Within the thread of personal experiences reflected in the songs comprising Through Darkened Glass, the words and music of Black Orpheans feature not so much as a commentary upon one single event but, much more so, as a detailed account of the environment within which, as a child, I was raised or better, exposed to, and totally immersed therein.
Namely, the relentless and unforgiving routine of toil, noise, the constant threat of serious accident and attendant loss of life or limb which our fathers (and their forbears before them) endured for the reward of pitifully meagre wages, whilst living and raising families in basic colliery accommodation – and all of it under the pervasive, acrid and omni-present cloud of fine, black dust which emanated, day in day out, from the commodity which the whole nation depended on to keep the wheels of industry turning: coal.
Several of my relatives worked at Holly Bank Colliery
By the mid 1800’s my paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather (and his brothers) had moved from rural Shropshire and employment as farm labourers to the industrial heart of the Black Country to take up employment as coal miners.
They also worked at the adjacent Brick and Tile works. When a new pit was dug, often large deposits of Marl and Brick Earth were discovered. As a consequence, the landowner would profit not only from the coal extraction but from the manufacture of Bricks and Tiles.
Some of them were to perish in the 1914-18 war, but those who survived returned to the collieries and resumed their work underground.
Membership of the brass bands and choirs (which were financed and instituted by the Victorian pit owners) was offered to them as recreational pursuits – though I suspect the true motive was as an alternative to the demon drink!
(Needless to say, quite a few of my family managed to cope with all three of those recreational pursuits – at least four pints of mild ale a day was de rigueur!)
I remember, as a child, seeing miners dressed in a similar way.
They became staunchly enthusiastic members of the Orpheus Choirs and brass bands affiliated to their local collieries and this song is dedicated to their memory.
Ever mindful of my childhood memories of their concert performances, I have (in the slow, second half of this piece) managed to include musical and lyrical references to the songs I will forever associate with them: Shenandoah, The Skye Boat Song, Oh Danny Boy, Linden Lea, All of an April Evening, Jerusalem and, perhaps the most revered offering in their repertoire, Crimond – and all within an eight bar phrase.
Way to go, Wench Palmer!
Wenche (which is a Middle English word) means servant or maid and NOT whore or prostitute – far from it. All the girls at my junior school or in our neighbourhood were called Wenches. The Wenches pictured here worked above ground, sorting stone and debris from the coal.
Mind you, I’ve never been in any doubt as to whom I owe thanks for the privilege of whatever musical gift I have – though at times, employing it has been a bit like digging the very coal itself!
In summation of “Black Orpheans”, it is from the very opening pit-head soundscape and the cries of “Rappety Bang” – an imitation of the rapid ringing of three bells and the doors of the cage closing (before it descended underground) – that both the words and the music of this paean to my ancestors, combine to paint, unashamedly, the stark contours of their simple, daily lives.
The final section of the song (where the close harmony *bouche fermée of the ghostly, disembodied subterranean male voice choir takes precedence) underscores the passing of, not only an epoch, but of close knit community life as once it was.
It was no small event when the Health and Safety Act of 1974 was passed onto the Statute Book, expressly to forbid employers from continuing to make rigorous, physical demands of brave men, whom, for ages, had been engaged in the most extreme and dangerous occupation that, once, had been the very life blood of Great Britain.
To the passing of the great Education and Welfare acts of the 1940‘s (coupled with the endeavours of my forbears) I owe my fortunate escape from a similar existence to theirs.
RIP Black Orpheans
They’ve known them since their childhood.
They heard them first at their fathers’ knee.
Songs like “Shenandoah” and “The Skye Boat Song”;
“O Danny Boy” and “Linden Lea”.
But when they sing
of lambs of an April evening;
“Jerusalem” and “Crimond’s” dying fall,
they bare their souls
for a thousand fathers,
and cry their songs
to an empty hall.
5th January 2018
(click on the arrow of the audio player below to listen)