The Young'uns: 'We were out busking and a bystander said, "Shut up singing or I'll glass you"'

Teesside trio the Young’uns are setting the folk scene on fire. The band talk about drunken harmonies, upsetting Scotland – and belting out songs about everything from the founder of Marks & Spencer to the fishermen they meet in pubs

In 2003, three teenagers started frequenting the Sun Inn in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham. In the back room, they found the Stockton Folk Club in full voice. “We didn’t even know there was a folk club,” says David Eagle, the trio’s baritone, sitting in the self-same room today. “When someone started singing, I thought, ‘What the heck?’ But we stayed to listen.”

To their amazement, they found that traditional songs about working people’s lives – sung by much older people – spoke to them more than pop. “We’d stumbled across this rich tradition that we’d no idea existed,” says Eagle’s bandmate Michael Hughes. “Unaccompanied songs about ordinary people being belted out in Teesside accents.”

The trio returned so often that “people started asking, ‘When are the young ’uns gonna give us a song?’ So eventually we did.” They liked the name and, 14 years on, those unlikely lads have twice been voted best group at the Radio 2 Folk awards, having gathered fans around the world for their rousing mix of youthful vim, (mostly) unaccompanied singing, rapidfire banter and songs that tackle contemporary politics.

“When we won the first award, we expected a massed, ‘Who?’” Eagle says. “But there was this huge round of applause. We were like, ‘My God. They know who we are. We weren’t just nominated as a drunken bet.”

As teen folk newbies, Eagle, Hughes and Sean Cooney had staggered from that pub realising that singing unaccompanied meant they could start a band without needing any instruments. Back then, their experience of singing had been limited to the terraces of Middlesbrough FC. “Same tradition though,” says Eagle. “Someone starts singing and others take it up – and if they don’t, you look a right nit.”

He laughs. “We were crap for years. If YouTube had been prevalent back then, and people had got to hear us, we wouldn’t be sitting here now. Or rather, we would be sitting here, but not being interviewed by the Guardian. We’d be crying into our beer.”

The Young’uns performing in Bury.
The Young’uns performing in Bury earlier this year. Photograph: Mike Ainscoe

“We’ve got recordings of us basically screaming,” Hughes grins, shaking his head. “And because we were drunk…”

“We’d do harmonies,” interrupts Eagle, “and we’d all go for the same note. Then it would be, ‘I’m having that one, you bastard.’ Once, during an attempt at busking, one bystander said, ‘Shut up singing or I’m going to glass you.’”

But their devotion paid off and the gigs started piling up. Banter became a part of the act after they saw local folk group the Wilson Family, whom Eagle describes as “five big, beer-swilling brothers from Teesside. We thought, ‘We’ll banter as much as them.’”

At a London gig a couple of years back, Eagle, who is blind, walked on stage, collided with the microphone and shot back: “I’m not blind really. I’m just doing it for effect.” Revealing now that, on another occasion, he fell of the stage, he says: “I love it when something happens. I mean, obviously, it hurts. But how can you do a bad gig with an opening like that, when people are laughing before the first song?”

As integral to the Young’uns as their humour is their politics. One of the first songs they sang – “shouted, really” – was Sydney Carter’s Sing John Ball, an anthem about the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England, while Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars has long been a staple of their live set. But things took on an extra dimension once Cooney started writing songs himself.

As a history student, Cooney had loved Bob Dylan, but discovering the wider folk canon led to a feeling that everything had been said. “Then things started happening,” he says. “Some of my first songs were about the Iraq war and I realised that [late Teesside folk giant] Vin Garbutt sang about modern life. So I started writing about fishermen I’d meet in pubs in Hartlepool. People would take the mick, ‘Who sings about Hartlepool?’ But a good story’s a good story.”

Cooney has written nine of the 10 tracks on the new album, Strangers, the exception being Maggie Holland’s award-winning 1999 lament A Place Called England. The Hartlepool Pedlar tells of Jewish refugee Michael Marks, who fled the pogroms in the late 19th century and went on to found Marks & Spencer, having started out selling fruit and vegetables in the north east. “Not many people in Hartlepool know that,” he says. “With the rise of anti-immigrant feeling these last 18 months, I just love telling the story.”

Cooney wrote Ghafoor’s Bus after reading a newspaper story about Stockton grandfather Ghafoor Hussain, who in 2015 converted a bus into a mobile kitchen and went off to feed refugees in Europe. And he penned the tremendous Cable Street – about 1930s local Johnny Longstaff, who went on the Jarrow March and fought Oswald Mosley’s fascists – after Longstaff’s son Duncan, now in his 70s, approached them at a gig to tell them his father’s “incredible” life story.

Two years ago, the singer-songwriter was deeply moved by a Guardian article about Nazim Mahmood, who’d committed suicide because his family couldn’t accept that he was gay. “How do you begin to write a song about that?” the Young’un asks. But he did, and sent Be the Man to Mahmood’s grieving partner, Matthew Ogston.

The Young’uns discuss their song Be the Man with Matthew Ogston

“He emailed to say he listened to it on the bus with tears running down his face,” Cooney says softly. “When we told him we’d perform it for the first time at Glastonbury, he posted on Facebook, ‘Naz’s dream was always to go to Glastonbury, but we never made it. Now these incredibly kind strangers have written a song about him, Naz is going to Glastonbury.’”

The once beery teenagers see their role today as uplifting the community and “galvanising people”. But they’re still having some good laughs. Hughes recounts a gig in Scotland just before the independence vote. David Cameron had urged the English to encourage Scottish acquaintances to vote to remain, so the band began: “We’re here at the behest of the prime minister to make friends in Scotland. So what better way than to sing songs from the capital country of Britain? England!”

Strangers by the Young’uns
Strangers by the Young’uns Photograph: rec

The joke fell flat, people left in droves, but the three decided to make a night of it anyway, yelling: “Left side, take the chorus!” at the few remaining punters and even shouting for their own encore. “The sound man came up afterwards crying with laughter,” Hughes sniggers. “He said, ‘Lads, that’s the best gig I’ve ever done.’”

  • Strangers is out now on Hereteu Records. The Young’uns play Colston Hall, Bristol, 11 October, and Union Chapel, London, 12 October. On tour until 27 October.

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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