IN Kathryn Tickell’s words, “one North East folk family can produce a wall of sound”, so what will be the effect when there are four of them on stage?
Is there such a thing as a sound mountain?
However monumental it gets, there is going to be a considerable amount of entertainment when The Unthanks, The Elliotts, the Wilson family and the Doonan family gather in Hall One of The Sage Gateshead.
The families are joining forces for a One Night in Gateshead concert as part of an ongoing Folkworks series produced by musician Kathryn Tickell.
Northumbrian piper and fiddler Kathryn says: “The whole idea for One Night in Gateshead was to look at musicians and singers working in the North East who are not on the radar.
“They are not necessarily professional musicians who go out and do big tours, but they sing and play at folk clubs and have influenced generations of other musicians including myself for years.
“They are incredibly important.”
Previous One Nights featured singers-songwriters such as Johnny Handle, Chris Hendry, Louis Killen and Ed Pickford, whose performance sparked Kathryn’s idea of organising a Hall 1 concert. She says: “The folk club audience had not necessarily seen The Sage Gateshead as a venue for them, so I wanted to bring those artists into the surroundings and say that they are absolutely right for it.
“And the public response has been really fantastic.”
Friday’s concert celebrates the 50th anniversary of the influential Birtley Folk Club which was founded by members of Elliott family in 1962.
A year previously Ewan MacColl, the co-architect of the British folk revival, had visited Jack and Em Elliott in Birtley while researching pit stories and songs for the Radio Ballads series.
Ewan and his partner, the singer Peggy Seegar, became friends of the family and an LP – The Elliotts of Birtley: A musical portrait of a Durham mining family – was released in 1967.
Although not as large as in its heydey, the club is thriving still due to the commitment of Doreen Henderson (Jack and Em’s daughter) and her husband Bryan.
Kathryn recalls being taken to the club when she was in her mid-teens by Tommy Gilfellon, a former member of the High Level Ranters.
“I told him that I had never been to Birtley Folk Club and he was so horrified that he made me go there, that was my induction.”
She adds: “I think the Elliotts are an amazing family and fascinating from a historical, sociological or political point of view. It’s amazing one family can make such a difference to the folk scene nationally as well as locally.
“The club has always been supportive and it has also been responsible for people starting to sing who hadn't before.
“There are quite a few people that I know who sang for the first time in that folk club.
“It has never been about stars, it has been about company and connection and giving people a place to sing.”
Kathryn describes Birtley Folk Club as a “unifying force” whose commitment to folk as a living tradition has influenced The Unthanks, The Doonans and the Wilsons.
Like the Elliotts, Kathryn remembers the Wilson family of Billingham in Teesside from when she began to learn violin.
The seeds of The Wilson Family as a performing group were sown during the 1960s and they remained prominent on the folk club scene, eventually recording The Wilson Family Album in 1991.
Last year Kathryn organised a prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London, during which brothers Tom, Chris, Steve, Ken, Mike Wilson sang a number.
Kathryn says: “On the same prom were the BBC Singers who were fantastic, but they were drowned out by the Wilsons.
“They were like a wall of sound and it was amazing. They get their heads down and sing traditional songs with such conviction.”
The Doonans from Tyneside descend from the late piccolo player John, who Kathryn describes as a “brilliant player of Irish music”.
His sons Michael and Kevin carry on the tradition of Irish music and last year formed The Mighty Doonans band. Kathryn says: “For a long time folk wasn’t something you did as a career. It was something you did in your own time alongside the rest of your life.
“Music hasn’t necessarily been a career for the Doonans, but you could put them alongside any full-time professional band and they would probably outdo them.
“They know their stuff and have been singing and playing this material for ever.
“They are great musicians and entertainers. You always get a good night when you see them.”
Birtley Folk Club was also inspirational to Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, who grew up steeped in the local folk scene.
Kathryn says: “The Unthanks are now doing amazing things, but they are not booked for that reason.
“They have been booked for their place within the North East folk scene and who they have been influenced by.”
So aside from Birtley Folk Club, is there a common thread linking these four folk families?
Kathryn replies: “They are all part of a living tradition. None of them have come from outside and learnt it from books. They have learnt it from other people, become part of it and are influencing new generations.
“We are lucky to have a strong living tradition in the North East. Other parts of the country are trying hard to revive material, but don’t have all the people who have kept that material going through periods when folk music was unfashionable.”
One Night in Gateshead, featuring The Wilsons, The Doonan Family, The Unthanks and the Elliotts is at The Sage Gateshad on Friday at 7.30pm in Hall , www.thesagegateshead.org