Slow Travel

Northumbrian folk music traditions

Geoff Heslop tells us about the rich traditions of music in the northeast of England.

The northeast of England is rich in music, and we are fortunate that this music is very much still alive with an increasing number of musicians performing and writing.

The history of music in the area probably begins for us in the Border Ballads, many of which were collected by Sir Walter Scott in the late 18th century. These songs tell the tales of great events and foul deeds from the region’s bloody past. Many reflect the activities of the infamous Border Reiver families during the hundreds of years of troubles until around the mid 17th century. These were collected together in the volumes of the Child Ballads (those collected by Francis James Child in the 19th century). Many of these ballads are still sung today, including ‘The Fair Flower of Northumberland’, and ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ – which tells the story of one of the most notorious Border Reivers.

We have our own instrument, the Northumbrian smallpipes, which bellowsblown has a distinctive sweet tone. There’s been a revival in the instrument since the mid 20th century, largely due to the increase in the number of pipe-makers; there are now a large number of players of all ages, both in the North East and throughout the world and many modern tunes are being written.

The two other contributors to the music of the area are the songs which came out of the industrial heritage of mining, shipbuilding and fishing and the music hall songs of the 19th century.

Many fine songs were written reflecting the often hard life of the workers and their families, but also the Geordie sense of humour in the face of it, such as ‘Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinnie’ and ‘Cushie Butterfield’.

Hoping to find out more about Northumberland? Why not take a look at our comprehensive travel guide:

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