True North: a national anthem for the North?

True North: a national anthem for the North?

A Conservative MP has called for BBC-TV to play God Save The Queen every night at its closedown, as BBC Radio 4 already does.  Not unpredictably, this has caused a furious storm in a teacup – which was of course the intention of making the statement in the first place. 

The ‘tabloid media’ (not just the Sun, Mail, etc but also increasingly Talk Radio and the likes of GB News) needs a steady supply of culture war teacup storms and wedge issues to keep their elderly readers, listeners and viewers tuned in, infuriated and distracted from what is actually happening in the world.  The Tory Party has a reliable supply of nonentity MPs happy to oblige. 

In general it is best not to rise to the bait and let this game set the agenda of what is or is not being discussed by the likes of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.  But as Philip Proudfoot, leader of the Northern Independence Party (NIP), has pointed out, it does beg a question: what is the North’s ‘national anthem’?   

For the NIP, which of course promotes the policy of Northern sovereignty and full independence for a new Republic of Northumbria, this is a genuine question.  Should Northumbria’s new national broadcaster (NBC?) play the new Northumbrian national anthem every night at its closedown, or not?  It sounds like a bit of a joke, and the genius of NIP is that it is simultaneously both a bit of a joke and also not a joke at all – merely by posing the question, NIP changes Northerners’ perceptions of who they are and who they might be. 

The HMF, which promotes the concept of progressive regionalism in the North, should very much welcome this kind of playfulness and questioning of what the North is and could be.  Whether we should be talking about the North having its own national anthem, or only having one or more of its own regional anthems, it’s a fun question to ask anyway.

The serious bit before we come to the fun part

Of course there is a serious side to it.  As the less than semi-democratic unreformed Westminster parliament loses its ‘social licence to operate’, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland head for the exit door, will the North get its act together to demand our own seat at the table to decide what comes next, or will we let the dominant South speak for us

An essential part of the answer to that question is whether the North perceives itself to be one region with different parts, or whether it perceives itself to be three, four or more separate regions of England that are neighbours, but not more.  Music, with its deep emotional response, can help people to feel whether there is such a thing as a single Northumbria or North of England region.

Is there any such thing as a regional anthem?  Yes there is: the European region most closely resembling the North, Germany’s North Rhine Westphalia, has its own anthem, the Westfalenlied, as do the German states of Hamburg, Saarland, Hesse and Baden-Wurttemberg.  Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands have a developing set of regional anthems, whilst Austria has a full set: one for each of its eight states outside Vienna. 

Does wanting a regional anthem for the North mean that you will no longer be allowed to like other English and British national anthems such as Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee My Country, or even for that matter, God Save The Queen?  If you are a NIP supporter, possibly.  But HMF’s position is that it is perfectly normal and desirable to simultaneously have a local, regional, national and international identity, and be comfortable and proud with all of them, whilst also having a mature understanding of the bad things that got done in our history, and still get done in our name today.  Where HMF disagrees with the more foam-flecked English Nationalists is in the idea that we should be allowed county and national identities, but that regional identities simultaneously both don’t exist and should be suppressed.  We detect the mindset of imperial Westminster ‘divide and rule’ in such positions.

Anyway, back to the question of whether music can play a role in bringing the North together as a region to define and then demand its democratic rights.   

Land Of My Fathers

It is not so long ago that a similar (if not identical) question could have been asked in Wales.  Wales was annexed to the Kingdom of England in 1542, and the Wales and Berwick Act of 1746 finally extinguished Wales as a legal or constitutional entity.  In the eyes of Westminster, Radnorshire or Merionethshire had no different status to Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire. 

Among the Welsh themselves, there was no love lost between North and South Wales, or between its Welsh-speaking and English-speaking areas.  It took a social movement to re-establish the concept of Wales as a separate nation within the UK.  Music, and in particular choral singing, was a key part of that – see below. 

Wales sprang back to life in legal terms in the unlikely circumstances of Gladstone’s Public Houses Sunday Closing (Wales) Act of 1881.  It was only legally recognised as having a capital city as late as 1955, and the Welsh flag was only formally adopted as a thing in 1959.  The parts of the Wales and Berwick Act that decreed that Wales was to be treated as part of England were only repealed in 1967, whilst the elected Welsh Assembly (now Senedd Cymru) and devolved government with its own First Minister was only created in 1999. 

Wales still does not legally have its own national anthem.  But the unofficial Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (in English, Land Of My Fathers), written in 1856 by the splendidly-named father-and-son team Evan and James James, played a significant part in the cultural reawakening of Wales and Welsh national spirit.  It became the unofficial Welsh national anthem when sung by the crowd before the Wales-All Blacks rugby match in 1905 as a response to the All Blacks’ haka (an occasion that also started the tradition of national anthems being sung before kick-off at internationals). 

That’s a tradition that is in pretty good shape today.  Here’s a crowd of 73,000 Welsh men and women giving the anthem full blast at the Millennium Stadium Cardiff in 2019:

For anyone wondering what the words mean, here’s Paul Robeson singing an English translation of the anthem in a recording from 1960, with photo montage by Dale Miles:

An anthem for the North – possible candidates

Smooth down the hairs on the back of your neck and ask, what wouldn’t the North give to have its own anthem like that?  But what do we have?  The North has plenty of music which is associated with its component parts, but almost nothing that belongs to the North as a whole.

The North is closely associated with brass bands.  The first civilian brass band was the Stalybridge Band formed in 1809, and the world’s first brass band competition was held in 1853 at Manchester’s Belle Vue, in front of a crowd of 16,000.  But what brass band anthem belongs to the North?

The national anthem of Yorkshire, probably best heard played by a brass band, is On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At.  It makes a great anthem, but it clearly belongs to Yorkshire, not the North as a whole. 

The Durham Miners’ Gala showcases brass band music, but the anthem most closely associated with it, the Miners’ Hymn Gresford, written in the North East to commemorate the Gresford Colliery disaster of 1934, belongs to all the miners, not to the North.  Gresford itself is near Wrexham in North Wales.

One excellent suggestion from an HMF member is Deep Harmony, written by Airedale’s Handel Parker (1854-1928). Here’s a great version of it by Stockport’s Fairey Band (formerly Fairey Aviation Band) at the Greenfield contest in 2019, part of Saddleworth’s Whit Friday festival. It’s prefaced by a tribute to Greenfield’s Joe Buckley (1944-2018). Deep Harmony is a hymn but perhaps an alternative set of words could be written to make it also the North’s secular anthem?

Nowt as queer as Folk

What about folk songs?  The Geordie national anthem is The Blaydon Races.  Here’s the Felling Male Voice Choir with a good rendition of it in a church in the Czech Republic.  But the song’s close association with Newcastle United Football Club means that it probably doesn’t unite even the North East.  Similarly, Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne.  Vin Garbutt rectified that with Land of Three Rivers (John North) celebrating the Tyne, Wear and Tees, but it is a song for the North East, not the for the North as a whole.  

D’Ye Ken John Peel belongs to Cumbria, and only Cumbria.   Here’s the song played by the band of the Kings Own Royal Border Regiment at Carlisle Castle just before the regiment was disbanded.

Similarly, in the North West, Johnny Todd belongs to Merseyside, not to the region as a whole.  Also known as the Theme from Z Cars, it’s heard here contributing to intense levels of anticipation at Everton’s Goodison Park (a case of ‘Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m Gwladys Street?).

Northern Songs

What about pop and rock music?  The first 88 songs of The Beatles, the greatest band in the history of the artform, were owned by Northern Songs Ltd, but the Beatles never wrote an anthem specifically for the North as a place.  Their Northern Songs are better viewed as a gift to the whole world.

The Farm’s All Together Now is better viewed as Liverpool’s gift to the rest of the UK, an anthem from the North, but not for just the North. 

Plenty of other rock anthems are associated with parts of the North, but relatively few with the North as a whole.  Mark Knopfler’s Going Home/Local Hero is now strongly associated with Newcastle and the North East, but it was written for a film set in Scotland. 

Can the celebrated bands of Madchester come to the rescue?  No. The Stone Roses’ “I’d like to leave the country/For a month of Sundays/Burn down the town where I was born” from This Is The One is certainly an authentic Northern sentiment, but scarcely suitable for a regional anthem.  Similarly, The Fall’s The NWRA and its lyric “The North will rise again/Not in 10,000 years/Too many people cower to criminals/And government crap” addresses some essential truths about the North’s dilemmas, but isn’t ideal for an uplifting regional anthem. 

Merseyside’s Jimmy Cauty and Scotland’s Bill Drummond, otherwise known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, draw the positive conclusion that The North Will Rise Again at the payoff of their dance epic It’s Grim Up North.

The closest Sheffield’s bard Jarvis Cocker got to a Northern anthem was probably Mis-Shapes but its message may be too universal.  Paul Heaton is a Northern songwriting colossus with a foot on either side of the Pennines, but his quintessential ode to the North has perhaps yet to be written?

The two greatest-ever Northern pop anthems (from the 1980s at least) are probably The Fall’s Hit the North and The Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town. Both videos are well worth listening to and watching: Hit the North for the rare sight of Mark E Smith and his long-suffering band having a grand day out in Blackpool, and Life in a Northern Town for the awesome footage of Hebden Bridge in the 1980s, as well as possibly the best deployment of the oversized oboe or cor anglais in popular music. But would either of them truly suit a formal role as a regional anthem?

And the winner is…

So although where does this leave us?  You might think it doesn’t seem to be looking good, but in fact, there is actually a really good candidate, as Philip Proudfoot has pointed out. 

One of the North’s finest and most under-appreciated artists is Boff Whalley, ever-present member of Leeds anarchist band Chumbawamba through its 30 years 1982-2012.  Born and raised in Burnley, but based in Leeds, Whalley has genuine trans-Pennine appeal, and as a result of decades of his trademark ‘industrial strength niceness’, he is even popular in the North East and Cumbria. 

Following the retirement of Chumbawamba he became a fellrunner, author and then founder of the Commoners’ Choir.  In the latter role in 2018 he wrote an anthem for the North that draws on the North’s tradition of hymn-singing and choral music, which consciously celebrates the North’s historical and cultural strengths, follows their threads through to the present day, and really succeeds in finding the unifying themes from the North’s wide diversity.  

It’s called True North, and is a great and truly proud patriotic anthem, in the best sense of that word.  It certainly deserves to be heard, celebrated and sung more widely. 

The video of the anthem being sung by the massed choirs of Leeds’s Commoners Choir, Stockton’s Infant Hercules choir and Manchester’s SHE choir is here, and the lyrics are printed below it.  If the lyrics have ever been put up anywhere on the internet, they are certainly not easy to find, so as a public service to the North by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, here they are. 

Does it pass the ‘makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up’ test?  Only you can decide that. 

True North – lyrics

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