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f84 The Right Time

Straight after the 1965 Keele Festival, folk writer Eric Winter and photographer Brian Shuel produced a souvenir book about the event. Here’s how Eric reported it back then.


ust at the right time! 1966 could have been too late, 1964 too early. In the event 1965 turned out to be exactly right for the first Keele Folk Festival. Spon-

sored by the English Folk Dance and Song Society to provide “common ground for the folk scene to meet, for the experts to be available… for the theorists to expound… for singers of all sorts to sing, and for everyone present to get an opportunity of meeting and hearing a handsome selection of our true tradition- al performers,” the festival was above all else a meeting place. The picture above captures the mood and spirit of Keele… it was a great handshaking between a lot of people who take folk music seriously. Not, mind you, a dull affair. There was too much going on for anyone to be bored, and the festival was dotted all over with joyful explosions of song, danc- ing, laughter.

Keele was founded on three rocks: traditional music, sung and played by tra- ditional performers; authoritative work- shops, manned by experts; and singalong ceilidhs, run by experienced clubbers who have, between them, presided over thou- sands of club evenings.

The ceilidhs (the almost literal transla- tion of the word is ‘get togethers’) were particularly lively. The opening (Friday) evening was a very informal affair, author- itatively held together by Bob Davenport, who soon had lots of ‘non-dancers’ shak- ing a leg. The event ended too early, just as folk appetites were whetted, and pri- vate ceilidhs sprang up almost anywhere that two or three were gathered together.

Saturday’s ceilidhs were run by the Spinners, the Ian Campbell Folk Group, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Bill Clifton, John Foreman, Cyril Tawney and Louis Killen. All found themselves catering for a continuously traveling audience that popped into first one then the other. At the MacColl/Seeger ceilidh, Peggy got into her playing that fascinating drone that isn’t actually played, a continuity of sound that is always pleasing to listen to. The Spinners had the McPeakes and Jeannie Robertson, not to mention Stan Hugill and

Jacquie and Bridie. The Campbells had the Stewart Family and bright-eyed Jimmie MacBeath and a dozen others.

These ceilidhs were not the only infor- mal gatherings. Impromptu events, with great and small audiences, took place throughout the Keele weekend. Some of them were unexpected and unrehearsed… Foreman teaching Killen how to play a fid- dle, for instance! Some of them were more predictable but nonetheless enjoyable… Fred Jordan and Bob Roberts singing their heads off on the grass – this was the real stuff all right.


n and among the planned and unplanned happenings were a bunch of Britain’s best traditional singers and players. Indeed, they were the backbone of the festival.

It is difficult to convey on paper the flavour of a traditional performer. So much of it is just a magic of experience and atmosphere, a feeling of a link with something from the past that is not whol- ly there, a something that is half revealed by the singer or player but whose hidden depths are, like those of an iceberg, only hinted at by what shows on the surface. All the traditional performers at Keele had this great quality, this breath of a mysterious heritage.

Among these performers, as between the ceilidhs, there was the same mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Packie Manus Byrne was one of Keele’s delightful surprises. Jimmy MacBeath, king of the tramps and hawkers, and a surprise only to those who had never heard him before, endeared himself to his listeners with ges- ture, twinkling toes and throaty singing.

The McPeake Family from Belfast were the McPeake Family from Belfast. To be themselves is enough for their admirers and they were all in good voice. Scan Tester played, and played and played until he was cajoled by Bob Davenport into singing to an audience that quickly discov- ered what an all-round talent Scan is.

Besides Packie Byrne and the McPeakes, Ireland contributed very handsomely to Keele in the shape of Michael Gorman and Margaret Barry, who were in top form all through the festival. Gorman is a superb fid-

dler and Margaret has lost none of the force with which she has commanded attention from listeners over many years.

Another Irish visitor was Felix Doran, all-Ireland laureate piper whose depth as a musician is considerable and whose mas- tery of his instrument is complete. Felix attended the fiddle workshop along with Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Packie Byrne, and (how it happened, nobody quite remembers) somehow the workshop became a vast treasury of Irish music with everyone present enthralled by some of the best singing and playing that occurred at Keele.

Apart from Jimmie MacBeath, Scot- land provided Alex and Belle Stewart. Alex’s prowess on the war pipes comes from a line of descent that includes his grandfather, one-time piper to the Duke of Argyle, and his father, nine times cham- pion piper of all Scotland. Belle Stewart, only one member of a fine singing family, entertained Keele audiences with a seem- ingly inexhaustible supply of folk riddles, when she wasn’t singing.

From the island of Barra came Flora MacNeil. Now living in Glasgow with her husband and four young children, she still sings… sings beautifully… traditional gael- ic songs, mostly learned from her mother.

England’s own contribution to this fes- tival, held in the heart of England, began with Fred Jordan, a farm labourer from Wenlock Edge in Shrosphire, who learned half his songs “by being fond of country life the old way and by always listening and talking to old labourers.” Fred’s song Six Pretty Maids is one of the finest versions there is of The Outlandish Knight.

Stan Hugill, last shanteyman to sail before the mast and now an accepted authority on sea songs as well as a fine tra- ditional singer was also at Keele. Stan suc- cessfully maintains a foot in both tradi- tional and revival camps, helping to run a folk club and contributing to the folk song magazine Spin.

Also representing our seagoing her- itage came Bob Roberts, who is a Thames barge master extraordinary with a fund of quite remarkable songs.

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