Echoes of ancestors… How Shakin’ Stevens’ discovered his roots

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20 November 2016
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Shakin-Stevens-90685.jpg Shakin Stevens
Singer & songwriter Shakin’ Stevens launches new album inspired by research into his family history

Welsh singer and songwriter Shakin’ Stevens has launched a new album inspired by research into his family history, which had a few surprises in store – including Cornish roots.

Echoes Of Our Times delves deep into colourful and mournful ancestral stories of Primitive Methodist preachers, Cornish copper miners and boy soldiers in his tree. Family Tree spoke to Shaky – real name Michael Barratt – about why he began researching his family’s story and what it meant to him to discover his roots.

Read the full story in the Christmas issue of Family Tree, available in our store now.

Q Why and when did you start researching your family history?

Shaky: We started researching my family around 2010, as you get to a time in your life when you want to know more about your family, and what went before. As time went on, so I realised that I had known absolutely nothing. For instance, I had no idea that my father had 13 siblings – and I had met none of them! I didn’t know that I had a half-brother, but sadly he passed away before I found out about him. I didn’t even know that my father had been married before.

Q Did you employ a researcher or carry out your own research, and how long did it take?

Shaky: The research was carried out by my partner and I, although as it progressed we did, at one point, use the services of a genealogist just to help us put some things into context. Alongside all of this, we also used subscription sites, which included Ancestry on an international basis, and the British Newspaper Archive – and we still haven’t finished…

Q Did you find any other singers or performers in your family tree?​

Shaky: I’m the youngest of 13 children, although I only ever met 10 of them, as the other two siblings passed away when they were young. We could all sing, and one of my brothers also played guitar and would perform. I also found that one of my cousins had been the singer in a band when he was growing up in Cardiff, but left to go round the world on tour with Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens as he was then known). My grandmother, who was in the Salvation Army, played squeezebox, and two of my uncles played in the Salvation Army band – although I never met them. The song The Fire In Her Blood is actually about my grandmother.

Q What was your most surprising discovery - and how did you feel about it? 

Shaky: It’s hard to pinpoint what the most surprising discovery was – as there was so much that surprised me. It was very distressing to learn of stories of death and disaster down the mines, and my ancestors fighting for survival as Primitive Methodist preachers. I knew that my father had fought in the First World War, but not that I had an uncle, Leonard, who tried to join up in August 1914, when he lied about his age saying that he was 20 when he was really only 17. Fifty days later he was discharged, as he was so young. He soon rejoined as a gunner, but was blown up in January 1918, dying just 11 days before his son was born. The song Echoes Of Our Times was inspired by these stories of brave people standing up for what they believe in.

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Q Why did your ancestral discoveries inspire you to make music around them, and how would you describe the album?

Shaky: When we started the research, I wasn’t looking for nobility, I simply wanted to know something about my forebears. When you look into your family tree, and identify your ancestors, so stories unfold and it was a natural progression that these stories inspired the songs.

Q How many songs are on the album, what is your favourite and why?

Shaky: There are 10 songs on Echoes Of Our Times, and it’s hard to have a distinct favourite; I like them all for different reasons. I can say that this is my favourite album to date, and I suppose that this is partly because it is so personal. In fact, I can honestly say that finding the origins of my ancestors has returned me to the roots of my music - blending blues, roots, Americana and classic rock.

Q How do you feel now that you have delved into your family's story, and what was most important to you about the whole process?

Shaky: The process of researching my family has included visits to places where they lived and worked, especially for the copper and tin miners going back hundreds of years, in Cornwall.

I now understand more about my family, the hard lives they had, and the risks they took to survive. It was a different world, and they were very, very hard times.

Q What key advice would you give to anyone else considering tracing their family history?

Shaky: If you are interested, then I strongly advise you to speak to older members of the family, who can give you information that will help you in the future. But you need to ensure that you have the means of verifying that information, if you can. Use caution in your approach, as you may find that some members of the family don’t want to talk about the past – remember that every family has their secrets, protected by lies – another point that inspired a song: Behind Those Secrets And Lies. Accept that at some point you may need the help of a genealogist or other professional, to help you further your research. Look out for the characters, and the stories could leap onto the page.

Echoes Of Our Times (HEC Records), RRP £9.99, is out now and Shaky’s UK album tour kicks off in the spring; see www.ticketmaster.co.uk for venues and tickets.

WIN a copy of Shaky’s new album! Visit our competition page to enter - click here!

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