We Made the Steel – Stirrings

THE ROARING FORTIES     We Made The Steel    RF043CD

[From Stirrings  Reviews Extra Online  #155, June 2013 – UK folk magazine covering South Yorkshire]

The former steel industry in New South Wales provides the subject matter for this album, as refracted through the experience of Robin Connaughton, a member of the singing group The Roaring Forties, based in Sydney. Robin worked in the steel industry at Newcastle and Port Kembla from 1960 to 1975, and he was persuaded by Roaring Forties songwriter, John Warner, to record in song and verse some of his experiences and recollections. The outcome was fourteen songs and two poems, with an additional song, Ballad Of Lovely Tom, which intersperses the rest in six parts and acts as a motif. Lovely Tom is Tomas Mastrewicz, a Polish migrant worker, whose life in the steel industry from recruitment to retirement is recounted episodically.

The Roaring Forties do a lot of unaccompanied singing, as on three of the songs on this album, but  otherwise there is some instrumental support from six and twelve string guitars, Portugesa, bouzouki, harmonica, mandolin and acoustic double bass. The singing and instrumental support are simple and basic. What lifts the album is the quality of the songwriting. Musical styles include traditional English and Australian folk music, country blues and pop—an example of the latter being the reworking of a Queen refrain: “We made, we made, we made the steel!” A variety of themes are touched upon—the displacement of the Aborigines, the despoliation of the natural environment, health and safety issues (for instance the high rate of leukaemia) and industrial relations. What comes across most is a sense of pride in the skills involved in steel-making, skills sadly dissipated with the eventual closure of the steelworks. And though a steelworks can be a living hell, there is the accompanying banter and camaraderie so missed by retired steelworkers.

Albums like this can so easily lapse into beer-induced nostalgia and sentimentality, but this one mostly escapes, especially by means of its tight lyrics. The title song has “We made the steel” sung as a chorus to words like “RSJ for your buildings / Reo for your highways / Wire for the strings on your guitar / Nuts and bolts for your motor car / Tin plate lids for your pickle jar”. Though this is New South Wales, the songs are applicable to the steel industry anywhere in the world, especially the Don Valley.

Dave Sissons

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