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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.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Embankment Gardens in London in 1965. Photo: Getty
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Embankment Gardens in London in 1965. Photo: Getty

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?”