In his hey-day, Harry Glasson was a household name around the South West. The famed singer and songwriter was celebrated for his recounts of Cornish history through his music; attempting to single handily keep a dying culture alive.
But in 2009, after more than three decades of performing, including six tours around America, Harry was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal chords and had to undergo a full laryngectomy; the removal of the vocal chords, which is then replaced with a valve in the neck. Since then he has been unable to perform his tales of Cornwall.
“I miss my voice every day, in one way or another. The one thing I really miss though is the performing. I loved it.”
Harry’s house is the epitome of Cornish country-side. We sit in the lounge at a little wooden table, in a room with stone walls. A small wood burner is at the opposite end of the room and everywhere you look, there are books.
“when my voice left me, it was a devastating 12 months”
“My interest has always been in Cornish history. Most of the books you see around here, in here anyway, are Cornish history books.”
At this point he stands and opens a door to his right, it opens to show a hallway that has a make-shift library along one wall. There must be over a hundred books there.
“It worries me about any culture being lost. People hear my songs and might think I must be very much a nationalist, I’m not, I just love anybody who loves Cornwall. I don’t give a damn if you’re from Timbuktu or Greenland, it doesn’t matter – if you love Cornwall, that’s good with me.”
Harry speaks openly about the loss of his voice. He explains how the valve, that is now in the place of his voice box, works. Anytime Harry wishes to speak, he must press the button in the stoma to allow the air to flow down the oesophagus. As the air passes through the muscles in his throat it begins to vibrate. The vibrations can then be turned into sound by movement of the mouth and lips. This means that Harry is unable to breath and speak at the same time, making talking a laboured process.
Although for many this would seem like a life destroying event, Harry’s outlook is surprisingly positive.
“In your life, you get these doors that open and you go through them and you close the door behind you and if it wasn’t for that, if you had opened another door, your life would have been so much different. I have no regrets in my life, I’ve pretty much done all that I’ve wanted to do. This [he lifts his hand to the stoma in his neck] has given me a different lease of life again and not a bad one necessarily. Yes, when it happened, being a singer and a tour guide you need a voice and when my voice left me, it was a devastating 12 months and then I realised that I’ve got a totally different lifestyle now. You see the motor home outside, well we’ve just come back from five weeks in France travelling. I wouldn’t have done that if I still had my voice.”
For a time, Harry’s songs were silenced by the consequences of the cancer but an auspicious meeting soon lead to him to finding a new voice for his songs.
“I met Harry at the first ever gig I did for the Oggymen, over at Flushing. I got roped into it, one of the guys broke down so Rob (the band’s manager) said you’re going to have to sing.”
Will Keating, father of four, foster father of two, husband, builder and newly proclaimed singer is Harry’s new voice.
He sits in his kitchen, black ringlets and a well-kept beard frames his face; his most prominent feature is the wide smile that seems to reside permanently on his face. He is wearing white overalls with a navy-blue, paint splattered, sweatshirt on top – he’s been working on the extension to their family home and hasn’t had time to change. Drinking coffee from a hand painted mug with the words ‘To Daddy’ written on the side, his ageing cat Marley purrs loudly on his lap, Will laughs when it’s suggested that he’s has a lot on his to-do-list.
“I first approached Harry and he was very supportive from day one”
Will told Harry about his admiration for Cornwall my Home, Harry’s most famous song and the most sang song in Cornwall today. Although Will wasn’t born in Cornwall, the emotions Harry captured in the lyrics struck a chord for him. It was his admiration for Harry’s talents as well as their close friendship that inspired Will to take on the task of preserving Cornwall’s history.
“He had loads of other songs, which I didn’t necessarily know, in his back pocket. He basically said listen to my back catalogue and take anything that you want to do.”
So that’s what Will did, he took the songs and began to perform as a one-man-band.
Armed with only a guitar and stomp-box, Will set out to conquer the music industry, one pub at a time. With 85 gigs completed in his first year, it quickly became apparent that success was on the horizon.
Will reflects on how he went from the forces to protecting the legacy of Cornwall.
“I was very good at sport and the only way to play professional rugby at the time was to join the forces”
Five years of wear and tear on Will’s body ended abruptly with his anterior cruciate ligament snapping, bringing his career on the sea to a painful end.
“I was told I would never play rugby again, I was devastated. I remember being on morphine and crying my eyes out to my dad on the phone.”
Will recovered from the injury but his rugby playing dreams were fractured.
Fortunately, redundancy from the Navy turned out better than expected. The next decade of Will’s life sounds like something out of a fairy-tale. He went to work as a scuba diving instructor in Cyprus where he reunited with his college girlfriend, Estelle, who is still by his side today. The two of them lived in Cyprus and then in Thailand. They both found a passion in scuba diving and enjoyed the sun, sea and surf that came with the lifestyle.
Aspects of their house still reflect the life they shared together in those early years. The huge world map on their kitchen wall encompasses their past adventures and tempts them towards their future ones. The simplistic and uncluttered living area, which is impressive seeing as they have four children all under ten years of age living there, shows an understanding that life is about more than materialism. The aged wooden oar mounted on eggshell blue walls act as a tribute to Will’s days out at sea.
“And no one will ever, move me from this land…”
For ten years now, Will, Estelle and their two foster children have been creating this home. Over those years, their four daughters joined them.
Sadly, fairy-tale and tragedy often run hand in hand. In 2014, when Will was working for Skinners brewery, Will and Estelle’s foster son committed suicide. Dewi was only 19. The tragedy changed their entire outlook on life.
“That was the catalyst, I suppose, to me reassessing my life and thinking what am I doing, do I really want to be selling beer for the rest of my life?”
“Dewi’s death puts things in perspective, it’s about the work life balance.”
During Will’s gigs, it is difficult to remain still. The beat of the stomp-box and acoustic guitar played simultaneously seem to control your body. Your head nods and your feet thumps. Before long you hear a rumbling murmur coming from the crowd, and yourself, as you are all caught up singing the catchy chorus,
“And no one will ever, move me from this land…”
The forthcoming album is only the beginning of Will and Harry’s big plan. They hope to revive the waning legacy of Cornwall by turning the album into Children’s song books which will eventually be distributed to all primary schools in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as well as creating videos for the songs and then onto touring throughout Britain and perhaps even further afield.
Will and Harry aim to include as many aspects of Cornwall into the project as possible, including Falmouth University.
“I wanted to bring students in and get them involved in the Cornish culture. Me and Harry did a concert up at the university in March to the first years. It was amazing, everyone was great, we were blown away. We asked afterwards if anyone wanted to get involved in the project and literally there was a queue going out the bloody door.”
The album is a tribute to Cornwall, with special guests such as a 53 piece Cornish school girls’ choir, The Oggymen, and the award-winning Helston Town Band.
The journey hasn’t always been easy, but the duo is positive about the future.
“There have been serious hurdles hit at every aspect of doing this album but when you’re that passionate about it you don’t care, you find your way around it somehow. And I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had lots of support. When you have supportive people around you, it gives you that confidence,” Will admits, graciously.
“I can die happy”.
Both Harry and Will have experienced events in their lives that many couldn’t imagine facing but as Harry said, when one door closes another opens.
Thank you, Alie Really lovely piece
What a wonderful article – thanks so
Fort Lauderdale US
Wonderful to read your stories but always knew harry was a legend
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, hadn’t heard about any of the people mentioned, but the interviews and writing brought them, and their passion for Cornwall to life.
Great story great people great music
I’m not Cornish, but find Harry’s lyrics very emotional, even after singing them hundreds of times. Although I’m not born here, it’s here I shall die.(but not yet hopefully).?
Really interesting article. Harry and Will will make a great team to make the project a success.
Enjoyed meeting you 15 years ago when I recorded you for the BBC’s Sense of Place series and you said “my mother thinks I’m famous.” Would love to meet you again.