An Echo feature about the legacy of North East pit ponies stirred up fond memories for Sunderland songwriter Keith Gregson. Alison Goulding reports.
FOR 10 years, Keith Gregson has been sharing the songs of former miner Jim Moreland with Wearside school children.
The two friends taught together at Brierton School in Hartlepool for years before Jim retired.
Keith, 64, explained: “Jim worked his way up to become a deputy at Dawdon Colliery and then decided to go into teaching.
“He lived in Seaham, I lived in Sunderland and we used to drive to work together.
“I’ve always been a songwriter and being a history teacher we used to chat in the car about the mines.
“I asked him to get down his ideas and he wrote a collection of songs. He had a natural ability and I just found a tune for them and helped with the chorus.
“They are all based on his first-hand experiences down a mine between the late ’40s and into the 1970s.”
The songs were published in a sell-out book called Just One Man that led to appearances on local radio and Women’s Hour. Though Jim has since died, Keith keeps his memory alive by sharing the songs with school children to help them understand the North East’s mining heritage.
As a freelance writer, historian and musician, he tours local schools and runs workshops at Washington F Pit museum.
Keith said: “A lot of young people aged between eight and 18 will have been to F Pit with their school and sang Jim’s songs with me.
The songs are a mixture of emotions – some are amusing and some are very serious.
“They come from the heart. I think What Happened to the Ponies is very moving. It’s important for children to hear the songs because it’s the heritage of their area.
“They come for a morning or afternoon and sing the songs and then make up their own.
“One teacher used to be a miner and he talked about the great sense of community that existed around them.
“He explained that you’d work with people all day and then go for a drink with them that night. That sense of community is important and something they should know about.
“It’s still there in some places and I think that’s why the North East is popular with people outside the area.
“Often when I work in schools or at F Pit, teachers and grandparents join in and share memories of grandad coming home and getting in the tin bath.”
Many of the songs centre around Jim’s affection for the pit ponies he worked alongside during his years at Dawdon Colliery.
Keith said: “He talked about them a lot and I got the idea of this wonderful love for them.
“When I was off work ill, he’d catch the train and he could see the field where they lived, which inspired What Happened to the Ponies. The naming of the ponies struck me as interesting. When one died the next would inherit his name. I worked in one school where a girl said her grandad’s pony was called Melon and I think that must be the same one mentioned in Jim’s song.
“The other thing that struck me was that, again and again, if you talk to former miners, they’ll often mention times when the pony has sensed danger and saved a life.”
Other songs in the collection celebrate the daily life of a mining community.
Keith said: “Following the Bunker Round was from Jim’s childhood memories of following the coal lorry and earning six pence to shovel it into people’s coal bunkers. The boys who did this would then use the money to go to the cinema but sometimes they’d be so tired they’d fall asleep.”
And it is not just local children who’ve heard Jim’s songs.
Keith said: “When I made the pack as a school resource I sang all the songs without an accent, in a neutral voice, because I’m not from the North East and I wanted it to be accessible all over the country.
“But it also included a recording of Jim talking and singing so people could hear him sing and talk too.”
•Keith Gregson will be running his Miner’s Songs workshops at F Pit Museum in Washington from September 23 to September 28. For more information call 0191 510 9206.
Jim’s words to keep the past alive
A verse from Divven’t Ride The Ponies
Like many lads before me, I started at the mine.
“Now listen, son,” me father said, “and learn to toe the line.
“You’ll work hard for the pay you earn, so try and do things right.
“And look out for the overman, with his bright and shiny light”.
A driver laddie I became, a pony at me side.
The stables were a mile away and so I learnt to ride.
As on me pony’s back I lay and kept him at a trot.
Me father’s words of wisdom I very soon forgot.
He said Divvent ride the ponies – that’s the first rule of the job,
Divvent ride the ponies if you value your ten bob.
When auld Joe Pritchard’s on the prowl a warning take by me,
And divvent ride the ponies – at least where he can see.
What Happened to the Ponies
For five short years they were wild and free and gambolled in the sun
Before being taken to the mine, no more to romp and run.
They had their spirits broken and a life of toil began,
And the light of day passed from their eyes in the services of man.
What’s happened to the ponies, now machines are here to stay?
Do they graze among the heather, do they smell the sweet mown hay?
Or are they in a knacker’s yard, in a country far away?
What’s happened to the ponies now they have had their day?
There were hundreds working in the mines when they were in their prime.
And many tons of stone and coal they hauled out of the mine.
Most miners ‘tret’ them kindly for they earned a man his pay.
And sensing danger as the could some miners live today.
In whitewashed stables, warm and dry, the spent their working day.
And many a man whose light went out was safely shown the way.
They were brave and true companions and few were known to shirk.
In heat and dust and clinging mud they sweated at their work.
Like many a man some met with death for the precious ton of coal.
And in a tram they’d often pulled they came out of that hole.
But they are not forgotten, their names still linger on.
Badger, Swallow, Melon – now have you really gone?