Folk trio The Young'uns uses music to question British patriotism

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Marco Werman: The British folk trio The Young'uns stopped by our studios recently.

Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle are The Young'uns, following in the footsteps of great topical folk musicians. The Young'uns joined us to speak and sing about Brexit and what it means to be British, starting with their tune "Ghafoor's Bus." Sean Cooney of The Young'uns wrote “Ghafoor's Bus” after hearing the story of a real guy, Ghafoor Hussain.

Sean Cooney: He is an incredible, huge-hearted man who lives where we do in the north of England. And for the past four years, he's fed thousands and thousands of people all over Europe — refugees and migrants, the homeless and the vulnerable. And he feeds them rice and beans from the back of a converted bus. He's just an amazing humanitarian hero.


Now in Dunkirk we remember yet the soldiers on the sand 
800 ships we'll not forget that came to lend a hand 
But here comes one more vessel now, across the angry sea. 
Serves 3000 meals a day and 10,000 cups of tea 
It's beans and rice and rice and beans and a hand when you fall 
For there's a friendly face, a better place, and a future for us all


Werman: That was gorgeous. What a great tribute to Ghafoor.

Cooney: Thank you very much indeed. It's such a pleasure to sing it.

Werman: It occurs to me that some of your lyrics might escape a younger audience. You reference the boys on the beach in Dunkirk. That would have been World War II and the boats that came to their rescue. For you, I suspect that referencing Dunkirk is referring to a time of this communal spirit, when those ships, that flotilla went to rescue those soldiers.

Cooney: That’s right. And I think it's incredibly important to do that, because Dunkirk, in many ways — patriotic British people really adhere to it. [With] everything that's happening about Brexit in the last few years in the UK, Dunkirk and a wartime spirit does get brought back and is often used as a patriotic kind of flag-waving thing. But for us, to have Dunkirk in the context of someone who was born in Pakistan, who came to Britain, who did amazing things and helped people who became part of the Dunkirk experience is quite [special].

Werman: And that is Ghafoor Hussain. It segues great into a song called "A Place called England," which is a song that you did not write. I'm curious: Is it coincidental that it's the first song on the CD? It came out post-Brexit. Does it bemoan a kind of lost England or an England that has lost its social empathy? You talk about "room for all" in it.

Cooney: Yeah, it's a wonderful song. It was actually written in 1999. It's a song that's 20 years old. It was written by Maggie Holland. But many of the issues have come even more to the fore now in the last couple of years in the UK. It's a song that has many individual references to great heroic stories in British history. And it's a song about welcome, it's a song about Earth, it's a song about the land. It's not a song about flags or money. It's a song about England as a piece of earth, really.

I think the style that we sing it in is bold and and in your face, but I think we always like to ask questions with the songs, rather than sort of stump in any politics. But sometimes it's hard not to just have a little dig in there. So, there's a reference in there to a rich landowner. He can stay in the Virgin Isles. That's not a comment on anybody from the Virgin Isles. It's a comment about offshore tax funds.

Werman: The Panama Papers and all that.

Cooney: That's right. So it's hard not to throw little political digs where you can.

David Eagle: But this idea, as well, of these people who say, “Well, this is my country and I want it back.” And that's often a very white-centric, patriotic kind of mindset. And it's our idea of, “We live in this country, as well and these are our core values, and if we're going to say we're patriotic, this is why” — because of our rich social history of inclusion, rather than this kind of building an empire and saying “this is mine and you're not welcome and get out.” That idea of re-appropriating this idea of “this is our country, make Britain great” and that kind of thing.

Sean Cooney: What's fascinating for me, being a history student and looking into these things a lot recently, is how patriotism has been almost completely lost in the left wing of politics, certainly in Britain.

Werman: It’s going to become love of country is almost nationalistic and that's a bad thing.

Cooney: That's right. Whereas, you look at the men and women who went to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, against the wishes of the government — they were patriotic. They called themselves the Proud Sons of Britain. They were doing it for national pride, as well. It's a really interesting thing that I think has been lost somewhat.