BBC Radio 2 shines a spotlight on 21st Century Folk in January

BBC Radio 2 shines a spotlight on 21st Century Folk in January

In February 2022, Mark Radcliffe, presenter of Radio 2’s The Folk Show launched 21st Century Folk on the network, in partnership with BBC Local Radios Newcastle and Radio Tees. This ambitious initiative aimed to capture the essence of life in the North East of England today through the prism of folk songs, offering people from the region the opportunity to have a song written about their life by acclaimed songwriters. These songs are revealed for the first time today (Monday 9th January).

Helen Thomas, Head of Radio 2 says: “Radio 2’s commitment to specialist music makes us unique in the UK radio landscape, and I’m hugely proud of 21st Century Folk, which has originated five beautiful new songs. I’d like to thank our wonderful contributors for sharing their stories and the talented songwriters and composers who have brought them to life through their music.”

Folk singers have always sung the stories of real people living in these islands. Inspired by the classic BBC Radio Ballads, people from the region were asked to share stories about their daily lives; five were selected and each was matched with a songwriter who has written a new song based on their experience. These songs have been performed by a range of musicians, including some with links to the region, creating a musical time capsule of life today in the North East.

The songwriters, musicians and singers involved are Martyn Joseph, Thea Gilmore, Sean Cooney with The Young’uns, Chris Difford with Kathryn Williams, and Angeline Morrison with The Unthanks.

The five stories of the contributors and their songwriters, from the first meeting, writing the song, to hearing it first performed, are available on BBC Sounds from today (Monday 9th January) and will be broadcast in 21st Century Folk on Radio 2 (8pm-10pm, Sunday 15th January – a 7digital production). Each of the contributors and songwriters will be on Jeremy Vine’s show from 12-2pm Monday 9th to Friday 13th January on Radio 2, giving their perspectives on this project and the process of working together to write the song (a BBC Audio production).

The people, songwriters and musicians taking part are:

Andrea Bell who, with her fellow volunteers, runs a soup kitchen and food bank called The Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen which serves free food to people in need four nights a week. They have witnessed a big increase in demand during recent times and welcome homeless people and any family or individual struggling to make ends meet. Singer-songwriter, Martyn Joseph, has written a brand new song – called Albert’s Place – inspired by Andrea and the volunteers. Armed with an observer’s eye for detail, a gift for dramatic lyrical twists, and his guitar, Welsh troubadour Martyn travels the world performing powerful songs about relationships, family and society. He has a history of involvement with humanitarian projects. His latest release, 1960, is his 23rd album and came out in 2021. 

Martyn Joseph says: “I’ve always felt that music is a big conduit of empathy and hope, and should come alongside us and remind us that we’re not alone in the world. And if you want to tell the story of a big issue, it’s best to find one person within that issue and tell that one person’s story.”

Delyth Raffell from Blyth tragically lost her teenage daughter, Ellen, aged just 16, to anaphylaxis. This led Delyth and her family to set up a charity in her memory, called Ellen’s Gift of Hope, to support other children in their region who face challenges in life due to health issues, special needs and disabilities. Singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore from Oxfordshire met Delyth to hear about her extraordinary daughter and the pain and purpose that inspires the charity to write her song – called She Speaks In Colours. Thea released her debut album in 1998 at 18 years old. Thea’s latest EP, Was, came out in October 2022. On Monday 9th January, The One Show on BBC One will feature Delyth on the programme, showing the moment Thea performed her song to her for the very first time.

Thea Gilmore says: “It was such an honour to be a part of the 21st Century Folk project. I don’t think I have ever felt such a responsibility as a songwriter to capture a person and a mood as I did with this song. It has been a privilege to listen to Delyth and her family remember Ellen. It has been a privilege to try to do justice to Ellen’s life in song. They’ll all be with me forever.”

Dr Ifti Lone is a dedicated GP working in Middlesbrough. Since moving to the UK from Pakistan he has served the same Teesside community and become a lifelong fan of Middlesbrough Football Club, a passion which binds him to his community. Dr Lone administered thousands of Covid vaccines during the pandemic and, after catching the virus himself, ended up in intensive care. Award-winning songwriter, Sean Cooney, met him to hear about his life, work, being in intensive care, and the power of football to unite a community, before writing the song – called Doctor Boro – about him and performing it with his bandmates, The Young’uns. Sean, from Stockton-on-Tees, co-founded The Young’uns with David Eagle and Michael Hughes. Their rousing harmonies, strong social conscience and humour have made them an unmissable live act. They have released eight albums and perform an acclaimed stage show called The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. 

Sean Cooney says: “Discovering folk songs as a teenager was a life changing experience for me. Many people think they only tell the stories of the past. Being involved in 21st Century Folk has reaffirmed my belief that folk songs are as relevant today as ever, and it was a privilege to meet Dr Lone and be able to tell his story through song.”

Michael Dodds is a fifth-generation foyboatman in the Port of Sunderland. Day and night, Michael helps ships from around the world to moor on the Wearside docks. His role involves high-tech communications, whereas previous generations used small boats, ropes and whistles. The Port was, until recently, where Ukrainian steel arrived in the UK. In the future, giant turbines will be shipped out to Dogger Bank to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Michael meets legendary Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford who was inspired by his stories to write the song – called Foyboatmen. Chris co-founded Squeeze in 1974, co-writing pop classics including Cool For Cats, Up The Junction, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) and Tempted with Glenn Tilbrook, before embarking on a solo career. Chris performs the song with singer Kathryn Williams, who has also composed the music. Liverpool-born singer Kathryn lives in Newcastle and has released 10 albums since her 1999 debut, Dog Leap Stairs, recorded for just £80. She was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2000 and her latest album, Night Drives, is out now.

Chris Difford says: It was a real pleasure working on this song with Kathryn Williams, someone who I admire. Talking with Michael I managed to get a good impression of his life and the boatmen who go back many generations before him, it was a subject that instantly inspired me.”

Katie Toner, from Northumberland, organises accessible parties and sleepovers for neurodiverse children. She has autism and ADHD and found it hard to enjoy typical children’s parties. Now a young adult, she creates experiences that all children can enjoy. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Angeline Morrison met Katie and has written the song – called A Dream For You – inspired by her life and work. Angeline, who now lives in Cornwall, won Cambridge Folk Festival’s award for upcoming talent – the Christian Raphael Prize – in 2022, and made her debut recently on BBC Two’s Later… with Jools Holland. This year she has also released The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs Of Black British Experience, produced by Eliza Carthy. The music is arranged and performed by Northumbrian band The Unthanks who famously draw on their Northumbrian origins in their music. Centred around the sibling harmonies of Rachel and Becky Unthank and the arrangements of Adrian McNally. The Unthanks’ 2022 album, Sorrows Away, hit the Official Albums Chart and followed their acclaimed work on the TV soundtrack for BBC One series, Worzel Gummidge featuring Mackenzie Crook.

Angeline Morrison says: “Katie is so friendly and confident and warm. She’s just a fantastic person. I was really struck by the way that she goes into schools and shows children that neurodivergent people come in all different forms, and that there is no ‘one way’ of being neurodivergent.”

21st Century Folk is partly inspired by the classic BBC Radio Ballads which were created by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger during the late 1950s. These landmark programmes described the lives of real working people through their own words and original songs. The Radio Ballads format was also revived by Radio 2 during the 2000s.

In The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe (9-10pm, Wednesday 11th January), Mark – who recently celebrated his 10th anniversary as presenter of the show – will be featuring Thea Gilmore live in session and chatting to Sean Cooney. A 7digital production.

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