Bob Fox

TrackAlbum
The Bonny Gateshead LassBox Of Gold
Sally WheatleyBox Of Gold
Farewell Johnny MinerHow Are You Off For Coals?
Here's The Tender ComingDark To The Sky
Peppers And TomatoesBorrowed Moments
Bonny At MornBorrowed Moments
Taking On MenThe Blast
Trooper Cut DownThe Blast
Snow FallsA Garland For Joey
Big RiverWater Of Tyne

Bob Fox 2

 

 

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Bob Fox playlist

 

Contributor: John Sprackland

I hesitated before having the audacity to put myself forward to present a selection of the best of Bob Fox. Why? Because Bob Fox is so closely associated with the rich folk song tradition of the North East of England (he’s from County Durham) to which I can claim no association whatsoever. But that’s kind of the point; embedded as he is in that culture of fine singers, he’s just too good to let the Geordies keep him as their own. Bob Fox is not just a ‘great singer of songs of the North East’ or even ‘one of England’s greatest folk singers of his generation’ (though he is both of these); he is one of the finest voices these islands have ever produced, regardless of genre.

He’s also a superb guitarist and – crucial for a non-songwriting singer – he has an unerring ear for selecting and interpreting the very best songs, traditional, ‘traditional’ and contemporary. (By ‘traditional’, in inverted commas, I mean those songs, such as my first three selections, which are coming to be absorbed in the tradition even though we know who wrote them.)

Both of my first choices come originally from Bob’s first record, in partnership with Stu Luckley, Nowt So Good’ll Pass (1978, Rubber Records). Neither this highly-regarded album nor its follow-up, Wish We Never Had Parted (1982, Black Crow Records), have been available for many years so, twenty years on from the first release, Bob and Stu rerecorded a selection released as Box Of Gold (1997, Fellside). And blow me down if they didn’t celebrate the 30th anniversary by going a step further and faithfully rerecorded both original albums as a 2CD set, Thirty Years On (2008, Bob Fox Music). I’m lucky enough to have a vinyl copy of Nowt So Good but it’s the 1997 Box Of Gold versions of The Bonny Gateshead Lass and Sally Wheatley that are available on Spotify.

Both songs were written by Joe Wilson, a 19th century music hall singer who can reasonably be described as the original Geordie singer-songwriter, as his song Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinnie was possibly the first recorded usage of the nickname ‘Geordie’. Both songs are splendid showcases not only for Bob’s fabulous voice and guitar but also for the superb harmony-singing and instrumental talents of Stu Luckley (a one-time member of Hedgehog Pie). Check out his fluid bass playing on the gorgeously sentimental Sally Wheatley.

My first encounter with Bob Fox was when Bob and Stu performed at Cambridge Folk Festival (which, living a mile away, I first attended in 1976, at the age of 14) but I can’t pin down what year that would have been. And, fittingly, I had the honour of being able to put them on when I was programming at Southport Arts Centre, as part of their ‘Thirty Years On’ reunion tour in 2008. In my ‘Premier League of Folk Duos’, Bob Fox & Stu Luckley are up there with Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, and Chris Wood & Andy Cutting. Yes, they really are that good!

Duets have featured strongly in the musical career of Bob Fox. Before getting together with Stu Luckley, his first musical partnership was with Tom McConville. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no recorded legacy of that pairing, which is a shame; McConville went on to form a duo with Kieran Halpin who together made an album which is another firm favourite of mine, The Streets Of Everywhere (1982, Black Crow Records).

Farewell Johnny Miner comes from the 1996 album, How Are You Off For Coals? (Songs of the Mining Communities of North East England), another duet project, this time with Benny Graham. The song is a cracker from the pen of Ed Pickford, another son of County Durham, whose other writing credits include Workers’ Song, featured by Dick Gaughan on his classic LP, Handful Of Earth (1981, Topic).

Benny Graham was also one of an assemblage of North East musicians and singers who joined Bob and Jed Grimes (like Stu Luckley, once of Hedgehog Pie) to form a band, The Hush, and record the album Dark To The Sky (2002, MWM Records). To be honest, its electric guitar/keyboards/sax-driven style of folk-rock is not to my taste (think Moving Hearts, but not quite so good …). But it has its moments and Bob’s singing is never less than excellent. From that experiment, I’ve chosen the traditional press-gang song, Here’s The Tender Coming.

 

 

Peppers And Tomatoes is a fantastic song by Ralph McTell, though somewhat sad and sinister. Bob’s singing of it here, from his 2003 solo, self-produced album for Topic Records, Borrowed Moments, demonstrates how a great singer makes their voice the vehicle for the song, rather than the other way around.

My next choice, taken from the same album, is Bonny At Morn, another traditional song from the North East. Having recorded it on Nowt So Good’ll Pass, Bob came back to it again, 25 years on (there’s a bit of a recurring theme developing here, isn’t there!). In contrast to the overwrought band arrangements of The Hush, the subtle instrumental arrangement on this track, featuring the muted trumpet of multi-instrumentalist Anna Ryder, perfectly complements Bob’s singing of a beautiful song.

However, for my next selection, it’s back to the unadorned voice and guitar for Bob’s second solo album for Topic, The Blast (2006), produced by John Tams. And back to yet another great Tyneside songwriter, Jez Lowe, and a tale of the changing fortunes of the shipyards of the Tyne, Taking On Men.

Trooper Cut Down, also from The Blast, is Bob’s version of a traditional song that occurs in many variants (known variously as The Unfortunate Rake, St James Infirmary, The Young Trooper/Sailor/Lad/Lass Cut Down in his/her Prime …). It tells the sorry story of a young trooper cut down, not in battle but by syphilis.

Between 2011 and 2015, Bob toured the world as ‘The Songman’, in the National Theatre’s acclaimed production, War Horse. He has recorded the songs from this show, most written by the great John Tams, on two collections, The Song Man (2015, Bob Fox Music) and A Garland For Joey: The War Horse Songbook (2017, Fledg’ling Records). From the latter, I’ve chosen Snow Falls, originally used (in a very different version) by Tams in another seminal production for the National Theatre, Lark Rise (which it was my great good fortune to be taken to see on a school trip in 1979!). Bob’s version of the song is the first thing that comes into my mind each winter when I see the first flake of snow.

And finally, how fitting that we return to the Tyne, and to another Tyneside songwriter, none other than Jimmy ‘Crocodile Shoes’ Nail, and his anthemic Big River. Bob recorded this on his first solo album, Dreams Never Leave You (2000, Woodworm Records), backed by various members of Fairport Convention – an excellent album if you can get your hands on it. But I’ve selected a version Bob sang on the album Water Of Tyne, by Kathryn Tickell & Friends (2016, Magnetic North East). It’s Kathryn’s Northumbrian pipes that give a soaring climax to my Bob Fox selection (though I can’t help but think that what the song really cries out for is a colliery brass band!).

 

Bob’s still touring, solo, in a duo with Billy Mitchell (Jack the Lad/Lindisfarne) and as part of an occasional project, The Pitmen Poets, with the aforementioned Benny Graham, Jez Lowe and Billy Mitchell. So, don’t pass up any opportunity to catch him live – he’s a warm and engaging performer.

The albums featured in my list are all generally available from Bob’s website. If I could have only three, my choices would be Box Of Gold (or, preferably, the 2CD Thirty Years On, if available; better still, the original vinyl albums, Nowt So Good’ll Pass and Wish We Never Had Parted), Borrowed Moments and A Garland For Joey (or The Song Man for the bonus track by Jez Lowe, The Wrong Bus!).

 

 

Bob Fox 1

 

 

 

Bob Fox official website

Bob Fox at the excellent Mainly Norfolk website

The Pitmen Poets

Bob Fox biography (Wikipedia)

John Sprackland is a life-long music lover who, for a few precious years in the middle of a checkered career history, was able to express this as Programme Manager at Southport Arts Centre. Coming of age on the cusp of prog and punk, he credits his broader musical education as courtesy of attending his local festival from the age of 14 (Cambridge Folk Festival), reading NME and Melody Maker, and listening to John Peel, Alexis Korner, Andy Kershaw and Jim Lloyd (‘Folk on 2’) on BBC Radio. Increasingly nostalgic; now almost entirely reliant on an annual pilgrimage to Green Man Festival to discover great new music. This is his first contribution to Toppermost.

TopperPost #930

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 24, 2021

    Have to admit I didn’t know Bob’s music up to now. Will be rectifying that omission immediately. Such great music – thanks for this excellent piece.

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