The singing of sad songs has been associated with Morecambe in Lancashire for hundreds of years. These dirges were usually sung when someone had been drowned in the dangerous waters of Morecambe Bay. These songs were sung so frequently that a competition was organized to see who could sing the saddest song of all. This contest reached its zenith with the ‘Disaster’ of 1812, when a man called Yeoman Parslow sang about the drowning of his wife and children in the Bay when they were trying to take a shortcut home after blackberry picking. His words were so heartfelt and his emotions so raw that two-thirds of the crowd were saddened to such an extent that they threw themselves into the sea too.
After this happened the contest was banned until 1963 when it was revived under the name the Country and Western Air Guitar hoe-down. The contest is held in the third week of July, but only when the tide is out as a mark of respect to the events of 1812.
The format is quite simple. Every year 20 famous C&W artists are honoured in the contest. From Monday to Saturday two hours are set aside for three artists, whereas only two artists are featured on Sunday again for two hours. The idea is that during this two hours people can sing one of the featured artist’s song while playing the air guitar or sing one of their own songs in the style of that artist.
Judges wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots assess each performance – marks are awarded for the accuracy of the finger work on the air guitar, the accuracy of the impersonation, and, where applicable, originality of the contestant’s lyrics. Few people will forget the poignancy of the following lyrics written by Benny “Wail On” Lee in the style of Waylon Jennings from the Wednesday contest in 1987.
“My dogggeeeeee got run over by the undertaker,
Taking my wife’s body to the morgue,
Ah would have waved her goodbyeeeeeee,
But my arms got pulled off,
In a farm accident,
My grand daddy’s heart broke in two
When the crops failed,
For the fifth straight year,
But despite all these disasters
I still go to church,
Even though I can’t pray now
Because my arms got pulled off
In a farm accident,
After Benny sang the song a large number of people were in floods of tears and heading towards the pier, but were stopped by the police who sprayed them with nitrous oxide.
Multiple winners at the contest include Roger Donnelly who impersonates Fatboy Slim Whitman, Wendy Berenson who sings the songs of Willy Nelson with a broad Yorkshire accent, and above all Terry Waites whose variations of Tammy Wynette’s song D.I.V.O.R.C.E have to be heard to be believed. In the 1980s his winning efforts included the cunning protest songs T.H.A.T.C.H.E.R.O.U.T,
S.C.A.R.G.I.L.L.F.O.R.E.V.E.R and the 17-minute long S.U.P.P.O.R.T.T.H.E.M.I.N.E.R.S.A.G.A.I.N.S.T.T.H.E.F.A.S.C.I.S.T.D.I.C.T.A.T.O.R.T.H.A.T.C.H.E.R.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker