“You have to contact your audience when you’re singing folk music” explains Bob Fox as we sit outside enjoying the last of the evening’s sunshine ahead of Bob’s performance at the Great Knight Folk Club in Northampton, “You can’t just stand up there and sing the songs…you’re a conduit, you’re trying to convey some kind of story to an audience…so you’ve got to make contact.”
Wise words for any performer, even more so when they come from a master of storytelling. For whilst Bob’s accomplished vocal presence and distinctive guitar technique may be the trademarks of his talent, it’s his ability to tell captivating stories through song that clearly places him amongst the very best the UK folk scene has to offer.
However Bob’s own true story is one befitting any classic work of fiction. It’s a story about the hard work and sacrifice of someone reaching the very top of his profession…only to lose his place and find himself having to once again start from the very bottom. It’s a tale of tenacity, the power of acquaintances and proof that the fairytale of a ‘second chance’ really can happen. Today, Bob Fox is once again at the top of his game…the product of a remarkable forty year journey that’s taken him from the small folk-clubs of the North-East to the lights of London’s West-End.
Indeed it’s in the West End where we start. Bob never foresaw his folk-music journey leading him into the theatre, however it was precisely that folk heritage and credibility that made him a natural fit for the part of ‘Songman’ in the highly acclaimed West End production of Warhorse…a role he ended up performing for eighteen months in London followed by another eighteen months of touring with the show around Britain, Ireland and South Africa. Bob was introduced to the role of Songman by his friend and previous collaborator John Tams.
“John, who wrote all the songs in the play, is an old mate of mine” explains Bob, “We’d worked together on a couple of projects in the past. He just came and said to me ‘Look, I wrote the songs for this thing, it’s been going for about nine years now and I’d really like to hear you singing the songs, I’d really like to see you in the role.’ So I said Ok. I hadn’t done anything like that before…first job in the theatre and I’m in a West End show!”
Bob suspects it was his previous work with Tams on the new Radio Ballads that probably brought him to mind for the role, “I’d worked on the new radio ballads, the radio documentary ballads based on the original ones by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We worked on the new ones together in 2006… me, John and a lot of other singers and musicians. So I think that was where he probably thought I would be good for this role. In the radio ballads you were delivering just a couple of lines from a song, then there would be an instrumental break and then you would deliver another couple of lines of a story…and that’s exactly what you do as Songman in Warhorse. You’re on the stage all the time, most of it as a sort of observer. Nobody else in the story can see you, so you’re able to wander around, in and out of people and they can’t see you. You’re kind of a spirit figure and when it’s time to contribute, either by making time pass by singing or by making sort of an impossible thing happen by singing a song, then that’s my turn to do my bit. It’s great…it’s an absolutely fantastic show…unbelievable. It’s very, very clever…”
But working in London full-time performing six nights a week (including two afternoon matinees) proved to be a big change for someone used to a more manageable schedule touring the folk clubs of England. Travelling home to the North-East for his one day-off from the show each week, only to have to turn straight around and head back down to London for Monday morning, eventually took it’s toll. “Relentless” is how Bob describes it.
That relentless pressure eventually convinced Bob to leave the show after three years, returning six months ago to the folk club circuit that’s clearly an integral part of Bob’s DNA, something that can be traced back to his first exposure to folk music while still at school. “One of my music teachers played me a song about a mining disaster in Nova Scotia” he explains, “I come from a coal mining town, the Durham coalfield, so coal mining was very well known to me. My Dad was a miner, my uncles were all miners, and there was just something about that song that touched me…it was written by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. I thought there must be some songs from where I come from about things that happened around where I live.”
He continues, “Eventually I found the little folk club in the town, in a little pub that was slightly out of the way. I went in there and heard people singing songs about coalmining and all sorts of other things as well, folks songs from other areas, but a lot of local songs and a lot of songs about local events. That’s what inspired me to take it up I think. I listened to these singers, then I learned some songs from them, then I sang those songs. Everybody said ‘You’ve got a good voice, there may be a future in this for you!”
Bob’s early success led him to form a duo with fiddle player Tom McConville, a partnership that would last for four years before Bob then started working with Stu Luckley. It was his collaboration with Stu that would eventually lead him to the top of the UK Folk scene, but not without first having to convince folk club organisers of their worthiness as a performing duo…
“In those days, in the days of Stu and I, in order to get gigs you had to go to the places and do what they call a floor spot. So you had to turn up and you had to say to the organiser, ‘look you know we’d like to do a gig here so can we do two or three songs and show you what we’re like’, and that was the way that everybody did it then, and if you got up and did your three or four songs and the organiser liked you, you would get a booking. That was what you had to do to get the work and to build up your reputation. I think the biggest difference nowadays is that not many of the new young artists do that, they don’t come through the folk club scene. I think partly the reason for that is that folks clubs are now full of the older generation and I think young people, even if they wanted to go and see the people who were on at the folk club, they probably would be a bit reluctant to go and sit with a group of people who were old enough to be their Mums and Dads or even their Grandads or Grandmas. I know I wouldn’t have done it when I was young. So I think there’s a generation gap opened up…”
Bob continues, “And I think the new bands are also creating a different set of venues, if you look around at some of the young bands gig lists they’re not doing folk clubs…they’re doing music venues that put folk music on and it’s not the same as a folk club. Because a folk club is what it suggests…it’s a club of people and everybody’s welcome to get up and have a go and do a song, no matter how good or bad they are, and then they’ll have a guest artist who’s booked. I think a lot of the newer artists…they don’t go through that process. They’ll go straight to a gig venue where there’s nobody else on, or if there is somebody else on they’re another professional act. I think that’s a big difference.”
Their strategy of working the floor spots clearly paid off with Bob and Stu eventually releasing the album ‘Nowt So Good’ll Pass ’ (still regarded as a classic today), propelling them to the top of every organiser’s wish list. “The first album was in 1978 and that was the one that was most highly acclaimed” Bob recounts, “We just took off…we did everything. We played every folk club, every festival…we played in Holland, we played in Germany, Australia…we toured as support artists with the Richard and Linda Thompson band, and in the band was John Kirkpatrick and Dave Pegg, so that was where we first met Peggy from Fairport. Then we later did some gigs with Fairport, we did a support with Ralph McTell. It was just fantastic. They were great days, from about ’78 through to ’82…fantastic.”
Bob’s pride in his accomplishments with Stu is evident. “We were innovators back then…we put combinations of instruments together in arrangements of songs, like dulcimer and acoustic bass, bouzouki and acoustic bass, that had never been put together before. Lots of groups and bands now use driving guitars and syncopated rhythms in their arrangements. I’m not saying it was completely down to us, but I do think that we were the first ones to do it, and whether that’s had a trickle down effect I don’t know. I do know that some of the younger groups today have said to me that they were aware of our music because their Mum and Dads listened to it all the time…”
One of the difficulties, however, of achieving success is seeing where to go next…a situation that befell Bob and Stu. He explains, “The biggest problem for us was that because we were an acoustic duo, even though we were playing quite innovative music… complex arrangements, rhythms, combinations of acoustic instruments that had never been done before…there just wasn’t anywhere for us to go further than where we were. We couldn’t make that step into the concert scene, which was the next logical place for us to go and eventually we just kind of got fed up. It sounds weird…we got fed up with being at the top because we were at the top of the folk scene but we couldn’t break out of that. Lots of people have done that now, but it wasn’t so easy back then.”
Shortly after recording their second album ‘Wish We Never Had Parted ‘, Bob and Stu decided to call it a day. This led to a difficult period of time for Bob. Despite his initial attempt to pursue a solo career, he found that venues were less interested in him as a solo act. Eventually he gave up music altogether.
“We split up in 1982. I tried to go for another couple of years, then I got a lorry driving job, then I got a teaching job, it was about 1989, and I taught for four years I think. I really, really hated it. I really was unhappy at not being out performing. I think I was quite difficult to live with as well…because I was so unhappy about having to give up something that I’d loved doing and had fantastic success at, and I was kind of a bit depressed about the idea that ‘what’s happened…where’s all that gone?’”
When his teaching career finally reached breaking point, Bob decided to make another go of music. He reconnected with two previous acquaintances, both of which were to prove pivotal in the re-launch of his music career. The first was with Vin Garbutt.
“Vin Garbutt…who was hugely successful at that time and still is now…Vin doesn’t drive, and he was always looking for people to drive him to his gigs. So we did each other a favour. I drove him to the gigs…his gigs were always full because he’s a star…and I would always do a floor spot and get a gig. Vin was always saying to the organisers ‘You’ve got to book this bloke, he’s really great!’ So every time I took him on a gig, I got a gig…and eventually filled my diary up. And once I was back out there again, the ball was rolling.”
Bob’s second critical connection was with Dave Pegg from Fairport Convention. “I went to see Fairport on one of their tours and Anna Ryder was the support artist. I went and had a drink with Peggy that night. It was just when Stu and I had done the Box of Gold album, the compilation of songs from the two albums to celebrate 20 years since the release of Nowt So Good’ll Pass. Peggy was a fan and he said he’d love to have a copy, so I took a copy to the hotel the next day to give to him. I was saying to him I really loved the show and I was quite envious of Anna because it looked great and sounded great…and he said ‘We haven’t got anybody to do next years tour, do you want to do it?’ So that got me in front of a brand new set of people…like a massive set of people. I did the festival at Cropredy that year, and then I made the album ‘Dreams Never Leave You’. That was all a major step forward for me…that was in 2000.”
With the momentum definitely now back in Bob’s favour, he went on an international tour, recorded the album ‘Dark to the Sky’ with the Hush band project (earning him a folk award nomination) and signed a deal with Topic records which led to the highly acclaimed ‘Borrowed Moments’ and ‘The Blast’ albums.
Since leaving Warhorse at the end of last year, Bob has been touring the UK presenting a mixture of the songs he’s best known for alongside songs from Warhorse. “What happens in the Warhorse play is I appear, I maybe sing a couple of lines from a song and then I’m off again. Then later in the play I maybe sing another couple of lines, maybe from the same song or from a different song…and so you never actually get to sing the songs all the way through apart from two. So I thought it might be a nice idea to try and attract people who’d been to see the play who might want to hear a little bit more of the songs and the music, because the music is fantastic. So I’ve been doing some of them at some of my normal folk club gigs and often the second half of the show is made up of songs that people know that I sing from my previous recordings…it’s been nice.”
I asked Bob what advice he’d have for anyone aiming to achieve the same level of success he has as a folk musician? “Practice. Get really good at whatever it is that you want to do. Don’t forget about the singing, because there are lots of people I think who practice really hard on their instruments and get really great, and then they sing, but they don’t work as hard at their singing as they do on their instruments. For me, I’m a singer first and an instrumentalist second, so I’ve worked quite hard at the style and how I sing, so I would say that. I think being good…you’ve got to work hard at being good. If you’ve got some kind of natural talent then you’ve got to work at it…and not just rely on the fact that you’re naturally good.”
He also adds ”I think you have to communicate with your audience. I’ve seen a lot of great young bands that are phenomenal players, but they just sit and play and then at the end they kind of have a little bit of a natter…they don’t present themselves to the audience very well. They maybe have some in-jokes between themselves and then they play again. I don’t know if young audiences have different demands…I don’t know if that’s alright for young audiences, but certainly from my point of view if I’m watching a band I would like them to talk to me…I would like them to tell me something about who they are rather than just listen to them playing brilliant music…I’d like a bit of flesh on it.”
During our chat Bob also let on that he’d been offered the opportunity to go back to Warhorse, something he was clearly mulling over. Despite the logistical challenges of having to spend so much time in London, I sensed Bob’s pride every time he spoke of his involvement with the play. “I’m very proud of the way I did Songman in Warhorse, because a lot of really important people in the theatre and in the folk world have seen it and have said it was perfect. I looked right, I sounded right…I was right for it, it was right for me. I’m proud of the way that I did that and stuck at it. It would have been easy to give it up sometimes, because it was so hard.”
He continues, “I think Warhorse has been the thing for me…it came at the right time because it if I’d been younger I wouldn’t have looked right for it, and I might not have even appreciated it as much if I’d been younger. Being in Warhorse is like being in one of the songs that I sing…it’s like a long story and it’s a great, great story and I just feel like I’m part of it. It’s been great, I loved it.”
Despite Bob leaving me with a ‘watch this space’ in regards to his return to Warhorse, something tells me Bob Fox and Songman may not have fully parted company just yet…
Interview and Photography by: Rob Bridge
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos
Bob Fox July Gig Dates
Thurs 9th Darlington Folk Club,The Copper Beech,Neasham Rd,Darlington.DL1 4DH
tel: 07890 006204
Fri 10th Otley Courthouse,Courthouse Street,Otley,West Yorkshire.LS21 3AN
tel: 01943 467466
Sat 11th/Sun 12th Furness Tradition Festival,Ulverston,Cumbria.
Sat 25th Underneath the Stars Festival,Cannon Hall Farm,S Yorks.S75 4AT
Fri 31st St.Peters Hall,Park Street,Market Bosworth,Leics.CV13 0LL
tel: 01455 292466
Visit Bob’s website here for more tour dates: