Twenty-first century folk clubs

04 November 2015

There’s a resurgence of folk music, and clubs around the country are attracting musicians, singers and audiences – young and old – in numbers reminiscent of its Sixties heyday



Fancy a raucous night out, full of music, laughter and lively new friends? Then welcome – wait for it – to the 21st-century folk club. 

Folk music has been in and out of the doldrums since the big British revival of the early Sixties. But in recent years – perhaps as a reaction against the more plastic pop of the likes of The X Factor – folk acts such as Mumford & Sons, Seth Lakeman and Bellowhead have had great chart success, and festivals such as Cornbury and the Cambridge Folk Festival pack in tens of thousands of punters each year. 

There are now an estimated 500 folk clubs thriving in British pubs and backrooms and, contrary to what you might think, they’re not weirdy-beardy or fusty. In 2015, they embrace wider genres, inspire younger generations and are tremendous sources of fun, friendship and creativity. 

Leave your woolly jumpers at home 

So pull your finger out of your ear, leave that Aran jumper at home and join us on two nights out that will surprise you.

On a Sunday evening, in a malthouse behind a Devonshire pub, a man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts is singing: ‘My riggin’ is slack, my rattlin’s a-frayed, I found Madam’s gangplanks were…’

.Design teacher Freddie Sparks, 68, is ostensibly singing about two boats meeting on the Thames, but it’s quite clear what he means by his ‘reef tackle’. He can barely stop laughing, and neither can the crowd of men and women before him – then he forgets a line. No matter. They rally him on.

The song finishes with a flourish and Freddie waves his pint to huge cheers. The stereotype that folk clubs are worthy, old-fashioned institutions couldn’t be further from the truth at Topsham Folk Club on the River Exe. 

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Songs and banter

Tonight, at the weekly open singers’ night, I hear English songs rude and ripe, great chunks of American blues, original compositions, and even riotous Eddie Cochran rock’n’roll. Performed by local amateurs without ego or pretension, the songs are also surrounded with banter so warm you could bathe in it. Everyone sings along to the choruses. The atmosphere is supportive, slightly chaotic – and completely brilliant.

Retired library manager John Stephens, 65, has helped run the weekly Topsham Folk Club since 2004 – part of a small committee of volunteers. The club includes regular locals, university students from nearby Exeter, even holidaymakers. 

The club encourages newcomers to perform (though it’s fine to just listen), and tonight there are several people who have never sung solo before, including retired chemist Alan Rosevear, 67, whose version of pirate song Coast of High Barbaree is one of tonight’s best performances. His voice is rich, warm and honest.

Retirement pastime

‘My musical training? Singing Simon & Garfunkel in the car to my poor kids!’ he laughs. Alan moved to the area eight years ago to be nearer his elderly mum. Folk music was always an enthusiasm in his youth, and he saw an advert for the club. ‘I went along to watch. But it was so warm and so welcoming... The second time I went, someone said, “Oh go on, I’ve heard you join in the choruses, give us a song!”’ 

'Folk-club singing is a good retirement pastime,' Alan says. 'Learning a song takes a bit of time. Doing that while you’re working wouldn’t be easy... and the clubs go on late too.’ 

Retired social worker Jane Syers, 67, who performs a local song about a shipwreck a bit later, agrees. She accompanies herself on a shruti box – a small, harmonium-like instrument she hadn’t heard of until her sixties. 

Jane moved to Topsham after stopping work. She joined a choir for fun, eventually drifting along to the folk club, where she was compelled to join in: ‘Jane, you can’t be sitting here all the time. You should do something.’ She sang with Alan at first, but then regulars encouraged her to go solo.

Lifting the spirits  

‘Singing and practising around the house also makes you feel wonderful,’ she adds. ‘It lifts your spirits.’ The folk club has transformed her social life too. ‘I’ve gained so many new friends – you feel part of a proper community. For music to take my life in a totally new direction at this age... I never thought that would happen!’

The club has also been a breeding ground for respected professional musicians. Show of Hands, who’ve sold out the Royal Albert Hall three times, hail from nearby Exmouth and gigged here in their early days. They sometimes play at the bigger monthly concerts at the community hall, but always insist their fee is put back into the coffers. Former Exeter University student and Radio 2 Folk Award- winning singer and fiddler Jackie Oates thinks of Topsham as where she did her apprenticeship. ‘It was an inspiring sanctuary for me when I was finding my voice,’ she says fondly. 

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Wine, beer and song

As the night romps to a close, university lecturer Min Wild on the whistle plays a song about an Irishman who flew over the Atlantic the wrong way. And Julian Piper, another bold-shirted man with a smile as wide as the river mouth, plays murder ballad Frankie and Albert with friend Chris Beddings on lap steel. 

‘He was her man,’ sings the whole room – after three hours in a pub, things are loud and lusty – ‘but he done her wrong’. Nothing sounds more right.

The following Thursday, inside York’s city walls, in a medieval pub sitting proudly alongside new 21st-century developments, it’s the turn of the Black Swan Folk Club. Set up by members of York University in the Seventies, its current organiser is Roland Walls, 61, a librarian by day. 

The club starts to fill up and the small, timbered room, with a stage backed by a gorgeous Tudor-style tapestry, is soon swinging with wine, beer and song. Variety is again the watchword: folk music, bluegrass and original compositions soar from these performers. 

Storytelling is part of the appeal

Many stop to tell stories and it becomes clear that storytelling is a key element of folk music’s appeal. There are songs about regional history – such as Rolling Down, a tale of local train workers. Heritage is celebrated: the past kept alive in a stirring, soulful present.

The crowd is a mixed bunch, including couples in their twenties and a mum with a five-year-old. Most performers are retired, though: ‘I’m the only one still working,’ Roland says.

Once a month, the club holds a singers’ night; most Thursdays it has a lead artist playing a set, although these are relaxed affairs. Tonight, it’s the turn of Irish-Australian singer-songwriter Enda Kenny, who rubs shoulders with the regulars, most of whom arrive with an instrument in one hand and a pint in the other. 

Feeling years younger

Among them is John Storey. The 67-year-old former British Steel worker always played guitar at home and treated himself to a songwriting course in France when he retired early, 12 years ago. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to sing in public, though. Then the course leader put him in touch with Stan Graham, a 69-year-old retired Army officer and Black Swan regular. 

As soon as John started playing at the club, it boosted his confidence. ‘I learnt to develop audience rapport, and built a following from people who hear me regularly – things I would never have expected.’ John now sells his own CDs at the door, he’s played on local radio and performs regularly in Yorkshire. The experience has been energising. ‘I’m pursuing something I’ve always enjoyed – I feel years younger.’

Enriching lives 

When every performer tonight speaks between songs, it’s obvious how much the club means to them: something that makes Roland Walls very proud. ‘It’s not cliquey,’ he explains. ‘From the moment I first came here in the early Eighties, it was like that. I was treated as a friend. And if anything, it’s got friendlier.’

This was despite the fact that he ‘couldn’t sing a note’ – and amazingly, he still hasn’t since. ‘God, no,’ he laughs robustly. ‘I enjoy listening, and that can give you plenty of pleasure on its own. You learn about people, and songwriting, and the area we live in. People are making music to enrich their lives, and those of others.’

The club is altruistic in the wider community too. Every June, it holds a free three-day festival, taking over every room in the pub, the beer garden and car park. This year, there were workshops on storytelling, singing, ukulele and the musical saw. 

The soul of music 

The singers’ night the week after was packed. And it’s still pretty full now as 11.30pm approaches, and people groan as they’re asked to leave. 

As Roland packs up, I ask him why he thinks folk clubs are still so vibrant and popular in the age of digital TV channels and the internet. ‘Maybe it’s because people still like coming together and doing things,’ he says. ‘They’re hearing music in a different way.’ 

This is the modern folk club’s approach, and behind each successful one is a big heart that keeps beating, pumping the soul of music into new places and people. These clubs surge with warmth and life. Long may they thrive.

Britain’s best folk clubs

Top folk musicians Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley recommend some great nights out:

More folk club listings at englishfolkinfo.org.uk, scottish-folk-music.com, folkwales.org.uk

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