Eric Boswell (1921-2009)

When Eric died, obituarists and bloggers related a very private college lecturer who had written an apparently fluke Christmas hit that went on to become a children's classic, one often assumed to have been written so long ago as to be "traditional".

Inevitably there was rather more to Eric, especially to the people around north east England. A classically-trained pianist with a love for Chopin and Gilbert & Sullivan who had nevertheless made a living as pop writer for hire in sixties London then returned north to help revitalise the folk music scene with over 100 new local songs, many hilarious, many hauntingly beautiful, many still performed today.

After combining a study of music around a more prosaic scientific career, Eric's big break came when he switched from writing modern classical to pop music and by good luck had his song 'Little Donkey' recorded by Gracie Fields in 1959 which led to a publishing contract with Chappell. He wrote at least a dozen further pop songs, some being entries for A Song For Europe, which selected the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entry, writing the second and third placed songs in 1961.

(Right: Eric at piano, Marian Aitchison sings. What Fettle! © Tyne Tees Television 1978)

Eric only spent a few years in London. He soon tired of the 'rat race' and was back in his birthplace of Sunderland on the north east coast (and much later lived in Kenton on the outskirts of Newcastle and finally the small Northumbrian village of Humshaugh, near Hexham) where he wrote about the north east instead. These were performed by local singers including John Hawkins, Evette Davis, Ralph Hawkes, Marian Aitchison, Michael Hunt and Joe Ging. Eric was also musical director of various stage and television projects such as Tyne Tees' cultural programme What Fettle! and the annual Geordierama shows and worked with writer Scott Dobson (author of Larn Yerself Geordie and other quirky guides to Geordie dialect and culture) and local radio legend Frank Wappat. Various recordings were made from the mid 1970s with Brian and George Mawson and Dave Wood at MWM Records, through whom Eric met and wrote songs for Bobby Thompson ('The Little Waster') one of which topped the local independent chart.

But although many of Eric's songs were humorous many were profound including some of his best loved: 'Take Me Up The Tyne', 'There'll Be No-one Else For Me', 'Bird Fly High', 'Jenny Was There' and 'I Waited On The North Dock'. Eric also wrote the music for Katie Mulholland, a Catherine Cookson musical commissioned by Newcastle Festival and performed as Sounds of Tyne & Wear with Marian Aitchison and Joe Ging.

The name of this website reflects Eric's exasperation that whatever he subsequently did, whether being interviewed or just at the dentist, the conversation always came around to one thing. Yet 'Little Donkey' was atypical of Eric's work - whether humorous, anthemic or political, his songs were squarely aimed at adults and many were by the standards of the time pretty risqué. The worldwide success of a simple Christmas ballad (apparently written, like every other well known song, in about half an hour) became something of an irritation, and anyone about to meet him for the first time was inevitably warned "Don't mention Little Donkey"...