Graeme Miles

Graeme Miles's Biography

Clive Graeme Miles was born in Greenwich in 1935, but when he was six months old his family moved to Billingham where his father had found work.  This was to prove a singularly inspirational move for Graeme as he grew older, the Tees plain, river and marshes proving fertile ground for his song-writing, artwork and prose.

He studied at Hartlepool Art College where he was a contemporary of the film director Ridley Scott.  As a youth he was tutored in classical music, so could write songs with authority.  He composed his first song in 1950 at the age of 15. Graeme became immersed in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and his prolific songwriting talents were aired at folk clubs up and down the North East of England.  His songs were quickly noticed for their craftsmanship and were recorded by well-known folk music exponents of the revival, among them The Spinners, The Teesside Fettlers and Archie Fisher along with his sister Ray.

He took a job at The Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough, drawing the exhibits there but eventually followed a desire to work in heavy industry.  He wanted to experience life in the foundries and factories of the Tees plain in order to give his songs authenticity.  He held many jobs including working on the River Tees and in Anderston’s foundry at Port Clarence.  He also found employment in a moorland quarry at Castleton and as a youth hostel warden at Westerdale.  His descriptions of the terrifying cacophony and heat of the foundry and the sheer back-breaking effort of quarrying stones were awful in the literal sense of the word.

As a boy, he found recreation on the Tees marshes and in the wild but lovely moorlands of the Cleveland hills – another fertile ground for his works.  As a young man he and friends would spend weekends camping at the ruined Tidkinhow Farm, off the main Guisborough to Whitby moor road near Charltons.  No late-night bus to Guisborough from Middlesbrough in those days (hence the song Along The Guisborough Road).  They would get off at Nunthorpe and walk the several miles to Guisborough and then another three to Charltons and along to Tidkinhow.

Graeme met Annie, who is Parisian, when she came to the area to gain experience in nursing.  They married and settled in Middlesbrough.  They visited many far-flung corners of the world including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and the Philippines.  Their active life included being hugely supportive members of Middlesbrough Little Theatre for many years. To many though, Graeme was and remained an enigma.  He would disappear for short periods and then would turn up again none the worse for wear.  Was he gaining experience for his songs - who knows?  He was such a private person, a man who hated celebrity and did not even acknowledge his own birthday.  He did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event, although he observed it with Annie and her French family. 

Totally uninterested in money or status, Graeme only ever wanted his songs to be sung in the public domain, particularly locally because they are such a rich legacy of a bygone, hugely important era of great prosperity for Teesside and Cleveland as a whole that may never be seen again.  Many performers, particularly Martyn Wyndham-Read, have taken his songs to the New World, to America and Australia, and help to keep his music legacy alive.  The Wilson Family of Billingham also play their part - their superb renderings of Graeme’s songs, starting in the 1980s, helped to make him better known nationally.

Graeme’s last few years were filled with happiness, musically, with the formation of The Ironopolis Singers of which he was a founder member and of which he was very proud.  The group was formed specifically to perform his songs and Graeme entered enthusiastically in the enterprise, contributing prose work which he spoke during performances to link the songs.  Two shows comprising roughly 40 of his songs have been performed. Songs of Ironopolis is about the growth and subsequent demise of Middlesbrough as an iron and steel giant.  By contrast, Purple Acres depicts life and work in the Cleveland hills and moors.

Graeme died in March 2013, on Good Friday, after a two-year battle with myeloma and his ashes were scattered by Annie in his beloved Westerdale, on the North York Moors, in September.

The Music

Graeme wrote his first song, Sea Coal, now regarded as one of his greatest compositions, at the age of 15 after observing a sea coal man peddling his wares in Old Hartlepool. He was a young adult in the 1950s when folk music in this country began to enjoy a huge resurgence in popularity. Known universally as The Folk Revival, many talented singers and songwriters grew out of it, among them household names such as Ewan MacColl, Johnny Handle and Cyril Tawney.

Graeme was easily their equal. His superb songwriting skills were soon being acknowledged and his songs began to become known nationally through recordings by other artists. This is very important because although his material did not follow the subject matter common in the traditional repertoire (rather they were about what he experienced or felt very strongly about) it was obvious that his songs were being recognised for the superior creations that they were. He laid the groundwork for others including Vin Garbutt, showing them the importance of writing about the Teesside area because it has such a rich, though relatively modern, heritage.

Graeme’s wanderings as a youth took him along the northern industrial banks of the River Tees near his home in Billingham and he used what he saw to great effect (The Banks Of The Tees, Blue Sunset, When The Tees Ran Warm). One of his earliest compilations was the song cycle Greatham Marshes – an area whichproved to be a fertile stamping ground for his imagination.

Graeme began composing when iron and steel was still being manufactured on a large scale along the north and south banks of the Tees river. The docks teemed with cranes and ships and were thronged with workers and sailors. Dockside life included shops, pubs, cafes and certain houses, all of which catered for their needs. At night the mightyTees plain was lit by flare stacks and blast furnaces, like some space age city, creating unforgettably beautiful sunsets. But the ironstone mines of East Cleveland were being worked out and the last one to close, North Skelton, shut its gates for the last time in 1964. This had a huge detrimental economic effect on industrial Middlesbrough and East Cleveland in particular where many mine buildings can still be seen today and which serve as a reminder of what was a great industry that continued for well over one hundred years.

Thankfully, this important former way of life is preserved in a history of Graeme’s own making – the mining, the manufacturing,life on the docks, the importance of the river. He has created a rich tradition of song, prose and drawings to illustrate that this way of life had once existed. His song Last Of The Cleveland Miners is both indicative and evocative of this golden age when every man had employment and his Goodbye, Ironopolis, which is Graeme’s symbolic farewell to all that made Middlesbrough great, can raise great emotion in audiences.

The land behind the Tees plain, the ancient area of Cleveland(‘cliff land’), part of the North Riding of Yorkshire, has hills rising to 460 metres (1,500 ft). It covers land stretching along the east coast from Whitby to Middlesbroughand down to Yarm, and taking in most of the North York Moors. It was to these ‘rolling hills and empty moors’ that Graeme would retreat with friends to spend time discovering them, camping out and hiking them to learn about life and work there. It is perhaps his songs about the moors that are his loveliest. They proved to be another fertile ground for his songwriting.

But much of his work was planned. When he was 15 Graeme set himself a twenty-year project to write songs about his adopted Teesside (Redcar, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Billingham), as well as Hartlepool where he studied art. This project spread to the moors as he grew to know them better through work and recreation. He wrote his last song in 1973.

Graeme determined on his project after visiting Middlesbrough Central Library where he asked to be directed to the section for local songs and music. The librarian met his request with a blank stare and Graeme went home in a thoughtful mood. The result is something Middlesbrough had never before had – a rich legacy of song. But he didn’t just go home and start composing. In order to write with some authority he took on the trades/jobs of the industries he was going to write about. This practice was also adopted by Ewan McColl to give him background for his writing.  Which of these prolific characters started the practice and did the other get some inspiration from the notion? Will we ever know? Our money is on Graeme and is based on him being such an avant garde writer and prolific creator of songs. He wrote hundreds between 1950 and 1973.

He worked in a foundry at Port Clarence, he worked on the Tees, among other jobs. He went on to be employed as a stonebreaker at a moorland quarry which he professed with great humour was almost beyond his capability. He took a job as a warden at Westerdale Youth Hostel, a dale he came to love above all others with the exception of tiny Baysdale. He used all this experience in his songs (The Iron Moulder’s Wedding, Westerdale, The Stone Breaker).

Graeme studied classical music as a youth and this influenced his approach to composition. This was of a scientific rather than musical style, endeavouring to create complex groups of notation and writing much of his work in modal form (for example, Drift from the Land is written in Dorian mode but when sung by other performers it tends as with other compositions to be sung in the major key, in the instance of the previous example, D major). In addition he was a great experimentalist and played many instruments including guitar, banjo, mouth organ and mandolin. He even sang through loudhailers to see what effect this would have on songs. He was idiosyncratic but he knew what he wanted to create and was not afraid to be different.

Some musicians, in interpreting Graeme’s material, have stated that it is too complex to perform as written and have reinterpreted it.  Not unnaturally, this caused discord between Graeme and some musicians because he wanted his material to be sung and played the way it was written and not reinterpreted, particularly without his agreement.

Middlesbrough

Graeme and his family came to the Middlesbrough area at a time when the town was expanding rapidly. Heavily bombed by the Germans in the second world war, the town was changing character, with industry now being built along the sprawling Tees plain instead of in the town and more housing expanding towards the Eston hills and towards Redcar. Furnaces, factories and foundries sprang up and Graeme saw thousands of acres of land being taken over for industry. The docks and river thrived and the Teesside area continued to feed a thirsty world with iron and steel products – railway lines, rivets, bridges including Sydney Harbour Bridge, etc. The ironstone mines in the local hills were still being worked, the ore being taken to be processed ino the foundries and furnaces along the Tees plain. Nearby were the marshes at Greatham which were to provide Graeme with inspiration for his early songs, his drawing and his poetic capabilities. Here was bird life and sea life and vestiges of early industrial history. One of his first collections of songs - On Greatham Marshes – a Song Cycle – evokes the marsh landscape that enthralled him for much of his boyhood. Included in the cycle is Blue Sunset which exemplifies the spectacular sunsets to be seen even today over the Tees bay, and The Crying Crakes, a song loved by his wife Annie. It was written when he was still young. Graeme also wrote The Salt People for the cycle, commemorating the first industry of the area, centuries before coal or iron. This was only the start of his work.

Something in the dirt, the grime, the noise, the industry, the poverty, the community - the very being of Teesside – caught Graeme’s fertile teenage imagination. Why write about the dust, the dirt, the noise, the poverty if he could not see some beauty in them? For many of his songs about industrial Teesside contain exquisite lyrics of true poetry. The raw materials were there, of course: the spectacular sunsets caused in part by the iron-rich detritus expelled from the blast furnaces; the springing up of factory after factory; the destruction of so much land; the people themselves; the teeming docks and dockside life with its pubs and houses and jobs and culture; the ships from all over the world sailing in and out of the Tees to unload or take on cargo; the famous Transporter bridge.  Dozens of industrial songs flowed from his pen which chronicled the best and worst about the area. In doing so, Graeme was archiving the history of the area. He observed the workers, the foundries and factories, he noted the closure of the ironstone mines of East Cleveland – the last one, North Skelton, locking its gates for good in 1964. He worked in a foundry in order to be able to write accurately about the workers. He witnessed and chronicled in his songs the decline of Middlesbrough and saw again its landscape of heavy industry change, with the sad realisation that the town would never again be the same. But what he composed is there for future generations to be thrilled by and to see how their forefathers lived and worked. It may be claimed that but for Graeme’s songs the role Middlesbrough and Teesside in general played as a steel giant supplying the world, together with that of the ironstone mines in the Cleveland hills, this extremely important part of Britain’s social history may have lain forgotten on a dusty shelf. His songs have brought this part of the town’s history to life.  Who writes about Middlesbrough now?

The Moors

The moors of Cleveland which now make up The North York Moors National Park form an utterly lovely and contrasting backdrop to the large industrial expanse that is the Tees plain. They are but a short distance from the city although for the young Graeme to reach them usually involved a bus ride and then a few miles of walking. Now it takes less than 20 minutes by car.

The national park covers 554 square miles of moors and delightful dales which were both recreation and labour to Graeme. He worked in a youth hostel at Westerdale, sadly now closed; he worked in a quarry at Castleton and used to relate with hilarity the enormity of the job done by his contemporaries and his struggle to keep up with them. But it was with its rugged beauty and its ancient history that Graeme identified with mostly, and some of his loveliest songs were about the moors and include Farndale Daffodils, Westerdale and The Lapwing’s Feather. His concern for the workers on the moors is expressed in Drift From The Land, a song about farm labourers having to leave the moors to find better-paid work on Teesside – a sentiment which still rings true today. Other examples of this genre include The Woeful Scarecrow. Many of Graeme’s friends can no longer visit these moors without thinking of Graeme and the solace and inspiration he found among their old drove roads, ancient crosses and prehistory and pursuits. Songs such as The Running Fox, Along The Guisborough Road, The Wild Moor Of Hograh and Horumarye echo his thoughts about this unique area. Indeed, Farndale Daffodils was written following a plan, defeated by protesters, to flood this gorgeous dale to create a reservoir. The daffodils can be seen each spring nodding their golden heads along the banks of the River Dove which courses through the dale to meet the River Rye.

Graeme spent many weekends with friends at a ruined farm called Tidkinhow, just off the main moor road to Whitby from Guisborough – the A171. They slept in hedgerows or old buildings and familiarised themselves with the nearby moors at Commondale and Guisborough. Other dales include Little and Great Fryupdale, Danby Dale, Eskdale and Glaisdale, but Graeme’s great love were Westerdale and Baysdale. It was in Westerdale that his ashes were scattered in September 2013 by his widow Annie.

The Graeme Miles Bursary

This important bursary is an award given to a young musicians or musicians, preferably from Teesside, to promote their music. It is administered by The English Folk Dance And Song Society. The bursary was announced last year shortly after Graeme's death and two fund-raising concerts were held at Saltburn-by-the-sea and in EFDSS London. This item will be regularly updated but interested parties may contact the EFDSS website for more information.

We are delighted to announce that the first winner of the bursary is from Graeme's beloved Teesside area. Joe Hammill, 23, is the frontman for the band Cattle and Cain. This band is rapidly becoming one of the best known in the North of England and should soon be hitting the big time. Joe began writing songs at the age of 15, only a year after Graeme began writing songs. The band has already performed at T in the Park and one of his tracks was played on Dermot O' Leary's Saturday Sessions compilation on BBC Radio 2.

Joe will use the money to buy studio equipment. Watch out for a new album in the next few months. People are raving about this band so watch out for them.