Joe Stead – November News Letter. 2000


The Ramblings of an old Codger


I’m going to start with some sad news.  Eric Winter passed away peacefully at home in the afternoon of Monday October 23rd.  He had his headphones on at the time and was listening to Texan prison songs recorded by Alan Lomax in 1934 for a review.  As Audrey his wife said “He died peacefully with his boots on”.  At his request there has not been a funeral.  He has donated his body to medical science.  He died just one month short of his 80th birthday.  Eric who has been unwell and somewhat quiet of late was a huge driving force within the folk music movement in the 1950-80 period.  Along with Karl Dallas (who is thankfully still with us) Eric wrote a weekly column in the Melody Maker.  He was editor of his own fine musical magazine Sing which was a bible for up and coming British singers like myself in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He was a fine musical critic and he also wrote some damn good songs.  One of his songs that sticks in my memory is the Flowers of Manchester which he wrote for the Manchester United footballers after the Munich air tragedy in which most of the team were killed.  The song was recorded by The Two Beggarmen in a Manchester folk club on my own Sweet Folk All recording label; catalogue number SFA096.  I well remember that I first heard Eric sing on the radio in the autumn of 1959.  He was conducting an interview with Pete Seeger and they did an unaccompanied duet of On Ilkley Moor Ba’tat.  However I have to confess to a huge feeling of guilt.  I visited Eric whilst he was in hospital, but have not seen him for at least two years.  I am ashamed of myself that I was always too busy or pre-occupied to visit him again.  The loss is certainly mine.


Now on to happier note.  I, doubtless along with thousands (if not millions) of others, was delighted to learn of the resignation of Chris Woodhead as the Chief Inspector of Schools.  His exit from the scene has not come before time.  I was vilified in Folk London by Ivan North for lack of PC in my song “It used to be a lovely little township”.  Mr North suggested that I lacked principles and that it was a pity mine were so far removed from my hero Pete Seeger.  The verse that upset him so ran thus.

“And education, yes that’s changing

And changing for the worse thanks to Offsted

I know it sounds unkind

But the blind here lead the blind

It’s a Blunkett junket and a right wood head”.

Mr Blunkett is a very special and intelligent human being and the one-thing disabled people do not want is special attention because of their affliction.  They are normally as much prepared for fair criticism as any other human being. Unfortunately for Mr Blunkett he is in the wrong job.  If a blind person were the Government Minister for Sport there would be uproar.  But teaching evidently is ok.  Apparently to some, and Ivan North in particular, it matters not that the Minister of Education is unable to see the mountains of unnecessary paperwork that he and Mr Woodhead have piled onto the already overworked load of the schoolteacher.  It matters not that he cannot look around the classroom and actually asses properly the work students have done.  He appears to be completely unaware of the additional work load now piled upon schools and teachers regarding pupils with special needs.  Mr Blunkett should have been made Home Secretary where his obvious intelligence and compassion would have served good purpose.  But whilst I have a certain admiration for Blunkett I have none at all for his late compatriot Mr Woodhead.  That the education level in Great Britain has improved over recent years has little to do with either him or past governments.  Teachers are to be praised that education has improved in Britain in spite of Chris Woodhead, not because of him.  Of course like all clever jugglers of the political football Woodhead has departed at the right time for him and not the nation.  Time will tell, but it is evident to me that in ten years time due to policies and attitudes taken by Chris Woodhead in the 6 years he has been Chief Inspector that there will shortly be a dreadful dearth of teachers in Britain.  Why?  Simply because when the good experienced teachers retire there will be nobody to take their place.  Young intelligent school teachers are very thin on the ground these days.  Look around the classrooms for yourselves.  Any young person with a semblance of intelligence looks elsewhere for employment.  The pay is bad, the conditions are worse.  On top of that teaching is top heavy with administration staff the most of whom were promoted upwards out of the teaching ranks because they themselves were lousy teachers.  Thus teachers are inspected by prigs working for Offsted who have less teaching ability than the people they are inspecting.  And whilst the whole thing is completely crazy both past and present governments waltz around praising themselves for the good state of education particularly whilst they were in power. Mr Woodhead you deserve your name and good riddance to you.


Things are starting to happen a little more quickly now with the release of my most recent album “Valparaiso round the Horn” and two reviews of the album have thus far come to my notice.


1.      Traditional Music Maker November 2000 (Beth Webb).

“This is a terrific album which is surely an essential purchase for anyone seriously interested in sea shanties.  It’s also a good buy for anyone like me who just enjoys them.

The collection is based on the songs of Stan Hugill, the last authentic shanty singer who worked undersail at the beginning of the twentieth century and published his wealth of traditional shanties in two volumes, ‘Shanties from the Seven Seas’ and ‘ Songs of the sea’.  Stan recorded some of his songs and this cd is drawn from Joe Stead’s own personal relationship with Stan, and from these publications and recordings.

The result is absolutely first class, a volume of superbly sung shanties mostly unaccompanied, but with subtle touches of violin put in very carefully to accentuate here and there, but never allowed to take over. Joe Stead’s fine voice is backed with a very strong and balanced chorus including a superb basso profundo.  Apparently these harmonies were unlikely to be sung on board, but this does not spoil the enjoyment.

Perhaps the most fascinating part about this album is the commentary.  Joe Stead ‘talks’ the listener through a four-month sea voyage, explaining the strict code determining which songs would have been sung when.  Shanties were seamen’s work songs and each one had a specific rhythm paced exactly to the job in hand, to help the men work together on these gruelling tasks.  I thought when I first heard this album that I would quickly get sick of the narration, but far from it.  This is an intriguing mine of information about the origin of terms like ‘Davy Jones’ Locker’ and ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ as well as giving snippets of folklore and tradition.

Without doubt this is an exceptional album and is available from A Private Label’. – Beth Webb.


2. Taplas.  (Roy Harris).

“Joe Stead has been doing lectures on maritime music for some time and has come up with the idea of putting one on to a CD.  Lecture is a rather formal word, for this is a dramatically written and performed description of a clipper ship voyage from Liverpool to Valparaiso in the 1860’s.  Joe sings appropriate shanties for every stage of the trip, joined by a large crew of singers, mercifully free on unnecessary harmonies or fancy arrangements.  The narration is well paced and clearly spoken, making full use of sailors’ jargon and giving all kinds of fascinating information.  This is a splendid production, well suited to educational purposes, but worthy of a place on anyone’s shelf for sheer entertainment value”.


The month of October saw me back on the road again with a limited number of engagements. 

Tuesday October 3rd.  The Hogs Head, High Street, in Manchester Town Centre, was a pub gig for my old pals Pete Wardle and Phil Seddon.  I don’t normally partake in pub gigs but these two guys have been running good folk sessions in pubs for years. If any of you are in the Manchester district on a Tuesday you should pop along.  They don’t have folk music every Tuesday – so it might be as well to telephone the pub first.  It’s bound to be in the book.  Jon Harvison showed up too on my night – so it was real good to have a chat with him.

Wednesday October 4th.  The Cross Keys, Uppermill, Near Oldham. Surprise surprise just off the plane and straight into a folk club came Clive Gregson fresh in from Arizona where he now lives.  He was about to start a British tour the next day.  I hadn’t seen Clive for probably 10 years or more.  We worked together quite a bit in my recording company days when he produced a Wilson Family single and a Keith Hancock LP for me on my Greenwich Village label. We last actually met at a festival in Stoke and that was probably back in the ‘80s.  He seemed well and had lost a fair bit of weight since the last time I met.  Living in America obviously suits him.  There is no truth in the rumour that he showed up simply to study my amazing banjo playing in 9/17 time.

Saturday/Sunday October 7th and 8th.  The Tenterden Folk Festival with Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, and Martin Young in the evening.  Carthy just gets better and better which is frustrating for ordinary mortals to understand.  The festival was just lovely.  Dreadful weather – but a lovely festival.  Bumped into Brixton Bert.  He doesn’t seem to have aged a bit and we both agreed it was nearly 25 years since we last met each other.  At the folk club session on the Sunday I was booked along with others with Vic and Tina Smith, and I’d not met them since the 1960’s!!!  Amazing places for meeting old pals and acquaintances are festivals!  Enjoyed running the Sea Shanty Workshop which was a full house.

Monday October 23rd. The George and Dragon, Potterne, near Devizes.  My first time at this small intimate traditional folk venue.  Traditional or not they seemed to like what I did and I certainly enjoyed playing for them. 

Wednesday October 25th.  The Bear Inn, Llantrisant, Near Cardiff, South Wales.  Back to the Valleys!  Tim Nicoli showed up and played amazing guitar pieces.  Another full house.

Thursday October 26th. Private House Concert in Bristol.  A gig at a venue now named ‘Angel’s Bedroom’.  The place was packed with young people all but one of whom had never experienced folk music before in their lives.  It was a gas. The whole evening suddenly took on a whole new life form of it’s own as an impromptu singing session took over.  Tunes and verses and nonsense rhymes were suddenly made up by all and sundry. The place simply started rocking about on it’s own.  They intend to have a session on the last Thursday of every month.  Good to be the introduction mouth piece of folk to about 30 young people who had never sung a folk song before.

Friday October 27th. The Obelisk Hotel, Woolston, Southampton.  My first visit to the club run by Sam and Sandy – the same guys that edit and produce Folk on Tap the excellent folk music magazine from Hampshire.  Not a completely full house here, but I sold a lot of cd’s and that is always pleasing because it means that people have very obviously enjoyed themselves.


I’d done the ‘programme show’ at all of these venues, all of course were completely different nights with differing formats and songs.  That is the advantage of the ‘programme show’.


Keep smiling and keep singing.