This book includes a plain text version that is designed for high accessibility. To use this version please follow this link.
91 f Grand National


25 years after the start of Britain’s first major folk festival at Keele, later renamed The National Folk Festival, Derek Schofield told its story in Folk Roots 83, May 1990.


W


ith close to 140 festivals in Britain each year [This was 28 years ago! Ed.], it might be seen as pre- sumptuous that any one


of them should call itself the National Folk Festival. It’s even stranger, perhaps, that the festival that does lay claim to this title is a modest affair. Hundreds rather than thousands of folk enthusiasts are attracted, not to a central London arts complex, but to a small college campus in the East Midlands. Nevertheless, the National Folk Festival’s distinct policy sets it apart from many other festivals, and its pedigree gives it a unique place in the cal- endar of folk events.


The National Folk Festival has been held at the School of Agriculture in Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire every year since 1984. Before that, the festival was held in neighbouring Loughborough in 1968 and from 1970 to 1980. Going back even fur- ther, the same festival was held at Keele in Staffordshire. Keele was first held in 1965 so that this year’s National Folk Festival (20 to 22 April) takes place exactly twenty-five years after the first Keele Festival.


In today’s festival-saturated folk scene, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a time when the folk club and the occasional concert were the only events at which live folk music could be heard. Before 1965 there was a handful of festivals, all organ- ised by the English Folk Dance and Song Society and mainly featuring dance, although Sidmouth was expanding its song coverage. An exception was the Lon- don Folk Festival at Cecil Sharp House, which was organised more like a fleadh or eisteddfod: there was a syllabus and entry forms, and the ‘best’ performers were selected to appear at the final concert. How then did the Keele Folk Festival come about, and what made it so special?


There was limited contact between the growing number of folk song clubs in the early 1960s, and very little co-ordina- tion of activities throughout the country. For once the EFDSS had its finger on the pulse, and staff member Peter Kennedy established the Folk Information Service in 1963 with a register of performers, direc- tory of clubs and free newssheet.


But many clubs felt a need to meet


together, discuss common interests and problems, and build upon the successes of the recent past. Pete Seeger was due to visit England on the last leg of a world tour, and he was invited to speak at a weekend get-together in May 1964 for club organisers and performers. Pete’s presence guaranteed a large audience rep- resenting all aspects of the diverse folk club scene and the conference set up a Folk Advisory Committee as part of the EFDSS, with Rory McEwen as chairman.


At their first meeting, Melody Maker journalist Eric Winter suggested a “New- port-type festival.” The Newport Folk Fes- tival in the States was started in 1959 and through the records of the festival on the Folkways and Vanguard labels, it had achieved an international reputation. Newport presented a broad cross-section of folk music: traditional, contemporary, revival, commercial, and there was a full programme of workshops and discussions.


Eric Winter wanted the British festival he was proposing to be similarly non-pre- scriptive in its musical policy, although he willingly agreed with the alternative sug- gestion of a strong traditional emphasis, which became the festival’s hallmark. Gen- erally, though, there was no suggestion of copying the Newport model. Few people in Britain had been to Newport, and Eric’s suggestion was for a song-based festival rather than for a copy of Newport. The first Cambridge Folk Festival, held a month after the 1965 Keele Festival, was obvious- ly aiming to be more like Newport as it had an open policy, large concert format and guests such as the Clancy Brothers.


Few members of the Folk Advisory Committee were enthusiastic about the festival idea, but within a month Eric had persuaded Peter Kennedy, Rory McEwen, the other committee members and the EFDSS executive about the feasibility of the festival. Rory hit upon the idea of a university campus and decided that Keele was both central and accessible. The venue and date were booked and twelve months of planning started.


When devising the format of the festi- val, the committee members were faced


with a blank sheet of paper. There was no established model of what a weekend folk festival should look like, and today’s festi- val-goers might find little similarity between the first Keele and the format of present-day festivals.


In its first year, Keele had no organ- ised concerts or singarounds during the day on Saturday or on Sunday morning. Instead there was a full programme of workshops and lectures from the leading authorities of the folk song revival. As Rory McEwen wrote in the festival pro- gramme, “We are not just trying to pro- mote a great big mindless singalong, enjoyable though that may be.”


Workshop leaders included Ewan Mac- Coll on folksong style, Peggy Seeger on the principles of folk accompaniment, Bert Lloyd on the ballads (a photograph shows a packed lecture hall – a couple of hundred people), Bill Clifton on bluegrass, Eric Win- ter on new songs, Peter Kennedy on col- lecting and John Foreman on broadsides. There were workshops on fiddles, pipes, guitars and melodeons. But the workshop which everyone recalls with enthusiasm was the lecture and exhibition on the blues by the recognised expert Paul Oliver.


A


lthough this emphasis was relaxed after the first year, the festival retained a strong rep- utation for the quality of its lectures and workshops. In


year two, there was a debate on ‘The Tra- dition and the Revival’: Eric Winter recalls that Keele would not have been Keele without some sort of discussion on ‘Whither the Folk Revival?’!


The other unique feature at Keele, which continued at Loughborough and which now gives the National its special character, was the emphasis on traditional, as opposed to revival, singers and musicians.


Traditional performers were featured at a number of clubs and concerts in the ’50s and ’60s, including the Spinners Club in Liverpool, the Fox in London’s Islington run by Bob Davenport, Reg Hall and oth- ers, and there was a spectacular concert at the Royal Festival Hall just before the first Keele. What made the first Keele special was the number of traditional performers


Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123  |  Page 124  |  Page 125  |  Page 126  |  Page 127  |  Page 128  |  Page 129  |  Page 130  |  Page 131  |  Page 132  |  Page 133  |  Page 134  |  Page 135  |  Page 136  |  Page 137  |  Page 138  |  Page 139  |  Page 140  |  Page 141  |  Page 142  |  Page 143  |  Page 144  |  Page 145  |  Page 146  |  Page 147  |  Page 148