In the summer of 1965 a chance meeting between John Howarth and the brothers Larry and Gerry Kearns in the Highfield and Park pub in Waterloo Street, Oldham, saw the beginning of years of fun and music for the Oldham Tinkers, and indeed for Anybody who happened to listen to them. The trio chose the title “Tinkers” because at that time there were differences of opinion in Oldham between travelling people and the council. The name of the town was later added to differentiate between this northern triumvirate and a London based group, also called the Tinkers.
Although John had not met the Kearns brothers for over ten years, he was no stranger to them. He had shared a primary school desk with Larry for four years and had many times met Gerry at play and at school functions. At this pub meeting they resolved to play music together but this was by no means the birth of their musical apprenticeships. The lads came from musical families of Irish stock where music was never taught but vastly encouraged and where family sing-songs were an everyday event. The boys had grown up surrounded by informal music, and luckily they were very aware of it. It did not pass them by. It clung to them. This combination of music and informality has become their trademark.
Though the manner is casual, the musicianship is thorough, solid, varied and of extremely high standard. Although in the early days all three played a variety of instruments, now John confines his efforts principally to the banjo, Gerry to the Spanish guitar, and Larry to the whistles and mandolin.
For years the majority of their work was in pubs where audiences regarded these three fellows as a three man stand-up turn to be derided and clapped accordingly. In such places they dug deep into the music of their family sing-songs, particularly the humorous ones, and worked hard handling various audiences. After a baptism such as the Oldham Tinkers had, the world of folk clubs and theatres in which they later found themselves, was like being on holiday. Later followed work at folk festivals, radio and television work, much of the latter being background music for plays and documentaries about the north of England, for which the Oldham Tinkers’ music is particularly suited. It was gratifying to have a string of television appearances in their wake, but a terrific honour in the summer of 1977 when the Oldham Tinkers were summonsed to sing for Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Phillip at a Royal Gala Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester.
When asked to describe their own music, the Oldham Tinkers are uncertain. Some people call it simply “folk”, but does that word sum it up? It involves a wealth of children’s material, gleaned mainly from their own childhoods, a host of airs and lilts bequeathed by their family backgrounds, narrative songs, music hall songs, dialect songs and poetry, pub songs, daft songs, and deeply sincere songs, often sad. Mostly they sing of Oldham, past and present, with more of a hint of history and industry. They were once guests on the late John Peel Show. They were shocked to be asked, amused too, but flattered. They did the job and enjoyed it.
The town in which they live, and their family upbringings contribute most to the Oldham Tinkers’ music but they owe no mean debt to the influences of the great Northern dialect poets like the late Edwin Waugh and Sammy Laycock, and more recently, but again the late Cliff Gerrard from St Helens and Rochdales’ Harvey Kershaw, both of whom were good friends of the lads. They have been affected too by both George Formby senior and his son, and by Charles Chiltern and Harry Boardman who gave them more than the spark to delve into history for their more serious material, by many close friends, and by thousands of Northern people.