The testimony of Becky Unthank

The Unthanks with Becky second from left.

The Unthanks with Becky second from left.

CLOG DANCING is not something we are familiar with in Ireland, but when Rachel and Becky Unthank demonstrated it in Galway in 2008, it was surprising how much like Irish dancing it was.

At that time the band the sisters were in was called Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, but when they return to our city later this month they will be clog dancing again, only this time as The Unthanks.

The acclaimed and award winning English folk group The Unthanks - featuring Rachel, her husband Adrian McNally, sister Becky, Niopha Keegan, and new member Chris Price - play the Róisín Dubh on Saturday March 27 at 9pm.

Geordies

The Unthank sisters grew up in Newcastle, to a family that loved singing and performing folk music.

“Singing is the family pastime and our parents would teach us songs to keep us amused,” Becky tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “Every summer since we were born we would go from festival to festival attending them and singing at them.”

Originally though the Unthank girls were at the festivals not to sing, but to perform Northumbrian clog dancing.

“We were part of dance teams and because of that we would get free tickets so it was a great way to go to festivals,” she says. “We’ve been doing it since we were about five and have been doing that longer than we have been singing. These days it’s good to do a bit of dancing at our gigs to lighten the mood after all the miserable songs.”

Where does the tradition of dancing in clogs come from? “From the mining industry,” says Becky. “Miners to earn extra money would dance, and they’d dance in clogs as that was the shoes they wore when they were down the pits.”

Becky and Rachel are proud Geordies, passionate about representing the songs, dance, and linguistic dialect of Northumbria to audiences across Britain and abroad. “We have a unique identity within England and a strong sense of culture,” says Becky.

Billy Bragg once pointed out that the cultures and music of Ireland, Scotland, and the north of England have a strong similarity, as can be seen in the clog dancing and the Northumbrian pipes, which are closely related to the Scottish bagpipes and Irish uilleann pipes.

“I think the northeast of England has a lot more in common with Ireland and Scotland than with the rest of England,” says Becky. “When we go all around the world singing, audiences think we’re Irish or Scottish. We say ‘No, we’re English’ and they say ‘English folk music!?! What’s that!?!’”

Aside from singing and dancing, the Unthank family’s other passion is football, with Rachel a die-hard supporter of Newcastle United. Is Becky?

“Well...it’s a bit complicated,” she says sheepishly. “Mum and dad are from Teeside and support Middlesbrough. My boyfriend is from Middlesbrough and says he only goes out with me because I have Middlesbrough blood...my sister would kill me for saying that and for saying...I’m not really into sport...”

Names and sad songs

The band started life in 2005 and released two albums under the Rachel Unthank & The Winterset moniker - Cruel Sister (2005 ) and The Bairns (2007 ). Becky had always been a member of the band but the name The Winterset was made to give her the opportunity to go to university and opt out of the band if she decided not to pursue music full time.

However Becky did decide music was her true calling and to reflect this the band changed its name to The Unthanks fot the third album Here’s The Tender Coming, released last September, the cover of which featured Rachel and Becky, side by side.

The Unthanks’ music is rooted in the folk songs of Northumbria and re-imagines them as contemporary folk epics, unaccompanied songs, prog-pop, and humorous ditties.

While The Barins had its fair share of songs about tragedy and heartache, Here’s The Tender Coming, especially ‘Annachie Gordon’, ‘Sad February’, and ‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’, is a much bleaker, darker album. Why are The Unthanks so attracted to ‘the dark side’ of folk?

“We’re just driven to great stories,” says Becky. “We don’t specifically look for dark ones but they are the ones that talk to us and that we are drawn to. It seems to be the really dark ones that capture our imagination. Don’t know what that says about us though.”

‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’, a powerful epic sung by Rachel, charts the experiences of a woman who worked in the mines in 19th century Britain, and raises such issues as women working in a male dominated environment, sexual harassment, and ideas of how society expected a woman to look and behave.

“Until I heard that song I didn’t know women actually worked in the mines but it just goes to show that it happened,” says Becky. “It is a true story. There was a man from the Royal Commission who went into the pits to interview workers and one of them was this girl, Patience Kershaw. He wrote what she said and years later, in the 1960s, a tune was put to the words.

“We heard it from friends of the family singing it when we were kids. Rachel did such a brilliant job on it, she really got into it and embodies the words of the song.”

Mining was one of the major industries in the north of England but the region also has a strong maritime tradition and songs of the sea dominate the Unthanks repertoire.

One sea related song the band is famous for is a cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’, sung to perfection by Becky, and arguably one of the highlights of The Bairns. Has its author ever heard their version?

“Yes he has,” says Becky excitedly. “He’s said lots of lovely things about it. He has been really supportive and has sent us postcards. We met him as well. He came to one of our gigs in Lincoln. It was so exciting. He came up to me and said ‘Hello, you’re my voice!’”

Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.

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