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Alan second right, with Ian Kearey, Shirley Collins, Ian Anderson and Ben Mandelson at Cecil Sharp House.


I


n moving to Birmingham James returned to his birthplace, though not exactly to 207 Electric Avenue, the house that was home for his first eleven years. This address was now a stanchion supporting Spaghetti Junction. Following the compulsory purchase that allowed that to happen, the James family moved to Hagley in Worcestershire.


Arriving in the village James remembers having seen a hot-rod


car, a Model T Ford driving through. “It was John Bonham. I then delivered his papers.” At home his parents were not listening to Led Zeppelin, preferring light classics, RAF marching bands and easy listening on the radio. Young James, passing his 11-plus, fol- lowed in the footsteps of Bonham’s band mate Robert Plant, to King Edward Grammar School in Stourbridge.


The town had a bohemian feel (that James traces to its multi- disciplinary art school), which reinforced an openness to all the sorts of cultural expression that he’d been absorbing at home. Along with the fare on the radio there was “World muzak on the telly. Manitas de Plata (father of two of the Gypsy Kings), was on Val Doonican. This was Saturday night mainstream TV; Sergio Mendez, Demis Roussos, Nana Mouskouri. Dad said, ‘You’ll like John Williams on Morecambe and Wise, but I liked Manitas de Plata better. They’d all just pop up alongside James Last with his Brazilian album, the South African kwela band Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes with the Tom Hark song, Argentinian tango and Abba.” He remembers lov- ing the impact of hearing Martin Carthy’s Shearwater for the first time. “I was still at school. It was the fourth LP I ever bought. I looked it up. In a collection of about 4,000 records, it’s no. 4.”


This early exposure to music clearly planted the seed for James’ subsequent life and work. It also led, less successfully, to his joining a band at school. “I tried to play guitar, but although I could remember things and play by ear, at my school you had to read music before you were allowed to play an instrument. So I became the lead singer. At rehearsals everyone played softly and we could all hear each other. We did a show and I sang flat, because we didn’t understand you needed monitors.”


The early demise of a performing career was good news for his A levels. Passionate about writing and English, James applied to study politics because he didn’t think he’d achieve the requisite grade A in English. And when he did, he couldn’t change his course. This was good news for world music, and when he left his job at MAC to become Head of Contemporary & Traditional Music at the Arts Council in 2000, it was good news for folk.


He says, “When my boss, Hilary Boulding, asked, ‘What areas need investment?’ I said South Asian classical music and folk. Folk didn’t have funding. Folk clubs were closing, but a new generation of programmers with an interest in world, folk, and classical Indian music were coming into arts centres.”


This coincided with “a whole new generation of British musi- cians playing folk. Chris Wood, Andy Cutting, Eliza Carthy – a new generation were carrying the baton. Folk music moved into a new phase of regeneration in the early 21st century, helped by Arts Council funding, improved by a bigger budget and focus on the arts and culture from New Labour. Folkworks in the North East, pre the Newcastle University course, was an example of that and now in turn those artists are inspiring a new younger generation.”


Photo: © Judith Burrows


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