In so doing, Wigan octet Merry Hell revisited their own past as The Tansads during an encore at the Clitheroe Grand, inviting that night’s support acts, Preston’s Deadwood Dog and East Lancs combo Panjenix to join them.
The three bands launched into a rusty but powerful cover of Pete’s 1955 anti-war classic Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
But those there on the night couldn’t have realised where that one-off collaboration would lead to.
Some 10 months later, more than 40 artists under the Armistice Pals banner – led by Merry Hell – have been joined by a chorus of more than 100 on a charity version of the song, one which includes the voices of Pete Seeger and his singer-songwriting sibling Peggy Seeger.
The single is out this Remembrance Sunday, November 9, and is already receiving rave reviews, as Merry Hell manager and Armistice Pals publicist Damian Liptrot explained.
And it’s clear from the outset that this 55-year-old Wiganer, who told me his role in Merry Hell is ‘playing the telephone’, is mightily proud of the end result.
The Tansads’ own version was an integral part of their set and featured on 1995 live album, Drag Down the Moon.
But – nearly two decades after that cover and nearly 60 years since the song was written – it appears that the message remains as poignant as ever.
“The week Pete Seeger passed away, Merry Hell were at the Grand and did a very ramshackle version, having not played it for around 15 years.
“We invited up the two support bands, with the audience reaction absolutely phenomenal.
“The social media feedback was brilliant too. The phrase ‘not a dry eye in the house’ sticks in my mind.”
And now it appears that the single is having a similar effect – albeit far less shambolic.
“That was just the start of it. So many people said ‘that was fantastic’, and when I woke up that next morning, my inner Geldof and inner megalomaniac had had a conversation and were telling me, ‘Don’t let this moment go!’
“I’d been reading so much about the centenary commemorations of the start of the First World War, and that tied in. And because we had those three bands that night, there was a community feel.
“What I think people forget is that not only did all those soldiers die or come back severely wounded – physically and mentally – but whole communities suffered as a result – wives, children, parents.
“That gets forgotten sometimes. There’s always a focus on the bravery of the soldiers.
“There’s also a tie-in with the Pals battalions, many drawn from the Lancashire area, with whole groups of men from a village or town going to fight together.
“These local communities were devastated. So the idea of the Armistice Pals shows respect not just for the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers, but the effect of that war and subsequent wars on the wider community.”
That just happenned to fit in with this celebrated songwriter’s own philosophy too, didn’t it?
”Absolutely! Pete Seeger was anti-war but also had a huge effect in terms of looking at the way humanity treats each other.
“While that’s sometimes portrayed as naïve and idealistic, that’s kind of what I wanted to reflect.”
Pete was also big on the concept of communal singing, wasn’t he?
“That’s the other thing. We had the Pals chorus, around 100 people coming down to the studio and singing, being added to the mix, including those two other bands from that night.
“We also had members of 21 different folk clubs, from as far away as Conwy, North Wales, and others from Lancaster, Preston and Southport.”
There’s also impressive participation from across the Atlantic, not least Pete’s half-sister Peggy, the widow of Ewan MacColl, now aged 79.
And the four-track CD single also includes Peggy reciting a poem by her uncle, US war poet Alan Seeger, killed at the Somme in 1916.
“When I first had the idea, I tried to contact Peggy, but she was very ill at the time. But she later got to hear about the project in an interview with writer and broadcaster, Simon Jones.
“Simon’s been very encouraging and supportive, and Peggy really liked the idea and asked me to get in touch. I explained the project to her and she really liked it.
“One of the things she mentioned was the community aspect, how we were encouraging folk clubs around the country as close to Remembrance Sunday as possible to carry out community renditions of the song.
“So far we have around 50 clubs involved, from the length and breadth of the country and also in Australia and America, which is phenomenal.”
And that’s Pete’s voice on the recording. So how did you manage that?
“Peggy suggested we get Pete’s voice on there, and John Kettle was able to source a file of Pete singing a capella, in the right key, I think from the 1960s.
“Because the project really took off, I had to look for someone to help, and approached Helen Meissner at Folkstock.
“She does a lot of work with young artists, and I was keen for young artists to be reflected in the project.
“Helen did a phenomenal amount, and with her daughter went to visit Peggy, recording her, then sending John the file. So they’ve been invaluable too.”
As well as being a songwriter and guitarist in The Tansads then Merry Hell, Wigan-based John Kettle is a producer and engineer, and was at the heart of the project.
“Merry Hell recorded the backing track and we then sent that to all the contributors, and most – as recording artists – had access to a studio, so recorded themselves singing the whole track then sent the files back.
“John runs the Old Court Studio in Wigan, where he’s just moved in, with the Armistice Pals chorus the first use of his new studio.
“There were so many files coming back, of variable technical quality, so he did a fantastic job creating the final song.”
“There’s been a big surge of interest since that, but also through local and community radio stations all over the country. We see the effect via our Facebook page every time it gets played.”
And like that original moment for Damian at the Clitheroe Grand, when Pete and Peggy come in on the single, there are more ‘not a dry eye in the house’ moments.
“Yes! So many of those involved – particularly the chorus – have said the same, how they never imagined they’d be on a record with Pete and Peggy Seeger.
“It’s so humbling. It went far beyond anything I originally imagined. And the charity aspect is less important in a lot of respects than the community feel.
“At a grass roots folk level it’s been really well received, with radio shows, podcasts, and folk clubs around the region set for themed events, including communal renditions.
“Anything wider than that, such as national radio interest, would just be a bonus.”
“Some people confuse anti-war with anti-troops, but nothing can be further from the truth.
“What would benefit those troops and their families more than not having to go to fight?
“The First World War was – according to that famous quote – the war to end all wars. Unfortunately we only have to look around to see that wasn’t the case.
“Sometimes conflict becomes unavoidable. You only have to look at the Second World War, and the consequences if people hadn’t fought.
“But conflict should always be avoided so as long as the consequences of avoiding it are not worse than the consequences of opposing wrong.
“This isn’t a political statement though. It’s not anti-anything apart from being anti-suffering.”
Four charities benefit from the Armistice Pals project, namely the British Red Cross, The Malala Fund, The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, and Peace Through Folk.
The official release date is November 9, but you can pre-order the single via http://www.armisticepals.com/ which also includes a list of all the artists and supporters involved, and details of related events to mark the project.
This is a revised version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on November 5th, 2014.