A few days ago, I was asked to define ‘Folk’. It was a rhetorical question, but it goes to the heart of Folk East’s purpose, or re-purposing, of the annual jamboree that is the summer music festival. 2015 will be the third year Folk East has set its stall out in the grounds of Glemhall Hall, the Suffolk manse of Major Philip Hope-Cobbold. In situ since 1560, modified by the Georgians and everyone since, the hall now sits on a wide curve of the A12 in splendid grounds broken by ancient trees. John and Becky Marshall-Potter approached Major Cobbold with their ideas several years ago and between the three of them, they haven’t looked back since. ‘Folk’, says John ‘is about more than music.’
Evidence of this singular approach is clear from the start of the launch for this year’s Folk East, where both Philip and John stress the traditional nature of the event, the latter likening it to a modern interpretation of the medieval barter-markets where trades of all descriptions would meet to sell, buy and make merry with whatever proceeds were left, usually involving revelry driven by wandering musicians. Their wish to ‘..rekindle the Eastfolk folkmoots’ has been gathering momentum and this year’s moot may well be the biggest yet.
The musical line-up is one easily recognisable by Folk Radio UK listeners and readers. The Unthanks, currently tearing up and down the UK in support of their ground-breaking new album Mount The Air, itself tearing up the rule-book on modern folk, join forces with such luminaries as Martin Carthy, Vin Garbutt and Steve Tilston, Peatbog Faeries and Neil Innes (of which more later). Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Megson, Maz O’Connor and False Lights lead the younger generation’s charge, besides many more. Not to be outdone, wonderful Teesside trio and Radio 2’s ‘Best Folk Group of the Year’ The Young’uns are performing and taking on the mantle as patrons of the event. Your cup doth runneth over, no?
But back to defining Folk. Neil Innes, Bonzo Dog, Idiot Bastard, Rutle and all-round comedic bon-viveur, on hearing I’m from Folk Radio, wants me to appreciate the wider diaspora contained within the word. ‘It’s all folk, isn’t it; art with a capital F. It’s about people. We’re at an interesting crossroads – our minds, our little monkey-brains, tell us we’re supposed to be sociable, but technology ensures we’re moving further and further apart.’
Looking ridiculously younger than his 70 Summers, Innes, who turned up at Folk East in 2014 as a paying customer to see what the fuss was about, is this year performing and generally shouting about the benefits of a local festival to all who will spare him five minutes, which, when you’re Neil Innes, is quite a lot of people. ‘I believe in supporting things, especially if they’re local.’ He lives twenty minutes up the coast, so his provenance is unquestionable. ‘I love the complicity of being on stage, the connection. Who knows what I’ll actually do. I might drag out some friends, give the Ego Warriors an airing – we have a gospel song called “Slaves of Freedom” which is topical… performing is therapeutic and harmless, an outlet.’ Which all sounds lovely, but Innes isn’t the soft, cuddly type, his response to a question about recent national events providing ample evidence his satire can still bite; ‘The Emperor is a twat and we can all see it – it’s the dishonest leading the deluded.’
He’s a mine of stories, unsurprising given his many and varied pursuits since the mid-Sixties, dropping household names like Cleese and Presley into conversation as if they were a firm of lawyers. Unashamedly idealistic about Folk East, it’s entirely possible the relaxed air of danger that goes everywhere with him may well explode come late August, and what a fine sight that will be. ‘If I’m not having fun, I’m doing something wrong.’
If Innes is idealistic (and Amen to that), John Marshall-Potter is a romantic, but one with his head firmly in the books rather than the clouds. His experience spans thirty-plus years and various roles at every major UK festival, starting out as the site electrician at Knebworth for Led Zeppelin in 1979. He’s a long-term promoter too, and was booking folk-legends like Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick into long-lost clubs and pubs in East Anglia 25 years ago, so he’s no stranger to the genre. He and Becky’s vision for Folk East is the culmination of that experience and a natural step from the Albion Fairs where lots of genuine bartering of arts and crafts took place. Folk East attempts (and is succeeding) at providing all the extra-curricular events at Folk East on the basis that nothing on show or offer originates more than a county’s width away.
The ‘market and meet’ aspect of Folk East is John’s passion, this year made real by ensuring that even the stages, marquees and infra-structure is owned, managed or hired from local suppliers. Ditto the food, the drink and the varied arts and crafts on offer around the site. As John says, ‘A lot of stalls last year gained commissions as a result of their attendance, and have been working ever since because of it.’
Some examples are on show at this year’s launch, including a special festival ale brewed by Mark Bartram of Bartram’s Brewery, an easy-drinking session beer (apparently; never touch the stuff, myself ©Don’tTellTheWife) proudly bearing the Cobbold name. Of equal diversion are the fine foods on display in the Imagined Suffolk Food Village, from superb venison and game to local fish. John is at pains, despite, or because of, his knowledge of modern festivals, to point out that Folk East aims to provide good food at reasonable prices and having asked several people for their views, the evidence backs up the claim (I couldn’t possibly comment, eschewing the vittals on offer for a celery stick and water ©Don’tTellTheDoc). John again, ‘It’s an important factor to remain affordable and as un-commercial as possible. We’re looking for a balance that provides intimacy and safety for the visitors; they’re paying for the entertainment, after all.’
Folk East is a full-time job for John and Becky now, and attendance is growing every year. Tom Cobbold, son of Major Philip, is keen to ensure the festival stays at Glemham Hall, so its future looks bright. ‘A lot of people who come stay longer and explore the Suffolk coast; the fringe sites outside Glemham Hall and the Aldeburgh music festival help that.’
Before The Young’uns provide a final word, I must mention another attraction. Folk East will this year host a gathering of artisan instrument makers. On hand to explain at the launch was Otis Luxton of Luxton Instruments. ‘Instrumental’ is an open invitation for instrument makers to turn up at the event with whatever gear is required to showcase how they make their guitars, squeezeboxes, fiddles etc, discuss and highlight their processes, trade with each other and engage in ad-hoc musical performance. Luxton builds to order and only uses local woods, including a Sycamore recently felled on the Glemhall estate. If sufficient makers turn up, this will be a fascinating addition to the event.
The Young’uns take their music seriously. It’s just that they take little else seriously. I can vouch for this, as the three times I’ve sat down with them recently have all resulted in my capturing gales of laughter on my Dictaphone, usually mine. This time is little different; they’ve glad-handed their way around the grounds for two hours before I catch up with them, including an impromptu rendering of John Bull, and are already late for a sound-check at their evening gig in Aldeburgh. After that, they’re off to Birmingham and further north before being back in London on May 27, a sold-out show at Cecil Sharp House. With all that in mind, they remain full of energy and happy to talk.
Such is the life of artists on the up, their own upward momentum aligning nicely with the event itself. ‘We’re still on a high [about their recent Radio 2 award], can’t quite believe it. Bellowhead announced us as winners from the stage and the cheer from the crowd was very gratifying.’ The tour to accompany latest album Another Man’s Ground finishes on June 1, but before they can look towards a well-earned rest, I want to know what it means to them to be portrayed by some as the ‘future of folk’, a moniker that gets bandied around more and more when their names are mentioned? David first; ‘The business of folk music always wants something different, but people are just discovering us, so we should continue as is.’ The understanding that life means business is ably supported by Michael, who agrees, ‘We fell in love with folk music, and we fell in love with harmony singing; to move on from that would deny a growing audience the reason why we’re here at all.’ So, business as usual in The Young’uns camp.
They’re very proud of their role as Folk East patrons, and are putting their patronage to good local use, hosting a music workshop later in the year in Aldeburgh. It’s a chance, as David says, ‘..to give something back. We’ll use our name to draw people in, but really it’s about our core beliefs; community, social justice and people coming together to have a good laugh.’ I venture that The Young’uns sound like a three-headed Billy Bragg, but Sean points out ‘that’s just David’ to a round of guffaws. Indeed, my ten minutes with the band include uncanny impressions of Mark Radcliffe, a rant about how many times you can say Bellowhead in one sentence and the origins of their name, which David contends is ‘..rubbish, but it’s who we are now’. There is never a dull moment with The Young’uns, and their role as artists and patrons at Folk East should be all you need when considering a purchase of tickets.
By: Paul Woodgate
Folk East: 21st, 22nd & 23rd August 2015 Glemham Hall, Suffolk. For more details and tickets visit: www.folkeast.co.uk