Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Embankment Gardens in London in 1965. Photo: Getty
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Happy memories, regrets and bitching: a history of British folk clubs

This is a book is stuffed with such wonderful stories, recounted by the people who were there at every level of music-making: players, producers, writers, comedians, friends and fans.

Singing from the Floor: a History of British Folk Clubs
J P Bean
Faber & Faber, 608pp, £17.99

It was 1962 – the early heyday of the folk club boom in Britain. Martin Carthy – who this year received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for his decades-long contribution to the genre – was touring little clubs around the country, just as he does today. He was singing at the King and Queen behind Goodge Street in London when a young man walked in. Carthy recognised him because he had just seen him on the cover of Sing Out!, the folk music magazine. “Would you like to sing a couple of songs?” he asked the young man. “Ask me later,” came the reply. But at last, he agreed. “He was electrifying,” Carthy recalls in Singing from the Floor, J P Bean’s valuable oral history of British folk clubs. “He was brilliant . . . He took the place apart.” The young man’s name? Bob Dylan, of course.

This book is stuffed with such wonderful stories, recounted by the people who were there at every level of music-making: players, producers, writers, comedians, friends and fans. Billy Connolly is here, as well as Jasper Carrott, and there’s even a sidelong appearance by Angela Carter, too. Reading it is like sitting just outside a circle of very old friends, feeling privileged to hear hundreds of happy memories, a few regrets and enough bitching to ensure that things never get too self-congratulatory. And it puts you right at the heart of one of the most dynamic periods of modern popular culture.

Dylan ended up playing a few gigs in the London folk clubs on what was his first trip outside the United States. “I’ll never forget the night he sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’,” Carthy goes on to recall. “He started – ‘Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/Where have you been, my handsome young one?’ – and I’m thinking, oh, he’s going to sing [the British border ballad] ‘Lord Randall’. But that line was where the similarity to ‘Lord Randall’ ended. He just took off on this great song, ‘Hard Rain’. And in 1962 that song was revolutionary.”

To some extent, this tale encapsulates the tensions that drove – and divided – the folk revival of the 1960s. How big was the scene? Carthy reckons that by 1970 there were 400 clubs in London alone; Peggy Seeger, the late Pete Seeger’s half-sister, says she knew of 3,000 clubs across the country. But what is “folk music”? To whom does this great cache of material belong and who – if anyone – has the authority to say what should be done with it or how it should be played?

Certainly there were those who felt comfortable making strict rules, not least Ewan MacColl, who gets a chapter of his own here. While he was a driving force in the folk club movement and the folk revival as a whole, his uncompromising nature didn’t always win him friends. Shirley Collins, whose landmark 1964 album, Folk Roots, New Routes, made with Davy Graham, blurred the boundaries between folk and jazz, recalls him laying down the law. “I’d had the temerity to paint my fingernails pink and he told me very waspishly that folk singers didn’t wear nail varnish,” she says. “But funnily enough, in 1959, Alan Lomax and I recorded a genuine mountain singer in Kentucky – 80-year-old Ada Coombs – and she was sporting deep-red nail varnish.”

When I finished this book, all I wanted to do was to get myself to a gig: so I reckon it achieves its aim. It is not, it should be said, an introduction to the folk world, for all that Bean always sets his speakers in context and gives brief, clear descriptions of their achievements. That is no criticism: its assumption of interest and some knowledge can be taken as a measure of the health of the current scene, whose strength is expressed by many of the younger voices who take up the story towards the end of the book. Some, like Eliza Carthy, are following in a family tradition; others, like Jon Boden and Sam Lee, came to this music simply because they loved the sound.

Not everyone is in favour of the brave new world, in which the Folk Awards can sell out the Albert Hall (as they did this year). “Nowadays they’re training people to do this music. They’re churning out people that to me all sound the same,” the fiddler Dave Swarbrick sighs. But there’s no doubt there is a new audience, as Bean’s book affirms. These days, Martin Carthy says, when he does solo gigs, people sidle up to him and ask: “Are you really Eliza’s dad?”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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