BOB Davenport is the sort of person you can’t really do justice to in a newspaper article: you need to hear his stories from his own lips.
Born in 1932, he was just 10 months old when he survived a catastrophic gas explosion which killed his father and grandfather. His family home in Gateshead was destroyed and Bob was taken from the wreckage wrapped in blankets.
Throughout his childhood, music was an important part of family life and he started performing at a young age while he was an evacuee during the Second World War.
In the 1950s Bob left Tyneside for London where he sang traditional tunes and held folk nights at Irish pubs. He made a name for himself and was prominent during the folk music revival in the early 1960s when he was invited to perform with Bob Dylan in the United States.
His uncompromising, powerful and gritty style of singing has made him highly influential to generations of musicians and Northumbrian piper and composer Kathryn Tickell has asked him to perform at The Sage Gateshead as part of a unique series of concerts.
In what promises to be a special night in Hall Two, Bob will be in conversation with Mike Tickell (Kathryn’s dad) and will perform accompanied by Kathryn on the fiddle and by melodeon player Hazel Askew.
Bob, 78, says: “I was 10 months old when my dad was killed. It was an explosion which became a local cause celebre. Gateshead Corporation and the gas company fought over who was negligent. I found the papers later.”
He continues: “I was brought up by my mother with help from her family and, aged seven, was evacuated to Yorkshire. I sang one night at a club and someone told me later that practically every song was about leaving, dying or being exiled from your homeland.”
In the 1950s Bob moved to Camden Town in London where he started singing in Irish pub The Bedford.
“People used to say if you wanted to know where The Bedford is you could hear me and Margaret (another traditional singer) from the tube station. Someone heard me singing there and put me forward for a competition. From then I entered the folk world.”
One of the highpoints of his career came in 1963 when singer Pete Seeger, who was instrumental to the American folk music revival, asked Bob to perform at the 1963 Newport Festival on Rhode Island. Bob appeared on stage with Bob Dylan when the festival was in its heyday.
He is also credited with introducing Dylan to a number of traditional British songs which the American then remastered and recorded.
Bob says: “We had a session at lunchtime with two traditional musicians and Bob (Dylan). We would do a song each and go round like that.
“I didn’t know it had been filmed but I saw footage of it recently on BBC4 and it was amazing really.”
Bob ran folk nights in Islington for many years and was committed to maintaining high standards for the singing of traditional music.
He says: “My grandfather used to say, ‘Keep the kettle boiling’ and what he meant by that was don’t let things sag.
“When I came to MC at two pubs in Islington, I tried to keep the standards up.”
Bob also played with band The Rakes and has released four albums, the last of which was The Common Stone.
It features friends Richard and Linda Thompson, Mike and Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. The CD was dedicated to Bob’s father Tommy Davenport, who was just 23 when he was killed.
His appearance at the Sage for One Night in Gateshead, a Folkworks concert, will feature songs, poetry and tales primarily from the North East.
“My North East, by the way, is Durham and Northumberland,” says Bob. One traditional ballad Bob will feature is Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low, which tells the story of a sailor who returns home a rich man after many years at sea.
He seeks out his love who tells him to stay in her father’s pub under a false name. That night the girl’s cruel father murders him for his gold, and is subsequently hanged.
“It’s the same story which is included in Albert Camus’s novel The Outsider,” Bob says. “So I’m going to sing the ballad and then Mike will read the extract from Camus.”
Bob’s life has been a fascinating mixture of literature, poetry, music, politics and tragedy, and I suspect his night at the Sage will have a flavour of it all.
One Night in Gateshead: Bob Davenport is at 8pm tonight in Hall Two of The Sage Gateshead at 8pm. Box office: 0191 443 4661.
I sang at a club and someone told me later that practically every song was about leaving, dying or being exiled