REPRISING all that’s said about new tune and old fiddle, one of the North-East’s best loved folk bands is celebrating 50 years of music-making.

“People criticise us for doing all the popular stuff, but it’s popular because people like it,” says John Burton, founder and front man of Skerne. “Why would we play music that people don’t like?”

John, 79, may be yet better remembered as Tony Blair’s constituency agent in Sedgefield – without him, Blair once said, it was doubtful if he’d ever have become Prime Minister.

To mark the half century, past and present members reunited last week for a gig at the Defoe Court care home in Newton Aycliffe, where Edwin Thomas, another founder, is now resident.

“I don’t sing any more, you’ll be a better singer than I am,” said Edwin – a matter of great doubt, that – but in any case was soon Wild Roving as lustily as in his youth.

Wyn Morgan, another early member who’d been a peripatetic music teacher in County Durham, is now a taxi driver in the furthest reaches of west Wales. That morning he’d been up at two o’clock, taken a fare to Heathrow Airport and then headed north, his double bass about twice his size.

Wyn, it’s said, usually gets back up for a sing-song once a year – unusually for a good Welshman, on St Patrick’s Day.

There, too, were folk from Tubingen, County Durham’s German twin town, with which Skerne have been linked for 35 years. “There’d been an earlier link to the schools, but it wasn’t quite working properly,” recalled Monika Capiele.

“My husband captained the darts team in Tubingen. They thought that something involving pubs and singing might work a bit better. The German people love them.” The first visit, during the 1983 miners’ strike, raised £10,000 for relief funds.

As might be supposed, they’ve also performed for any number of senior politicians, occasionally joined by a guitar-playing former Prime Minister.

They were formed at the Red Lion in Trimdon Village, initially known as the Trimdon Folk Band before adopting the name of the river which rises nearby. Edwin Thomas and his brother Marshal were already a well-known duo. “We were best known for our chorus songs, we used to raise the roof at the Red Lion,” John Burton recalled.

So how comes the music still goes round and round? “There’s always been a cohesion to it. People really looked forward to Friday nights at the Red Lion,” said Peter Brookes, who joined in the early 1980s.

“We just enjoy the music and enjoy each other’s company,” said John Burton. “Mostly we now seem to do charity gigs and others still seem to quite enjoy it, too. Why stop now?”

THE Defoe Court care home is decked early for Christmas present and with colourful posters of times past. “Life is gay at Whitley Bay.” Ha!

Skerne flow as one, nine or ten in confluence. Many are old hands; Norman Davidson, a more recent addition, proves accomplished on the Northumbrian pipes. John tells the gathering that there are more of them than there are residents and that he can no longer play the banjo – which he did hugely well. “My fingers have gone, arthritis,” he says and sometimes sits down to rest his two new knees.

He hasn’t seen some of the lads for 30 years, he adds – “and we were probably still singing the same stuff back then.”

As if to emphasise that it’s not just the songs which have been around a bit, he also exhumes the joke about the inebriated Trimdon lad – Yakka, presumably a pit yakka – who gets on the bus and asks for a return.

The conductress asks him where to. “Why back here, yer daft bugger,” says Yakka.

You could tell it was an old joke, the bus was a TMS. The world’s only known joke about hammer-throwing sounds strangely familiar, too.

Someone also produces a copy of their first record, called Better Late Than Never because members had a reputation for poor timekeeping. Like Skerne it’s a long player; like Skerne – great guys, brilliant musicians – there’s no sign of drying up at all.

THOUGH spiritually and geographically identified with the Trimdon Grange Explosion, that haunting epitaph to colliery disaster, Skerne didn’t sing it last Thursday. That was left to the Pitmen Poets on Sunday evening.

None of the four was a pitman, not all are poets, all are excellent musicians. They’ve been touring quite a while now – Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe – last Friday at Cheltenham, on Saturday at Canterbury. “Missionary work,” said Bob, Seaham lad.

How much did they understand – “about three words,” said Billy – how much lost helplessly in the translation? It recalled the late and much lamented Bobby Thompson, legendarily booked for a week at Glasgow Empire and paid off after one incomprehensible appearance.

On Sunday they pitched up at Billingham Forum, a venue which these days seems chiefly to book tribute bands and which (as previously we have observed) seems to employ a municipal dancer-in-the-aisles. On Sunday there was no sign of her: austerity, no doubt.

A lot of the songs were by Tommy Armstrong, the bard of Stanley, a lot of the crack what Cheltenham ladies might call scatological – netties and chamber pots and Izal toilet rolls. “None of this double-quilted fancy stuff in them days,” said Billy.

Benny Graham, himself a Stanley lad, also proved a dab hand on the spoons – “the Ringo Starr of the cutlery drawer,” said one of the others.

Though the crack lurched to the left, it proved a lovely evening – perhaps the most entertaining party political broadcast of all time, as sure as coking coal not on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party – and, that night, the Pitmen Poets got to sleep in their own beds.

THE column a couple of weeks ago paid affection tribute to Keith Schellenberg – a Middlesbrough-born Olympic sportsman, entrepreneur and one-time owner of the island of Eigg who for the last 20 years had lived in Richmond.

A full page obituary in last Saturday’s Times adds colour to a vibrant 90 years – not least that he became a vegetarian after seeing a friend kill a water rat with a catapult, though the only vegetarians of whom he was at the time aware were Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi. “Like Hitler,” adds The Times, “he was also vehemently anti-smoking.”

He had also on several occasions been known to invite everyone he met in a railway carriage back home for dinner – “being married to him,” the obit added, “could be challenging.”