This week, I managed to get hold of Tom Carradine, a professional pianist who stages extremely popular ‘Cockney sing-alongs’ in London and (far) beyond. His shows are advertised as ‘an old-fashioned knees-up – Mr Tom Carradine on the ol’ Joanna’ (Cockney rhyming slang for piano). Tom plays old London music hall and Cockney songs to sold-out venues which often have a Cockney or East End background, such as Wilton’s music hall in Wapping – the lyrics projected onto the wall behind him at the piano. The audience is invited to sing along to the catchy tunes of Lambeth Walk, Let’s All Go Down the Strand, or Barrow Boy, whether they grew up with these songs or never heard them before.
Born and raised in Coventry, Tom doesn’t ‘have a Cockney bone in my body’, yet he has become a famous present-day representative of the traditional Cockney way of life including its dialect. His interest in Victorian and Edwardian London began as a child and grew into a passion for the music and characters of the music halls, especially the ones associated with London, the costermonger and the lion comique, a dandy-esque city character parodying the upper class on the music hall stage. It is this style that Tom emulates on and off the stage. ‘I’ve had the moustache for the last ten years’, he tells me, ‘I sometimes pinch myself that I can make a living out of the things I love: my love of vintage music, my love of vintage clothing, my love of vintage style.’ Yet, he makes clear that ‘I wouldn’t want to go and live back then’. His motto is more ‘vintage style, not vintage values’, he laughs.
Tom doesn’t speak with a Cockney accent, but when it comes to performing the old Cockney songs, for example the song If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between, which he sings to me with a clear ‘ ‘aases’, ‘you can’t not sing it in the dialect it was written in. And also, people expect that of those songs.’
Tom draws ‘a huge mix of people, a real cross-section of ages’, often families of two or three generations ‘who want the kind of nostalgic trip back to family parties’. He says, ‘lots of the songs I sing are songs that people’s parents and their grandparents used to sing to them. They love the Cockney culture and the London songs and few are singing them anymore. I’m definitely playing to that’. People come to him after the show and thank him for making their personal memories come alive.
But ‘not only are these songs so evocative of that time and memories that make you feel nice and warm and cosy’, he goes on, there is also ‘this beautiful feeling of being one voice and getting lost in that magic moment when you don’t hear your own voice and just become one voice with everybody else. It’s like stepping back in time, harking back to that kind of old community feel, that old cameraderie’, which seems to be intrinsically linked with Cockney nostalgia. ‘The pub piano sing-along was a popular past time, and the origins of that style of performance is rooted in the East End and in Cockney culture’.
As someone from outside of London, Tom says it sometimes makes him ‘feel like a fraud’, even though people never criticise him for it. ‘For people who have memories they’re just glad to be singing these songs and keeping them going’. To him, the massive success of his sing-alongs shows that Cockney culture is very much alive: ‘It’s always been there, and it always will be’.