Billy Penn's Brother: An acoustic folkie with a radical message

Sunday 1st July 1990

In the back streets of Brixton a radical singer/songwriter has emerged with a searing new brand of acoustic folk roots music. James Attlee met BILLY PENN'S BROTHER.

Billy Penn's Brother
Billy Penn's Brother

It's nearing the end of what's been billed as "An Evening With Billy Penn's Brother And Friends" in a tiny Brixton basement. We've seen a man escape from chains with his head submerged in a bucket of water. American chanteuse Tamara has explained the difference between an English folk song and an American one - for those who don't know, English folk songs are usually about potatoes, while American songs tend to feature steers (buffalo). Confusingly, her subsequent demonstration appears to disprove her thesis. Finally flute player Kirsty Reid attempts, almost successfully to play the "Cry Freedom" theme on two-penny whistles simultaneously. So we've been thrilled, educated and uplifted, and all before the main event - a set from singer/songwriter Billy Penn's Brother, dubbed rather glibly by many, as Brixton's answer to Bob Dylan.

The man lurking behind the name is Northumbrian immigrant Richard Nicholson, looking every inch the folk singer with his Donovan cap, his battered acoustic, his pint pot and his pigtail. But from the first few lines of his opening song, "Death On The Instalment Plan", it becomes immediately apparent that we are not dealing with just another boring busker, but with a performer of considerable stature - a writer of songs of hurt and anger, as well as love and hilarity. Even hearing them for the first time these songs communicate immediately, giving that rare sense of seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Some are in the form of open letters - to an IRA terrorist, to a politician on the slide, to the murderer of a nine-year-old girl. There's a love song to his daughter, which manages to be moving without being in the least bit sentimental. There's autobiography and slapstick humour - there's even a couple of Bob Dylan cover versions delivered with a great deal more conviction than the songs' author managed at Hammersmith a few months back. If this is the New Bob Dylan, who needs the old one? I'm hooked.

A few days later I track Richard down to the office where he works, in Brixton's Acre Lane. Over mugs of Nescafe we listen to the first copy of his new album, dubbed at the studio the day before over an old Glen Campbell tape. I refrain from asking whether he sees himself as the new Glen Campbell. So what's with the name, Richard?

"I thought about the way bands have a name, and the way they're able to keep their normal day to day identity. I wanted to change it to the equivalent of a band name, an idea - and it gives a certain kind of anonymity. In the gospel John calls himself 'the other disciple' or 'the disciple that Jesus loved' - he actually distances himself from using his name. The Billy Penn thing was like William Penn, who is a hero of mine, and his Holy Experiment in Philadelphia. He was actually doing things, taking in people - he was taking in Jehovah's Witnesses who were being persecuted, and Mennonites. He was making treaties with the Red Indians when the rest of the American people were savaging them - savaging the savages! I just liked his approach. I changed it to Billy to make it a bit more familiar, and Billy Penn's Brother because I'm his brother in Christ."

Do you see your roots as being in folk music? "My father used to sing me Geordie folk songs when I was a kid - I'm from Morpeth in Northumberland. He was a sailor, but he came from a mining background, so my roots are back into that sort of stuff. I never got heavily into the folk scene at all - but I've always liked music with lyrics. I see my self more as a writer of words than a musician - it's the words that are the vehicle for my ideas. Folk music's more appropriate to that than say rock, which tends to be a little vacuous or pretends to be profound when there's nothing really there. Bob Dylan (him again) said something along the lines that 'one person and a guitar can do a lot more damage' - I go along with that. There's a starkness about it, and a raw emotion. My intention is to bring a few tears, to make people think, to touch people at an emotional as well as at an intellectual level - in an oblique way really."

Somehow or another in our free-flowing conversation we get onto the subject of Appalachian Mountain music, and from there to the music of the Kentucky coalfields, and to a folk singer called Sarah Ogan Gunning.

"She's a big influence - she was the daughter of a Baptist preacher, married to a miner who died of tuberculosis - she lived around the time of Woodie Guthrie. She would sing union songs, mining songs, hymns and kid's songs. She sang a song called 'I Hate The Company Bosses', where the bosses are wearing jewels and silk and her blue-eyed baby starved to death for milk. There was malnutrition and what have you - and I see it as a very simplistic version of what we have now. We haven't got starvation and malnutrition in this country - well, I guess we have - but we still have those business people who are creaming it off. I just love the simple approach she brought to music. She hasn't got a good voice in the technical sense - she croaks away, but there's an element there that touches you. It's like a pipeline that comes straight from her soul, and that's what I want to try and do."

That's quite a brief. The new album is called 'Power Blocs/Mustard Seeds'. I asked Richard what the thinking was behind the title. "The power blocs are the power structures you see, such as tyrannical governments, or this kind of power thing in the church, this sweeping self-appointed leadership in the charismatic sphere and in other places. I see that as the power blocs that the Bible calls principalities and powers - and alongside that you have the strongholds of power blocs in people's thinking, when they put themselves down because they think they're fat or their nose isn't small enough. So on the one hand it's about those kind of power blocs and on the other about the mustard seeds that can subvert them, and the way we can bring the Kingdom of God in through weakness in a hidden quiet way, not trumpeting around in a triumphalistic 'world domination enterprises' approach, storming the globe with in that title I've set one kind of approach against another. Heavenly power that's not like worldly power, the lord it over us approach. It's a servant leadership thing that seems so absent today - there's a predominance of three-piece suits and nail-on smiles and not enough honest-to-goodness hard work. Service is hard work, usually for not much reward - not getting rich on the gospel and working out a theology to justify it. The album covers a lot of different aspects at those two poles, coupled with observations of things that have got to me on the news - personal experiences I've wanted to get out of my system, get exorcised. I suppose there's quite a bit of political stuff in there, but politics can be so boring and dry without the aesthetics, without any poetry, so I've tried to blend in my own emotions as a father, a husband and a human being with my ideas on where the injustice in the world is and what needs to be put right. I hope it puts into a kind of picture frame the last year of my life. There are flaws in it - but I don't want to dwell on them. It's just like a footprint, and now it's there, it's caught something. The fact that we did it in two days means it's got an immediacy and a spontaneity - something comes off it that I don't think we would have achieved if we'd been ponderous over it."

The album was produced by Dave Markee in his Croydon Studio, and features Dave on bass, Kirsty Reid on flute, and Dave Gilgan on additional guitar. Much of the recording was apparently done on a first-take basis, to avoid the sterility of over-production. This is not a record that is afraid to come to grips with big issues - nearly 50 minutes in length, its songs cover a broad sweep of contemporary life in Britain. The early '60s saw the emergence of the folk-singer-as-prophet on the mass market, when Bob Dylan and his Greenwich Village contemporaries updated the protest ballad style of earlier troubadours like Woodie Guthrie, and became student pin-ups overnight. Britain too had its own crop of singers who both wrote new material and rediscovered a rich seam of British folk songs from former years. Somewhere, however, the movement seemed to flounder, falling into hippy-dippy tweeness in the psychedelic era, and then morbid introspection in the '70s (with a few notable exceptions, of course).

Then in the mid-'80s we had the Live Aid concert beamed into living rooms around the world. One of the most potent images of that event was of one girl and her guitar-put on to fill some time between acts, Tracey Chapman became an international star overnight. In the eclectic '90s, no one style dominates the music scene, and folk-singers (nowadays usually given the more fashionable tag of 'roots' or 'world' music) are very much back on the menu - which bodes well for Billy Penn's Brother. In no way does Nicholson want to be another part of the Christian subculture - he'd rather put out his own tapes on his own Brixton-based label Torn Curtain Records than sign with a Christian label. The ultimate ambition is to sign with an independent or a major, and take his chances as a songwriter in the market place, "What I've tried to do through my songs is to encourage people to hang on to their dream. Everyone's got a dream inside them of what they want to do-one of the most fundamental things that human beings need to do is to follow their dreams. You look at Smith Wiggles worth and guys like that, that followed dreams - Martin Luther King. People want to follow dreams in their heart, but this pragmatism has manacled the whole country. The Good News came to me when someone said God wants you to be what He's made you to be. In terms of my songs - I hope they show somebody who's in the process of being healed, but is still fundamentally sick; which is the basic qualification for being a Christian! I suppose my stuff is worship in the widest sense. I want it to be acceptable to God on the basis that I'm not pulling the wool over anybody's eyes. I'm not wearing the outfits that make me look like I'm a citizen of good repute when I'm struggling with looking at the dirty magazines on the top shelf of the newsagents. I'm just a human being and yet in the middle of it all I've got this relationship with God which undergirds it all and gives me the grace and tenacity to get through. I want that to go into the music." Go in it does. Seeing the world through the eyes of Billy Penn's Brother is not always a comfortable experience, but it's a challenging and ultimately a rewarding one. Don't be surprised if he turns the spotlight back on you, the listener. On my way out of that Brixton gig I picked up a copy of the first Billy Penn tape 'Coals Of Fire', and played it in my car on the way home.

As I drove across Lambeth Bridge listening to the song "The Wreck Of The Poor Mary Rose" I was forced to re-examine my relationship with my wife and admit my past failures before God. This man is out to get you - sample the Billy Penn's Brother experience soon. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About James Attlee
James Attlee is the assistant editor of Cross Rhythms and lives in the midlands.


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