right or wrong way to sing the song – no one can actually remember all the words to most of them anyway – yet there is nothing more redolent of the "Geordie" spirit than this motley collection of half-forgotten numbers. There is no authority to appeal to either. There is no definitive published source, no "established" recording. I can't remember where I learnt them. They are just there like some cultural miasma – and perhaps this is what a truly popular culture is.

But this is not "folk song" in the usual sense. Most of the famous British folk songs are hundreds of years old and have been disseminated in their various forms all over the British Isles. What is unusual about the Tyneside "songbook" is that they were very consciously crafted – and the most popular were written after the industrial revolution and performed in the early musical halls. But unlike much of the Victorian music hall output which, although comic, are often decorous bordering on the fey, these songs are robust and roughly demotic and were often deliberate parodies of popular songs from elsewhere.

"Pretty Little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green" became the infamous "Cushy Butterfield" – who was "a big lass and a bonny lass/ and she likes hor beer". The song recounts her various charms – "Her eyes is like two holes in a blanket burnt thru/ and she shouts in the morning just like a young cow" (which rhymes with "thru" by the way) – but rather than putting anyone off she is the clear object of the singers' affections. Rather than the prim figure from Paddington, Cushy Butterfield feels like she's straight from the pages of Viz. There is a Rabelaisian appreciation of the supping of ale and the outrageous adventures that can follow.

In "Dance To Thy Daddy" – the best known lullaby – the second verse observes: "Here's your mother coming/ like a canny woman/ yonder comes your father/ drunk he cannot stand." This is stated as bald fact, with no censorious overtones. And in "Ee Wor Nanny's a Maiser" – roughly translated as "Grandma's a Right One!" – a drunken grandmother creates all kinds of havoc over Gateshead way when she misses a train home.

What is celebrated in these songs is independence of spirit and a tolerance of non-conformity. Poverty and the privations of a typical working class existence are also very much a part of the songs – but rather than them being sentimental in, say, the way the work of the contemporaneous Stephen Foster is, these songs dish out humour in the way most other traditions of folksong dish out either sentimentality or moral correction. The refrain of a song about a family of impoverished neighbours goes: "They'd skin a rat for it's hide and fat/ Would the neighbours down below." This is a world we can all recognise, where everyday human folly is embraced as being part of the "character" of the social body.

The crucial thing about the songs is that they are realistic. They speak of a social reality with a humour and a celebratory energy than is only really matched by Dickens. They are all written in dialect and because they were written specifically for large working class audiences collected because of the burgeoning industrial revolution, many of the singer-songwriters were professionals. Because Tyneside is comparatively small compared to London these songwriters were obliged to constantly provide new material which came to serve as a chronicle of a way of life.

Many of the writers of these songs were working-class people. George Ridley, my personal favourite, was a miner from the age of 12 but an accident forced him to find other employment. So he began performing in various musical halls, where he composed amongst many others "The Blaydon Races" and "Keep Yer Feet Still Geordie Hinny", one of the most beautiful of all the Tyneside songs. He died aged 30.

"Keep Yer Feet Still Geordie Hinny" features two working men who are forced to share a bed in a lodging house. One berates the other for waking him up just when he was dreaming of gaining the ever elusive object of his affections, Mary Clarke. His fanciful flights are abruptly interrupted at the end of each verse by his fidgeting companion and the comedy of his frustration is tempered by the pathos that he is actually sharing his bed with an obviously undesirable partner. "Keep yer feet still Geordie hinny/ let's be happy through the night/ for we may not be so happy through the day/ just give me that bit comfort/ keep your feet still Geordie, lad/ and divvint drive me bonny dreams away."

It was only when I started studying for a degree in English Literature that I heard the lyrics of these songs for the first time. I think I have known them since before I could speak but it was only then that I realised their comedy and pathos, their unsentimental hue and their very contemporary feel for urban life. They have more in common with The Streets than with the Child Ballads. Their playful use of the demotic and the ease with which they integrate this in their rhyme schemes and scansion I feel is often as sophisticated and funny as anything Frank Loesser achieves in Guys and Dolls – which similarly revels in the high linguistic pleasures of the low life.

What is extraordinary is that very few people could tell you who wrote them, where they come from or what they mean. They are just there. To me they are the soul of Tyneside – call it a cultural memory if you like – but it is more than this because these songs are much more than a heritage. I think they actually serve as the unique place where the robust energies and spirit of the Geordie is actually crystallised. The celebration of drink and humour, the equivocation about work, religion, family and hardship, all seem part of what sets Geordies apart. None of the qualities which one might vaunt – the openness, good humour, unpretentiousness – are unique to Newcastle. Far from it. But their expression is, and it find its fullest form in this rattlebag of lyrics.

Yet it would be entirely wrong to call Ridley or Joe Wilson "people's poets". Their eloquence is of a completely different order from what we normally class as "poetry". It is unselfconscious – and certainly not made to be contemplated in repose. These are lyrics which are made to be used in the midst of life, in the expanded pubs which were the music halls or in the "hoos" when you are trying to get the bairn asleep.

I think nothing has had an influence on my work more than these songs, none of which I can remember to the end. What I do remember when they float into my head is not a place or a time – they are not particularly associated with childhood because my friends still sing them now. They are most redolent of a community. They imply a group of people who would understand. Their rhyme schemes demand an audience who will "get the joke". They do not exist for the pleasure or edification of others – they are sung to remember not so much where we are from but who we were brought up with. Although a few beautiful songs – "The Waters of Tyne" and "The Cliffs of Old Tynemouth" – celebrate geographical features – they are largely songs about people. "The Blaydon Races" is about a throng; many others are about the eccentrics who enlivened Tyneside life.

When I came to write Billy Elliot I surprised myself. I had no real idea what a musical set in the North East should be like. I had no idea what tone it needed to take – luckily I did not have time to think about it. Elton John demanded I write the lyrics before I had time to work any of this out and I just wrote without thinking about it. Of course what was doing the work for me was this tradition of popular song. It is only now that I realise what I have done. In the musical the most distinctive lyrics – the songs about an alcoholic grandad, the miners' comic battle of profanities with the police and the joyous song which looks forward to the death of Maggie Thatcher, are all really Geordie "folk" songs. There seemed nothing untoward in them being funny, bitter, celebratory, utterly simple and completely ironic at the same time.

My fear, of course, is that this oasis of particular culture was just a temporary expression of a working class life whose last gasp I happened to witness. I wonder if the new diversity, both ethnic and economic, which has exploded on old Tyneside since I left, Billy Elliot-like, for university can allow this communal culture to survive. But because I believe the songs helped provide a social cohesion as much as they were an expression of it, I am hopeful that there will still be a Geordie identity to hold on to, even if your parents were born in Bangladesh. Because the songs are essentially urban in nature and are often satirical of the most egregious limitations of the Geordie character – especially the "machoism" – I have a feeling they might survive as they are really about solidarity; because they celebrate difference.

Not that I see anything intrinsically better about this culture than anything else. There is nothing wrong with the soundtrack of our lives being provided by Elton John or Marylin Manson or whoever – it's just I grew up with both and am immensely richer because of it. I own the songs of Tyneside as much as they own me, but even more importantly, nobody else does.

Lee Hall wrote the film and musical versions of 'Billy Elliot'. To find out more go to: matalzi/geordiesang.html