If Jez Lowe had not discovered folk music, he might have become one of the masters of modern British fiction. Bright, creative working class types have a way of finding an outlet. But Lowe was into music from an early age, and set out on the path that has made him one of the best songwriters and performers of the last 30 years.
Lowe brings his talents back to Princeton on Tuesday, June 30, in a concert at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. His appearance is sponsored jointly by the Arts Council of Princeton and the Princeton Folk Song Society.
He will surely sing some songs from his latest CDs, “Northern Echoes” (a concert album) and “Jack Common’s Anthem,” but there will be clamoring for tunes going back to his first solo endeavor in 1980. Over the past quarter century, Lowe has built a reputation as one of the leaders of the modern British folk world. With 15 albums to his credit, he has appeared all over the globe, including the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian. In 2006 he was commissioned by the BBC to write 23 songs for a series, “The Radio Ballads,” which brought him well-deserved recognition. He was nominated for Folksinger of the Year by the BBC in 2008. Even more telling is the esteem in which he is held by other folksingers. His songs have been recorded by countless other artists, including Fairport Convention, the Dubliners, Liam Clancy, Cherish the Ladies, Mary Black, and Robbie O’Connell.
Earlier this year, as part of the Charles Darwin bicentennial, he was one of eight artists invited to spend a week in Darwin’s Shropshire estate writing songs for a live concert, documentary, and CD celebrating the life and works of the naturalist.
Lowe’s songs often take the form of a short story, sometimes sad, frequently humorous, occasionally angry. Many take place in and around his home county of Durham, like the trilogy “A New Town Incident,” “London Danny,” and “Another Man’s Wife,” each offering a different point of view of a romantic triangle. His songs are not so much autobiographical as they are observations of the people and places he’s seen.
“When I was young me father said to me/Never take advice that comes for free/’Cause you can have all the riches of the golden kind/But without the riches of your peace of mind/You won’t make old bones, you’ll see,” Lowe sings in one of his most popular songs. Now in his 50s, he speaks fondly of the life he has led and the life he leads, his soft Northern England accent coming clearly across on a trans-Atlantic cell phone.
He has never strayed too far from his birthplace in Easington Colliery in County Durham, not far from the Scottish border. To the rest of England, he is a Geordie, one of those creatures from the northwest, with a strong Scots influence. He denies the claim. “The real Geordies wouldn’t admit to that,” he says. “They’d say you’ve got to be from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 20 miles away, a very exclusive club that. But as far as the rest of England is concerned, I am a Geordie.”
Lowe’s roots are actually Irish. His family came over in the early 1900s to work in the coal industry. Easington Colliery was a thriving mining town until 1993, when the mine closed with a loss of 1,400 jobs. The event threw the town into an economic decline from which it has yet to recover. It was the perfect location for the out-of-work miners film “Billy Elliot” in 2000.
A single man, Lowe still lives in the area. Although his career takes him all over the world, he professes a great attachment to the places of his youth. “A friend of mine, another folk singer, came and stayed with me in the early 1980s when the coal mines were still around, and everyone was burning coal in their home fires. He could smell the coal and the soot, and I had never noticed it; it was just part of the life. We didn’t know anything else. But we were right next to the sea, with its clean air, and it’s quite rural, not like Birmingham in the midlands, land-locked and smoggy.”
Many of Lowe’s songs deal with coal mining — “Ballad of Johnny Collier,” “Black Diamonds,” “These Coal Town Days” — and the dangers involved. “Last of the Widows” takes inspiration from the Easington Pit Disaster of 1951, in which 81 men were lost.
“My father retired just before they closed down in the mine in 1993,” says Lowe, “He was in the rescue attempt in ‘51. After he died, we got a photograph from a newspaper, of him and a bunch of other guys just about to go into the cage to go down. How do you go back to work after that? I don’t know — I don’t know how they went down in the first place. There were people working right on the site of the explosion, just doing their normal jobs, within four days. I suppose it had a profound effect on the place, but there were other smaller scale accidents all through the years. I lost friends from my class at high school, and I suppose everyone has similar stories.”
In communities where everyone works for the same company, and faces the same dangers, there is a close-knit feeling that can’t be duplicated. It’s reflected in many of Lowe’s songs, not all of them dark-spirited. In songs like “Big Meeting Day” and “High Part of the Town,” he celebrates the fun of going over to the nearest big town, Durham, for special occasions. It’s obvious that he misses the collective feeling that was Easington before the mine closed.
“That took all of the community spirit away,” he admits. “It’s a sort of cliche to say that you didn’t have to lock your doors because everyone was so friendly. There was a mutual support system among the workers and their families because of the danger involved; you couldn’t afford to have enemies. That’s what was taken away. People have died off or moved away, so they’ve brought in people from other parts of the country. So it’s not really a typical community anymore.”
In 2006 Easington was listed as the fourth most economically deprived place in England. It was also said to be the obesity center of England. “That’s a new one on me,” says Lowe dryly. “It sounds like some social building in the middle of town — the Obesity Center.”
So how did the child of a coal miner avoid going down into the pit? Lowe explains: “Another cliche — ‘no son of mine will go down the mines’ sort of thing. Mainly my mother pushed me into more academic things, so I went to high school and into college. I was already playing in bands around here, so I didn’t want to go far away. I went to Sunderland, about 10 miles away, and studied languages. That was all I was good at. I like language and the use of languages a lot, so it was a natural thing.”
It was also a natural and fairly seamless step up to becoming a professional musician. “From a very young age, I was into folk music,” says Lowe. “There was lot of folk music around here, and Irish songs in the family. It was all right here on the doorstep; it was inevitable that I would get into that. There was a bunch of guys in my high school taking lessons. They passed on what they learned; I never studied formally. I wasn’t writing yet — it was the traditional old-timey stuff that attracted me. It was almost like serving an apprenticeship; listening to as much traditional stuff as I could from different parts of the world — Irish, Scottish, American songs. I didn’t start writing at all seriously until about 1979 or ‘80.”
Lowe points out that the modern folk songs got a tremendous shot in the arm when the conservative Margaret Thatcher government began to rule England in 1979. “Suddenly, we had something to be against. It jumpstarted a lot of people. I kind of drifted into writing and playing for a living. I was playing with Ged Foley (later to join two seminal Celtic traditional groups, the Battlefield Band and Patrick Street), and we kind of forced each other into playing professionally. And it coincided with me starting to write songs, and as soon as I starting doing that, I got a good reaction, not just from the audiences but from other singers, who wanted to take the songs and sing them as well. I knew I was maybe onto something. And that happened almost straight away.”
It’s easy to see why his success came quickly. One of the extraordinary things about listening to Lowe’s early work is how fully formed the songs are. It never appears that one is listening to a young man in the process of learning his craft; the songs could easily have been written by a man with years of experience in the business. It is a tribute to Lowe’s unerring ear for the way people talk and his gift for the right phrase.
“I did suss [catch onto] what I was doing pretty quickly,” he says. “But there were a lot of precedents for what I was doing up here. It wasn’t as if I was forging new ground. Hopefully, there was a little bit of originality there, but lots of people like Alex Glasgow and Johnny Handle were songwriters from this part of the world, with a sort of an acoustic left wing bent, quite influenced by the melodic tradition they have up here in the Northwest, the Geordie songs, as well as the humor. And then Irish singers and writers like Christy Moore, the Dubliners, and Planxty were here all the time. You could go out any night of the week and see these people playing. It was incredible; I was very lucky. The mainstream music just didn’t have an ear for it. They poured scorn on it, very dismissive of it, regarded the folk scene as a bunch of nutters. It has changed — suddenly everybody is an expert on Dylan and Woody Guthrie and Ewan McColl. But back then it was underground music.”
Perhaps there is no better tribute to Lowe’s abilities than the fact that several of his songs, like “The Bergen,” a wistful ballad of a lost ship, and “Back in Durham Jail” are thought by many listeners to be centuries-old traditional tunes. They are probably the most covered of his songs as well.
Then there’s the strong political strain in Lowe’s songs. “The Guilts” is an angry song about those who have forgotten the less fortunate (“That was almost enjoyable to write”). Bloodstained rails against man’s marked ability to turn any kind of quarrel into a bloodbath. “Tom-Tom” marks out a caution against the over-reliance on technology. “Not so much anger as puzzlement on that one,” says Lowe. “That song came out of a conversation I had in Australia with a New South Wales folklorist named Chris Kempster. It’s a sort of technology vs. the tradition, sort of a fun song. It got a big reaction when I first started it. We don’t do it so much anymore, but now that you speak of it, I think it’s due for a revival.”
It’s not nearly all dead serious with Jez Lowe, though. His keen sense of humor, which runs through nearly all his work, is on high display in songs like “The Vikings,” “Father Mallory’s Dance,” and “Aloysius.” “The funny ones are the hardest,” he says. “I have to do them so that they are not just funny once, but keep being funny. And they’ve got to be topical but without being burnt out in a month.”
Unlike some performers, Lowe has no quarrel with being on the road, especially with his frequent back-up group, the Bad Pennies. “I’m not really into recording,” he admits. “It’s the live performance and the traveling that I like. It’s broadened my outlook. I think I am more reflective and contemplative about stuff, but I don’t think it’s an age thing. I think it’s just the way of the world. There’s no set project that I want to do; things just sort of come out of the blue. I’m quite happy just to muddle along, and hopefully, some other thing will pop up.”
Jez Lowe, Arts Council of Princeton and Princeton Folk Music Society, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Tuesday, June 30, 8 p.m. Folk and acoustic music by singer-songwriter whose new album, “Jack Common’s Anthem,” was inspired by the cult Geordie novelist of that name. Register. $20. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.