I’ll confess it, I’d been resisting the Unthanks. They seemed too tailor-made for me – folk songs given 21st century reinterpretations, bell-like voices airing beautiful melodies and harmonies, the nods to Robert Wyatt, a song about a blackbird, and a singer called Rachel. Well, now my resistance has well and truly crumbled. It was finally hearing their version of ‘Sea song’ that did it. But the song I keep coming back to is ‘The testimony of Patience Kershaw’. It crystallises all that’s great about the Unthanks. It’s beautifully arranged and sung, of course, but also dramatically and believably inhabited; it’s a folk song with folk roots but also the dynamics of a pop song (given the strings, I’m thinking of one very famous one in particular). Written by Frank Higgins, it’s loosely based on the spoken testimony of the 17 year old Patience Kershaw to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in 1842. And it comes from an album with a perfectly chosen title – Here’s the tender coming – whose meanings proliferate the more you think about it.
The testimony of Patience Kershaw