MY EARLY YEARS
A mini biography by Frank D Howe
WHERE I’M AT AND WHY THAT IS PROBABLY WHAT’S LED TO ME DOING AN ALBUM OF OLD CLASSIC GOLD COUNTRY
My roots are right here where I live in Norfolk UK and growing up here immediately after World War Two is, funnily enough, what first exposed me to Country Music. In fact I was probably into Country Music at a way earlier age than most and that’s because being here (and in East Anglia generally) meant being in close proximity to a lot of American Air-force bases (there still are some American bases here even now) so we could pick up AFN (American Forces Network) which was broadcast from Hilversum in the Netherlands, but boosted on the bases here so that the US forces boys here could listen to familiar radio station content of the kind they may have listened to back home (and just enough so we could pick it up too). They would play early Country Music long before there was pop or new styles of music breaking on the radio here! This was pre Pirate Radio days so the BBC Light or BBC Home Service Programmes were as light hearted as radio got here (and they were anything but ‘up to speed’ on what was happening music wise on the other side of the pond and most especially they were remote from the rural music coming from the Southern States) so we were frequently tuned in to AFN and we never missed The Smokey Mountain Music Show (which I think was broadcast on a Wednesday evening)? That early Country Music really did still have its roots in the soil with honest emphasis on ‘the working man, hard times, good times and country living’. All of which, in the times of austerity that followed World War 2 (and with my father working on the land) had a truth in it that manual workers and their families anywhere (but particularly it seemed the rurally based ones) could relate to and empathise with big time. The songs (and recitations like Walter Brennan’s ‘Old Rivers’) about life they played on there seemed very real to us as we huddled around our old Bush ‘accumulator battery powered’ radio all hoping against hope that the signal (which would come and go a bit) wouldn’t fade out in the middle of some great new song or artiste they were playing for the first time or worse still the battery wouldn’t run out entirely. We had no electricity and subsequently no electric powered radio until I was 13 so we couldn’t recharge the batteries at home, that had to be done at the local garage. There’d be one in use and one on charge at the garage at any one time and they’d roughly run a week on a charge depending on usage, so once it ran out that was it until I earned my 6d pocket money on a Saturday morning peddling off to drop one off and pick the other up. That was fine whilst the local Brooke garage ran that service but there came a time when there wasn’t enough demand for them to keep doing that at which point I had to start going to the garage in the village of Hempnall some nine and a half miles away which meant quite a bit more peddling with that accumulator swinging away on my handlebars in all weathers but, with the reward that I would be hearing my favourite show mid week. I learned a lot about back roads that way though and I still love and take back roads whenever feasible. Once we were finally connected to the National Grid and could have not only a radio (with constant power) but a TV too – wow! That was cool but the bad news was everyone in the house wanted to watch the TV then and wouldn’t listen to my pleas to have the radio on, so that old show got eased into being nothing more than a memory – but a fond one. The good news was that a whole lot of that TV programming was turned over to Western serials which I liked a lot and which always seemed to have fantastic big production theme tunes that have stayed fresh in mind to this day.
So there we have it, my very early, very fond and deeply engrained memories of ‘Old Country’ and country life are something I could never shake off even if I wanted to and it’s no wonder that in my later years I’ve started looking back fondly on those early days around the radio by the light of an Aladdin Lamp on the table being aided by the glow of the coal fire. They’re memories I have in common with a lot of friends (though with the frailties of life being what they are – less and less of them each year) to the point that I have now ended up putting out an album called ‘Frank D Digs Deep (for Olde Gold Country),’ with some of the 15 tracks stretching right back to those early days before there’s nobody left who’d want to hear them! Beside the really old songs there’s a handful of songs that have caught my ear between then and now, especially from the 70’s and 80’s – plus one of my own songs called ‘Sippin’ Cold Tea,’ which reminisces on life in the Country as it was for us back in those early days (and which was first released in 2012 on my ‘Some Thoughts I Have Had Vol. 1’ album). So, if by chance you too can remember and still enjoy those early Country songs (or you’re simply curious about them) then I really hope you approve of my covers of them! I don’t want to be spoiling anyone’s cherished memories.
Having taken (what I believe is) a much greater interest than most (ever will) in Country songs and songwriters and having covered the East Anglian region for most of the UK based Country magazines at one time or another over several decades including covering the country music in the ‘What’s On’ feature for the Eastern Daily Press ‘Events’ supplement for eleven years, done Country shows on Hospital Radio (Cromer) and on local Community Radio stations and written songs too for many, many years (and had covers by several local artistes over the years before “coming out” as a singer/songwriter in a more pronounced way with that Vol. 1 album). I think I qualify to say I truly believe it must be the easiest things in the world to write a song — but possibly is one of the most difficult to write one that means something to or pleases someone else. As such, whether a song makes you smile (laugh even), cry, empathise with its lyric content, just think awhile as you build your own pictures to it , or is simply pleasant or inspirational to listen to! Then it’s a good (better than average) effort from someone and all I can say is; “more power to their elbow”!
I’ve got hundreds of songs, part songs, odd lines and ideas kicking about the place (and have had – but lost, hundreds more) on pieces of timber or plywood off cuts, scraps of paper, dictaphone tapes, cassette tapes, cell phone drafts folders, laptop document folders and anything else that was handy when they came to me (so no wonder a lot of them get lost but sadly, although I can create things I was never the ‘file it neatly’ type). It would be a full time job looking after all of them properly and ‘writing them up’ fully as finished songs and sadly I don’t have the time left or financial means to turn over all of what’s left of it to that task. So only a small percentage of my actual song output will ever get as far as a studio never mind be released. Nonetheless; creating songs is in my soul, so to keep on doing ‘what I can’ of that (to me, a precious thing) will always be a part of me I guess.
My Country Roots (continued).
My roots here in Norfolk go back as far as they can be traced (to the mid sixteen hundreds on both sides of my family). They quite likely go back here even further? But beyond that point sadly the Church records were too water damaged to decipher any detail. I expect that accounts for my feeling of empathy and belonging here that I just don’t get anywhere else? But don’t get me wrong, I like to see other places and have, at times, thought about living in other places I’ve spent time in (and liked a whole lot). For instance; when I have stayed with friends in the Ozark’s (on the Missouri/Arkansas border at Indian Point, MO, and at Harrison, Ark.). The people around there are some of the friendliest and nicest you could ever meet and the scenery is amazing around that whole part of the world (anywhere that has an 80 mile lake to fish in or even to simply roll around on in a boat, has to have a lot going for it). Not only have I always found the people there my kind of people but, also they even abuse the English language with a similar version of phraseology and grammar to what we abuse it with here in Norfolk, so I’ve never had any problem
following conversation or getting understood there like I have in some other places (even some other places here in the UK that have real thick local accents) though I was asked by a really pretty young lady serving in an ‘all day all you can eat’ breakfast stop down that way if I was from Australia? I have been asked that in the UK too (in Scotland, Northumbria and Devon and I’ve heard other Norfolk people say they’ve also been asked that so although we don’t hear a likeness ourselves, there must be something about our way of speech that is a bit Oz like to others or so many wouldn’t have been asked that question). But on this occasion I couldn’t resist a little leg pulling and said “yes”, at which point she then asked if I flew down or drove? Her innocent naivety put a smile on my face so I continued the leg pulling saying I drove! She then asked if I’d put her in the trunk and smuggle her back to Australia with me so she could get out of that small town place where nothing ever happened (obviously never seen or heard anything much about the outback then). I loved her small town big world innocence and in fact I still smile even now any time I think of her and trying to drive from Ark to Oz with a determinedly willing and beautiful young stowaway in the trunk of a hired Chevy! Small things like oceans and borders don’t count when you have enough ambition and innocence – right? I reckon a good comedy writer could have a heyday with the potential of that. Of course, as you may expect from a Country Music lover, just over the border in TN the same applies. A cabin Lakeside or in the hills there in easy striking distance of Nashville would be pure heaven! I’ve loved every minute of my three short humble visits there and I have so much I could both enjoy and learn from the great writers who live and gather there and the industry they’re part of! Some of whom I’ve had the privilege to have spoken to when visiting and have always found them to be as helpful as could be when asked anything at all about their songs/writing or the industry. In fact, for all that I’ve said above about spending more time in other places I’ve loved, Nashville (or close to it – not right in Nashville as I really don’t do cities happily for more than a day or two) is probably the one alternative place to Norfolk I may actually be able to settle and stay for good. I absolutely loved the laid back way of life and amazing atmosphere Key West had to offer too though, and each time I’ve been it was just after their carnival and there were lots of people hanging on in for an extra few days to max their time, effort and cost of getting there. The way it changes at night in bars like Sloppy Joes etc., was electric and I love the way hundreds of people nightly make their way to the quay for the sunset including street performers (jugglers, gymnasts, even the odd fire eater – you name it) who perform for the gathering crowd for tips or simply for the joy of being there as everyone waits for the sun to seemingly set the water on fire as it goes down (apparently into it) on the horizon – and then the massive applause every time it finally disappears. I loved Fort Myers too and a few other places down FL way, it always seems like the wildlife, laid back way of life and atmosphere in that part of the world is something else. Then again; I stayed a while down a little lane in Co. Mayo, Ireland, parts of which, especially the little lanes with tall hedges on either side and with grass in the middle brushing the underside of the car, reminded me so much of the still unspoilt (by farming methods and development) Norfolk of my childhood. I thought for a while I could live there and love it! I probably could have – and been very happy too. But it’s just not my real home like Norfolk is, though I understand very easily why those that are from there never have anything but good to say about it whether using the spoken word or in song. Albufiera (which found its way into my song ‘A Stone Called Mary’) in Southern Portugal and that whole Southern Portuguese coastal area is somewhere I could spend more time. Whether I could live there for the rest of my allotted time on earth is a different matter but, I could live there sipping from those huge dirt cheap bottles of ‘Porto White’ for at least a few months at a time and love every minute – that’s a fact. A rock of my own to get under ‘out of the heat’ in outback Australia could be good, maybe visit with one or two of the cousins and long time friends I have there. Aberdeen and the Shetland Isles were home from home for several weeks or months at a time back in my late teens and early twenties (the herring drifters I was working on at the time were ‘caretaker based’ there while we worked the North Atlantic and Norwegian ‘spring fishing’ grounds). Of course the Herring Drifter fleets that ran locally from the east coast ports of Gt. Yarmouth and Lowestoft have long since ceased to exist. But later (in the late 70’s and early 80’s) I was back in Aberdeen for a few days at a time, this time around that common bond of the East Coast communities ‘having a job to get done’ involved the oil industry and in my case being on standby there whilst waiting to go offshore on rig construction work for the Gt. Yarmouth base of the Texas company Brown & Root – and wow, how Aberdeen had changed during that mere 14 years of my absence between the fishing fleet days and the oil companies coming to town. It seemed a much harder edged and even a dangerous place (due perhaps to the oil money that had moved in and the comparative poverty of those that had gone there for work but couldn’t get in on it)? I was no sooner back there than someone got knifed in the process of being mugged outside the hotel door and all the old pubs had changed their traditional names in a bid to seem more exciting (example; changed from ‘The Crows Nest’ to ‘Crazy Daisies’). But anyway, I have many happy memories of Aberdeen that go back beyond the oil, including nights with the crew in the old quayside haunts like The National Bar etc., and at the old ‘Queens Hall’ dances. I spent my 21st birthday there with the skipper (Billy Carr) and crew of the drifter I was on at the time (and for three years in fact) ‘The Young Elizabeth’ and they were so intent on me celebrating that the last I remember of it was falling backwards and taking my barstool down with me. So I have good reason to have a fondness for that old Granite City and even wrote a song about it a while back (that I sometimes sing but have never recorded – though maybe I will one of these days) and for the same reasons I have a fondness for Lerwick in the Shetland Isles too! I’ve never been back there since the herring fleet days of the mid 60’s, but I have no doubt Lerwick was impacted and changed just as much as Aberdeen by the oil companies arrival and maybe more? So perhaps it’s better just kept as a cherished memory of how it was back in then? I’d hate to find the ‘folk and country band’ dance nights at the ‘Planets Dance Hall’ (worse still the Planets itself) no longer existed. Anyway, I like it here in Norfolk and the fact that when I was doing my family tree, I could walk around the churchyard in the village of Horsford just North of Norwich and see four generations of my father’s side of the family on the gravestones there, plus that of my Great Grandmother on my mother’s side plus various other family (uncles, great uncles and aunts etc. etc.) also, poignantly enough, on the memorial to those from Horsford that gave their lives for us in the Great War of 1914-18 (which stands in that churchyard) is the name; Thomas Christmas Fiddy (my Grandfather on my mother’s side) who was one of those that fell at Gallipoli.
So I guess that’s enough roots to keep anyone anchored anywhere? But if it wasn’t, then having my three children and five grandchildren (all of whom I love deeply and have stayed close with) still living here would be. Maybe what I need end of day is a massive Lotto win so I can have a pad in all of those places as well as here and flit from one to the other (as and when the whim takes me – and a few other places I’ve never been but know I’d love because they have Country music there like Texas, Oklahoma, the list goes on). Come on you numbers! Just fall right for me whilst I still have the energy and ‘the will’ to enjoy this beautiful world and the music and people in it. Maybe even including spending some of it with those of you who have stopped by to read this?
Meantime take care,