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A Folk club is a regular event, permanent venue, or section of a venue devoted to folk music and traditional music. Folk clubs were primarily an urban phenomenon of 1960s and 1970s Great Britainmarker and Irelandmarker, and vital to the second British folk revival, but continue today there and elsewhere.

British folk clubs

The origins of clubs

From the end of the Second World War there had been attempts to form clubs where traditional music could be performed by the English Folk Dance and Song Societymarker in London and Birmingham. A few private clubs, like the Good Earth Club and the overtly political Topic Club in London were formed by the mid 1950s and were providing a venue for folk song, but the folk club movement received its major boost from the short-lived British skiffle craze, from about 1955-9, creating a demand for opportunities to play versions of American folk, blues and jazz music, often on assorted acoustic and improvised instruments. This included, as the name suggests, the ‘Ballad and Blues’ club in a pub in Sohomarker, co-founded by Ewan MacColl, although the date and nature of the club in its early years is disputed. As the craze subsided from the mid 1950s many of these clubs began to shift towards the performance of English traditional folk material, partly as a reaction to the growth of American dominated pop and rock n’ roll music. The Ballad and Blues Club became the ‘Singer Club’ and, in 1961 moved to The Princess Louise pub in Holbornmarker, with the emphasis increasingly placed on English traditional music and particularly on unaccompanied song in the singer’s own voice, leading to the creation of strict ‘policy clubs’, that pursued a pure and traditional form of music. This became the model for a rapidly expanding movement and soon every major city in Britain had its own folk club. By the mid 1960s there were probably over 300 in Britain, providing an important circuit for acts that performed traditional songs and tunes acoustically, where some could sustain a living by playing to a small but committed audience. Some of the most influential clubs in the UKmarker included Les Cousins, Bunjiesmarker and The Troubadourmarker, in London and the Bristol Troubadour in England's West Country.

The nature of folk clubs

Although the name suggest a fixed space, most clubs were simply a regular gathering, usually in the back or upstairs room of a public house on a weekly basis. These clubs were largely an urban phenomenon and most members seem to have been from the urbanised middle classes, although the material that was increasingly their focus was that of the rural (and to a lesser extent industrial) working classes. The clubs were known for the amateur nature of their performances, often including, or even focusing on local ‘floor singers’, of members who would step up to sing one or two songs. They also had ‘residents’, usually talented local performers who would perform regular short sets of songs.

Many of these later emerged as major performers in their own right, including A.L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy, and Shirley Collins who were able to tour the clubs as a circuit and who also became major recording artists. A later generation of performers used the folk club circuit for highly successful mainstream careers, including Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Ian Dury and Barbara Dickson.

Later years

The number of clubs began to decline in the 1980s, in the face of changing musical and social trends. In London Les Cousinsmarker in Greek Street, where John Renbourn often played, and The Scots Hoose in Cambridge Circus, were both casualties. The Singers Club closed its doors in 1991.

The decline began to stabilize in the mid-1990s with the resurgence of interest in folk music and there are now over 160 folk clubs in the United Kingdom, including many that can trace their origins back to the 1950s including The Bridge Folk Club in Newcastlemarker (previously called the Folk Song and Ballad club) claims to the oldest club still in existence in its original venue (1953). In Edinburghmarker, Sandy Bell's club in Forest Hillmarker has been running since the late 1960s. In Londonmarker, the Troubadourmarker at Earl's Courtmarker, where Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Sandy Denny and Martin Carthy sang, became a poetry club in the 1990s, but is now a folk club again.

The nature of surviving folk clubs has also changed significantly, many larger clubs utilise PA systems, opening the door to use of electric instruments, although drums and full electric folk line-ups remain rare. The mix of music often includes American roots music, blues and world music as well as traditional British folk music. From 2000 the BBC Radio 2 folk awards have included an award for the best folk club.

Irish clubs

In Dublinmarker, Irish music pubs are now part of a well-advertised tourist trail. Also, Irish cultural centres have existed in the United Kingdommarker since the 1950s, primarily for the descendants of Irish immigrants. Mostly on Friday and Saturday nights these have been folk clubs in all but name. They have been able to book major Irish bands that ordinary folk clubs could not have afforded. Changes in the law mean that players often have to become a member 24 hours beforehand. Since 2002 A "public entertainment licence" is required from local authorities for almost any kind of public performance of music. To avoid the constant need to re-apply for licences for new events, some folk clubs have opted to create a "Private members club" instead. This requires that members of the public join at least 24 hours in advance, not on the night of the actual performance. Previously you could pay on entry.

Notes

  1. M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), pp. 74-7.
  2. G. Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 231.
  3. M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), pp. 77-8.
  4. G. Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 237.
  5. M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival 1944-2002 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003), p. 114.
  6. B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 37.
  7. B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 113.
  8. B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 112.
  9. R. H. Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), pp. 57-61.
  10. B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 45.
  11. M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), p. 132.
  12. J. Harris, Christoph Grunenberg Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s (Liverpool University Press, 2005), p. 139.
  13. Folk and Roots, http://www.folkandroots.co.uk/Venues_North_East.html, retrieved 24/02/09.
  14. B. Shelby, Frommer's Edinburgh & Glasgow (Frommer's, 2005, p. 124.
  15. P. Barry, ed., Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Salt Publishing, 2006), p. 173.
  16. ’Previous winners’, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/event/folkawards2009/previouswinners.shtml, retrieved 24/02/09.
  17. PEL


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