Submitted by Matthew Byrne
Written by Keith Marsden, who founded the West Yorkshire folk singing group Cockersdale. Keith was from Morley, near Leeds, and although he died at the young age of 52, he left an impressive repertoire of brilliantly crafted and cleverly written songs.
This song tells of a captivating storyteller who held a crucial role for children looking to indulge their imaginations and escape the dreary day-to-day of a dull factory town in postwar England. Some great language in this one: a “pierrot” is a mime street performer, and a “corky” refers to a cricket ball.
Listen to Matthew singing “Jack Ashton:”
Listen to another version by Finest Kind:
Oh the times were hard and mean and our childhood days were lean,
In the land they said was fit for Flanders heroes
It was all a seaside show where poor folk couldn’t go,
We just stood outside while others watched the pierrots.
And we only had to spend what our friend Jack Clegg would lend,
There was little of Lloyd George’s promised glories,
But each evening down the street by the gaslamp we would meet.
And we’d listen while Jack Ashton told his stories.
And we sat there and listened with our mouths open wide,
Though we knew in our hearts that the old devil lied.
But we needed to believe in the magic he would weave,
And we took a glass for old times’ sake the day Jack died.
Now our all-wise parents said that he’d a screw loose in the head,
And that we were daft to listen to his lies.
But we saw their daily grind and heard the magic in his mind,
And we all knew who was daft and who was wise.
Though he nearly broke our necks playing soccer on the Rec.,
And his bowling with a corky could be gory,
As the evening sun went down, by the lamp we’d gather round,
And we’d listen while Jack Ashton told a story.
Now that Jack’s been laid to rest, if there’s any justice left,
He’ll be spinning yarns now to the Holy Ghost.
And gathered round his knee, open-mouthed as we would be,
Sit saints and angels, all the heavenly host.
And he’ll tell them how he saved old Moses from the waves,
And slew Goliath with one mighty blow.
While an all-forgiving Lord listens smiling at his words,
As we did by the gas lamp long ago.
Storytelling through song is a fundamental duty of traditional music, and Matthew Byrne does this brilliantly. With a repertoire shaped by his musical upbringing, Byrne supports the tradition with powerful vocals, polished guitar work, engaging storytelling, and a presence that fills the room.
Byrne’s parents were both singers and song collectors and he grew up with a strong family focus on sharing songs. He has inherited a unique repertoire, as well as a fascination with unearthing and reimagining traditional music.