IT'S exactly 150 years ago that Joe Wilson, "The Bard of Tyneside", performed at the newly-opened Tyne Theatre and Opera House on Westgate Road, Newcastle.

The beautiful 1200-seat venue was opened in September 1867 and Wilson performed there six weeks later in November to much acclaim. The Era, a national entertainment newspaper, mentioned him first in a report extolling the virtues of the "Tyneside melodist", while another critic said that Wilson "was encored for his local effusions".

The name Joe Wilson may not be familiar today, but from the age of 24 through the late-1860s and 1870s Wilson was a North-East superstar.

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From making his professional debut at the famous Balmbras Music Hall, in Newcastle, in December 1864, he rapidly became a massive draw all over the region, playing to packed houses of thousands in Newcastle, Darlington, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, North Shields, South Shields, Carlisle, Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, Stanley, Consett.

Wilson was born in Newcastle, in 1841, and died of TB aged 35 in 1875.

He was arguably the most prolific singer/songwriter ever to come out of the region - he wrote at least 360 songs, some of which will be performed at Joe Wilson Night 2017, on November 29, at Newcastle Irish Centre, 20 yards from Wilson’s birthplace.

His popular tunes were sung in the street, concert halls, pubs and even schools and yet most people only sing the chorus of his best-known song Keep Yor Feet Still Geordey Hinny.

"Joe wrote and sang about working class life and his words still stand up today," says playwright Ed Waugh, who is producing this year’s Joe Wilson Night.

"We put on what was a one-off show last year to mark the 175th year of Joe's birth, but it sold out so we're delighted to be putting on another Joe Wilson Night with all-new songs, poetry and comedy by popular demand. Joe is reminiscent of great latter-day lyricists like Bob Dylan, Paul Weller, Alan Hull and Ray Davies.

"All of them have been able to write fantastic songs with a strong narrative and defined characters. Joe could do that. His songs like Geordie Haad The Bairn (in which he celebrated women), Gallowgate Lad (about lost love) and Keep't Dark (about gossips) are brilliant," says Waugh

Wilson was also a supporter of workers on strike, penning a number of songs in support of, and performing benefits for, the strikers at Armstrong's factory on the Tyne and engineers in Sunderland, in 1871, as they campaigned for a nine-hour working day.

Last year Newcastle City Council commemorated Wilson's contribution to North-East culture by putting a blue plaque on his birthplace in Stowell Street (opposite Rosie's bar), now Chinatown, in Newcastle.

Waugh says: "Joe was destined for a life of songwriting and performing after he attended the 2,800-capacity Royal Olympic Concert Hall, adjacent to Newcastle Central Station, when he was a teenager.

"Seeing the great Ned Corvan perform changed Joe's life," explains Dave Harker, whose book Cat-Gut Jim the Fiddler: Ned Corvan’s Life & Songs was the basis for Waugh's successful play Mr Corvan's Music Hall, which toured the region earlier this year.

Harker's new book about Joe Wilson, called Gallowgate Lad. Joe Wilson's Life & Songs, will be the basis of Waugh's new play about Wilson which will tour the region next September as part of Joe Wilson Year.

The Great Joe Wilson will be produced with the newly-refurbished 1,000-seat Darlington Hippodrome (previously Darlington Civic Theatre), which started out in 1907 providing music hall entertainment and was originally called Darlington New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Varieties.

Waugh says: "Joe died in 1875 so his time was before the building of the Hippodrome, but he played Darlington regularly at the Theatre Royal Music Hall and is credited with bringing his type of singer/songwriter entertainment to Darlington."

Lynda Winstanley, director of Darlington Hippodrome, says: "We've had a number of plays here that Ed co-wrote with Trevor (Wood), like Dirty Dusting, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham and Alf Ramsay Knew My Grandfather and all of them have gone done really well.

"Earlier this year I saw Ed's solo play Hadaway Harry at Newcastle Theatre Royal, which was tremendous, and when I came to see Mr Corvan's Music Hall I was blown away. It was fantastic. The crowd's response was brilliant. I stood outside The Sage afterwards and people were laughing, talking enthusiastically about what they had just seen, and, more importantly, singing Ned Corvan songs.

"That's a reflection of great theatre and given Joe's links with Darlington I am delighted to be working with Ed on this wonderful project that will be a year-long celebration of Joe Wilson and North-East working class culture, starting at Joe Wilson Night 2017 on November 29 ."

Waugh adds: "We're currently working out a year-long schedule and have lots of plans. Obviously, we'll be pushing Dave's excellent book while Pete Scott's tremendous CD of Joe Wilson songs, called The Day of Life, will be re-issued. There will be a series of concerts, guided walking tours, bus tours, talks as well as exhibitions and visits from Joe's family from Canada (Joe's wife emigrate to Canada with their children after his death).

"In Mr Corvan's Music Hall we celebrated Ned's brilliant music and contribution to regional culture. The show attracted almost 2,000 people. That figure is incredible considering Ned was virtually forgotten and people didn't know his songs, perhaps with the exception of Cullercoats Fish Lass.

"Joe will be a lot different; Keep Yor Feet Still Geordey Hinny is a popular classic and we already know from the demand for Joe Wilson Night that there is huge interest in the man who wrote that song and his life."

  • Joe Wilson Night 2017 will be held at Tyneside Irish Centre, Stowell Street, Newcastle, on Wednesday, November 29. Tickets cost £15 from the Irish Centre or via The Word box office on 0191-4247788.
  • For further information about Joe Wilson Year events, Dave Harker's Gallowgate Lad and Pete Scott's CD The Day of Life visit https://www.wisecrackproductions.co.uk/