IN AN UPPER ROOM: THE FOLK CLUB
BY JOSHUA NEWMAN
At some point this month, an unflamboyantly distinctive pack will filter one-by-one into a pub near you, order a drink, and disappear upstairs. They can commonly be identified by a collection of beards, loose fitting clothes, and guitar cases that come in a remarkable range of sizes and shapes. This is the local folk club meeting. The institution of folk clubs in this country could easily be overlooked in the history of popular music in the 20th Century. The clubs sprung up in the 1950s and 60s as part of the second British folk revival after the first revival at the turn of the century, led by musicians like Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and George Butterworth, had sought to preserve the traditional songs and tunes of rural England at a time where traditional ways of life were supposedly under threat from industrial expansion.
The first clubs were rooted in the urban workers’ movements of the time and crucial figures like A. L Lloyd and Ewan MacColl were vocal members of the Communist Party, and whilst the modern folk club session is relatively unobtrusive, the original clubs were centres of working class culture that were often kept under police surveillance, with Ewan MacColl himself having a dedicated MI5 file. Now, the folk club can be an incredibly open, welcoming performance space where members of all abilities meet to share traditional and contemporary music. In this the essential characteristics of the original clubs have remained, perhaps thanks to a largely unrenewed population, which means that what was once a radical renewal of a certain view of tradition has in a way become a tradition in its turn.
Many of the distinctive characteristics of the punk movement in Britain can be found in the folk revival around two decades beforehand, such as a certain suspicion of ostentatious talent, or at least a feeling that it was unnecessary. Jimmie Macgregor said of the time that ‘if you could play three chords in the late fifties you were employable – if you could play five you were a virtuoso. And if you could play any more you were a bloody show-off.’
The most distinctive feature of the folk clubs is the vital ‘floor spot’. As well as inviting guest performers to do longer sets, folk clubs are maintained by members who will get up and perform a song or two. In this sense, it is a little like an open mic night except in the folk club the music is almost ubiquitously acoustic, with unamplified singing, and there is a widely shared tradition of songs which everyone is encouraged to join in with, particularly in chorus numbers. Unlike an open mic night, the focus is very definitely on the music and not the performer, and the audience participation in choruses only helps to cement this feeling. In JP Bean’s Singing from the floor he quotes Richard Thompson, guitarist of legendary folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, who refers to ‘the rather brusque equality of the clubs’ where ‘as a performer you were nobody special, rather one of the crowd who happened to sing.’
That said, many highly skilled players have found success that is rooted in the folk club circuit, such as Richard Thompson himself, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, and fiddlers and multi-instrumentalists like Dave Swarbrick and Phil Beer, to name only a few. In most folk clubs, floor spots will be combined with professional guests who are invited and paid a modest fee. Although there is great admiration for these performers, the connection between professional and amateur is kept strong by the floor spot culture which means that the regular members share a (nearly always figurative) stage with the guest, but also by the fact that the guests are traditionally put up for the night by members of the club, rather than going to a hotel.
My own experience confirms that ‘brusque equality’ referred to by Richard Thompson. I have been at club sessions where people who had just started learning an instrument and couldn’t make it through a line of a tune were followed by experienced musicians who delivered a slick, impressive performance of a favourite song; where a singer with a powerful, moving voice, preceded a regular really shouting a verse of Peggy Sue in a few seconds. The applause is always indistinguishable in its warmth. Although the title of ‘club’ might suggest an exclusive, closed off environment, it has been my experience that newcomers are welcomed enthusiastically, and that every effort is made to ensure that they are able to perform if they want to. In addition, the modest entry fee (around £2.50 in the clubs I have spent most time) is often even smaller for those who are performing, which reinforces the feeling that performing at a folk club is for everyone rather than something reserved for those that have already proven themselves. Despite this generous intention, the influx of newcomers to folk clubs is minimal, which could explain why new faces do tend to be welcomed quite so warmly. For one reason or another, there is very little self-promotion amongst the folk club community, perhaps a website but mostly word of mouth and maybe a mention in the local folk magazine. The result of this is a somewhat self-perpetuating community. But this is consistent with a culture that has never felt the need to engage too much with an expansionist corporate music industry.
The way in which a similar group of people meet week-by-week to sing a body of tunes that are generally well known amongst that certain community and mostly learned by ear is reminiscent of the local parish church community. This is compounded by the fact that there are many overlaps in the tunes, if not the words that go with them. This is partly due to musicians who were interested in the communities of both traditional and church music (Vaughan Williams helped to compile both the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in 1959 and The English Hymnal in 1905), but also to the fact that in the communities where these songs are supposed to have developed, the same groups of people would have been to church, worked, and socialised together. Because of this it is unsurprising that there should be some mixing of tunes between the two traditions. Particularly when compared to rural parishes, they both share the difficulty of breaking even financially, which is perhaps due to declining membership. However, though there are parallels to be drawn between the two cultures in terms of the strong sense of community supported by communal singing, the unignorably boozier and faintly anti-establishment setting of a movement which grew to its peak in the 1960s helps to lend the folk club its own distinct character.
Although numbers might not be what they were in the past, with those upper rooms only usually full on a popular guest night, the communal ethos has remained a vital part of the folk club today. Although no longer explicitly ideology-driven, it has often been pointed out that a right-wing folk singer is rare thing, and Hylda Sims remarks in Bean’s book that ‘none of this stuff would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Communist Party.’ There have been and still are those with authoritarian approaches to the genre, such as Ewan MacColl’s insistence that singers only perform songs from the region they are from, but on the whole it is difficult to imagine a less judgemental performance space where any acoustic performance is really fair game. With its collection of diehard regulars and itinerant visitors, most of whom remember when the clubs were at their peak, these gatherings continue to preserve a music that survives by being repeatedly performed in this intimate setting so that the songs stay alive in the tenacious, collective mind of traditional music. Should anyone be seeking out a remarkable combination of a collectivist mindset and unique cultural experience, they could hardly do better than to look up their local folk club, dig around for a song or two, and be prepared to join in with the old choruses.