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Me and music, and the London folk scene in the Sixties

29 August 2008 I was recently contacted by my best mate for some years from about 1960-1, with whom I lost touch around 1975. For reasons of arthritis and privacy, he uses the name Voltarol (a pill for arthritics who, unlike me, arenít man enough for unadulterated Diclofenac). He has a fascinating and rapidly-growing blog at http://adventuresofvoltarol.blogspot.com/ - lots about folk (of which we did a lot together), jazz and Bazilian music, some politics and bits about me!

Some of this is going to seem like gratuitous name-dropping, but for me itís just great to remember all the delightful and amazing people I met.

The íguitaristí

Iíd started learning the guitar when I was 16 and had jammed folk and blues stuff among friends as my skills slowly and painfully developed. My parents bought me a serious classical guitar and a course of lessons at the Spanish Guitar Centre in Charing Cross Road (founded by Andres Segovia and John Williamsís dad Len) for my 21st birthday, and I developed my own style of accompaniment for traditional British songs and more modern American ones based on simple classical technique (I never got beyond ísimpleí). Eventually, with the aid of Jerry Silvermanís blues guitar tutor, I also managed to get an independent thumb beat going while my fingers played simple blues licks in the treble, and on a good day I can still sound a bit like some of the really primitive old folk blues performers. I never managed to sort out clawhammer picking, let alone ragtime guitar, and am still totally in awe of all those who did.

Iíve always had a guitar around but have rarely spent much time playing since I left London (below). I have had a big Yamaha acoustic (what we used to call a íjumboí in the 60s) since the mid-70s, which got a lot of use with kids when I was teaching. For my sixtieth birthday Patricia bought me a red Stratocaster (in a Squier starter kit with a Fender practice amp) and the íkidsí clubbed together for a Marshall effects pedal. Patricia also bought me some headphones - you can draw your own conclusions from that! Again, I rarely seem to find the time to play, though I have programmed a twelve-bar blues chord sequence into my magnificent Technics keyboard (which I also rarely touch and canít really play anyway), which gives me a totally flexible backing system for practising. I thought that, when I got out of my last full-time job, Iíd have time for all that, but having been out of said job since the 13 July 2007 I still find precious little time for music. Who knows where the time goes?

The Yamaha and the Strat still earn their keep, though. Grandson Barney (heíll become a teenager in February 2010) is already a frighteningly accomplished lead guitarist, having played to genuine acclaim at school concerts since he started secondary school. I challenged him to learn the guitar solo from The Eaglesí Hotel California a while ago, promising him a decent guitar when he cracked it. He did this remarkably quickly, and I was lucky to get an Epiphone GS on Ebay for a very reasonable price!

The singer

All this happened a very long time ago and my memory may be less than reliable. So my apologies for any inaccuracies. If any of these are libellous, I hope nobody will sue an old man. And if anyone wants to put me straight, I hope theyíll hit the Contact me button.

My brief ícareerí as a singer began in 1964, though Iíd played and sung with friends on and off for about three years before that (more will probably emerge on Voltarolís blog - he is a couple of years younger than me, and seems to have a better memory). That was at the time we were loyal members of the Ealing Rhythm and Blues Club and witnessed the birth of The Rolling Stones (more below). My real debut was at The Scots Hoose, an old pub on Cambridge Circus off Charing Cross Road. I went to a folk club there (the resident was a very funny Glaswegian called Owen Hand) and had the temerity to get up and sing (borrowing Owenís Levin Goliath jumbo guitar - quite a prestige weapon in those days). I know I sang an anti-war song called Two Brothers from an album by Theodore Bikel (better known as a movie actor). I shudder to think what else I murdered. However bad I was, the club organiser, another Scot named Bruce Dunnet, immediately shoved a contract in my hand! I was overwhelmed until I discovered that he did this with all floor singers who didnít make total fools of themselves - it was a sort of carpet-bombing approach: each signing cost him one Roneoíd sheet of paper and tied the singer to Bruce for life (or so he hoped), just in case someone actually turned out to have talent.

It got me a guaranteed guest spot (usually unpaid) in all of Bruceís clubs, in one of which I met Peter Bellamy (an amazing singer from Norfolk, who sang great English ballads intermixed with songs by the Singing Postman, and played a mean concertina) and Royston Wood, another excellent singer who played nothing but his vocal cords.

Pete had a residency at the nearby and famous Bunjieís Coffee House (not one of Bruceís clubs) one night a week, so we all started singing there. His co-resident (chalk and cheese) was Al Stewart, then a Dylan clone but later a minor star in his own right and still making a living from his songs.

A rather introverted lad from Manchester turned up for a few weeks, playing very bad guitar, then vanished for a while. It turned out that he had bought Bert Janschís first LP on publication day and hidden away in his bedsit until he could play every guitar line immaculately. He emerged as Roy Harper, whose album Come Out Fighting, Genghis Smith was one of the true originals of the late Sixties. I saw a poster for a gig by Roy at a pub in Derby in March 2000, so heís obviously survived but never made it big.

Bert and John Renbourn, who later formed Pentangle, were regulars at the same clubs and later shared a house in Somali Road, West Hampstead, with a floating population, including Peter and Royston. There was always a lot of music - and usually a big fat joint going round the circle - at that house.

A while later we met a girl who walked into one of the clubs in a green schoolgirlís double-breasted gabardine raincoat. Freckled and quirky, this was Heather Wood (no relation to Royston). She turned out to be a great singer too - and to live just along the road from me in Constantine Road, Hampstead. The four of us started singing together and Bruce gave us our own residency at the Scots Hoose.

The club was called íThe Young Traditioní - one of Bruceís better ideas.

Then we heard the Watersons from Hull, and unaccompanied vocal harmony became an obsession. We used to sing the Copper Brothersí Wedding Song endlessly in the Underground tunnels at Leicester Square station - not busking, just loving the acoustics!

The group called The Young Tradition (consisting of Pete, Royston and Heather, who unashamedly pinched Bruceís name) was actually formed in my flat - it sort of growed, and somewhere down the line I fell off. They ended up as quite serious rivals to the Watersons. I still have a faded copy of Issue Two of Karl Dallasís Folk Music, Ballads and Songs magazine, price two shillings and sadly undated, which contains an interview with the YT. Royston is quoted as follows: Really the beginnings of the Young Tradition were at that vast session when in fact the only member of the Young Tradition present was me at Paul Marsdenís when all of a sudden Paul started singing The Wedding Song and Val Berry started singing and Paul started mucking around and all of a sudden I discovered that Iíd got a bass harmony for it and we did it in the club. Because of the better musicianship of Peter and Heather I think thatís what sort of tied us together really.

You can read the whole article here.

It was ironic that Royston, who had quite a light voice, found himself doing bass harmonies. With my genuine bass voice, if Iíd been able to improvise anything except top lines I might have ended up in the YT. As it was, shortly after that, I got involved with a lady who didnít like folk clubs very much, and I gradually faded from the scene. By the time we were married I had more-or-less stopped singing except at home with friends.

There are many treasured memories, though.

Along with the rest of the gang, I met Paul Simon on the night his first solo LP was released here, in the queue for the Les Cousins all-night folk club in Greek Street, Soho. Iíll never forget how genuinely pleased and surprised he was by our approval of the recording - a genuinely modest man. He was with Art Garfunkel, who seemed to find our admiration for Paul and our indifference to him pretty hard to take (their EP, including The Boxer, had got here before the solo LP). Their partnership was a phenomenal success, but I always felt he was a millstone round Paulís neck artistically.

(Wife Number Two and I went to the Graceland concert at the NEC, buying the video of the African concert as soon as it was released and replacing it with a DVD when that came out. It was fine work from someone who has gone on maturing as an artist for a phenomenally long time)

One of the London folk magazines published a particularly moronic review of Paulís LP. I think the author was called Dave Guard, and for some reason he had decided he couldnít understand Paulís witty but hardly obscure parody of Dylanís Itís Alright, Ma. I sent in a venomously sarcastic defence of Paul, with a patronising interpretation of the song, which (to Guardís credit) was published. Paul wrote me a charming letter thanking me for the support - I should have kept it as it would probably be quite valuable by now! I also remember trying to pick up a sweet young lady at one of his club gigs. She turned out to be Paulís girlfriend, Kathy of Kathyís Song fame. Not so cool.

Bert Janschís famous anti-heroin song Needle of Death reflected the gulf that existed then between the soft-drug and hard-drug subcultures. I recall the very-stoned residents of the house in West Hampstead forcibly ejecting an American visitor because he was obviously using cocaine.

Then there was the evening Royston and I spent getting drunk with Mississippi Fred McDowell (whom I had heard years before on the wonderful Angola Prisonersí Spirituals field-recordings, which had been great favourites of Voltarolís and my gang, along with Angola Prisonersí Blues, back in the suburban days) in Karl Dallasís London Folk Music Centre, where I was a resident singer. It seemed quite unreal that one of the lifers from Angola State Prison Farm in Louisiana was actually drinking with us - and trying to teach me to play bottleneck guitar with a real neck off a real whisky bottle. He failed, but that was some night! (I recently discovered that Fred was in London with the American Folk Blues Festival tour, which I hadnít known was running. A year or two before, my mates and I had travelled from Hillingdon to Croydon to see a previous concert, at which we discovered to our amazement that many of our blues heroes were actually alive - Muddy Waters, Otis Spann (the truly great blues singer and pianist who sang the poignant Goodbye Newport Blues, spontaneously interpreting a lyric scribbled by the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes, which ended as the final track on the album Muddy Waters at Newport and my favourite blues recording of all time), Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lonnie Johnson and many others. To bring things up-to-date, around 2003 I bought the CD of Angola Prisonersí Blues with the seven original tracks plus thirteen others for the same Christmas. And when choosing DVDs to replace the 90 or so stolent by burglars, I got two of the Festivals, including a number from Fred. It was incredible to hear these guys for the first time in forty years. I thought I might even turn up in one of the audience shots, but I havenít spotted myself yet...

And an afternoon getting even drunker in a Soho drinking club with Royston and Dominic Behan, fine writer, singer, old-style IRA man and brother of Brendan.

And the first night Maddy Prior sang in the West End - again at the Scots Hoose. I had a largely undeserved reputation as a sexual predator around the scene (I think my real tally was two, who must remain anonymous), and I remember Hans Fried (of Colletsí wonderful jazz and folk record shop in New Oxford Street, where we spent most of our lunchtimes listening to the latest recordings) warning me off when I did no more than admire Maddyís singing! It wasnít long before Steeleye Span brought their special brand of gutsy electric folk to a much wider audience than we ípuristsí could ever reach.

But maybe the most epic night was at Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society near Regents Park. It was a concert by the Watersons which was recorded for the BBC, and the audience must have been at least 25% established folk singers. We were all encouraged to join in, and some of the chruses could have given the Albert Hall organ a run for its money.

So God knows where Iíd have been by now if I hadnít married the woman I married. For sure, Iíd have been attracted by the Steeleye/Fairport Tendency, if only for the fun I could have had with electric and electronic instruments. Rock star - or just another casualty? I met John Renbourn when he and Jacqui McShee did a gig in Derby in 1996. He confirmed a rumour Iíd heard that Pete Bellamy had committed suicide. And he told me the terrible news that Royston Wood had been killed by a car while helping someone change a tyre in New York City.

Amazingly, in January 2004, I got an email from Roystonís daughter, who had found this page after putting her Dadís name into a search engine and finding this page. As a result of that, I did some searching of my own and, among many other things, came up with Heather Woodís website - a fine example of a site that managed to be fascinating, witty and entertaining while using only the very simplest technology, which is what the Web used to be about in the good old days. I mailed Heather and to my amazement had a reply. She was living in Hellís Kitchen, New York, and working for www.heritagemuse.com when I last looked.

If this page has rung bells with anyone else, please click the Contact me button.

A while ago I had a long stretch of insomnia, and having exhausted the possibilities of counting backwards from 200 to zero, first in English and then in French, I started silent singing. I found that I could remember just two of íthe old songsí, which I started singing in my head. The first was The Ship in Distress, a gloomy ballad of shipwreck and almost-cannibalism which Iíd learned from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in the Scots Hoose/Bunjieís days. I remember unveiling it proudly at Bunjieís, and Pete Bellamyís outraged outbust: íYouíve stolen my bloody song!í The other was The Four Loom Weaver, which had made my flesh creep when Iíd first heard Ewan MacColl singing it. Then, more recently, I suddenly remembered Brave Wolfe, as sung by the Watersons. For that one I had to go a-googling, but most of the words were still tucked away in my long-term memory. So now if somethingís bugging me in the dark hours, I have three epic songs to work through. It usually works. (As Iím writing this, I have a Watersons CD on the PC, and am singing along with it: I donít think the old voice is in bad nick - maybe I should find a folk club and try being a floor singer again...

Other kinds of music

My musical interests werenít restricted to folk and blues - I was heavily into modern jazz, too, and had been exploring modern íclassicalí music during my folk-club period with the help of the vast record collection at Camden Town Public Library. Stravinsky was a great favourite (to me, the Picasso of music - master of the traditions and techniques who could shatter the rules to find new means of expression, the complete opposite of Shoenberg et al with their mathematical approach), and by chance Iíd discovered an LP of Hindemith organ sonatas in Camden Town library; I used to whistle large chunks of those while waiting for Northern Line trains late at night on Camden Town station after evenings in the folk clubs!

Wife Number One was more into jazz than folk, which is why I drifted away from the club scene. We used to go regularly with my wonderful boss, S John Woods, to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street, Mayfair, to hear the Mike Westbrook Band (she had gone out with the trombone-player, Malcolm Griffiths, before me). And I recall at least two amazing concerts by Jimmy Smith, the godfather of the jazz Hammond organ, at the Royal Festival Hall. That was also the venue for a concert by Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke Ellington (or was it Count Basie?) Orchestra, too - wow!

It wasnít until we got married and she brought her records to the flat that I realised she was into classical music, too. My Dad had enjoyed the more romantic stuff - ironic, since he wouldnít own up to having a single human emotion - and Iíd acquired a taste for the likes of Borodin, Tchaikowsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but now I discovered the heavier side of Piotr Ilyich on a ten-inch LP of David Oistrakh playing the Violin Concerto. And then my great love. My new wife had a record of Klemperer conducting Beethovenís 7th Symphony - awesome. Today, if I was on Desert Island Discs, Iíd have a job selecting just eight of Beethovenís works, let alone fitting in any of my other favourite music. Iíve heard him referred to as íarguablyí the greatest composer of all time. For me, thereís no argument. I find Mozart too confident and sure of himself - I prefer to listen to The Mighty Ludwig groping his way towards perfection, and getting there. And, to be honest, while thereís been lots of delightful stuff since, none of it has the power and purity of Beethoven - not for me, anyway. As for the likes of Schoenberg, their mathematically-based compositions do absolutely nothing for me - whereas stretching the possibilities of conventional harmony to the limit can be wonderful. As for the sort of jazz thatís based on knowing the related scale for every chord and playing anything but the original tune - Iím unimpressed. I like to hear variations on a tune, but some elements of the original have to be perceptible, and that has to come from intuition rather than intellect.

We kept aloof from pop music, probably until about the time the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper - you couldnít ignore that! The White Album was probably the first pop LP I bought, though I bought the single of Ike and Tina Turnerís River Deep, Mountain High long before that. By the time Wife Number One and I split up, we had a pretty eclectic record collection to share out: Otis Redding... Aretha Franklin... Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young... Carole King... Miles Davis... John Coltrane... masses of Joni Mitchell...Buffy Sainte-Marie... And lots and lots of Beethoven!

In the first year after we split, I found David Bowieís The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in Redruth public library. That was me caught, big time! I bought David Live - the awesome 1974 Philadelphia concert double album - and the long love-affair really took off. A difficult one, though, because Wife Number Two detested Bowie to the point of phobia, and my present wife, Patricia, isnít exactly a fan! But when my late son Dave and I got together with Bowie we always had a seriously good time. For me, Bowie is probably the greatest solo talent in the history of rock. This was confirmed in November 2003 when I finally got to see him live at the NEC (tickets a brilliant present from Patricia who, to her amazement, really enjoyed him live). I was quite uneasy, afraid seeing him so late in his career might spoil him for me, but he was absolutely awesome, introducing new stuff while giving us plenty of the back catalogue and treating the old songs with total respect - and his easy rapport with the huge audience was amazing. I was desperate for him to play All the Young Dudes (the song he gave to Mott the Hoople to rescue their ailing fortunes), but thought he might not as it was not one he had recorded himself as an album track. However, only a few songs into the first set he asked us: íNow - who was it rapped all night?í and three thousand of us yelled íBilly!í. And he did another of my favourites, The Man Who Sold the World. And for an encore, three songs from the ZIggy album played just like on the record - but better. A totally memorable night. He even still had the awesome Earl Slick on guitar (he was on the 1974 Philly album), but sadly not the other guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had also stayed with him for many years.

Then there are The Rolling Stones, widely rated the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world. Winding back to the period when my Hillingdon mates and I trekked to Croydon for the Blues Festival, we used to go all the way from Hillingdon to Ealing every week to listen to Alexis Kornerís Blues Inforporated at their own club. One night, two mop-headed scruffs turned up and asked Alexis if they could play during the bandís interval. Their names were Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. I was on nodding terms with Mick for a few weeks, until they pinched one of Alexisís regular trio of drummers, Charlie Watts (the others were Phil Seaman and Creamís Ginger Baker), and disappeared to form the Stones. So Iíve always had an affection for the band, and still listen to a lot of their music. I went to both the Voodoo Lounge and Bridges to Babylon concerts in Sheffield and was totally blown away. Mick is seven months younger than me, and I canít believe how he sprints around their massive concert sets while singing non-stop. As for Keith - heís miraculously alive and I canít help loving the guy. May they live forever! What is really great is that our Grandson, aged 11, invariably asks to watch my various Stones DVDs when heís at our house, proving that great music spans the generations. What is really bloody scandalous is what they charge for concert tickets these days. £80 - give me a break! As for the tax-haven bit - well, just don?t get this old socialist started...

Have you heard Anne-Sophie Mutter play the Beethoven Violin Concerto? If not, you should.

And I want to alert Beethoven lovers to The Last Master - a superb three-volume ífictional biographyí of the great man by John Suchet (thatís him - the TV news guy). I absolutely devoured the first two volumes when Patricia bought them for me, and bought volume 3 as soon as Iíd finished the first two.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.