I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, Dirty old town
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, Dirty old town
From Dirty Old Town by Ewan MacColl
Tommy recalled that he arrived in Birmingham in about 1953 and told me how he first got involved in public performance of both singing and dance.
I’d never considered public singing in my life, I didn’t even know what folk meant and one day I was singing at work and this bloke came up to me and said “have you ever sung in a folk club?” and I said “I don’t know what you mean”. And he said “well what you were just doing there is classed as a folk song”. A ballad I believe it was and humming and whistling and singing as well. And I got interested in that, I got hooked on it. Went home and talked to some mates of mine, those we used to take the Mickey out of, we called them “come all yers” as a derogatory term, “ah don’t sing any more of these come all yers” and lo and behold I was pleading with them and begging them to dig out the words so I could get them.
Back in those early days I was first in Birmingham I met this family, a Dublin family who lived in Gough Road, it’s at the back of what is now the MacDonalds on the Bristol Road and I was in digs in the one house. The family was made up of the parents and these three sisters, one of them named Annie O’Neill was one of the champion Irish dancers and they used to keep asking me to join in the Irish dancing. I laughed me head off, “a kilt? What! You’re joking?” ”
Above: An Irish dancing group from St Catherine’s School and Church in the Horse Fair featuring John O’Neill (left) and his sister Anne O’Neill (centre).
Anne and John were from the O’Neill family of Gough Road who first encouraged Tommy Dempsey to take up Irish dance in Birmingham. Father Cusworth of St Catherine’s would initiate dances in the school behind the church which were run by Bridget and Frank McGilly.
But clearly the charm of the O’Neill girls and their keen eye for spotting talent eventually won through in persuading the initially reluctant young Irish man to give it a go. With a momentary glint in his eye Tommy admitted it was when the girls gave him the cold shoulder treatment that he finally gave in to pressure:
And then lo and behold I began to fancy the girls and one Sunday I was standing at the door and they passed by us. “Hello” I called out but they never answered me so I thought “they’ve got the nark with me”. So I joined up straight away and had the time of my life in Irish dancing. Now I was a bit reticent believe it or not in one respect, I was always singing as a kid when I could and the worst thing for me was when I lost my voice. The best thing for everybody else but the worst thing for me. And I thought “God I’ll find out what this Irish dancing is all about” and I had a great time.
When I say I didn’t take it serious, of course I took it serious but it was still a great laugh. We played cards in the van on the way up and often when we arrived at the venue I didn’t even have enough money to pay for a cup of tea. We went all over the place, doing exhibitions. But getting up on the stage in a kilt, if you could do that it gives you a confidence, a little bit of a lift, I’d never have gained me confidence. I’ve got the biggest inferiority complex on the face of God’s earth and anybody who knows me knows that, Eileen’s cousin nearly fell off the chair one night when I said that to them. They were asking me about that. But I have… but I still love it. I stand in the wings before I go on, say at a place like the Town Hall, and I think “what the hell are you doing here?” But it’s a great feeling.
So I joined the Irish dancing. Now the lads used to meet up at the St Francis Social Club in Handsworth on a Friday or Saturday night and we’d have a singing session between us. As that went on, working with that chap I mentioned eventually I heard of this club run by Ian Campbell. It was called The Jug o’ Punch, after the song. It was in the Big Bull’s Head in Digbeth and then he moved to The Crown on Station Street and then it got too big and it moved back to Digbeth Civic Hall - up the passage way in the back was a giant room.
Having honed his talent for delivering a damned good folk ballad at the St Francis Social Club, Tommy was soon identified by Campbell as a very useful and permanent resource within the Jug o’ Punch Club. Campbell invited Tommy to become the ‘resident singer’ which meant that Tommy would open up the night’s performances with some songs before the group, namely The Ian Campbell Folk Group, came on and then the guest or guests.
In that group by the way were Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg - eventually the bass player and the fiddle player for Fairport Convention. Those two were core members of Fairport Convention.
Dave Pegg was born in Acocks Green in 1947 and formed a school band at Yardley Grammar School, his instrument of choice like so many kids in the early 60s being the guitar. Pegg’s disappointment at being turned down by Brummie rock n roll legend Steve Gibbons after he auditioned to join Steve’s band The Uglys as a guitarist in 1966, was short lived. Gibbons quickly offered him the chance to play bass guitar in The Uglys instead and the rest is history. In 1967 he joined The Ian Campbell Folk Group playing stand-up bass and mandolin. In 1969 he joined Fairport Convention and in 1979 had a stint with Jethro Tull.
Dave Swarbrick was born in Surrey but lived in Birmingham from the age of about 8. He attended Birmingham College of Art. Swarbrick learnt classical violin which he played until forming a skiffle band in the 1950s then joined The Ian Campbell Folk Group in 1960. Swarbrick is often described as Britain’s finest ever folk-rock fiddle player, he contributed significantly to Charles Parker’s BBC Radio Ballads alongside Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Known for his collaborations with Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson, Swarbrick also joined Fairport Convention in 1969 to become the band’s leading figure.
One night I was on in the Jug o’ Punch club and accompanying me were Dave Swarbrick, the fiddle, Dave Pegg, the bass and Dis Disley, the jazz guitarist. I thought “bloody hell …bloody hell”.
Tommy is looking at memorabilia on the table.
Some of the names on there bring back memories to me. Spencer Davies and Steve Winwood… Ah wait till you hear this. We ran a club, John and another chap and I up in The Crown on Corporation Street. Facing the Law Courts. And one night John and the other fellow came to me and said “Tommy you’ll have to ask those two not to come again, come if they like but we won’t ask them to sing again. Because, you know, it’s not what we want to hear.”
I said “well why me?” because John was 6 feet 6. The other fellow was about my height. Anyway I went and sat down with them and said “sorry about this but…” Tommy pauses and coughs into his clenched fist …Spencer Davies and Steve Winwood. I had to ask them not to come again.
At this revelation I could not help but gasp in shocked sympathy as Tommy emitted an “Arhhhhgh!” at the very memory of it. But he continued with a happy resolution to the story:
We didn’t fall out because Spencer invited us back to his flat to play some of his collection of fantastic blues stuff. One of the first concerts I saw in Birmingham was at the Town Hall, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, The Weavers. Another one was Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee.
I expressed my appreciation “Bloody hell! Didn’t he play an amazing harmonica?” to which Tommy responded by vocalising a hootin-blues rendition, then:
The hootin-blues. I’ve got the 78. When they came out, the tall one was carrying a guitar and the other one was holding his shoulder because he was blind. You know…I thought “is there a doctor in the house?” They filled the Town Hall. Now he played acoustic, I don’t think he had a lead on it. I think he just played it into another mic. Great night.
But Spencer Davis, Steve Winwood, Pegg and Swarbrick were not the only rising stars to grace the humble but oft times lively stage of the Jug o’ Ale Folk Club, once that is, Tommy Dempsey had stoked up the fire (metaphorically speaking) and got the party started. Tommy recalled the arrival of another great name of folk music who perfected his craft in the unlikely setting of a back-room, up an alley, behind Digbeth Civic Hall. This time a fellow Dubliner:
But before we moved out of Station Street Ian Campbell said to me one night, “I’ve got a townie of yours living in London, he’s coming down here and I’m gonna take him on with you as a regular singer. This chap who’s coming down to join us… er… Kelly his name is …er Luke Kelly”. And it was Luke who went on to join The Dubliners. Luke was with us for a while and then he asked me to go home with him which I couldn’t do for various reasons and the next thing he formed The Dubliners.
Around then I started my own career and I played in my first concert ever, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl were on the bill and The Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood on guitar. And that’s how I got going and I travelled the length and breadth of England doing folk clubs and folk festivals and God knows what. Then I met up with a man named John Swift who became Professor Swift at the UCE, he was a lute player, the 6-string lute and guitar and we travelled all over the place together. Everywhere and anywhere as a duo until I formed Drowsy Maggie.
I asked Tommy what other work he did to supplement being a musician, touring the UK and further afield. I was astonished by his answer, as throughout these years Tommy had also been holding down a very respectable full time job in an industry for which Birmingham is celebrated, the subject of which could have formed a local history themed interview in itself.
I worked in the Birmingham Assay office for 37 years. If you look inside your rings at the little hall marks, you’ll see that the anchor is the Birmingham hallmark. Well my job was at the bench, I sat there at a bench with nine different chemicals, some of which worked together to get the result – the reading. You had to sample it and then test it. Before they got through and wasted the customer’s time, we would spot check it and you’d be amazed at some of the things we’d find, but I really enjoyed my job.
The stuff you’d see coming in was amazing, we had a set of cutlery from Napoleon’s collection and one from Nelson, because they thought there’d been some fakes mixed in with it and all this kind of carry-on. It was fascinating some of the objects you’d see coming through. A four-mast schooner in silver, about six foot high. It was a centre-piece for one of the big naval places, I don’t know what sort of premises it would have been but it would have to be a big place to take something like this. I saw it come in and we tested it and everything else and I was still working there when it came back to be sold off. The way things change, new brooms come in and say “we don’t want that in the middle of the room when we can get X amount of money for it”.
But that’s what I did for 37 years …and I did the singing after work or in vacations. I took on a contract that said I could take on the early finish, so I used to start at 7 and finish at 4, got the bookings and be out till 3 or 4 in the morning and still had to be in for 7 o clock in the morning. I did that till I was 65. It’s made me very intolerant with some of the people you work with, “oh have we got to do anymore?” I loved it that bloody much that it helped me forget all the stupidity we went through but it was therapeutic and rewarding.