Last seen at the 2016 Vancouver Folk Music Festival, The Young’uns are back as part of a Western Canadian and U.S. tour.
With a single concert on October 24 at St. James Community Square’s Mel Lehan Hall in Kitsilano, the award-winning English folk music group will perform a mix of songs from their latest album The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff and past discography.
Released in December last year, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff chronicles the true story of the young man who shared the same hometown as The Young’uns three members.
“His life touched on some of the great defining moments of working-class history in Britain, particularly through the 1930s,” explains The Young’un’s Sean Cooney, via Skype from his home in Stockton-on-Tees.
Four years in the making, the genesis for The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff began after meeting Johnny’s son at one of their concerts. “Duncan Longstaff approached us at the end of the show, with a picture of his dad and a piece of paper with information about his dad’s life,” explains Cooney.
Knowing the trio was from the same area as his father, Duncan hoped they could be persuaded to write a song about his father’s life. “Little did he know that within a few years it wouldn’t just be one song, but would become sixteen songs and a whole show,” says Cooney.
The show Cooney refers to is a theatrical presentation of the album currently in the works. And while their upcoming tour will feature songs from the album, Cooney says they will be bringing the full Johnny Longstaff experience to Toronto next year. “The show will be a mixture of the songs, some supporting animation and also the real voice of Johnny Longstaff,” he says.
Recorded for Britain’s Imperial War Museum, Longstaff’s oral testimony is interspersed through the album’s songs. “It’s a really precious, special thing for us to be able to do,” says Cooney.
The road to The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff and The Young’uns place as one of Britain’s most popular English folk groups began purely by accident in 2003 for Cooney and longtime friends Michael Hughes and David Eagle.
Teenagers at the time, the trio heard what Cooney describes as “this strange singing” coming from the backroom of a pub in their hometown.
“Little did we know that we had stumbled across a folk club,” recalls Cooney. “We didn’t know there were such things, with this gathering of ordinary people on a Monday night who would get together, sing songs for fun, and without instruments for the most part.”
Calling it a revelation, the three found themselves returning to the pub to immerse themselves in the English folk songs that were being performed. It would also be where the group would get its name.
“Because we were the youngest people by many years it seemed, we were quickly christened in a sort of nice way as the ‘young’uns,'” says Cooney. “And the name stuck.”
As they became regulars at the pub, the three were eventually persuaded to perform. It would be the push needed to form their own band, even though Cooney says at the time they had no calling or ambition to be singers.
While fellow members Michael Hughes and David Eagle came with some background in music, Cooney insists he has never considered himself very musical. It is a somewhat contradictory statement considering Cooney is responsible for writing most of the band’s original material.
“Music has always flowed through David’s veins, and Micheal played the guitar from a young age,” he says. “But I can’t read music. For me, it’s all in my head; it’s all about the stories and the passion.”
Much of that passion comes from their discovery of English folk music. “It’s just so communal and so unpretentious and welcoming. It is such a wonderful place to learn a lot of history,” he says.
It is a genre Cooney also says is alien to most young people in Britain. They also see the public’s unfamiliarity with English folk music as they tour other countries, often being mistaken as coming from Ireland or Scotland.
“I think a lot of people assume that we are Irish or Scottish because they’re so used to that culture, and how successfully it has gone around the world,” he says. “If you compare it to Ireland or Scotland where folk music and traditions are very much part of the culture, it’s really an unknown in England.”
Armed with their newfound discovery and appreciation of the genre, it would be the influence of English folk group The Wilson Family that would inspire the group. It would also be part of their decision to perform acapella.
“To be in the room and listen to them is just an incredible experience,” says Cooney. “But more importantly, it’s their complete lack of pretension really. They’re just so honest, and that honesty really struck a chord with us. It was hearing people like that, people who live and breath the songs they sing, that really inspired us to try and do the same.”
The Young’uns will perform at St. James Community Square’s Mel Lehan Hall (3214 West 10th Ave, Vancouver) on October 24. Visit roguefolk.bc.ca for tickets and information.