Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs, by JP Bean, Faber & Faber, 426 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0571305452
All Music is Folk Music. I Ain’t Never Heard a Horse Sing a Song. – Louis Armstrong
When Luke Kelly headed for England in the late 1950s, he joined up with his older brother, who helped him find accommodation and work. However for various reasons neither of these lasted very long and Luke ended up trying out a variety of jobs, from cleaning oil drums to selling vacuum cleaners on commission, employment that meant a sojourn in Newcastle in northeastern England. Although brief, it is possible that this excursion into Glengarry Glen Ross territory was one factor that indirectly led to his unique career as one of Ireland’s greatest folk singers. According to Des Geraghty in Luke Kelly: A Memoir, Luke always said that when he happened to walk into a folk club in Newcastle early in 1960 and heard the people in the club singing in harmony the chorus of Brendan Behan’s song The Auld Triangle, it was a defining moment for him. What struck him was “not only the marvellous harmony but the fact that an English audience was listening to a Dublin song”. Up until then his main musical interest had been in jazz and swing but this experience “made a tremendous impression on me … this was a music I could actually sing. I didn’t need an instrument, didn’t need to be able to play a trumpet to play jazz. This was something I could actually dive into feet first.” After this he knew his way forward was decided. “I really forgot how to listen to anything else. I just wanted to hear folk songs.” And hear them he did, learning ten or twelve a week.
As fate would have it, Luke had wandered into the Newcastle Folk Song and Ballad club, one of the earliest clubs established during the second folk revival of the late 1950s and 60s. It was founded and run by two local singers and musicians, Johnny Handle and Louis Killen, who had extensive knowledge of the industrial folk songs of the northeast and who both went on to become stalwarts of the folk scene for the next fifty years.
It was folk clubs like the Newcastle Folk and Ballad club that were the mainstay of the second folk revival and they are the subject of JP Bean’s book Singing From The Floor. The book is subtitled “A History of British Folk Clubs” and covers the period from the 50s to the present day. However a more accurate subtitle might be “The Story of British Folk Clubs as Described by those who Organised and Played in Them”, as what the book consists of is detailed extracts from interviews with a huge range of people who were (and in some cases, still are) involved in the folk club scene during this sixty-year period.
Bean says in his introduction that he “realised the strength of the work would lie in the interviewees’ own words … and any comment from myself would be superfluous”. To a great extent he remains true to this aspiration and editorial comment is restricted to a couple of background pages at the beginning of each chapter. This means that the vast majority of the book focuses on the verbatim accounts of participants in the folk movement. It is full of delightful, intriguing and gritty stories of folk clubs established on a shoestring by small groups of committed “folkies” and performers singing and playing mostly for the love of it in very basic locations and staying in even more basic accommodation. The disadvantage of this approach is that the background context of how the second revival came about is only referred to in passing by the interviewees.
The first folk revival had taken place at the beginning of the twentieth century and had focused on transcribing songs of existing source singers, who were seen as a vanishing breed. The eight-volume work by one of the leading song collectors of the time, Francis Child, entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, was groundbreaking and has continued to be highly influential in providing the repertoire of many subsequent performers. The other key figure of the first revival, Cecil Sharp, was more of teacher and lecturer who founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 and attempted to define a musical tradition that was “rural in origin, oral in transmission and communal in nature”. However, the impetus of this first revival faded after World War 1 and the period between the wars saw American musical influences became more prevalent in Britain.
As Rob Young has described in Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, his detailed history of folk music in the British Isles, there were many factors that came together to create the second folk revival. Instead of emphasising the rural, the focus of the second revival was on the work music of the nineteenth century, including industrial labour songs and sea shanties. But there is no doubt that the work of Ewan MacColl (born Jimmy Miller), a committed communist, was of fundamental importance. He had a background in radical, agitprop theatre, most notably with his first wife, Joan Littlewood, in the Theatre Workshop during the postwar period. However a meeting in 1950 with Alan Lomax, the American song-collector and folklorist (whose father, John Lomax, had tracked down and recorded Leadbelly, one of the key figures of early American blues), inspired MacColl to devote his considerable energy and talent to encouraging the revival of British folk music. With the encouragement of Lomax he saw folk music as a way to engage with the working class and working class issues. Through Lomax, MacColl met the singer and Marxist folk historian AL Lloyd and they collaborated on many projects. Shortly afterwards, Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of Pete Seeger who was the driving force behind the American folk revival, arrived in London and formed a musical and personal partnership with MacColl.
As the national broadcaster, the BBC was very important in spreading knowledge of folk music via both live performances and field recordings. A series of programmes in the 50s brought traditional and folk music to a wide audience and encouraged interest in both the songs and the musicians. In 1953 Ewan MacColl was commissioned by the BBC to do a series of six half-hour programmes dealing with different themes such as war and peace, love, the sea, work, etc. The programmes featured both American and British songs sung by singers like Big Bill Broonzy, Jean Ritchie, Ma Rainey and Alan Lomax. Bert Lloyd, Isla Cameron and MacColl sang the British songs. At this time MacColl was interested in both old American blues singers and the British traditional repertoire but he was a man on a mission and saw the programmes as the opportunity to “demonstrate that Britain possessed a body of songs that were just as vigorous, as tough and as down-to-earth as anything that could be found in the United States”.
Around the same time, the researcher and broadcaster Peter Kennedy produced a radio series called As I Roved Out, which featured the songs of ordinary folk singers around the country who had been recorded and collected by people like Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet and collector, and the Irish broadcaster and uilleann piper Séamus Ennis. Another programme called Song Hunter: Alan Lomax showcased such singers as Irish traveller Margaret Barry, fiddle player Michael Gorman, as well as MacColl, Cameron and Ennis.
Later, between 1958 and 1964, MacColl and Seeger developed a new kind of radio programme called Radio Ballads that combined music, original songs, sound effects and, in a radical new departure, the actual recorded voices of the documentary subjects (rather than having their words spoken by actors). These programmes focused on specific working communities such as road-builders, fishing communities, miners and travelling people and in their integration of song, music and voice became a cornerstone of the folk revival. All of these programmes created fertile soil for the second revival to flourish.
On a more overtly political front, folk also became the music of the radical left, with many enthusiasts participating in the CND marches of the 1950sand singing folk tunes with new politicised words attached.
As with many movements, one key factor is needed to move it into the mainstream and attract a mass audience. In the case of the folk revival there is an argument to say that this factor was, rather surprisingly, the Skiffle craze. This emerged from the jazz scene and in particular, focused on Lonnie Donegan and his recording of Rock Island Line, which was a Top Twenty hit for many months in 1956. An up tempo reworking of an old Leadbelly song, it helped introduce many teenagers to American blues music but also to the advantages of simple instrumentation. As well as leading them back to the music of Leadbelly, Josh White and Woody Guthrie, the DIY combination of guitar, tea chest bass and washboard encouraged thousands of youngsters to form their own bands, not least a certain John Lennon, with the Quarrymen.
By the mid-50s, coffee bars and skiffle clubs began to turn into folk clubs as the skiffle craze faded. According to JP Bean’s account, the first folk club was started by Harry and Lesley Boardman as a “folk circle” in Manchester in 1954. It became the Wayfarers folk club two years later. However, it was the establishment of the Ballad and Blues Club (building on the BBC programmes of the same name) at the Princess Louise pub in High Holborn by Ewan MacColl in 1957 that consolidated the rise of the clubs nationally. The club was an immediate success and featured resident performers such as Bert Lloyd, Séamus Ennis, Peggy Seeger and himself. This was the start of the folk club boom and within a couple of years there were similar clubs throughout the country.
The early folk clubs reflected the milieu from which they emerged, with most set up by a few committed local folk enthusiasts, often inspired by having attended a session at one of the existing clubs, such as MacColl’s Ballad and Blues club, the Topic in Bradford or the Folk Song and Ballad club in Newcastle. Clubs came into existence in all sorts of ways and Rod Stradling, a folk club organiser and later editor of Musical Traditions magazine, tells a nice story about the founding of the Fighting Cocks club in Kingston. Apparently an Irishman named Frank Kelly put an ad in the local paper in Kingston asking if anyone was interested in forming a folk club and setting up a time for a meeting. As Stradling says “So we all went along on the day. We were there ‑ but no Frank Kelly; and nobody has ever heard or seen him again.” Undeterred, the people who turned up went ahead and formed a club.
Often the initial group who set up a club became the resident musicians who played each week but they would also encourage a communal experience by inviting, as in the title of the book, “singers from the floor”. This was a means to allow people who had never sung or played in public before to perform. The book includes many stories of now famous artists performing for the first time by turning up at a folk club and singing a song or playing their guitar. A fifteen-year-old Martin Carthy, now one of folk’s most respected singers and guitarists, smuggled his father’s guitar out of the house to go to a local coffee house and play in public for the first time ‑ singing Lonnie Donegan songs. An equally young June Tabor, now one of England’s finest female folk singers, went with a friend to the Heart of England club in Leamington Spa and got up to sing Kumbaya and Michael Row the Boat Ashore and everyone joined in the choruses.
Current guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson started at twelve when he got his first guitar and shortly afterwards went to the local Scunthorpe club and tried to sing Mary Hamilton “with 8,000 verses and an F sharp minor chord which I couldn’t play. It must have been horrendous in hindsight, but they were very kind.”
In general, the initial tranche of clubs had a left-wing flavour inspired by the political activism and support for workers’ rights embedded in the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and those involved in British folk club wanted to emulate this radicalism. As John Tams of Home Service says “I’ve never been to a Tory folk club yet.” Often clubs were regarded with suspicion by the authorities, and in the early days, the police raided the Topic Folk Club in Bradford looking for drugs and fearing that it was preaching subversion because the founder, Alex Eaton was a communist. As his wife says: “In fact all they found was a group of young people singing and listening to songs. All we were selling was pop.”
Great dedication and love for the music was shown by the early pioneer performers, who were willing to travel the country playing in grotty upstairs rooms in pubs, village halls and dismal basements and then having to stay in all sorts of insalubrious accommodation, usually for very little money. Martin Carthy’s first gig outside London was in the Topic in Bradford, a hundred and forty miles away, and he travelled there on the back of Louis Killen’s scooter. The founder of the Incredible String Band, Robin Williamson, remembers well his first gig outside Scotland, which was in Rotherham, because he hitched there and back and it took him a day and a half each way. Shirley Collins used to travel back from gigs on overnight trains, often a grim and unpleasant experience, but she did it because she “wanted to sing”.
However, as Brendan Behan observed, with all good revolutionary movements one of the first items on the agenda was always the split, and with the folk scene it was no different. The singer-songwriter Harvey Andrews, who worked the clubs for over forty years, recalls that in the early years it was as if “there [were] the yea-sayers and naysayers … it was like puritans and cavaliers”. While some clubs were open to anything ‑ traditional tunes, contemporary songs, political or comedy pieces and varieties of instrumentation, Ewan MacColl’s Ballad and Blues club quickly became a site of traditionalist fundamentalism in musical terms. Based on MacColl and Seeger’s belief that Britain “had an indigenous folk music that was as varied and as beautiful as any music anywhere in the world” the club decided on a policy that residents, guests and floor singers had to sing songs in a language the singer spoke and understood. The implications of this policy, which became more hardline when the club changed its name in 1961 to the Singers Club, are illustrated by a number of stories in Bean’s book. Roy Bailey, a political and traditional singer, was shocked when MacColl came up to him after he sang The Derby Ram and asked “Where do you come from?” He replied “London” and MacColl responded “Well, why are you singing a song about Derby? You should be singing songs from London.” Unsurprisingly, this uno duce, una voce approach did not endear him to some performers, with more than a few pointing out that actually he had been born Jimmy Miller in Salford, and not Ewan MacColl from Scotland. As Bob Davenport, a northeastern singer, put it “MacColl was very talented … but for them [MacColl and Seeger] to dictate was not for me. Traditional music was for entertaining, it wasn’t for a further education class.”
Another criticism of MacColl’s approach was that, although he retrieved and sang songs of the industrial working class, he had a romanticised view of how much they were involved in maintaining their own musical traditions. To try and prove a point, he once asked everyone in the front row of a concert what their job was (not a good way to start a show). In reality, most of those attending folk clubs were the urbanised middle class.
Having had his folk-singing epiphany in Newcastle, Luke Kelly quickly got involved in the folk club scene, playing in clubs throughout the country, sometimes with Dominic Behan. A contemporary, Máirín Johnston, who saw his first appearance at the Singers Club, says that Ewan MacColl introduced him as a “new and very talented ballad singer from Dublin”. She was a little disappointed that his first song was There Were Three Lovely Lasses from Kimmage (one of her least favourite songs); although presumably MacColl was happy that this met the policy requirement of being near enough to Sheriff Street. However she was pleased that he followed this up with a great version of the original The Foggy Dew.
Bearing in mind the polarised views about MacColl’s influence, it is clear that Kelly recognised him as a formidable singer and songwriter, as well as a mentor, and he would have shared many of his political views, if not perhaps his musical essentialism. But Kelly’s commitment to the development of his craft as a singer meant that despite having being part of The Dubliners’ initial success, he left the group in 1964 of his own volition to travel to London with his then partner, Deirdre O’Connell. The purpose was to join a unique group set up by MacColl called the Critics, a small, select number of singers who met weekly to explore folk traditions and learn from and critique each other. While those who were less positive towards MacColl saw this as another example of his overbearing arrogance and elitism, Deirdre O’Connell was quite clear why Luke got involved. “Luke was very idealistic; also highly intelligent and deeply committed to his beliefs. He wanted to get his message across through his talents. He wanted to come back to Ireland but only when he had a repertoire of workers’ songs that he wanted to sing.” As Geraghty puts it, MacColl saw “folk music as a catalyst for the class solidarity, which was essential for social change” and Luke Kelly felt the same. Two years later he returned to Dublin and rejoined The Dubliners, bringing with him songs of MacColl’s that he made his own, such as Dirty Old Town, Schooldays Over, Alabama 58 and The Shoals of Herring, as well as many other British folk songs. His singing and songs honed with the Critics group in London made a huge impact on the Irish music scene and, of course, internationally with The Dubliners.
Singing from the Floor also has an entertaining chapter on Bob Dylan’s visit to London to appear in a radio play over the Christmas and New Year of 1962-63, when he turned up at a number of folk clubs. At the club in the King and Queen pub, he met Martin Carthy, who recognised him from seeing his picture on the cover of the American folk magazine Sing Out! According to Carthy, who persuaded him to sing, he gave a brilliant performance. The next night he took Dylan to the Troubadour, a long-established club on the opposite end of the scale from MacColl’s approach as it welcomed all kinds of music and he played again. However, a visit to the actual Singers Club went less well, with some of the resident singers not keen for him to play, but as so many of the audience knew who he was Peggy Seeger felt that he had to be invited “from the floor”. By all accounts, MacColl and Seeger were unimpressed and the antipathy seems to have been mutual. Dylan obviously failed to observe the “policy” rules, first by singing his own songs (The Ballad of Hollis Brown and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall) with extended verses, as a result playing for twenty minutes rather than the usual five for a floor singer. But an even worse trangression was to have based these songs on old British melodies. Clearly to MacColl, this was unacceptable cultural imperialism.
It was one of Dylan’s first experience of folk fanaticism but not his last. CP Lee in his book Like the Night (Revisited), on Dylan’s epic British tour of 1966, where he performed with a rock band and each show was met with booing and walkouts, tells a great story of members of the Communist Party in Glasgow meeting to decide how they should respond to Dylan selling out folk music to commercialism. Having debated whether to boycott the show or not, they eventually decided to attend but a vote was taken on how best to protest when Dylan played his electric set. Slow handclapping followed by a walkout was agreed as the best form of action and this they duly did. Truly, this was a communist solution to a communist problem.
However the London visit of 1962/63 was of greater musical significance as Dylan returned home with a collection of folk tunes he had heard in the clubs and quickly crafted them into some of his finest early songs. These included Martin Carthy’s Scarborough Fair, which turned into Girl from the North Country and Lord Franklin (Bob Dylan’s Dream) and Louis Killen’s The Leaving of Liverpool (Farewell). But his borrowing of the tune of The Patriot Game by Dominic Behan, which became With God on our Side, was unappreciated by the author.
By 1970 the number of folk clubs had expanded exponentially, with an estimate of about three thousand nationwide and four hundred in London alone. As Peggy Seeger comments: “There were more clubs than singers at one point.” Later chapters in Bean’s book record the stories of the diverse range of musicians who came through the folk club milieu to achieve fame playing all kinds of music; Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in Pentangle, Sandy Denny in Fairport Convention, Dave Cousins of the Strawbs, John Martyn and Roy Harper. Not to mention Diz Disley, a Rolls Royce-driving jazz guitarist who ended up playing with Stéphane Grappelli. There were also entertainers such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott, who became national TV personalities. As the folk boom passed its peak in the 1970s the clubs were kept going by those who were entertainers as well as singers, which as Rob Young comments was “A far cry from the revolutionary ambitions of the postwar folksters”.
There was a considerable Irish influence on the folk revival, which also affected how it was experienced in Ireland. As well as Luke Kelly, a number of other Irish singers and musicians were part of the scene. Andy Irvine, who was living in London at the time, fell under the influence of skiffle at the age of fifteen and seeing the name Woody Guthrie on the back of one of Lonnie Donegan’s EPs sparked a lifelong interest in Guthrie and his music. Therefore when Guthrie’s travelling companion, Rambling Jack Elliott, arrived in London Irvine made sure he was at the Ballad and Blues club to see him. They met up and became friends and Andy Irvine taught himself the guitar and mandolin and Elliott showed him how to play the harmonica like Woody Guthrie (upside down).
Irvine was a regular at the Ballad and Blues Club and saw MacColl first hand, but never attempted to sing or play there. As he said to Colin Harper in his book Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival: “But, for good or ill, a lot of people followed him. I found him to be very intolerant. He certainly never spoke to me and I was happy enough of it.”
Irish traditional musicians and singers resident in London with their store of tunes, songs and styles of singing and playing were a rich source for the folk scene. Bill Leader, the legendary producer for Topic Records, recorded many of these London-based singers and musicians such as Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, Joe Heaney, Séamus Ennis and Dominic Behan, in his famous homemade and home-based studio.
Another folk singer involved in the early period of the British folk scene was Al O’Donnell, who was at art college in Nottingham in the early 60s and went to the local clubs. He played at a folk club based in Nottingham and was on the organising committee. O’Donnell remembers Pete Seeger passing through in the early 60s and bringing a large log and an axe onto the stage to perform his wood chopping song. He absorbed a lot of what was going on at the time before returning to Ireland and getting involved in the local folk club scene.
Christy Moore was a later arrival in Britain, having left his job in the bank during the bank strike of 1966 to try his luck across the water. As he says himself: “When I came to England I knew nothing of folk clubs whatsoever.” However, he seems to have had a Luke Kelly moment when he wandered into a room where the enigmatic and beautiful traditional singer Annie Briggs, was performing. “It was a very interesting experience hearing this woman singing unaccompanied to a quiet room. It was quite a turn-on.” But as he remembers he never actually got to speak to her and instead got drunk and was thrown out. However, this experience seems to have set him off on the folk club circuit, which by this stage was expanding throughout the country and he started to do floor spots. His first booking was in May 1967 at the Wellgreen folk club in Manchester, for which he was paid £6. He never looked back. Although Christy mostly plays concert halls now, he has not forgotten the folk club scene and often at a concert he will make special mention of the folk clubs and club organisers in that particular area who helped him when he was starting out.
Both Andy Irvine and Luke Kelly arrived back in Dublin in 1962 and became part of the O’Donoghue’s pub scene. This had become the place in Dublin where traditional and folk music was happening. Out of this melting pot, The Dubliners emerged, with Luke Kelly as one of their members, and Andy Irvine met up with Johnny Moynihan and they later became Sweeney’s Men with “Galway Joe” Dolan. As in Britain, their initial hand-to-mouth lifestyle was one of music, drinking, soup and living in fairly low-grade garrets and flats. While the music scene in Ireland was dominated by showbands and ballad groups, a folk club scene began to emerge offering some alternatives. Andy Irvine talks about the beginning of the Coffee Kitchen on Molesworth Street in 1962, which provided a place for musicians to play. It loosely followed the English model of resident musicians, guest artists and floor singers but without the rigid policy requirements. The Universal in Parnell Square was somewhat similar and there was another club called The Auld Triangle in Mount Street. Then there were clubs like the 95 in Harcourt Street that had every kind of music (and sometimes poetry) in a non-alcoholic atmosphere. Sports clubs also provided rooms for music and the original Sweeney’s Men appeared regularly at the Neptune Rowing Club along the Liffey on Friday nights. Later in the 1960s Slattery’s of Capel Street became a focus for all kinds of music with traditional, folk, jazz and blues sessions taking place on different nights of the week.
A good example of the diversity of the music scene in Dublin was illustrated by one of the later arrivals, the Foxrock Folk Club. This was established in 1969 by a group of local teenagers who liked music but were not, in the main, performers. The club had a very eclectic policy and looked to include every kind of music from folk to rock to jazz to classical. Andy Irvine was a regular guest, as was Al O’Donnell, jazz guitarist Louis Stewart, the Chieftains, the rock band Horslips, and more experimental groups like Supply, Demand and Curve. Both Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew appeared here as solo artists and Luke Kelly began his set by showing he had lost none of wit or class politics. “A folk club in Foxrock ‑ surely that’s a contradiction in terms” was his opening remark. He didn’t sing Three Lovely Lasses but he did perform his definitive version of The Foggy Dew. There is no doubt that the folk revival in the widest sense had a profound effect on Irish teenagers too.
While JP Bean’s book is a great read, full of fascinating and sometimes indiscreet stories about the people and places involved in a revolutionary time that set its face against commercialism, its limitation is that it relies solely on the testimonies of his interviewees, and while these are intensely interesting, they are of course biased and limited. What would have added to the book was an overarching narrative that tracked the rise and fall of the folk clubs and the personalities involved in a coherent way. Many of the clubs existed only for a short period of time, whereas a few are still going after many years. Although the great majority of performers have moved on to other things, there are still some who continue to play the clubs after fifty years (both Martin Carthy and Andy Irvine have appeared in the northeast in classic folk club settings in the last few years). This longevity is surely worthy of some formal recognition. For instance, the Topic folk club in Bradford, which was established in 1956, still continues today; the club started by the mining family the Elliotts in Birtley in 1962 is only mentioned in passing despite celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2012. It is still run by the same extended family.
A recent visit to the Newcastle Folksong and Ballad Club, established in 1958, where Luke Kelly was converted to folk singing, and which is now called the Bridge Folk Club, found it still going strong in the same building it has been in since 1962. The special guests were one of the original founders, Johnny Handle and his wife and musical partner, traditional Scottish singer Chris Hendry. Although Luke Kelly didn’t appear, there were still “singers from the floor” and one female singer sang unaccompanied The Foggy Dew, which seemed appropriate.
Geraghty, D (1994) Luke Kelly: A memoir. Dublin: Basement Press.
Harper, C (2006) (2nd ed) Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival. London: Bloomsbury.
Harper, C and Hodgett, T (2004) Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History. London: Cherry Red Books.
Lee, CP (2004) (2nd ed) Like the Night (Revisited): Bob Dylan and the Road to Manchester Free Trade Hall. London: Helter Skelter Publishing.
MacColl, E (2009) (re-edited) Journeyman: An Autobiography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Young, R (2011) Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. London: Faber and Faber.
Jeremy Kearney was one of the organisers of the Foxrock Folk Club and is writing a book on the club and the contemporary social and music scene in Dublin. He has lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for many years.