Folk singer celebrates the work of tunnellers

An acclaimed folk singer has written and recorded a five-song EP in celebration of, and in homage to, those who work – and have worked – in the tunnelling industry.

An acclaimed folk singer has written and recorded a five-song EP in celebration of, and in homage to, those who work – and have worked – in the tunnelling industry.

Tunnellers, by former BBC Folk Singer of the Year Nancy Kerr, is the result of a commission from the British Tunnelling Society to mark its 50th anniversary this year.

Nancy Kerr describes the collection as “a mythical-industrial song cycle… Anthems to nature and engineering, hymns of courage and migration, tunes and songs of celebration, innovation and hope”.

In Walk My Boots Clean, for example, she sings “I’ve witnessed the fall of the face when you labour in fear for the lives of your mates”, and concludes with “For our crew, we’re the pick of the crowd. We are strong, we are bold, we are wild, we are proud. And from Brno to Bray, to the Wild Atlantic Way we’ll walk our boots clean someday”.

Commissioning the artist was the idea of Dr Benoît Jones, managing director of Inbye Engineering. “It is the British Tunnelling Society’s 50th anniversary year in 2021, so last year we were discussing the ways we could celebrate it and tell the stories of tunnelling. I suggested we could commission a folk song to tell these stories in a different way and perhaps reach a wider audience, and the BTS committee said yes and told me to sort it out," he explained.

“Top of my list was Nancy Kerr, as the most brilliant folk song composer of her generation and possibly of all time. Nancy was hugely enthusiastic about the project from the start and suggested writing not just one song, but a whole suite.

“Even though I had high expectations, when I first heard the songs, and even now that I have listened to them many, many times, I am blown away by how Nancy has managed to write four distinctive songs (plus an instrumental piece) that fit together beautifully as a suite and tell stories of the innovative history of British tunnelling since Brunel, as well as relationships, migration, and the experiences of tunnellers as they work underground.

“I believe this may be the first time that a learned society has commissioned folk songs. In a way, tunnelling is unique in the close relationship that exists between engineers and miners, and I hope these songs are seen as a heartfelt tribute to all those who over the years have given their courage, hard work, and sometimes their health or their lives to build the infrastructure we all rely on.”

The EP features Nancy Kerr on guitar, violin, viola and voice; James Fagan on guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and voice; Tom A Wright on drums, bass and voice; Matt Quinn on concertina and voice.

Listen and buy it at nancykerr.bandcamp.com/album/tunnellers

Tunneller's Hymn, from Tunnellers by Nancy Kerr

When fortunes are uncertain
And we are growing old
We need the art of a sturdy heart
To keep us from the cold

We search for resolution
In heroes far and wide
And seek in love the courage of
The tunneller and the tide

For neither shall surrender
Or ever be denied
Let all revere in voices clear
The tunneller and the tide

Since pasture turned to piston
And shipworm turned to shield
The miner’s cheer and the engineer
Have caused our rocks to yield

From Tideway to the Medway
From Blackwall up to Clyde
Though sirens sing they’ll not give in
The tunneller and the tide

For neither shall surrender
Or ever be denied
Let all revere in voices clear
The tunneller and the tide

Great kingdoms break their borders
With lagan, steel and tether
Since hopes arise in a miner’s eyes
To clasp all hands together

Britannia takes our galleons
And lays them side by side
Though nations fall they shall not stall
The tunneller and the tide

For neither shall surrender
Or ever be denied
Let all revere in voices clear
The tunneller and the tide

You miners of all nations
Who strived at our behest
We call each friend for to commend
Your hearts in peace to rest

Let stumbles not deter us
And distance not divide
We’ll rise above with the courage of
The tunneller and the tide

For neither shall surrender
Or ever be denied
Let all revere in voices clear
The tunneller and the tide

For neither shall surrender
Or ever be denied
Let all revere in voices clear
The tunneller and the tide

Words and music © Nancy Kerr 2021

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