Give us a song Bob

Look around and you’ll find loads of Bob Foxes, from complete unknowns to the moderately famous.

In the latter camp, there’s that journalist who pops up on BBC radio and Sky News, reviewing the papers or pontificating on matters of defence (great radio voice; great radio face too as it happens). But what about the unknowns?

The fence erector, the financial adviser, the lorry driver, the children’s entertainer, the double-glazing salesman?

Our Bob Fox (the article is essentially as originally published but will be updated) has been all of those things. He also happens to be a Sunderland-supporting Seaham lad widely regarded as one of the country’s very best male folk singers.

As the list of other occupations suggests, folk music is not a path to job security. That is a shame because Bob really is a fine singer and musician.

His first album, Nowt So Good’ll Pass, made with another North Easterner, Stu Luckley, was Melody Maker’‘s folk album of 1978.

Twenty-two years later, his solo CD “Dreams Never Leave You” was the Daily Telegraph‘s folk record of the year. I should know, since I was the paper’s folk critic. And I made my choice without even thinking of it as the best thing he’d done; it was certainly topped by his next CD, Dark to the Sky, a marvellous collection of mainly North Eastern songs set to sophisticated jazz and rock arrangements.

References to Sunderland have cropped up in Bob’s work before. On How Are You Off For Coals?, a record he made with Benny Graham, a Cup Final victory for the Lads was listed among the treats that Durham miners in the 1940s expected to come with nationalisation of the pits (no one knew it – the FA cup – would take until 1973, or indeed the destruction of coal not much longer).

Then there’s that fifth world of the new album. “Jack Crawford was a Sunderland man…”, Bob sings of the young sailor hailed as a hero (statue in Mowbray Park, no less) for defying Dutch cannon fire to re-fix the colours of his Naval warship to the damaged mast.

Close listening to a later track reveals what may well be a guarded allusion, by the Victorian “pitman’s poet” Tommy Armstrong, to the coal-owing Tyzack family which also produced an early treasurer of SAFC.

The reference is guarded because it is massively hostile, denouncing the cruel treatment of pitmen who resisted a pay cut.

Bob Fox clearly has a great fondness for the songs of the North East, and the people they describe.

But his decision to follow a career in music has put active pursuit of another love of his life, SAFC, beyond him. Under pressure of work, he is an armchair, or driving seat, supporter.

Still keen as mustard, he profits from the media coverage of football to stay on top of the Lads’ ups and downs while he wanders around as a 21st century troubadour.

The Stadium of Light remains uncharted territory, but turn back the clock if you are old enough and Bob might have been the young lad standing beside you at Roker Park.

His dad was a lifelong season ticket holder, and Bob was taken by his “Uncle Jack”, in truth his father’s best pal, as soon as he was deemed old enough.

His memory of early games is hazy. He recalls seeing Charlie Hurley, Jimmy Montgomery, George Herd, Colin Tood and the rest – though curiously not Brian Clough – but match details are long forgotten.

There may be a reason for this. “To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen at first,” he told me shortly before embarking on a two-and-a-half month world tour (yes, even folkies get world tours) with his wife, Marilyn, partly to sing for his supper but also to celebrate her early retirement as a head teacher.

“The thing is, I was a big Doctor Who fan and was scared of missing it if we got home too late from the match. But as I got a few years older, I became a very keen Roker Ender.”

On the road, he goes to all the familiar lengths to keep tabs on the team. “I think it was New Zealand where I once got up at 7am to see a game on TV”.

If he is working at home in Chester-le-Street, scouring the net for untried venues or festivals that might be worth an approach, he listens to radio (Martin Emmerson and Nick Pickering, then the commentary team, were doubtless pleased to hear he approved of BBC Radio Newcastle’s coverage). “I may not be able to go, but I do fret about the results,” he says.

The son of a man who became a Co-op worker and then an electricity meter inspector after taking just a few months down the pit to decide there was more to life, Bob was quick to realise he had a good voice.

At Northlea Grammar, he was a rarity: a pupil allowed a shot at lead Gilbert & Sullivan roles normally taken by teachers. He was also a boy soprano in the choir at St John’s church, and was for ever being pushed forward to sing at family gatherings.

Away from music, he was good at technical drawing and beat hundreds of other hopefuls for a shipyard apprenticeship at Doxford’s. All he had to do was pass five O levels. He managed four.

The subject that eluded him was the one he had been sure to get. On the day of the engineering drawing exam, he slept in. “There was hell on,” says Bob. “And to think, I could now be an unemployed draughtsman.”

Persuaded to stay on and aim to become a music teacher, he started A levels. But soon the lad who had adored the Yardbirds, Kinks and, above all, the Beatles was introduced to something he had never encountered.

A teacher played him the first LP by Martin Carthy, star of the English folk revival. Instantly hooked, Bob taught himself guitar, learned every song on the record and gradually found himself drawn into the curious word of folk clubs, then a thriving phenomenon.

Not even the prospect of being the first member of his family to enter higher education could compete with the buzz he got from singing live.

But despite failing his As, he was accepted by Bede College in Durham on the strength of five O levels, having passed engineering drawing at a re-sit. He scraped through the course and qualified as a teacher in 1975, but chased his own artistic dreams so hard that it was 1990 before he faced a class.

Folk music has never threatened to make Bob rich. Teachers always moan about pay but his wife earned twice as much.

Yet Bob doesn’t sound too sorry for himself. And he really perks up when I tell him that I once wrote of folk-rock giving “a perfectly agreeable, Volvo-driving lifestyle” to Steeleye Span’s lead singer, Maddy Prior.

“Well I must have made it as well because I’ve got a Volvo, too,” Bob exclaims. “Only mine cost £980.”

3 thoughts on “Give us a song Bob”

  1. Editor’s note; bog off, cretinous and now linkless web parasite.

    LINK DELETED BY SALUT! has a virtually endless list of manufacturers, models and vintages that is so comprehensive that you will find yourself trying to catch it out by looking for your old cars on there as well as downloading the guide for your current one. With this information to hand, all you need to concern yourself with is downloading the correct manual and keeping the information close to hand for the hopefully rare occasions when a fault occurs.

  2. Belated ackowledgement of your comment, David……even Mme Salut, no great lover of folk (though she does like folk-rock), thinks Bob Fox is good. It’s simply for the strength and quality of his voice, though she wouldn’t thank him for singing mining songs at her.

  3. I was interested, nay, surprised to see an article about Bob Fox, and to learn of your liking of folk music. I know of Bob from my dad, Eric, who is a resident singer at the Davy Lamp Folk Club in Washington.
    It’s good to see that folk and football can go hand in hand which is something that me and me da have been jostling with each other for years. Iv’e only missed four home games in thirty seven years but can’t get my dad interested, whilst he’s forever bestowing the virtues of a saturday night at the Davy Lamp (I did go once and enjoyed it but it’s not really my thing)
    Ah well, one can but try!
    SALUT !!!

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