Folk club marks 40 years at same venue

Virtuoso Guitarist Clive Carroll playing at the Black Swan Folk Club, York, with American duo Steve Cooley on banjo and Brigid Kaelin on accordion in February 2018.

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.


Winter solstice myths and legends

From left, Benedicte Maurseth (Hardanger fiddle, voice), Clare Salaman (nyckelharpa)      and Jean Kelly (clarsach).

Take three gifted musicians with strange and ancient instruments, put them into a medieval church illuminated by candlelight on a cold, frosty night and get them to play tunes and sing songs about myths and legends inspired by the winter solstice.
Mix all these potent ingredients together and you have a musical seasonal dish that lives long in the memory.
Jean Kelly (clarsach or Celtic harp), Benedicte Maurseth (Hardanger fiddle, voice) and Clare Salaman (nyckelharpa or Swedish keyed fiddle) presented a sublime concert at the National Centre For Early Music, York, last night as the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments.
The capacity audience were enchanted by the trio’s musical virtuosity and their Scandinavian stories about St Lucia, a third-century martyr who helped Christians hiding in dark catacombs, using a candle to light her way.
The trio also mentioned the dark side of the Lucia story: Lussi, a terrifying enchantress. Legend has it that on the longest night Lussi flies through the sky, amidst smoke and flame, hunting those who have failed to prepare properly for Christmas. She puts her long arms down the chimney, blows out the candles and hits the lazy and work-shy with her hand, causing immediate paralysis.
So the message from last night’s concert is crystal clear: don’t put off your Christmas preparations. You have been warned!



Restoring skiffle’s reputation…


Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.

Playing with words


How did The Beatles graduate from callow boy band to sophisticated bohemian artists capable of creating a cultural masterpiece in only four years?
This was the question explored by sociologist Colin Campbell in an illustrated talk called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words where he examined the lyrics of selected songs from that seminal album.
His Festival Of Ideas lecture attracted a capacity audience at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub last night (June 15th). This attendance alone suggests the great British public is far from being “peppered out” by the mass media fanfare that has greeted the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The critic Kenneth Tynan has been mocked for describing the album, released on 1st June 1967, as “A decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” However, Campbell put Tynan’s ambitious claim in context by stating The Beatles were more than pop stars; they were artists who influenced millions of people throughout the world. Along with fellow musician Bob Dylan, they were the beating heart of 1960s counter culture.
They achieved this status with their songs. As boys, they played with words before they played the guitar. Being Scousers, they were addicted to puns; the band’s name, after all, is a pun. They also adored alliteration and instinctively used rhetorical forms, such as anaphora, epiphora, symploce and oronym.
Campbell defined good lyrics as being effortless, succinct, pleasing to the ear and original. The lyrics of The Beatles demonstrate these four characteristics. They put music in their lyrics through creative word play. They wrote songs, not just melody; strip away the lyrics from the music and you are left with something that’s vaguely dissatisfying.
Campbell added Lennon was the master of ambiguity, while Paul was the master of word sounds. All the while, curious George was learning the art of song writing by observing his band mates; Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun was, somewhat appropriately, revealed as Campbell’s favourite Beatles song.

A dignified protest

Reg Meuross

Gifted singer-songwriter Reg Meuross gave an intimate concert at the Black Swan Folk Club this evening.
He sang about the Votes For Women martyr Emily Wilding Davison, the highwayman Dick Turpin, Dylan Thomas, Hank (Mr Lovesick Blues) Williams, the band leader’s violin that survived the Titanic disaster, Cicero, London, a hard-pressed NHS nurse and the young anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl.
I left the York pub with the lyrics of his topical song England Green And England Grey still resounding in my head; which, I felt, was appropriate as millions of votes cast in today’s General Election were being counted:

England green and England grey
Look out on a summer’s day
To all things bright and fair and gay
To my home, my love, my England.

I believe in dignity, rich or poor we’re all born free.
Austerity and slavery, I thought they were behind us.
I don’t believe the BBC, monarchy or anarchy
Or an empire built on piracy, by our history you’ll find us

For years our women had no say no right to work or equal pay.
God help the crippled and the gay, the fragile flowers of England.
Shut the factories, shut the mines, punish those fell on hard times
While they honour them who do the crimes, the greedy men of England

How can a man respect a man who steals his house and sells his land
And takes the wages from his hand to pay his own expenses.
The NHS our England’s jewel is bartered by Westminster’s fool
To justify his public school and military defences

Sing the songs of old John Bull, Cecil Sharp and John and Paul
Come English folk, come one and all to the sweet songs of our England
Take my hand and walk with me down the back roads to the sea
In spite of all, we’ll both agree there is none so sweet as England.

Musical storytelling


What is it like to be a gifted musician? This question is explored by the bestselling author Mitch Albom in his novel The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto. It tells the story of a young orphan born into a Spain torn apart by civil war. The boy learns to play guitar and flees death and destruction to end up in the United States where he has encounters with Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Frankie eventually retreats from soulless fame and fortune to live a life of obscurity. But his legend refuses to wither and die – despite his best efforts.
What makes this novel memorable is its narrator: Music. Another of Albom’s creative coups was persuading the likes of Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennet and Paul Stanley, of the rock band Kiss, to bear witness to their part in Frankie’s incredible story – hinting at how his musicianship influenced theirs. The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto is an inspired work of fiction that strives to articulate the essence of music; its rigorous technique and potent emotion. The novel even has its own musical companion to enhance its atmospheric storytelling.

Bishop’s move


Richard Holloway, the former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland who stopped believing in God, does not like being called an atheist because he “doesn’t do certainty”; if you must stick a label on him, he would suggest “expectant agnostic”.
He told a packed audience at York Explore Library last night (20/02/2017) he was fascinated by three questions that had taxed philosophers and theologians for centuries:

What are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

In promoting his latest book A Little History Of Religion, the former bishop argued there were four approaches those questions:

Strong Religion: Humankind’s encounter with God was all truthful, all actual, all real. This fundamentalist approach left no room for doubt.

Critical Realism: There was an encounter with God but, due to human fallibility, we must be modest about the claims we make. It adopted a fluid approach to history.

Post Religion: (non-realism): This approach was sympathetic to religion; it regarded it as a colossal work of the imagination that spoke to the human condition in the same way as great works of art, such as an opera, play or novel. You can be a religious belonger without being a religious believer; it can challenge you to be a better person.

No religion: These people don’t get religion. They ask the question: “Why waste your time with it?” Some in this camp were benign while others, such as Richard Dawkins, attacked religion with vigour and a certain amount of anger by adopting, ironically, a religious, evangelical approach.

Holloway ended his stimulating talk by referring to Yehudah Amichai’s poem:

The Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.

Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.

Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes
replete with balsam, foreign consulates,
like wicked brides who were thrust aside

lie in wait for their moment.