A Life in Music

To sit down and start to write something about your life must imply, I suppose, that you think you've actually achieved something in it.  And while I don't think I'm a particularly vain person, I suppose that being a musician, singer, magazine editor and CD producer must count as some sort of achievement.  Similarly, having been in at the beginning of several of the most influential bands playing dance music in England can be seen as some sort of accomplishment.  But in most autobiographical writings, the words 'aims', 'goals', 'objectives' and the like can usually be found.  I think I can honestly say that I have never had any such motivations, and that my life has been just something that happened to me - due mainly to outside influences - rather than following any sort of a plan with intended outcomes.

I spent the first few years of my life in Acton, west London, where a pal and I rode our tricycles up and down the neighbouring streets shouting "Vote Labour - Vote Sparks" at the tops of our tiny voices.  Unsurprisingly, my pal's father, Joseph Sparks, won the Acton constituency for Labour in 1945 with 56.1% of the vote!

The schooling in the area was of the 'play and learn' variety, so that when the family moved to a very rural part of Hampshire, and I found, at age six, my classmates writing little stories on their slates, I was all at sea, and a mild dyslexia meant that it took me years to begin to catch up.  Despite passing the 11 Plus (due entirely to the IQ aspect of the exams) and going to a Grammar school, I have to say that I learned almost nothing there, and I seem to have been almost wholly self-taught throughout the rest of my life.  When I've needed to do something new, I've usually been able to find someone to give me some starting tips, and then figured it out for myself ... either that, or read the manual!

The only entirely personal decision I did make was that I didn't want to 'work in an office' as my Dad had done, I wanted to do practical things so, at 16+, I decided to enrol in a engineering course at Kingston Tech - only to find that the maths side of engineering was a good deal more advanced than 'sums'.  I wasn't quite thrown out, but decided that a second year of that course was way beyond me, and took a holiday job in a local model shop/hardware store, where I got a taste for working with wood, and found that I also quite enjoyed helping young kids with their model aircraft problems.  This rather pointed me in the direction of teaching, and so I entered teacher training college at Trent Park TTC, near Enfield, in 1961, taking the Handicrafts course (wood, metal, technical drawing).  Beyond that, the rest of my life just happened as a series of experiences that I found interesting at the time ... which is why I hope that you might find some of the story interesting, too.

The music & songs:

For Danny and me, it probably all started with skiffle in our early teens - I played guitar, Danny played tea-chest bass.  A one-hour Saturday morning radio programme called Skiffle Club ran on the BBC, and I got a plastic ukulele, soon followed by a plywood guitar, and played rhythm (didn't we all?).  I was in a school skiffle group called The Vikings, and we played our first gig at the Lymington swimming club's clubroom, where I also drank my first bottle of beer.

Some years later, like so many embryo folkies, our musical interests were combined with politics, and we spent several years going on CND Marches, Anti-Apartheid actions and various demos, singing lustily.  It turns out that Danny and I were both at the Grosvenor Square American Embassy demo - though we never met.

While at college in north London, I had the good fortune to be given a Singers' Club membership card, and ended up attending pretty-well every week in term time from 1961 to '63.  I got to see the Stewarts, Jimmy McBeath, Willie Scott, Norman Kennedy, Joe Heaney, the McPeake Family, and a host of other singers - not to mention Bert Lloyd, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl.  Interestingly, I don't remember seeing any traditional English singers.

It's interesting that so many people talk about MacColl's insistent politics - I never heard politics advocated in the Singers' Club.  There wouldn't have been any point; we were all lefties anyway!

At around the same time, Danny was living in Hampstead, and got to know some singers: a young Martin Carthy sang in a local coffee bar, Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor drank in her local; Nigel Denver occasionally graced some social gatherings.  However, it was hearing a young Bob Davenport in a Soho coffee bar, that turned her on to traditional music, and after that 'epiphany' she attended The Fox folk club in Islington (run by Reg Hall and Bob Davenport) regularly from 1964 until it closed in 1968.

The Fighting Cocks:

Returning home to Surrey after completing my teacher training, I got involved in running the Fighting Cocks folk club from Autumn 1963 to '68.  I got involved completely by accident; an Irish chap, whose name is lost in the mists of time, put an ad in the local paper saying he was intending to start a folk club in Kingston's Fighting Cocks pub, where a meeting would be held for all those interested.  I went along, as did a dozen or so others, including Arthur Knevett.  The club duly started the following week, and we all turned up ... except for the Irishman, who we never saw again!  It seemed that I was the only one prepared to do the organising - so I ended up running it.

The first year was well attended, and we had some very good guests, including Bert Janch, Jon Renborne, Jackson C Frank, and quite a few other 'big names'.  I was also marginally involved for a while helping with the bookings at the Richmond FC where, among others, I booked Paul Simon.  When he arrived he said "I've just come from London Airport, where I went to meet an old school friend I used to sing with.  Is it OK for him to join me for a song or two in the second half?"  So it was that I put on Simon and Garfunkel for the first time in the UK ... for a fiver!

I first attended the Sidmouth Festival in August 1964.  Sidmouth was very different in those days; it was run entirely by locals, who were very pleased to welcome us outsiders, and was almost entirely a dance festival.  The song side happened entirely in the 'beachstore', an old black painted wooden building associated with the earlier fishing port, and used to store deck chairs in the off-season.  There was a sand floor, fold-up wooden seats, a tiny 'stage' made of a couple of pallets, and a gas ring in the corner where tea and coffee were served - the whole place illuminated by two 40 watt bulbs.

There were booked events every couple of hours and, when these finished, we all remained in our seats - and sang to each other!  We were so enthusiastic!  I scarcely remember going to a pub at all that first year.

Arthur Knevett and I so enjoyed the traditional music and song we encountered there that we decided that the Fighting Cocks (until then, a club without any particular musical policy) should book only traditional guests ... which meant revivalists who only sang traditional songs, plus the few true traditional singers who we knew about in those days.  Danny and I met at Sidmouth 1966 (the year that The Drill Hall was added to the list of venues) and married the following year, with Arthur Knevett as my Best Man, honeymooning at Sidmouth, and living in Epsom, Surrey, where I had a teaching job.

The past, as we know, is 'another country' and it must be difficult for today's younger readers to realise just how financially constrained we were in the Sixties - teachers were very poorly paid in those days.  The cassette recorder had not yet come to the UK, so at the end of my time at the Fighting Cocks, I bought a little Philips portable reel-to-reel machine with 3 inch reels, running at 1 7/8 i.p.s.  I don't remember what these tapes cost, but I certainly couldn't afford one every week!  Similarly with cameras; I had one, but could only afford the cheapest of films - which are sadly deteriorated after half a century.  Today we could have recorded everything in video on our mobiles!

The Melodeon:

When I was running the Fighting Cocks FC, a young Geordie chap walked into the club one night, clutching this small square suitcase, and when we asked him if he'd give us a song he brought out this strange instrument, which was the first time I had ever seen, heard, or even heard of, a melodeon.  He was Jim Bainbridge, and I was very impressed.  The melodeon appealed to me in a way that no other tune instrument had.

Wandering around in Potobello Road one day, I saw this melodeon for a fiver, so I bought it!  It was a little old wood and paper German affair, 1900s I guess, low pitch, paper bellows and stuff, and I'll always remember when I first tried to play it I was holding it the wrong way round, playing the tune with my left hand, because with a guitar you make the notes with your left hand, and I assumed that's what you did.  I soon got put right!  I had that for 6 or 8 months, and then I was bought, for a wedding present, a second-hand one-row Hohner pokerwork, which you could actually play along with other people, it was a proper musical instrument.  I started playing that, found I enjoyed it, and I bought myself a red mother-of-pearl Erica for my next birthday.  (There's some more detailed stuff on the melodeon in Part 2.)

From 1966-71 we visited lots of wonderful musicians and singers, such as Scan Tester, Bob Cann, Phoebe Smith, Oscar Woods, Bob Hart, Percy Webb ... and got to a Harry Cox 80th birthday event!  We also attended the TMSA festivals at Blairgowrie and Kinross.  These were opportunities to hear fantastic Scots singers who never, or very rarely, made it to London - Jane Turriff, Davy Stewart, Jimmy Hutchison, Daisy Chapman - and musicians like Tom Anderson, Angus Gray and Jock Ritchie.

In 1968 I got a teaching job in Paddington, and so we moved to Camden Town that summer - almost exactly as The Fox folk club closed.  Camden Town was wonderful at that time - the Irish were beginning to move out and the Cypriots had begun to move in.  Little corner shops were springing up selling all kinds of exotic foods and were open all hours, there were some splendid Greek and Turkish cafés, yet the pubs were still great.  The Bedford where Margaret Barry & Michael Gorman had been regulars had been demolished the year before; our nearest Irish pub was The Laurel Tree where John and Julia Clifford played, and there was good singing to be heard at the Elephant's Head.

The King's Head:

Presumably because of our Fighting Cocks experience, we were asked by a group of enthusiasts, saddened by the loss of The Fox, to help run a new traditional club to be started in Islington at the King's Head pub, which had a nice big, almost square room at the back.  Its first night was in September 1968.

The King's Head club was special for several reasons.  It was helpful that it was an Irish pub with an Irish landlord (John) and regular sessions in the bar (Felix Doran and family played there on Sunday lunchtimes, and fiddler Martin Byrnes was a sometime bedsit resident in the pub).  As to the club, we can't remember the exact details, but there was some sort of committee to run it, which included Tony Foxworthy, the Tappers dance band and, later John and Gill Hodkinson. The club was unusual (possibly unique) in that there was a house band which played for dancing, and every week Tony Foxworthy would call a dance at the beginning of each half of the evening, giving non-singers the opportunity to participate.  Most importantly, with the demise of The Fox, we had decided that we would only book traditional - what we now call source - performers ... though, as you can see from the programme, we bent the rules when it suited us.

The Residents were: Tony Foxworthy, The Tappers, Barry Dransfield & Clive Palmer, Jim Bainbridge, John and Gill Hodkinson, and Danny and me.  Regulars were: Tony Hall, Dave & Peta Webb, John Wright, Tony Engle, Mel Dean, Terry Vosper, Ken Hamer, Noreen (we never knew her surname), Oliver Mulligan, East Suffolk Country Band - particularly Chris Morley.  Locals included: Gabe Sullivan, Martin Byrnes, Bobby Casey, Felix Doran, Freddie McKay, and John Foreman.

With the help of Ken Keable (fiddler in The Tappers) we have been able to reconstruct some of the King's Head club's programme:

30.10.68 - Scan Tester
6.11.68 - Alf Wildman
8.1.69 - Phoebe Smith
26.2.69 - Jack Smith
16.4.69 - George Belton
23.4.69 - St George's Day
30.4.69 - East Suffolk Country Band
7.5.69 - Singaround
14.5.69 - John Foreman
21.5.69 - Singaround
28.5.69 - Bob Cann and Charlie Bate
4.6.69 - Clog and Stepdancers
11.6.69 - Fred Jordan
18.6.69 - Grand Barn Dance
25.6.69 - Raymond Rowland and Liam Farrell
2.7.69 - Percy Webb
9.7.69 - Singaround
16.7.69 - Seamus Ennis
10.9.69 - The Happy Wanderers
17.9.69 - Film Night
24.9.69 - Tim Lyons
1.10.69 - Ken Langsbury
8.10.69 - Lizzie Higgins
15.10.69 - Sing and dance around
22.10.69 - Jack Smith
29.10.69 - Scan Tester
5.11.69 - Bob and Carole Pegg and Freddie McKay
12.11.69 - Meg Aitken
19.11.69 - Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman
26.11.69 - Residents night
3.12.69 - Alf Wildman
10.12.69 - An evening of Morris Jigs
17.12.69 - Music Hall night
18.2.70 - Percy Webb
25.2.70 - Alf Wildman and Tim Lyons
11.3.70 - Lizzie Higgins
1.4.70 - Albert Shaw
15.4.70 - Daisy Chapman and Willie Scott

We have very few, very bad photos of some of the traditional performers who came to the club.  Fortunately the Philips tapes were rather better, and modern noise reduction software, employed by Jim Ward of Country Branch Records (thanks, Jim) makes the relatively few recordings we were able to make, at least listenable, if not good.

Some of the Guests:

Scan Tester:  We knew Scan well from the Fox, and when we were living in Epsom, from 1967-8, we recorded him for a little record company that Vic Gammon, then living in south London, had started.  We had already met Scan's daughter, and pianist, Daisy Sherlock and her husband, with whom Scan lived; we spent the day at their house, talking over his life and recording his repertoire.  Reg Hall drove him to the club, as he drove him to most of his gigs.

You can read Reg's exhaustive account of Scan's life and times in I Never Played to Many Posh Dances, now available in PDF facsimile form on the Musical Traditions website: www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/r_hall.htm

Alf Wildman:  Alf was one of Fred Hamer's singers, from Shefford, Bedfordshire.  He was born in Colesden in 1909, and had retired from farming when Fred recorded him.  His repertoire of music hall and traditional songs made him a popular attraction at the local folk song clubs.

Jack Smith:  Jack was an old friend who had been brought to the Fighting Cocks club in Kingston by Tom Dillon.  He was a settled Gypsy living in Milford, on the A3100 just outside Godalming, Surrey.  He earned his living as a knife and scissors grinder, and, together with his donkey cart, had been a very well-known character for many years around Godalming.  He was one of those Gypsies who had no trouble at all relating to the gorgios, and he made everyone love him by the strength of his personality.

He was also a poaching pal of Pop Maynard's, and it would seem that they both poached much of each other's repertoires!

George Belton:  George was born in Edenbridge, Kent in 1898.  He lived near Arundel, Sussex, and worked as a horseman all his life.  For some reason, Has Anybody Seen My Tiddler is the only song of his we have recorded.

Percy Webb:  Percy was a darling man who lived in Tunstall, sang regularly in the Blaxhall Ship, and was a rare member of that group who frequented the Ipswich folk club.  (His father was a shepherd from the age of 9 to 73, and he died feeding the sheep.)  Danny sings two of his songs, The Faithful Sailor and Go And Leave Me, one of which she swapped for the Wild Colonial Boy.  This is the song which was so derided by Bob Hart, of Snape, who said that in the pub they only wanted to hear The Wild Colonial Boy and therefore he disliked the musical sessions in his local.  We had to record Bob at home - and he never came to the King's Head club.

Lizzie Higgins:  As you all know, Lizzie was the daughter of Jeannie Robertson, and not necessarily very interested in singing professionally as her mother had done.  She came from a large Scots traveller family, all of whom were performers, and in fact Ray Fisher had lived briefly with Lizzie and Jeannie in Aberdeen when she was at college - what a gift, eh?  Lizzie was very happy, and well paid, gutting herring in Aberdeen, and only wanted to do the occasional gig.  We had met her at the Blairgowrie festival, and very luckily for us, she was pleased to spend the evening with us - and a terrific evening it was too, as any of you who ever saw her will know.  We could find no other recording of London Lights, and feel she dug it out specially for her London gig.

Meg Aitken:  Meg was a busker who Danny first heard singing in Villiers Street, outside Charing Cross Station.  She went on to sing As Long as he Needs Me on a record of London buskers, and we believe her accompanist on The Last Thing on my Mind at the club was Don Partridge, who was also on the buskers record.  Unfortunately, the recording of that is terrible, so we've got Danny Boy instead.

We know nothing about her, but while looking for at least a photo, (which we didn't find) we discovered, from her grandson, online, that her name was not Aitken but Aikman. Whoever she was, the singing is blinding!

Albert Shaw:  A Black Country steel worker - I think he said he was from Cradley Heath, to the west of Birmingham. He mentioned listening to Irish radio, which he could often receive at home.  I suspect that his mother (who had spent some time working as a chainmaker) may have been Irish, and this may have influenced his choice of songs - several of which were relatively modern Irish ballads.  Albert's son told Taffy Thomas that the four years - between his retirement from the steelworks and his death - spent singing in the folk clubs, had been the happiest time of his life.

Albert sang Lay Him Away on the Hillside - an interesting song, in that it tells the story of a little-known mutiny in the British Army.  On 28th June 1920, five men from C Company of the 1st Battalion of the Connaught Rangers at Wellington Barracks, Jalandhar, Punjab, India, decided to protest against the effects of martial law in Ireland by refusing to soldier.  They were soon joined in their protest by other Rangers (the protesters were not all Irishmen and included at least one Englishman) declaring that they would not return to duty until British forces left Ireland.

This fairly recent song concerns Private James Daly, who was the leader of the mutiny; he was shot for his role in the incident, and was the last member of the British armed forces to be shot for mutiny.

Phoebe Smith:  Danny had been intrigued and absolutely stunned when she first saw Phoebe at the Keele Festival, and then saw her do a blinding gig at The Fox, where she had been brought by Bob Roberts, the singing bargeman.  The barman refused to serve her, as a Gypsy - but Bob soon put him right on that score!  There's a lovely picture of Bob and Phoebe step-dancing together that night, on the back cover of her Veteran CD.

We were properly introduced to Phoebe by Chris Morley, leader of the East Suffolk Country Band, who probably did more to give outsiders access to the traditional music and song of east Suffolk than any of the better-known, and later, activists there.  As guest musicians in the band, we played at Phoebe's granddaughter's wedding, and then we spent a New Year's Eve with her in Blaxhall Ship.  It was one of the several times that The Ship had recently changed hands, and the new landlord wasn't entirely au fait with requirements ... he'd booked a piano accordion player for the night!  After a while, Phoebe decided that she fancied a bit of a sing - stood up facing him, and sang him down!  We became friends and visited her often after that.  She did the club twice, coming with her husband Joe, and her oldest son Big Joe.

Such were the dynamics of Phoebe's singing that it was virtually impossible to record her at all well on the sort of equipment we had at that time.

Tim Lyons:  Tim was a dear friend who had been living in London for some years - we had an amount of stick for booking him, because he wasn't 'traditional', but we said "it's our club ..." and he was a stunning ballad singer in the west of Ireland style.  Tim was booked twice, one night when we weren't in fact in the King's Head but at The Shamrock, just down the road, and Tim was, as always, terrific.

Daisy Chapman:  Daisy came to the club with Willie Scott, the border shepherd, who was very much part of the '60/'70s folk scene - later on Alison McMorland spent a lot of time with him, and took him to many festivals.  At some time he seems to have taken a shine to the lovely Daisy Chapman - which is how we got her to come to London from Aberdeen.

We met Daisy at Blairgowrie where we were blown away by her singing, though some of the stereotypically dour regulars said she shouldn't have been there because she wasn't 'traditional', ie, it seems, maybe because she wasn't a traveller.  She and her husband had farmed for many years until her health forced them to give up the farm.  They then moved to Aberdeen where he became a railwayman. In her free time Daisy sang in choirs, but it wasn't seemly for a decent housewife to disport herself musically in public.  She knew loads of songs, and it was when her husband died that she started singing them in public ... as was often the way.  We were so lucky to have met Daisy and delighted to have been able to introduce her to our London friends.

Towards the end of 1970, Danny was about to give birth to our first child, and we had booked all the traditional performers we knew about - twice, John had left the pub and its future looked uncertain.  It seemed like a good time to call it a day with the King's Head folk club.

Danny and I first met Peta Webb and Tony Engle during 1965-7 through the Fighting Cocks folk club, and both of them also moved into North London at around the same time as us, so we four became far more closely involved when we were all living in the same area.  In 1970 I joined Tony in The Garland (replacing Mel Dean, who had been relocated out of the area by his job), and we even made an EP, on Vic Gammon's Nebulous Records label.

During Danny's prolonged stay in hospital during and after the birth of our son in October 1970, I found myself with a lot of free evenings, and spent many of them with Tony, often going to folk clubs and singing and playing as a duo.  The response was so enthusiastic (we were in the right place at the right time?) that when Danny returned home with young Barnaby, we said "We've got a group - will you and Peta be in it too?"  Either Tony or I came up with the name Oak - and so began the most hectic two years of our lives!

Oak: late-1969-72

By early 1971, Oak had performed in most of the folk clubs in and around London which were amenable to such material, and had been asked by a neighbour of ours, Bill Leader, to make an LP for his Trailer label.  We were overjoyed at the prospect but, since Tony worked for Topic Records, he felt morally (and contractually) obliged to offer the project to Topic first.  It was to our considerable surprise that Bert Lloyd agreed to the idea.  On May Day 1971, Oak recorded Welcome to our Fair at Livingstone Studios in Friern Barnet, with the legendary Nic Kinsey at the sound desk.

When the LP was released a couple of months later, the really hectic stuff started.  Despite Danny having a young child to cope with - and Tony, Peta and I also having full-time jobs - Oak played 163 gigs in the 18 months between the record's release and our final appearance at Walthamstow Folk Club, at the King William IV, 19th December 1972.

It was all great fun, though we had realised that playing folk clubs didn't offer much opportunity for playing music, which we were all very keen to do.  So we began to make Oak a dance band as well as a song act.  Along with Mark Berry and Tubby Reynolds, we began playing ceilidhs where all the dances and all the music were English ... probably a 'first' for a bunch of revivalists at that time.

Barnaby had passed his second birthday, we were still living in a tiny one bedroom flat, and London house prices were sky-rocketing ... the word 'gazumping' entered the language.  It was time for us to to get out of London.