Mute by Jo Bell


Jo Bell on her canal boat

I know there are brass bands where I come from in the Midlands. I know there are some further South. But just like Rugby League, brass bands conjure up a vision of the North (of England). (Have a scan of the English brass band population if you don’t believe me).

Jo Bell’s poem for her friend, the poet Tony Walsh (Longfella), is fully aware of the stereotypes associated with perspectives of the ‘muck and brass’ North and the men behind the horns (‘and yes, they’re fat and balding, with beer wet lips/and skin grown pale in club backrooms’). Apparently, one of the reasons favoured by a local owner for setting up the original band in the mid-19th century, was that it would be ‘most likely … a way of keeping his employees from the pub!’ – well it seems that he failed on that count. This reminds me of The North by Paul Summers (‘we..are more than foul-mouthed men in smoky clubs…but not much more’) featured on this site.

But Jo then moves us into the history behind the ‘strong’ music (‘our call to sing our ordinary story in a fierce and unasked-for jubilation). I like that idea of an unasked for jubilation, as though they are saying, we don’t care if you, the man on high, aren’t listening, you bloody well won’t shut us up. And you get a great sense of the way in which through music they themselves are strong and proud. It is this strength that accounts for their longevity and identity (‘this is us, this is. Still here‘). Importantly they are the fabric of a declining social capital that binds communities; what Putnam in the US context called Bowling Alone. These guys aren’t going to play their instruments alone and nor should they.

Here is a Filmpoem of Jo’s The Shipwright’s Love Song. Have a look at all of the Filmpoems by Alastair Cook, they are great.

Jo Bell is an award-winning working poet. Former director of National Poetry Day and Glastonbury Poet in Residence, she is now the UK Canal Laureate for the Poetry Society. She has performed at festivals from Shambala to Hay on Wye, and is happily bilingual, speaking the language of both Poetry Review and Bang Said the Gun. This year she’s been running the 52 project, an online writing group of over 500 souls, in Spring 2015 will see the publication of her collection Kith with Nine Arches Press. Her poems are about narrowboats (she lives on one), archaeology (she used to do this for a living) and dysfunctional relationships (write what you know).

You can hear Jo read her poems on Soundcloud, including Mute.


for Tony

The Walkden and Farnworth Band strike up
and yes, they are fat and balding, with beer-wet lips
and skin grown pale in club backrooms.

They’re straight-backed in their uniforms
because their wings are furled
and then they play.

This is strong music: music turned on lathes
by men who don’t lament,
who speak by fighting.

This is working music; our call to prayer,
our call to sing our ordinary story
in a fierce unasked-for jubilation.

Music made in sheds or beaten into cymbals
at the shift-end. Jerusalem and Danny Boy;
they’re borrowed songs but spoken in our tongue.

A ringing out, a clocking on, a moan
of disappointment sure as klezmer;
pit music, factory music, punching out precisely

This is us, this is. Still here.
The spotty prophets raise their clarions.
The North is clearing its throat.

(Mute originally appeared on Well Versed)


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