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Your guide to being a folk expert

21 October 2015

There are an estimated 500 folk clubs in Britain – full of fun, friendship and great music. If you want to join in but don’t know your sea shanties from your Mumford and Sons, follow our easy guide. By Jude Rodgers.

Folk music is undergoing a renaissance
Folk music is undergoing a renaissance

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. They embrace wider genres, inspire younger generations and are tremendous sources of fun, friendship and creativity. So pull your finger out of your ear, leave that Aran jumper at home and pop to your local folk club for a nights out that will surprise you.

What is folk music?

Folk music is traditional working-class music - songs sung by labourers in the fields, fishermen, even prisoners, about the conditions they live in and the lives that they led. 

Many teem with love and death, turn events of their times into poetry, or turn stories into fantasies, sometimes with a whiff of myth. 

No subject is off-limits in a folk song: adultery, murder and incest all feature - although sea shanties are often joyous. Imagine tabloid news sung by someone who's had a few shandies, with choruses to sing along to. 

The very brief history of folk music 

Folk music began whenever people started inventing and singing songs to pass the time, so no-one knows its exact origins. 

But it started to be treasured in the early 20th century, with figures like musician Cecil Sharp and composer Vaughan Williams transcribing folk songs from ordinary people. 

Once recording technology became transportable, archivists like Alan Lomax started committing this music to tape, and programmes made about these songs inspired the folk revival of the late 1950s. British folk clubs blossomed as a result, and their influence fed into rock and pop: Bob Dylan and Paul Simon started their careers in these venues in the early 1960s.

Read more - festivals for the over 50s

Modern folk musicians

You might not get many brownie points for mentioning obvious people like Mumford and Sons to any folkie friends. 

But you should get an appreciative nod for listing current names such as singer Shirley Collins, who was at the forefront of the 1960s English folk revival, the husky, northern Norma Waterson, her husband Martin Carthy. 

Folk became cool again in the 2000s, thanks to American folk-influenced artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, and Dartmoor-based folkie Seth Lakeman. 

But be warned: ‘folk’ is an epithet often wrongly ascribed to musicians who are singer-songwriters (see Laura Marling: she has a folk sound, but her music is definitely not folk, because it doesn't take traditional songs as its source material). 

Excellent new folkies (i.e. musicians who sing the original songs) include Scottish singer Alasdair Roberts, young folk-rock group Trembling Bells and the Mercury Prize-nominated Sam Lee.

Explore a wide variety of genres and musical eras on a special interest music holiday.  Find out more here

What's it like in a modern folk club?

A night at Topsham Folk Club, Devon

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, in his 60s, 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.

Tonight, at the weekly open singers’ night, there are 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 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, whose version of pirate song Coast of High Barbaree is one of tonight’s best performances. His voice is rich, warm and honest.

‘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, 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.

‘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.

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.

A night at Black Swan Folk Club, Yorkshire

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, 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.

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.

Among them is John Storey. The 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.’

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 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.

Best British folk clubs 

Best folk festivals

Boutique festival-lovers should try: 


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