The Black Swan Folk Club is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year (2018) by doing what it does best… putting on quality live music in an intimate room reached by a lopsided staircase. The club aims to present the very best professional and semi-professional performers in what is a delightfully atmospheric setting for acoustic music with its 17th century timber panelling and mock Tudor tapestry. Many folk luminaries have carried their musical instruments up those eccentric stairs, including Martin Carthy, Vin Garbutt, Chris Wood, Bob Fox, Wizz Jones, Tom McConville, Andy Irvine, Dick Gaughan, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman.
The club takes its name from the historic York pub which has always been its home. The landmark building on Peasholme Green dates back 600 years, its first mention being in a 1417 document. In the 18th century, the parents of James Wolfe, later General Wolfe who was killed leading his troops to victory over the French at Quebec in 1759, lived there.
The folk club’s relationship with the distinctive building may not go as far back to the days of Wolfe’s red coats, but it still amounts to a remarkable achievement in an era when numerous pubs are closing and there are fewer folk clubs booking professional artists. The club staged its first concert at the Black Swan on Thursday, February 9, 1978, according to an old diary belonging to folk musician Paul Buckley. That was when Brotherhood Of Man topped the pop charts with Figaro while, on the previous day, BBC1 showed the first episode of the long-running school drama Grange Hill.
Paul, now living in Donegal, Ireland, recalls: “I inherited the folk club at the University of York in 1976 and after running it in the form of club nights and concerts in university rooms, moved it into the town. As far as I can remember, together with a friend of mine Piers Jackson I started making ‘extensive enquiries’ in a few York pubs, particularly the real ale ones. Eventually we settled on the Black Swan, not so much as we chose it, but more, and fortunately for us, that it was the only place that seemed interested.” And so began a long and fruitful relationship between pub and club.
Folk music enthusiast Roland Walls moved to York in August 1982 and attended the club on his very first week in town. He recalls: “I didn’t know anybody in York and the people at the club were very welcoming.” A librarian by trade, Roland was quickly identified as a willing workhorse and soon became involved in helping to run the club. His first responsibility was publicity, followed by taking money at the door, keeping the accounts and, finally, booking the artists. The latter role involved a great deal of leg work particularly in the early days when mobile phones were expensive “bricks” and the worldwide web was still to be invented. Roland lived at first in a phoneless rented flat and sometimes it was a challenge to find a working public pay phone in the vicinity. Eager to book Leeds blues guitarist Brendan Croker in November 1987, Roland tried three different kiosks before finally finding a phone that had not been vandalised.
Unusually for a folk club organiser, Roland is not a musician; he prefers to listen rather than perform. As a sixth-former he bunked off games at his school and listened to LPs by the likes of Hendrix, Cream and Fairport Convention at a fellow pupil’s house. His passion for traditional music was kindled by an adventurous English teacher who introduced him to the popular ballads of England and Scotland; while a history teacher illustrated lessons about the Industrial Revolution by playing Ewan MacColl’s Steam Whistle Ballads. In his late teens, Roland attended many a folk club in his home area south of Teesside – he’s still the proud owner of box virtuoso John Kirkpatrick’s first LP Jump At The Sun which he won at a club raffle – and saw bands like Steeleye Span and Lindisfarne at Newcastle City Hall.
Roland’s tenure as folk club organiser is based on goodwill and trust. He has surrounded himself with an effective team of dedicated helpers. One of them, Chris Laurence (aka Chris Euesden) was the guest artist for Roland’s first visit to the club; another, Eddie Affleck, was already an occasional floor singer while American musician Phil Cerny started attending the club regularly a few years later.
The final member of the core team is singer-songwriter Stan Graham, whose first visit to the club got off to a shaky start. It was a Thursday evening in 1992 when the Black Swan’s then landlord had double-booked the upstairs room. An alternative venue was hastily arranged and Roland re-directed club attendees as they arrived at the now unavailable Black Swan; one of them, carrying his guitar, was Stan, an army officer newly posted to York. Fortunately, he was not put off by what some military types would have called a “cock up” and returned to grace many a club night, trying out freshly-composed songs on the appreciative and enthusiastic audience. Stan was able to devote more time to his musical career after he retired from the army and still keeps himself busy by gigging, leading songwriting workshops and recording albums. His compositions have been covered by stars, past and present, of the folk scene, including Martyn Wyndham-Read, John Wright and Vin Garbutt.
There are only three other occasions when club meetings have not been held at the Black Swan Inn; that was in December 2008 when the then landlord went bankrupt. They met at alternative venues until the Black Swan re-opened under new management. The club certainly bounced back in style when, a few weeks later, it was named Folk Club of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2009. The BBC said the award was “voted for by professional folk musicians to honour the often-lifelong contribution of those who run the venues which provide folk’s lifeblood”. At the time Roland said: “We’re delighted that a panel of hard-working and experienced musicians has chosen us above a host of other venues for this prestigious prize. We hope this reflects the efficient organisation, friendly welcome and great atmosphere of our events. In particular, we’re very pleased that our small venue, comfortably full with 50 people in the audience, has taken an award that has usually gone to much larger clubs seating upwards of a hundred or more.” Roland, along with Eddie, Stan, Chris and Phil, travelled to London for the Awards ceremony and they received the trophy, now proudly on display at the Black Swan, from Phil Beer who, along with songwriter Steve Knightley, are the acclaimed duo Show Of Hands.
Another memorable night for the club happened in April 2002 when singer Nic Jones, of Penguin Eggs fame, performed in public for the first time since his career was cruelly curtailed by a car crash 20 years previously. Pete and Chris Coe had stepped in as club guests after their old Bandoggs friend Tony Rose was forced to cancel by what would prove to be his final illness. Pete in turn persuaded fellow Bandoggs veteran Nic, then living in York, to come along and sing a few songs, accompanied on guitar by his son, Joe.
The folk club has been able to present in York many acts that are too big for the Black Swan Inn, such as Show Of Hands, Waterson:Carthy and Blazin’ Fiddles, due to the relationship it has cultivated with another atmospheric York venue, namely the National Centre For Early Music. This 180-capacity concert room is housed in a converted medieval church on nearby Walmgate. Local folk musician-cum-technical wiz Michael Jary acts as the sound engineer for these atmospheric gigs; Michael also runs the club’s website.
Roland regularly attends folk festivals to scout for new acts for the club and he is proud of the way the club has encouraged exciting new musical talent. Artists such as Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby, The Unthanks and Spiers & Boden all appeared there early in their careers, and the club continues to regularly book “up-and-coming” singers and bands; it also hosts an annual “young performers night” in association with the New Roots organisation. The club’s regular “singers nights” are another important part of its programme; musicians, with a variety of instruments, travel from far away to attend them and those that impress are booked for future guest nights. They are also an important showcase for the club’s regular floor singers.
Roland believes there are “six Ps” to running a successful folk club: Purpose, Programming, Pricing, Publicity, Presentation and Performance. On publicity, in this age of social media, Roland is still a great believer in the humble leaflet that you can keep in your pocket; he produces several editions each year, distributed around the city and mailed out across the wider region. He also writes an electronic newsletter that he emails to more than 1,000 subscribers on a roughly monthly basis; it’s a handy digest of musical news from both within and outside the club. Most years the club manages to break even and when any surplus cash is generated it is invested back into the club; recent projects include upgrading the PA system and improving the ambient lighting.
The Black Swan Folk Club is part of a much bigger acoustic music scene in York, with its informal open-mic nights and sessions. To bring all these strands together, the club organises an annual free folk event in the early summer. What started as a single day in 2003 has now developed into a busy weekend of music, dance, singing and poetry with every room in the Black Swan hosting activities while the pub car park is transformed into a concert venue thanks to a hired marquee. All the concert artists performing have a connection to York and there are also singarounds and tunes sessions, morris dance displays and a ceilidh, a children’s event and more. Since 2009 the club has also been supporting the annual York Residents’ Festival in January by organising a day of free folk music at the Black Swan, again showcasing local singers and groups.
Club records survive from September 1979 onwards and Roland has loaded all of these into a spreadsheet. This shows that up until the end of 2017 the club had run a total of around 2,150 events, including approximately 1,400 guest nights, 550 singers nights and 175 concerts in other venues.
The club’s plans for 2018 are more of the same. The Black Swan Inn’s new landlady, only the sixth in the club’s 40 years, has said it is “business as usual” so far as she is concerned, and the Thursday night diary is almost full already, including a 40th Anniversary Event on the Thursday before Easter with club founder Paul Buckley travelling over from Ireland to make a guest appearance. Several concerts are already lined up at large venues and the annual City of York Folk Weekend is being planned for 1st-3rd June.
The Black Swan Folk Club has certainly woven itself into the fabric of York’s live music scene and long may it continue its sterling work which, in the opinion of many a music fan, is more precious than rubies.
*This article appears in the February/March 2018 issue of The Living Tradition magazine.