J Cunningham

Song-writer for Living Archive Productions from 1977 - 1984

Roy Nevitt, co-founder of The Living Archive Project and Director of nearly all the community musical documentary dramas for which J composed songs, writes:

J Cunningham is one of the most brilliant, prolific and reliable song-writers who, as a teacher at Stantonbury Campus, where the large-scale musical documentary plays originated, was in exactly the right place at the right time.  His unmistakable style, original and full of surprises and delights, readily adapted to the needs of the plays; and the structure of his songs was all the stronger because of his capacity to absorb and apply the insights about traditional folk song forms that we all gained from the master classes given us by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in the lead-up to the production of All Change!’, our story of early Wolverton.

‘All Change!’ came about following a commission given me on the strength of the success of ‘The Burston School Strike’, created at Stantonbury in 1975.  ‘Burston’ wasn’t a local story and the music was not original.  The events depicted had taken place in Norfolk and the music was either traditional folk song, church hymns or songs, like ‘The Red Flag’ or ‘England Arise’, political anthems which our primary sources told us were sung by the protagonists, as part of the actual historical events.  Most of the research material for ‘Burston’ had been given me by Bert Edwards, whose generous support of the production was a gift beyond measure.

On our own for our first local musical documentary play, ‘All Change!’, we reached out to Peter Cheeseman and learned from him about the effective collection and dramatisation of local primary source materials; and to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger who taught us how to create the kind of music they made for their famous Radio Ballads, a form of song-writing and musical composition that would exactly suit the needs dictated to us by our collected material.  The music had to be woven into the fabric of the script so that dialogue gave way to song in ways that enriched and enhanced the on-going narrative.  J’s crowning achievement in ‘All Change!’ was ‘The Wolverton Refreshment Room’, what I call an accumulation song that proved to be the perfect instrument for fusing the documentary source material captured in glorious musical form with the choreographed mis-en-scene.  The song was a joyful gift to a director wanting to round off the first half of the play and send the audience off to the interval on a high!

Whether working solo or in collaboration with the creative team of musicians whose work provided the oxygen in the life-blood that pulsed through the narrative of the documentaries, J produced songs that were always disciplined, sharp, fresh, witty and unforgettable.  His lyrics and his tunes always worked together to move the tale forward;  they arrested the audience that had been concentrating hard on spoken words and physical action, refreshed their brains by entertaining them in the different reality of music, before delivering them, re-energised, back into the daylight of the following scene.

J is still active and recently responded to a request for a new song for the ‘Homage to Geoff Cooksey’ that took place in Stantonbury Campus Theatre earlier this year.  I just sent him some documentary source material about Geoff’s life which he used to trigger all his own thoughts and feelings about that great pioneering educator.  He turned up on the night, tuned his guitar and sang a song that did full justice to the occasion and brought back floods of memories of his musical and lyrical input into a whole string of documentary plays that flourished at Stantonbury over two decades and became one of the raisons d’être of the Living Archive Project, now known simply as Living Archive.

Roy Nevitt 29th October 2012

J’s story…

I learnt the piano up the age of fifteen, and sang in school choirs. At home I listened to easy classics, like Chopin, Mozart and Strauss waltzes, but from around the age of twelve I started to appreciate opera, having been taken to Glyndebourne by my headmaster. At the same time I took up the guitar. I heard that my parents were planning to give my brother a guitar for Christmas and begged for one too. It was the era of Joan Baez, Dylan and the Beatles. I never had the organization or drive to set up a rock group, and stuck to American folk – Kingston Trio, Rambling Jack Elliot, Leadbelly and Dylan above all. Some of Dylan’s and Baez’s songs were traditional British. Around the time I started writing my own songs, I came across Joni Mitchell, but never realised how much of her stuff was based on open tuning, so was frustrated in my efforts to cover her songs. However she gave me the confidence that I could write about my own experiences. I sang in folk clubs and became more interested in British traditional music, especially ballads. However I disliked the purist attitude in some of the clubs, where diminished chords or changes of key were looked down as being ‘untraditional’. After university, I was travelling in North and Central America and Japan. During this time, I wrote about seventy songs, most of them pretty unmemorable but some of them all right enough to continue singing. I arrived in Milton Keynes in 1976 to teach at Stantonbury Campus.

It was exciting to come across Roy Nevitt who wanted people to write songs for ‘All Change!’ the first major community drama production. In the first workshop I met Paul Clark, and we struck up a song-writing and a broader friendship that has lasted to today. Roy organised a song-writing workshop led by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, who taught us a number of folk forms which would have the effect of taking the drama action forward, or commenting on it. They told us that this is the distinction between a Brechtian approach and a typical American musical, where the dialogue stops, and there is an awkward pause before the cast break into song.  I related this to the best opera, where the music is inseparable from the drama.

MacColl and Seeger were the architects of the purist folk school that I had disliked when younger: folk music was an expression of class consciousness. I remember how Paul brought to the workshop a very lyrical song about McConnell, the notable railway engineer who designed the Bloomer engine. MacColl slated it as an effete ‘cowboy song’, and made Paul re-write it in a more solidly proletarian style. I sang it on the original recording. Nevertheless, MacColl and Seeger taught me a lot. One technique I learnt was the ‘building song’ which gets longer as you go through, like The Twelve Days of Christmas. I used this for the first song I wrote for All Change! The Wolverton Refreshment Room. The refrain for each verse builds on the previous one, to give the impression of the full range of servants in the nation’s first railway buffet. I nicked the opening section of the tune from a comic folk song called ‘Sixteen Marrow Bones‘.  I also used this building technique for The Khaki Train Song in Days of Pride – about the ambulance train built in Wolverton in the First World War.

Looking back at these and other songs I wrote for the community dramas, I can detect a music hall tone. As I had no music hall records, I guess this might have come from listening to Sunday afternoon radio programmes like The Billy Cotton Band Show or watching Norman Wisdom films. The patter song Honourable Frauds in All Change! and Eastbourne in The Jovial Priest seem to belong in this tradition.

After five years of rather introverted song-writing, it was liberating to be given some documents and told to turn them into a song. I have some of these documents and a letter from Roy asking me for a song about the sewing room in the Wolverton Works to be completed in about two days. He specifies what needs to be in each verse.

I have never had one approach to writing songs: sometimes the words come before the tune and sometimes the other way round; more often it is a mixture, a back-and-forwards process –  a snatch of tune which summons up a phrase, then a matching or contrasting phrase that leads to a bit of tune. It is obvious when I listen to the songs again that I liked the challenge of putting in a lot of syllables: for example ‘Seven very young ladies to wait upon you all’ sounds funnier and more prim to me than ‘seven fair young ladies’, which is what it was later altered to, to make it easier to sing. ‘This interfering gentleman by the name of Robert Stephenson’ is a mouthful even when speaking slowly. I greatly admire Paul Clark’s ability to find a wonderful tune and then craft the perfect lyrics to match it: songs like The Valley of the Shadow from Days of Pride and Letters Home from Sheltered Lives.

Although I left the Milton Keynes area in 1983, eventually settling in Oxford and working as a head teacher, it has been a pleasure to hear some of my songs in revived productions and interpreted by the Living Archive Band, with far better voices and accompaniments than I could manage. One proud moment was when The Wolverton Refreshment Room was performed for the opening of Milton Keynes Central station[1]. I have continued to write songs mostly in the singer/songwriter tradition and I have recorded CDs for family and friends.  In my forties I took up the cello and play chamber and orchestral music. However I have never had quite as much as fun with music as I did in Stantonbury days.


[1] J’s song was performed before HRH Prince Charles when he opened the station in May 1982.

The J Cunningham songs for Living Archive productions

1977: For All Change!

The songs for this first production of the story of the railway coming to the Milton Keynes area in the 19th century were recorded for a vinyl LP and included some not performed in the subsequent productions of 1988 and 1999.

  • All Change! J says: ‘The title song conveys the change to rural life represented by the coming of the first London to Birmingham railway, and concludes the play by referring to changes in people’s lives as a result of the new city of Milton Keynes. It is in a minor key after suggestions from MacColl and Seeger to suggest strength of purpose and with a driving beat – We gonna make it better today!’
  • Honourable Frauds: ‘In the style of a ‘patter song’ from Gilbert and Sullivan or music hall. It is designed for to be sung as a kind of song battle between the proponents and opponents of the railway – with alternating verses.’
  • The Place Name Song: ‘To describe the route of the railway.’
  • The Wolverton Refreshment Room: A favourite with the Living Archive Band, this song features not only on the LP, but also the Band’s first CD Real Lives (2000) and its latest double CD album All That’s Changed (2009). J says: ‘A song about the nation’s first railway buffet. There is a page on the Living Archive website. The source was a report in Punch magazine; nothing had to be added or invented. The song lends itself well to choreography, as each refrain adds a new maid or servant and therefore gets longer through the song.’
  • Second Strike Song (with Paul Clark). Recounting early employment troubles at Wolverton Works, working families make their feelings clear: ‘We don’t want to go on strike again!’
  • A Wolverton Week (music by Rib Davis) ‘ A song to describe the rather monotonous working week in the new railway works.’
  • Trent Dispatches (with Paul Clark and Rib Davis) ‘A song to describe the challenge undertaken by the London and Birmingham railway to deliver an important government dispatch within three hours of arrival in Holyhead from America. The company tested two engines against each other concluding that the ‘Bloomer’ built in Wolverton was the better.  This was the most ambitious bit of song writing for the production as it was devised to interleaf quite long bits of text, to show up the character of the two engines and to develop from a slow start into a kind of victory run.’

1980: For Your Loving Brother Albert

Letters, discovered in a Wolverton attic by the great-niece of a boy-soldier of the Great War killed just before his 17th birthday, provided the inspiration for this drama. The original production of these songs is on the Days of Pride cassette tape.

  • In Memoriam (with Paul Clark) ‘Paul wrote the beautiful opening of this song reflecting on the names on the war memorial in Wolverton.  As his melody had the same basic structure as the British Grenadiers, we merged the two tunes in the middle, and then conveyed the atmosphere of Kitchener’s recruiting drive in the second part of the song: ‘Lord Kitchener asked his country for one hundred thousand men / Whose loyal hearts would take them to the fire and back again’. Recorded and often performed by the Living Archive Band.
  • Violet’s Song: ‘A young girl reflects on her attraction to Albert, a very young soldier whom she has met while he was home on leave. One of the best songs I wrote, mostly sourced from actual letters, I wrote this on the piano, and I think if possible it sounds best with that accompaniment. Very music hall I think. I wrote the line ‘when this blessed war is done, we’ll have a chance to see, why my heart is a little wobberly’. ‘Blessed’ was later changed to ‘wretched’ –  perhaps because ‘blessed’ sits incongruously with ‘war’, but in a way that was the point –  nice girls did not swear and ‘blessed’ was the closest you could get.’
  • Dad’s Song: ‘Rather pointed and jagged to suggest the anger and frustration of Albert’s father over his son’s decision to join up.’

1981: For Days of Pride

Created from the taped memories of New Bradwell resident Hawtin Mundy, the show focused on the Great War of 1914-18. The original songs were recorded for a cassette tape of this first production.

  • Song of the Recruits: J says: ‘The over confidence of the early days of the war is suggested with over-blown imagery – ‘It’ll all be over by next Christmas Day’; and the ‘city gent’ will saunter across the battle lines ‘in his bowler hat, and ‘ask the Hun what he’s playing at’. 
  • Song of the Stallard Brothers (music by Rod Hall). Letters from the early days of the Great War were written by Jim and Jack Stallard to their family in Bradwell after they joined the 2nd Expeditionary Force. Both brothers were killed in November 1914.
  • Rest and Relief: J says: ‘Much of this was from documentary evidence, for example the place names of the trenches – Piccadilly, Leicester Square and Plugstreet Wood. In singing versions the ‘estaminet’ – the little French or Belgian bars – became ‘tavern or bar’ for better audience comprehension.’
  • Khaki Train (later known as The Ambulance Train). Another concert favourite with the Living Archive Band, the song is a masterpiece of humour and poignancy – particularly when it was performed in the later production of 1993 with endless lines of wounded soldiers crossing the stage. J says: ‘Wolverton Works made a fully-fitted ambulance train. The wealth of detail about this medical innovation proved a godsend. In this case I had made up the tune long before needing it. I wrote and performed it on the piano with a twiddle I am fond of, pinched from Scarlatti. ‘Somewhere to spit and stub out your cigar’ seems unlikely, but spittoons and ashtrays were included in the fixtures and fittings!’
  • Hawtin’s Anabasis (words) – music by Rod Hall. This particular military advance (anabasis) embodied what it was like for the ordinary soldier ‘Hawt went off for a little fighting…’

1982: For The Jovial Priest

A celebration of the life and times of New Bradwell’s most eccentric priest – the Reverend Newman ‘Joey’ Guest – or Father Guest, as he was known locally. The songs were originally recorded on a cassette tape, now available as a CD from Living Archive’s online shop.

  • Stantonbury Village: J says: ‘A picture of Stantonbury Village in the Edwardian era. The documentary evidence was followed quite faithfully.’
  • The Shrimp King: ‘The melody of this song about a Stantonbury character is the minor version of the tune for Stantonbury Village.’ Both songs are standard favourites with the Living Archive Band.
  • Eastbourne: ‘The Reverend Joey Guest made quite an impression on his holiday at Eastbourne. The song attempts to convey a music hall atmosphere.’
  • This Auspicious Day: Locals gather to celebrate the opening of new Bradwell’s new swimming place – where Father Guest again showed off his athletic skills!

1983-4: For Nellie

Based on Nellie Abbott’s diaries 1913-1919, the show charts her irrepressible activities on the home front – in local carnivals and pastimes and at work in the Sewing Room at Wolverton Works, despite the sombre backdrop of war and strikes.

  • The Sewing Room: ‘Or,’ says J, ‘in my mind, Cotton and Fluff… Written to order of Roy Nevitt in about a day to give an impression of the poor working conditions for the women who made the seats for railway carriages.’

1984: For A Day in the Life of Milton Keynes (Friday May 18th) by Rib Davis

  • ‘Untitled song with a reggae beat to open the play.’

J’s solo work:

Adventure Today, 2001: A CD of 12 songs about J’s thoughts and experiences from 1968 to 2001 – his personal responses to family occasions, evocative places and times, and thought-provoking issues.

The title song can be heard at http://soundcloud.com/jjcunningham

Under the Indigo Sky: Work in progress 2012: J hopes to upload this new CD of songs on his new website in the near future. For more information, contact info@livingarchive.org.uk

Final scene of The Jovial Priest. J can be seen in the band, bottom left, leaning forward with headphones on.

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