folk musicians tell stories about contemporary British life for the BBC

A series of contemporary folk songs and short films were released on Sunday as part of the 21st Century Folk initiative to celebrate the lives and experiences of five people from the North East of England.

Launched by BBC Radio 2 in partnership with BBC Local Radio, the programmes, follow the songwriters as they meet with those selected to be part of the project. Songwriters were then tasked with creating folk music based on the authors’ stories, which told related stories of life in the Northeast, which were then performed by local musicians.

Among those selected to attend were a doctor who administered thousands of Covid vaccines during the pandemic, as well as a foyboatman who helps ships from around the world to dock at Wearside docks.

This project is a modern take on the historic BBC Radio Ballads, a series of documentaries shot in the 1950s.

Andrea Bell, who runs an eatery and food bank called Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen, was chosen to share her story. Bell collaborated with singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph who composed and performed Albert’s Place, inspired by Bell’s life.

Singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore from Oxfordshire wrote She Speaks in Colors, featuring the story of Delyth Raffell from Blyth, who tragically lost her teenage daughter Ellen, who was only 16, to anaphylaxis. The One Show on BBC One will feature Raffell, showing the moment Gilmore performed her song for her for the first time, tonight at 7pm.

Katie Toner, 28, from Northumberland, was also chosen to tell her story, which was taken up by singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Angeline Morrison. Toner runs a team-building event company that organizes events and overnight stays for children with various neurodiversities. She has autism and ADHD and has said that typical children’s parties were often overwhelming as a child.

Toner said she was shocked to learn she had been selected for the project, but was grateful for the opportunity to start conversations about neurodiversity.

“When it’s your life, it’s only your life. It’s only when you sit down and talk to people that you realize that maybe it’s more special than I thought,” Toner said.

“I’m a really proud advocate for ADHD and autism, so if I can tell my story and those of other people, that’s even better.”

Morrison, whose album was named the Guardian’s best folk album of 2022, said it was a real honor to be invited to the project.

“I’ve done a lot of collaborations, I’ve done commissions, I’ve done a lot of toplining, but I’ve never been asked to write a song about a specific living person before. It’s a great honor, but it also comes with a burden.

“I really loved hearing Katie talk about her life. He looks like a proud liver of life and someone who takes all the uniqueness of who he is and pours it into beautiful things for other people. He’s really an incredibly generous person.”

Toner’s song, A Dream for You, was performed by Unthanks.

“At the heart of this project was bringing the community together, so Radio 2 brought me and Angeline from opposite ends of the country, but then me and the Unthanks, literally 12 minutes drive away… it’s just brilliant.”

Related: Top 10 Folk Albums of 2022

Other contributors include Michael Dodds, a fifth generation foyboatman at Sunderland Harbour. Dodds met Squeeze songwriter Chris Difford, who was inspired by Dodd’s stories about his life and work to write Foyboatmen. Difford performs the song with singer Kathryn Williams who composed the music.

Dr Ifti Lone, a dedicated GP based in Middlesbrough, was narrated by songwriter Sean Cooney. Cooney performed the song Doctor Boro with his bandmates, The Young’uns.

21st Century Folk is available on BBC Radio 2 all week, and you can hear all the tracks now on BBC Sounds.

• This article was revised on January 9, 2023. Kathryn Williams, who composed and sings the music for the song Foyboatmen, was omitted from the previous version.

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