The release of a new record is always something of an event to celebrate and investigate. So When The Oldham Tinkers released a new album after a gap of over 40 years, Steve Henderson thought there were questions to be answered. Ready to respond were the trio of Gerry Kearns, John Howarth and Dave Howard.
What were the reasons behind the wait for new material on ‘A Lancashire Grace’?
Gerry Kearns (GK); Our first decade of recording was with Topic Records and featured two shared albums and five of our own in the time period 1968 to 1979.
We did record some unpublished songs in the nineties which included a little new material - two tracks of which are on the new album. Topic have also , over the years, put out compilations which have included our songs.
There was a flurry of activity from Topic round about 2018 with further compilations including
‘An Introduction to The Oldham Tinkers’, an invitation to the 80th anniversary celebration party to provide the entertainment along with Eliza Carthy as well as an invite to play at Cecil Sharp House after an absence of 50 years..
However, work and perhaps, Larry’s being unable to sing and play with us and subsequently his death brought about a big change as he had been such a creative force on stage and in his writing.
I had always put words to music but never attempted to write complete songs but the songs came slowly and it was probably Dave who encouraged us to record what new material we had.
Dave’s experience in recording in his career at the BBC and the asset of his studio at home was a help, not to mention his outstanding mandolin playing along with guitar and singing ability.
You’ve been playing some of these tracks in your live shows for a while. Was this all done with the new album in mind?
GK: I would say no. I don’t think we have ever done that. I wrote the tune to Edwin Waugh’s ‘Cradle Song’ perhaps 30 years ago but we have hardly used it. ‘Jemmy’s Garden’ and ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ were a poem and song we were using in the early nineties. It was in 2014 when we began to discuss a new CD.
What did you look for in choosing songs for the new album?
GK: We had 21 tracks which we had recorded in Dave’s studio and had not really thought how they would narrow that down to CD size.
Then. John approached John Ellis who he had recorded with in a group called the Oddfellows.
He had set up a firm called Limefield along with John Haycock and Will Faulkner and they connections with Bandcamp.
We listened to the advice of Limefield as they new the market better than we did with regards to downloading on the internet and such technology and discussed the choice on the criteria of subject matter, contrast of tracks, balance, a variety of sounds and instruments, humour, light and serious tracks and we hope people like the resulting CD or at least some of it.
Which track on the record is your favourite and why?
John Howarth (JH): ‘Mrs Peet’, I think the reason being my working life in the Health Service. I was a State Registered Nurse, a State Registered Psychiatric Nurse and a Registered Nurse Tutor, at Oldham and District Hospital and at Salford University.
G.K. I think ‘Peace Be Upon You’. Not because of it’s music or anything other than its message which I think is important. It tries to portray the importance of relations between people of different race, culture and faith. The simple message of peace.
Dave Howard (D.H.): My favourite track on the CD is ‘Charlie Brown’, pure vintage Tinkers.
What music do you enjoy and/or inspires you?
JH: In the early years , my mother Mary Howarth (nee Colleran born Cloonlyon, Charlestown, Co Mayo, Ireland.) was always singing.
I was a member of the Royton Morris Dancers’ in my early teens.
At my secondary school in Ashton, a woodwork teacher (known as Harry Plank) taught me the rudiments of 5 string banjo playing and along with three others formed a group called ‘The Gamblers’ and he entered us in a talent competition on the Six Five Special’ roadshow at the Empire Theatre, Oldham, top of the bill was Wee Willie Harris, The Most Brothers (Mickie Most) that was the first time I’d played to a full house.
Early influences; Burl Ives, Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle movement, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (for my Irish influence)
American influences: Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder.
GK: Influences started at home growing up with my brother Larry. Our father was Irish and loved singing and he and his brothers would sing at Christmas parties and such.
There was plenty of singing at junior school and most of this was folk music with the teacher at the piano and, when the teacher did not play, we listened to the radio BBC programmes ‘Singing together’ and ‘Rhythm and Melody’ which were excellent and we learned folk songs from all over the births Isles.
At our secondary school in Salford, Pepe Martinez used to visit every year and of course his playing was brilliant. Ever since I have never wanted to play anything other than the Spanish acoustic guitar.
Once we started as the Tinkers, we met Harry Boardman who encouraged us to add to the few Lancashire songs we knew. He introduced us to Harvey Kershaw the Rochdale dialect poet who then came up to our singing nights at the Oldham Hotel. It was Harvey who wrote the words to the Peterloo Song that John sings. Cliff Gerrard another dialect poet from St Helens was another strong influence and we have used much of his material - two tracks on the new album.
DH: I listen to everything from trad Scotish/Irish tunes and country from USA contemporary folk song, and soft rock, Portuguese Fado etc, Show of Hands, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Jezz Lowe, any Lakeman combination, Kathryn Roberts, Sierra Hull (US mandolin), Bob Fox, Sam Sweeney, any good guitar playing.
Do you see your influence an other artists? If so, who and how?
JH: Mark Dowding the Lancashire folk singer, recorded and sings a number of The Oldham Tinkers songs, and was influenced by Harry Boardman, as we were.
We also get acknowledged in books. Kate Long’s bestselling book. ‘The Bad Mother’s Handbook’ cites the influence of a whole lot of Oldham Tinkers’ LPs’. Mike Keegan’s tele of goings on at Oldham Athletic. This is How it Feels: An English Football Miracle’ references The Oldham Tinkers and even quotes from the lyrics of ‘A Mon Like Thee’.
Looking back over your lengthy career, what memories come to mind?
JH: 16th August 1969 Concert at the Free Trade Hall Manchester 150th year Commemoration of Peterloo.
Singers: Harry Boardman, Leon Rosselson, Pete Smith, and John Howarth.
Speaker: Michael Foot M.P.
Narrator: David Mahlow.
January 1973 B.B.C. Colin Welland Award winning ‘Play For Today’ starring Bill Maynard, Rosemarie Dunham and Marjorie Yates, directed by Michael Apted. The Oldham Tinkers’ songs were used throughout the play ‘Toddlin’ Whoam’ (EdwinWaugh), ‘Charlie Chaplin’ , ‘Our Sarah’s Getten’ A Chap’. Children’s Chants and songs.
1974 Another BBC ‘Play For Today’ by Barry Colins, ‘The Lonely Man’s Lover. The background songs and music for the play were provided by Te Oldham Tinkers to lyrics by Barry Collins.
1973 Colin Welland selected the Oldham Tinkers recording of the song ’Peterloo’ as one of his choices on ‘Desert Island Discs’.
In the early 1970’s, Ewen McColl with Peggy Seeger and The Oldham Tinkers played The Liverpool Civic Hall - what a night that was. Full House, A Fund raiser for the Jimmy Reid, Clyde Shipyard workers strike.
1975 The Oldham Tinkers did two concerts with Bernard Cribbins on May 4th at ‘The Free Trade Hall’ Manchester and on Tuesday May 6th at ‘The Guild Hall’ Preston.
1976 The Oldham Tinkers were involved in a BBC production ‘Cribbins, Livings and Co’ Bernard Cribbins, Henry Livings, (we were the Co) which was filmed at the Grange Arts Centre, it involved some outdoor scenes, acting in Oldham market, and singing our songs in the Grange Arts Centre to an Audience.
1976 The Oldham Tinkers were guests of the Lunar Literary and Philosophical society and entertained late-night television viewers each night for a week in the programmes ‘Thank You and Goodnight’.
The Oldham Tinkers guest appearances on the John Peel Show and the numerous trips to London for Andy Kershaw BBC Radio 3 World Music Show. On one occasion ‘The Chieftains’ who had been recording in another studio came along and watched our session with Andy Kershaw.
GK: The early years singing in the pubs in Oldham. There were lengthy spells at the Waterloo, The Grapes, The Manor and The Oldham Hotel and a few others.
The production of ‘Lancashire Sings Again’ in Manchester at the Library theatre with Harry Boardman, Harvey Kershaw and Moston Brook clog dancers including a ‘Pace Egging Play’ where I fell off the stage.
Being resident group at the Brookdale Folk Club, Failsworth run by Harry Boardman and where Christie Moore would turn up as a floor singer.
1968. A concert to commemorate the centenary of The TUC at Manchester Town Hall with a drama group from the University and John Betjeman who became the Poet Laureate.
1968. Singing at Cecil Sharp House.
Singing at The MSG in Manchester.
1977 Singing for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at Manchester Palace Theatre and meeting the Queen and Duke in the Line up at the end of the show. Hilda Ogden asked to hold Larry’s hand because she was nervous and then fainted.
Playing to a full house with Brighouse and Rastrick brass band on a Monday night at the Free trade Hall.
Playing with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at the Lesser Free Trade Hall and Martin Carthy Breaking his fingernail opening a bottle of Guinness just before he went on stage.
2018 Singing at Cecil Sharp House after 50 years.
2018 Singing the newly written ‘Remember Annie Kenney on Oldham Town Hall steps with Annie Kenney’s great great granddaughter after the unveiling of a statue of Annie Kenney. It was not planned.
2019 Singing at a commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre to an audience of a thousand people at Salford University.
DH: Appearing on Andy Kershaw’s BBC Radio 3 Show in London (twice) . Cecil Sharp House gig. Bolton Octagon, Bury Met. All great venues with full houses.
What’s next for The Oldham Tinkers?
GK: We think we may have enough material for a new CD if we put our minds to it. We do know we can’t wait another 42 years.
Artwork by Peter Stanaway from which the new album cover is taken.
LARRY Kearns, the "creative, inspiring and humorous" force behind legendary folk band the Oldham Tinkers, has died aged 73.
Larry, who formed the hugely popular group in a pub with his brother Gerry and old school pal John Howarth in 1965, lost his short battle with cancer surrounded by his family in Dr Kershaw's Hospice, on Saturday.
Despite stepping back from performing at bigger venues after suffering from Dupuytren's contracture - a hand deformity - around 20 years ago, his creative influence was still an integral part of the band which marked its 50th anniversary last year, headlining Oldham Carnival and Saddleworth Folk Festival.
Among the highlights in his prolific folk career - in which his witty, colloquial and sometimes political and compassionate lyrics attracted fans from far and wide - The Oldham Tinkers played at the Queen's Silver Jubilee Royal Gala Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in 1977.
As they were lining up to meet the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh alongside the cast of "Coronation Street", actress Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden, asked Larry to hold her hand because she was so nervous. He agreed but when he turned to obliged he discovered she had fainted and was on the floor!
The Duke then asked the band which of them "had the twisted thinking to write a song about a ferret". Referring to Larry's "John Willie's Ferret" song, his brother Gerry said he had to own up.
As well as vocals, Larry, from Moorside, played mandolin and whistle but, says Gerry, he was the driving force behind the group and embodied the Oldham Tinkers.
"Larry had a strong influence on the ethos of the group, presenting us on stage and directing the group's character," said Gerry.
"He could be extremely witty and told a good story. He wrote some brilliant songs about Oldham such as 'In Our Town', 'The Owl of Oldham', 'Elsie Bell' and 'The Lark' as well the 'John Willie' songs."
In the first verse of "Skiing Owdham Style" he wrote: "You can keep yer slopes at Aviemore an' yer Alps of Eastern France, To yer winter sports in Austria we wouldn't go given the chance.
"Where do the Oldham top knobs go to gain their winter thrill?
"Oh they don their togs an' they point their clogs to the ski slopes on Counthill."
He also loved writing songs based on the ditties he would sing as a child living in the streets of post-war Oldham.
Such was the popularity and reputation of the Oldham Tinkers in the Seventies and Eighties they recorded background music for several plays written by Colin Welland of "Chariots of Fire" fame. They also performed for radio and TV on many occasions.
An LP they recorded in 1968 with fellow folk singers including Harry Boardman, from Failsworth, and Mike Harding became their label Topic Records' biggest ever selling album.
Despite bowing out of performing with the band, in recent years he was instrumental in running a folk song session at the Royal Oak, in Oldham, using his "characteristic style and influence" to help and encourage fans of the musical genre.
"He didn't really have any interest in performing on big stages after developing Dupuytren's contracture and although he had an operation it came back," added Gerry (69), from Mossley.
"He still sang though and performed in pubs and in front of family and was still involved behind the scenes.
"His place was taken by our sound man Dave Howard but Larry really was irreplaceable."
Larry - whose real name was Bernard but he became known by his nickname after a teacher labelled him "happy Larry" at school - was also renowned for his passion for rugby league and rugby union and was a much-loved teacher at St Anselm's School which later became St Augustine of Canterbury RC High School.
During his teaching training at Hopwood Hall College he spent a year working at a school in France where he learned to speak fluent French.
He coached Oldham's schoolboy rugby league team for many years and became a useful translator for visiting French teams.
His son Daniel said: "My dad will be missed dearly by all the family.
"He had numerous interests and passions, a notable one being rugby, league and union, where he needed no invitation to share an encyclopaedic knowledge of players past and present.
"However, it was music that stimulated him most, filling a void and enabling him to combine his love of storytelling and poetry.
"We would like to think he will live on in his songs, songs that will hopefully be enjoyed by generations to come, in the folk way."
Larry also leaves wife Nadia and children Joseph, Stephen, Ruth and Luke and grandchildren Anya, Oliver, Freya and Iris.
A funeral mass will be led by Father Eugene Dolan at St Edward's Church, Lees, on Wednesday, June 8, at 10am.
The Oldham Tinkers are going ahead with a performance at Oldham Coliseum on Saturday.
Reporter: Gillian Potts
Date online: 02 June 2016
This article was featured in the Oldham Evening Chronicle.
Reporter: MARTYN TORR
Date online: 18 March 2014
Martyn meets... the fabulous Oldham Tinkers
FIRST the good news: The Oldham Tinkers and are alive and well and rehearsing for a sell-out concert at the Coliseum in April.
April 9, to be exact — I promised to be in the audience and buy the guys a pint after the show, so I hope I can get tickets.
When I say “the guys”, I mean Gerry Kearns and John Howarth, still singing together 49 years on — and Dave Howard, who has been the third Tinker for 20 years (prior to which he was the band’s sound engineer).
An accomplished mandolin player in his own right, Dave stepped in when Larry Kearns, Gerry’s brother and one of the original Tinkers, had to take a lesser role after surgery restricted his ability to play - but not his creative juices, which continue to flow.
In fact Larry wrote most of the original lyrics to the classic Tinker songs; music that has underpinned the act for decades.
And now the other good news: the boys are planning a jubilee concert next year, to mark their 50 years together. That will be something special, though they don’t know where it will happen.
I suggested the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester - a fitting venue that would highlight their unique talents. I think my idea fell on deaf ears. They were very polite, though...
We were chatting in the bar at the Waggon in Uppermill about the life and times of an Oldham institution.
This was the first time I had spoken to any of them, though I have often watched them perform and delighted in the sheer joy of their shows. I suspect after a couple of hours of chat I had merely scratched the surface. Someone ought to chronicle their life and times.
The facts: three lads from Oldham (okay, John is 70 and Gerry 67) — because they remain impish and mischievous on and off stage. They are what they are, talented, amusing and exceptional company.
They chuckle at memories, their faces creased in genuine smiles as they recount the times they would rush out to sing every night, before families and commitments got in the way.
Have I mentioned the word “celebrity”? Neither John, who lives in Royton, nor Gerry, in Mossley, would ever admit to such a thing.
It’s a shame Larry is out of the loop these days, because his personality had a huge influence on the band.
He is Gerry’s older brother — 70 now, same as John. They started off singing in pubs as the Brothers Kearns, having picked up a love of music from their Irish heritage and their Dublin-born father Benny.
“Larry acquired a banjo,” recalled Gerry. “I had some piano lessons and, yes, our dad supported us and encouraged us to perform,” said Gerry.
They were happily doing their own thing while in a parallel career so was John, also of Irish ancestry. The two institutions met in the Highfield and Park pub in Waterloo Street and they formed a trio.
And the name? “We used to sing a song called the Jolly Tinker,” said John. “One night I suggested we call ourselves the Tinkers. We couldn’t, because it was already registered, but they allowed the Oldham Tinkers,” said John.
John recalled their first recording for Topic Records — reminded by Gerry that they had gone to London, recorded all the tracks and returned in a day - unthinkable in these high-tech days. Wistfully they looked at some of the songs listed on the cover of “Deep Lancashire”.
They were encouraged by good friend and fellow musician Harry Boardman, who had been the first to suggest the Tinkers concentrate on folk music.
“The LP did really well,” noted John. So did they make lots of cash?
“No, we just got a fee, like any other gig. It was shattering when we found out how many copies had been sold. But we were never motivated by money, we just wanted to sing and perform.”
Still, it wasn’t a mistake they repeated.
This was when Larry and Gerry were teachers and John was working for the NHS as a state-registered nurse.
And boy, did they perform. Oldhamers will recall them at the Grapes in Yorkshire Street, the Manor (now Hark to Topper) in Bow Street, the Lancashire Vaults in Manchester Street, the Sir Colin Campbell in Glodwick Road and the Oldham Hotel, recently demolished, where they had a four-year Sunday residency.
Memories came tumbling out: filling the Free Trade Hall on a Monday night, performing at Manchester’s Houldsworth Hall and the old Library Theatre for three successive nights. More and more recordings as The Oldham Tinkers, not compilations like the early works.
John and Gerry - and Larry in the old days, these days Dave - are far too modest and understated to put themselves up there with the greats.
John still performs every Monday at the Oddfellows in Middleton and Gerry — who put most of Larry’s lyrics to music — actually sang for me in the Waggon, effortlessly going through the words of of their songs.
They appeared on John Peel’s massively-popular radio show and were frequent guests on Rochdale fan Andy Kershaw’s Radio One programme. Their renewed fame on radio led to the reissue of their albums.
Playwrights Colin Welland and Henry Livings were devotees; Bernard Cribbins is a fan - he once collaborated with the boys on a play at Oldham’s Grange Arts Centre.
Did I mention there was more good news? Dave has been living in Ireland for the past decade, which meant the lads have been selective about their gigs. Now he’s living in Bury, which could mean more gigs.
So let’s all look forward to the jubilee gig. That should be a riot.
If there can be such a thing as an understated riot.