…One of the beautiful things about music and songs is how it can grab you on an emotional level; whereas in a way I think we sometimes become immune to news stories, as they have the potential to become just a rolling litany of tragedy. Music connects with us on a visceral level and has great power to move and tug at our hearts.
As part of my series featuring the rising stars in the music industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Eagle from The Young’uns. The British trio The Young’uns have always had the human touch. In the space of little more than a decade — and just six years after giving up their day jobs — they have become one of the UK’s folk music’s hottest properties and best- loved acts. They clinched the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Group’ title two years running (2015 and 2016) and the last years have seen them spreading the net, taking their unique act and instant audience rapport to Canada, Australia and now to America. The Young’uns kick of their first concert tour of the U.S. at the Philadelphia Folk Festival on August 16–18. In 2018, The Young’uns’ “Strangers” was crowned ‘Best Album’ at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards as voted by listeners. In the same year, The Young’uns produced and presented a new and unique piece of modern folk theatre. ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff’ is the story of one man’s adventure from begging on the streets in the north of England to fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, taking in The Hunger Marches and The Cable Street Riots. It’s a timely, touching and often hilarious musical adventure following in the footsteps of one working class hero who witnessed some of the momentous events of the 1930s.
Thank you so much for joining us David! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s interesting that you use the term “career path” because I doubt that there are many careers advisors in schools who would even entertain the notion of “folk singer” as a career. “Musician is bad enough, but folk musician?”
Our “career path” was not forged in a school or job centre; it began in a pub. We were three friends, aged 17, enjoying a nice, quiet, admittedly illegal drink, when it happened. The general pub hubbub (which is not a phrase easily said after a few pints) was interrupted by a rather aggressive yelp. Everyone else immediately fell quiet and turned in the direction of the man responsible for this unexpected vocal emission. The yelper rose to his feet, pint still in hand. He began to stamp his heavy-booted foot on the tiled floor, causing quite the racket, and then began to sing, except it was unlike any singing we’d heard before: a raucous and unfathomable ‘song’ that consisted of incongruous ‘words,’ peppered with further frequent yelps, whoops, grunts and an assortment of other miscellaneous noises.
The three of us were shocked by this arresting display. We expected that maybe the landlord would intervene and escort this drunken man out of the pub for his odd behaviour. We looked around the pub, expecting to see everyone else equally as surprised, but they were all completely unruffled by this audio assault; in fact, they were tapping their feet and banging their pints on the table to the rhythm. Looking around, we observed that the three of us were the only people in the pub who seemed confused by what was occurring. Our bewilderment increased when, after a particularly fervent yelp, the entire pub loudly joined in with the song. Now everyone in the pub, apart from us, was singing, adding harmonies, and enthusiastically yelping, whooping and grunting along. What the heck was going on? What was this strange song? And who were these people? How did they know the words? How did they know when to yelp, or when to grunt or whoop? After a few more baffling minutes of this, the song ended with a final yelp, that dwarfed all the previous yelps, and the pub burst into rapturous applause.
That was our first experience of a sea shanty. It was also our first experience of a folk club. Up until that point, we had absolutely no idea what a folk club was. Over the course of that evening we received surprise after surprise, as everyone in the pub took it in turns to sing a song: songs that were topped and tailed with anecdotes and the story behind each song. We heard songs about mining, ship wrecks, farmhands having their wicked way with young, innocent virgins, songs about our local area (Teeside in northeast England). We were completely taken aback and thrilled by this unexpected discovery. This music was different to anything we’d heard before. There was certainly nothing like this in the charts.
The three of us kept coming back week after week, and we became affectionately known by the folk club’s regulars as “The Young’uns,” given that we were the youngest people there by about 40 years. We were encouraged by the regulars to learn and sing songs at the nights, and were eventually given our first gig. Since everyone nicknamed us The Young’uns, we decided to just stick with that as a band name, not realising that we would go on to win awards, tour the world and be written about in newspapers and magazines and played on the radio. If we had known this back then, I’m sure we’d have changed our name to something less cringe-worthy.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
One of the wonderful things about life as a touring musician is that your days are full of strange and interesting occurrences. We have been doing this professionally now for six years, but before that we were gigging whilst also holding down office jobs. This would involve finishing work at 5pm and immediately zooming up and down motorways to gigs, and, due to travelling at rush-hour, often arriving just in time to go on stage. We’d then do the gig, get back in the car, drive home, often getting back around 2 or 3am for three to four hours sleep before having to go back to do the office job.
On weekends, we would sometimes do gigs abroad, playing folk festivals all over Europe. On Monday morning, our colleagues would be chatting about what they did over the weekend: shopping, washing the car, watching the football (or soccer, if you insist). It would then be my turn to impart my weekend activities, where upon I’d regale them with tales of singing sea shanties with a boozy German choir at a Dutch folk festival. I think interesting stories inherently come with the territory when you work as a musician because you’re constantly going to new places and meeting new people. This was not true with my standard, prosaic office job. I never once enthralled my boozy German shanty choir colleagues with a rollicking tale about Microsoft Excel.
In 2015, we received an unexpected invitation. We’d been requested to perform as part of the 800th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Magna Carta. The Queen, Prince William and David Cameron were going to be there, and we were relishing the chance to sing our songs of equality in front of them.
It was touch and go getting there in time as we raced through the Windsor traffic. Google Maps clearly hadn’t accounted for the extra delays that a royal presence with all its entourage would cause, and our estimated travel time was tripled, leaving us in a bit of a panic. We’d been told that the gates would close at 9pm and that late arrivals would not be permitted. I mean, I’m sure that if the Queen discovered that her favourite folk band were stuck outside the gates unable to perform for her, then she would. of course. insist that we be allowed to enter; after all, “one has been looking forward to The Young ones for months.” No one would dare point out to Her Majesty that we are actually called “The Young’uns,” knowing how much the Queen was a fan of using the term “one” and how she wouldn’t bring herself to be so gauche as to say such a common apostrophised colloquial word as “young’uns.”
At the final roadblock, the security asked us who we were. ‘Folk singers’ we said. ‘Do you have any proof,’ they prodded so we sang them the chorus of The Wild Rover, and naturally, we were whisked straight off to VIP.
As we wiped the sweat from our brows and passed through the final security check, we gazed behind to see the Archbishop of Canterbury being frisked (they were actually quite heavy handed with him — really bashing the bishop). “Do you have any metal on your person?” the security guard enquired. The Bishop exasperatedly pointed to the large silver crucifix dangling around his neck, looking rather cross (hahaha. There’s that famous British humour for you).
Sadly, the reality of the situation was that by the time we graced the stage, everyone had buggered off, including the Queen and the dignitaries. So we sang our songs of equality and social justice to a handful of people, while the stage was essentially being packed down around us. But the good news is that we think we saw a security guard looking after one of the corgis, and he was wagging his tale (the dog that is, not the security guard; that would hardly be proper behaviour for a royal guard) so I suppose, in a roundabout way, our performance was given the royal seal of approval, albeit via the Queen’s dog.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Well, this interview is pretty fun. But other than that, we are currently doing a project called ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff.’ This project all stemmed from a meeting with a man, Duncan, who approached us before one of our gigs, handed us two pieces of paper, and rather cryptically said, “This is my dad. You can write a song about him if you like,” before walking away.
The first sheet of paper was a photo of a scruffy teenage boy selling newspapers. The second sheet was a ream of information all about Johnny Longstaff, the teenager in the photo, who had lived an incredible life. He came from our home town of Stockton, born into poverty in 1919, and the first twenty years of his life saw him battling social inequalities and injustices. He took part in hunger marches for work, he took part in the right to ramble trespasses that led to swathes of privately owned land being made accessible to walkers. He stood up to Fascism at the Battle of Cable Street, where thousands of people said no to racism on the streets of London, thwarting a march led by Oswald Mosley’s British Union Of Fascists. He then went on to fighting against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, despite it being illegal to do so due to Britain’s policy of neutrality and non-intervention. Johnny was an extraordinary, highly principled man, campaigning for equality and justice.
At the bottom of the second sheet was a website address which took us to six hours of recordings made by the Imperial War Museum featuring Johnny telling his own story. Hearing Johnny’s rich, warm voice imparting his life moved us so much that we instantly knew that Duncan, Johnny’s son, was right; we should write a song about Johnny. But we soon realised that one song was not going to be enough, and we ended up writing 16 songs and creating an entire show, comprising Johnny’s own voice, and slides from Johnny’s own photo collection to tell his remarkable tale.
We first performed ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff’ in 2018. We were rather trepidatious about showcasing this project to the public, as it was the first time we’d done anything like this — usually we’d just go on stage, sing songs and have a laugh, whereas this was a proper, structured performance piece with audio/visual elements. We hoped that our audience would take the story to heart in the same way that we had, but we couldn’t be sure. And then there was the question of what Duncan, Johnny’s son, would think. Fortunately, the audience really engaged with it on a level that completely exceeded our expectations, and Duncan was overjoyed and very emotional after seeing the performance, and has come to the shows, bringing family and friends on a number of occasions.
In 2019, we brought ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff’ on tour again, playing larger venues and gaining press attention, including an entire piece in The Guardian and documentary pieces on BBC Radio and television. And we have been contacted about taking the story to the theatre, which will hopefully be happening next year.
We are very lucky to be in a position where one 30-second meeting with a man can lead us on such a beautiful and gratifying adventure.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
In 2011, we were involved in a folk theatre piece which starred some of the biggest names in British folk music. This was a big deal for us because at this point we were not yet professional musicians, still doing our office day-jobs. The biggest of all these names was Martin Carthy.
For the benefit of those of you who may have managed to go throughout your life being unaware of Martin Carthy, he is one of the most infamous names in British folk music, or for that matter, Western folk music. He befriended and sang in folk clubs with Bob Dylan during Dylan’s first trip to Britain in 1962.
He is held in such high esteem that, while the director of the theatre piece was happy to berate and boss everyone else in the cast around, she was too in awe of Martin’s presence to say anything to him, despite the fact that Martin, perhaps due to being by far the oldest member of our group by some distance, kept messing up the words and guitar parts to one of his solo pieces. After a couple of minutes of mistakes, Martin, realising that he was not going to get a dressing down from the director, who was clearly too deferential towards him to say anything, decided to take matters into his own hands. After playing a bum note on the guitar, he stopped, turned to face the window, glared at his reflection and shouted, “oh, for fuck’s sake, Martin, just get the damn thing right.” He then proceeded to play and sing the whole piece through flawlessly.
We’ve also had the honour of playing alongside Billy Bragg. He runs his own stage at Glastonbury Festival called the Leftfield Stage, which features a whole host of left-leaning musicians, comedians, poets, politicians and social campaigners. We and a few other musicians sat alongside Billy, taking it in turns to perform a song each in a very informal setting, and it was great to be sat at Billy’s side, chatting and singing in front of thousands of effusive people.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
One of the things that drew us to folk music was how it told stories of historical events, but not necessarily the major historical events that we learnt about at school: empires, kings and queens and such, but the stories of real, ordinary people and events. stories of local history, of mining disasters, of humble social campaigners, of mini social revolutions, local heroes , the tales of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
I feel my answers have been rather long thus far, so, as a reward for reading up to this point, I’ll treat you to a short and concise answer. You’re welcome. Plus, my fingers are getting tired. I’m a folk singer; I’m not used to working.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In the last few years, we’ve become a lot more confident with writing songs, and have grown really interested in telling current stories about people who are living today. When we first started writing songs, we would draw from historical events that interested us. Again, these weren’t the major national historical moments that were taught in school, but stories of local heroes and local historical events. But then we began to realise that folk songs could be modern and tell current stories.
In 2017, we released our album ‘Strangers,’ which comprised songs about inspirational people alive today. We sang about Ghafoor Hussain, a mechanic from our home town who spent thousands of pounds of his own money on a bus which he kitted out as a kitchen and took into Europe to feed refugees and the homeless.
We sang of Matthew Ogston, who lost his partner Naz to suicide after his family, on religious grounds, refused to accept that he was gay. Matthew has set up a charity to tackle homophobia. Its mission statement is: “to never let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children.”
The scary thing with singing about real people is that they are still alive to hear your song all about them. Fortunately, Matthew, Ghafoor and the other people represented on our album were overjoyed and very moved by our songs, and we have since met them and struck up great friendships. We’ve been to Ghafoor’s house for homemade curry and sang on his bus, and we’ve had the honour of being made patrons of Matthew’s charity. We also had Matthew and his family accompanying us on our most recent trip to the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where we picked up the award for Best Album, ‘Strangers,’ featuring our song Be The Man, which tells Matthew’s story.
We’ve also received letters and had people come up to us after gigs in tears thanking us for singing about Matthew’s story, relaying how the song has helped them accept their own son or daughter’s homosexuality, or resurfacing memories of when they came out to their family and friends.
One of the beautiful things about music and songs is how it can grab you on an emotional level; whereas in a way I think we sometimes become immune to news stories, as they have the potential to become just a rolling litany of tragedy. Music connects with us on a visceral level and has great power to move and tug at our hearts.
We always seek not to preach and to not be overly political, but rather to simply tell human stories. I think political rants and protest songs serve a purpose, but sometimes they are in danger of merely preaching to the converted, whereas sometimes a more subtle approach can have a more powerful effect on those people who have the potential for conversion. You can sing sensitively about how homophobia has impacted on someone’s life, or you can rail about homophobic bigots and risk alienating the very people whose hearts might be otherwise won.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One thing we already do is to go into schools to sing our songs and tell our stories. For most of these children, it is the first time they have heard live music, and it is wonderful to observe their reaction when we stand in front of them and sing unaccompanied without instruments. We introduce them, in an accessible way, to the people and events we sing about, such as Ghafoor Hussain with his refugee-feeding bus, and Johnny Longstaff with his fight against racism and hatred. It is a joy to have a part to play in moulding these young hearts and minds in the hope that it might help lead to a more inclusive, kinder world.
It’s also, to be more cynical here, nice to think that we’re building ourselves an audience for the future, so we’ll have a new generation coming through and keeping us in employment. Basically, we’re trying to make the world a better place whilst still adhering to the capitalist framework that ultimately props us up.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t bother, get a proper job and leave more work for us.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t leave answering interview questions to the day of the deadline. You’ll find that your fingers really start to ache by the sixth question due to all the typing, and that your initial enthusiasm for writing lengthy mini essays for each answer has started to wane to the point that you begin to write flippant responses in which you reference your own fatigue in your answers. You’ll also notice how your sentences become more poorly structured and far too long and meandering.
2. Check with an American first before submitting your interview answers to make sure that your humour (sorry, humor) comes across as endearing and light-hearted rather than sarcastic and snide. I am starting to worry that my failure to do this might be making me appear a tad obnoxious. Please be assured that I am very happy to be answering these questions, and that I am honoured to be published in your magazine, and I’d like to thank you for the opportunity.
3. Make sure to check that your trousers don’t have a massive hole in the crotch before walking out on stage, and if they do then at least make sure that your boxer shorts are covering vital areas; although, we did sell a heck of a lot more CDs than usual after the gig, so actually, maybe the hole in the trouser crotch routine is a good marketing strategy. If you’re a performer, then I’ll let you decide how you want to proceed with that one.
4. If you’re a blind performer, then make sure you know where the edge of the stage is before you go on to perform. As someone who is blind, I can report that it leads to a very different and arresting opener when you walk on the stage to applause, and then proceed to walk straight off the end and land on your arse (sorry, ass) to the sound of concerned noises and barely stifled laughter. Fortunately, the stage wasn’t that high off the ground. Actually, again, come to think of it, we sold a heck of a lot more CDs than usual after the show, probably out of sympathy, so maybe, if you are blind, then you should be exploiting this for monetary gain. If you’re not blind, then you could always think of other strategies to engender audience sympathy, resulting in them parting with their money and buying your merchandise. I should set up a coaching company teaching exploitative marketing techniques to mercenary musicians. Thank you, I think this interview might be the making of me.
5. Apologies, for this is not really a direct answer to your question, but I think that one of the reasons we, as a band, are still going 14 years after our very first gig is because we have done things our own way. When we first started singing together, we did so because it was fun. There was no agenda, no career path. We were just three friends enjoying the experience of singing together. Our first performances were terrible and lacklustre, but we kept going because we loved it, and certain people encouraged us because they found our joy infectious. We were three teenagers who had discovered something that no other teenager we or they knew was interested in. Thanks to that encouragement, steadily we grew and got better, but all the while we were having fun, meeting wonderful people, having amazing experiences, going to incredible places.
It is crazy to think how an accidental discovery of a folk club in a pub 16 years ago has led to all this, to us being granted work visas to play the US and being officially branded by the US government as “Internationally Recognised Aliens Of Extraordinary Ability.” And, it all started by getting drunk in a pub in 2003. So follow your own path and have fun. I know that’s not technically a direct answer to your question, but hey, I’m following my own path, and having fun.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
There’s this amazing journalist you have over there called Yitzi Weiner. I hear he’s quite the illusive, enigmatic type, but if there’s any chance of getting lunch? … Well, it’s important to dream big.
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Thank you for these great insights. This was very inspiring!