Discovering Roots Music

Here at last is the eagerly awaited (by me anyway) second part of what I’m calling A Musical Journey.

2. Discovering Roots Music

The first time I set foot in a folk club was a week or two after my seventeenth birthday. Until then my taste in music had been largely shaped by the UK charts, pirate radio, and television programmes such as the BBC’s weekly ‘Top of the Pops’.

A blurry distinction is often made nowadays between folk songs and traditional songs, especially by those in America (Japan too) where any singer-songwriter playing an acoustic guitar can and will be labelled a folk singer. This isn’t the case in England where folk songs are more often thought of as having been handed down over generations by the common people and not possessing a known composer.

I was a bit surprised to find the late American ‘folk singer’ Dave Van Ronk also went along with this way of thinking about it in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. He writes that for about two hundred years up until the 1950s the folk singer was someone who passed on songs learned within a community. And so, crucially, “the word ‘folk’ describes a process rather than a style.” It wasn’t until Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters of the 1960s that there was a bit of mixed up confusion about the definition. In a recent interview, Tom Rush (who was one of those ‘60s singers), reiterated that for him ‘folk’ means the traditional songs handed down by ear from generation to generation.

That’s enough pedantry about ‘folk’. I’ve usually gone along with the ‘folk means traditional’ camp but there is a grey area too. Nowadays I’d probably call it all roots music anyway for want of a more precise term. Or perhaps: ‘local music from out there’ as it’s found all over the world in every culture, played on many different musical instruments (or no instruments) and sung in numerous different languages.

The folk club I first went to didn’t have any policy about what was or wasn’t folk. Almost any kind of music was acceptable if there was room for the performers to fit onto the small platform that passed as a stage. It wasn’t much like other folk clubs of its time either as there were probably more singer-songwriters than traditional singers on its weekly list of guest artists. And, if anything, the sedate image of the UK folk club where everyone sits in rows of chairs listening to the performer in respectful silence was held in some contempt at the club where I was a regular. The noise from the bar and the largely standing audience also made sure the unaccompanied singer would have a pretty hard time of it.

It was named the Jacquard Folk Club and it congregated on Thursday evenings in the back room of a pub in Norwich. The club was run by two brothers, Tony and Albert Cooper. Tony was fond of organising and had previously been involved with a jazz club in the city, while Albert was a fine classically trained singer who had also developed a repertoire of blues and contemporary songs. The establishment of the folk club gave him a regular venue to belt out these songs every week in his stirring and powerful voice usually accompanied by a 12-string guitar plus harmonica and double bass.

As a folk newcomer and a refugee from the pop scene (although I maintained an interest in that as well) I was listening to many of these songs for the first time and it was a revelation. I was being initiated into the world of largely American roots, blues and Civil Rights songs as a teenager in an English pub: not by the original artists of whom I was mostly unaware but by a local resident singer.

Beer was another discovery. As folk music was frequently played in the back rooms of pubs it was almost obligatory to sample the delights of English bitter. I had long seen people getting so excited about the stuff that they couldn’t guzzle down enough of it so imagined it must have an amazing taste – like strawberries or the cream soda of my childhood. It was therefore with a mixture of puzzlement and slight disappointment that I sipped my first pint. All rather warm, flat, bland and lacking in real tastiness. I soon got used to it though.

Sandy Denny

Sometimes I gave a bit of help at the club on Thursdays and once found myself attending to the needs of Sandy Denny who was the guest that evening. She was just a year older than me but appeared infinitely more composed and confident. I offered to buy her a drink and she immediately called for a large whisky. This was in the days when she toured the folk clubs of England on her own as a singer and guitarist. I was to see her again more than once (albeit from a distance) when she became a member of Fairport Convention who went on to invent folk-rock. She left one of her fingerpicks behind after that first visit to the club and I kept and returned it to her the next time she came back. A few years later she was dead at the age of 31.

Norwich and the surrounding Norfolk countryside was already home to its own remarkable traditional singers such as Walter Pardon and the fisherman Sam Larner. They became and remain a huge influence on younger generations of singers but I was oblivious to their contribution until many years later and didn’t even listen to their recordings until the singers were long gone. A local singer I also discovered far too late was Peter Bellamy who eventually became a favourite – but not until I was living in Japan and rediscovering the roots I’d left behind. When I lived in Norwich he was once pointed out to me by someone in the street as a famous folk singer and appeared as a long-haired figure walking in front of us, no doubt on his way to the shops or perhaps to the library to research some archive field recording.

It was the visiting Americans who often made the biggest impact and there were plenty of them touring England at that time to play an extensive list of venues such as folk clubs, pubs, and sometimes concert halls. One evening Jesse Fuller was the guest in Norwich and I was able to see close-up his vaudeville-style one-man-band show with 12-string guitar and fotdella (his own invention, a kind of foot-operated percussion bass) along with the kazoo that he hummed into on songs such as his classic ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’. He was almost seventy at that time.

Among the numerous other renowned American singers and musicians I was able to see on their visits to Norwich – some of them more than once – were the New Lost City Ramblers, Clarence Ashley and Tex Isley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Bill Clifton, Hedy West, Paul Simon, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton, and Judy Collins.

Of all the American guests who came to England during the 1960s the one I listen to most often nowadays is probably Hedy West. For a long while the Georgia singer and banjo player was underappreciated and her recordings out of print. A revival occurred after her death and is rightly continuing. When I was still a teenager she came to Norwich and through her Appalachian songs and ballads I was able to visit a world I had only glimpsed in novels by Carson McCullers. Her unadorned vocals and banjo accompaniment have something of the same appeal found in the great traditional singers and sanshin players I was to discover years later in Okinawa.

There was no shortage of rising stars on the UK scene either including singer-songwriters Al Stewart and Roy Harper, and on one memorable occasion, for me at least, there was a visit from Scottish duo the Incredible String Band.

By early 1967, when they came to Norwich, the Incredible String Band had already released a debut album and must have been at work on its follow-up The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion which came out to much acclaim later that year. It contains the song ‘Painting Box’ with these lines that resonated with me at the time:

“My Friday evening’s footsteps plodding dully through this black town / Are far away now from the world that I’m in”.

The departure of Clive Palmer meant the original trio were now a pair: Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. Their performance that night was probably the first time some of their exotic-looking instruments had been seen in these surroundings, though what seemed to some like hippy psychedelic eccentricity would, a couple of decades later, be routinely accepted as an exploration of ‘world music’.

Mike Heron (right) and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band in 1967. (Photo: BBC Photo Library/Redferns).

I don’t recall too much of what they played that night but do remember very clearly the subsequent misunderstanding about accommodation. Heron and Williamson had thought they were booked into a hotel but that wasn’t the case and instead I was asked if I could put them up for the night. I was eighteen and living with my parents, so the pair came back there to spend the night. They must have slept in the same bed in my sister’s vacant room. She had married and left home a few years before.

Listening to Incredible String Band albums now, the vocals on their recordings don’t seem to have impenetrable Scottish accents at all but Robin Williamson’s was enough to confuse my mother when they made their brief stay in our house. After a night possibly spent sleeping in his trousers Williamson came downstairs and asked her if he could borrow an iron to smooth out the crumpled garment. She didn’t understand his accent and he ended up miming the ironing action before all became clear. I think everyone I knew imagined the ISB were destined for bigger things – world domination was on the cards – but despite a longish career the early successes of the first few years were never quite replicated in later days.

On the night that the ISB played the folk club in Norwich a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever. During the break he introduced me to a white-haired man in the audience. This was Wizz Jones who had been another regular guest a few decades before at the folk club in Norwich.

All this exposure to the likes of master guitarists such as Chapman meant there came a time when as a young man I decided to have a go myself. At least to learn a musical instrument rather than just listening to others playing them, and so it was that I bought a guitar. The guitar style I admired most and tried to emulate was the fingerpicking I’d listened to on recordings of Elizabeth Cotten best known as the composer of ‘Freight Train’. She played left-handed in an inimitable and seductive style of her own. I didn’t achieve anything to rival that but did have some fun trying.

This foray into the guitar world didn’t lead to anything much but for a very brief period – perhaps only a few weeks – a ‘band’ was formed along with two friends and we called ourselves the Unreliable String Band. The USB (as no-one called us) performed an extremely short set comprising some poetry-reading accompanied by guitar (it was a thing back then), a couple of songs, and a sort of ragtime guitar instrumental. The first song we learned was Bob Dylan’s ‘Drifter’s Escape’ chosen because it could be played with only two chords. After a couple of appearances at local venues we called it a day.

Paul Simon at the Jacquard Folk Club, 24 August 1965.

Paul Simon was a still relatively unknown solo singer-songwriter who lived for a time in London and played the folk club circuit around England. He very definitely didn’t call it a day. Before going on to achieve lasting worldwide fame he played to an audience of sixty or seventy people at the Jacquard Folk Club on an evening in August 1965. I was there that night to see him give a remarkable performance with just his voice, acoustic guitar. and a handful of original songs. They included ‘The Sound of Silence’ and his then current single ‘I Am a Rock’.

In Japan audiences enjoy listening to musicians talking in between songs – sometimes endlessly – and regard the chatting, explanations and anecdotes as an integral part of the live experience. This was obviously not the case in Norwich that night when Paul Simon’s not especially detailed account of how he came to write one of his songs was interrupted by a heckler who urged him to “stop the preaching and get on with it”. Simon did just that and blasted everyone away with the rest of his songs and performance.

If anyone eclipsed Simon in my early discoveries in roots music it was Bob Dylan, of course, about whom so much has been written that there is nothing much more to be said. I was a bit late to the party, not discovering his songs until the release of his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home but I soon put that right by catching up with all previous recordings. If it was Dylan who helped draw me into folk clubs and folk songs he was also the one responsible for leading me away from them again with his leap into electric guitars, surrealist lyrics, and rock music that went beyond anything I’d heard up until then.

I didn’t see him live until 1978 when I was among a crowd of more than 200,000 for ‘The Picnic at Blackbushe Aerodrome’ in Surrey. (The previous year I had another first when I saw the great Leonard Cohen in concert in Leicester). I went down by train to London and then on one of the many special trains put on solely to convey people the rest of the way to Blackbushe. I missed the friend I was supposed to meet and spent the whole day on my own listening to all the music culminating with Dylan and his band who played for the best part of three hours. It was completely worth the discomfort of spending the early hours of the next morning on Waterloo station waiting for the first trains and the stinging watery eyes from lack of sleep that occurred when I eventually arrived back home. I’ve seen Dylan at least ten times since then, and the last was in Osaka at a much smaller venue in March 2010 when I was able to stand closer to the stage than ever before.

But as I have already said, it was Fairport Convention who invented the English version of folk-rock by playing traditional songs on electric guitars, bass and drums. I witnessed the unveiling of this phenomenon with their concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London to promote their Liege and Lief album which came out at the end of 1969. (Nick Drake was one of the support acts that evening). As the curtain went up on Fairport a new era of English roots music was born.

The next time I saw Fairport was not until their annual Cropredy Festival in 2001. The band Brass Monkey played at the same festival that year and I was able to speak briefly with member Martin Carthy who I had met and interviewed in Japan a few years before. My move to Japan, perversely, meant I was going to rediscover English roots music after a long hiatus – and many other kinds of music too.

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