Cornwall’s folk club scene of the 1960s is, perhaps, the most well-documented in the UK. The role played by clubs like The Folk Cottage, The Count House and The Pipers in the blossoming careers of Donovan, Ralph McTell, Michael Chapman, Clive Palmer and many more has ensured the Duchy’s reputation as the spiritual (and often actual) home of folk’s maverick rambling troubadours.
Numerous folk clubs sprung-up during the decade, all of them supplying a largely American-derived repertoire to an audience bolstered by the popularity of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Tom Paxton.
In 1967, a small group of enthusiasts who met weekly to sing decided to start a new club to attract visiting traditional performers to Cornwall. The first recorded club night of the Bodmin Traditional Folk Club was on 31st May 1968 in an upper room at The Barley Sheaf. The new club rapidly attracted an enthusiastic membership, but also drew accusations of being “elitist,” and “purist,” for its traditional song policy, while disgruntled three-chord strummers claimed that the club guards turned-away anyone who arrived carrying a guitar! Nowadays the booking policy is a little more inclusive, but that clarity of purpose has maintained Bodmin Folk Club (as it’s now called) through the decades. Others have come and gone but Bodmin is the only folk club started in Cornwall in the 1960s still standing, and is currently enjoying something of a resurgence.
I joined Bodmin Folk Club in 1999 and am in my second stint as Club Secretary. Being a formally-constituted members club, with officers elected at an annual general meeting, is perhaps another factor in the club’s longevity, but the biggest reason for its enduring appeal is undoubtedly the people involved.
Bodmin Folk Club’s most recognisable face belongs to Vic Legg – best-known for his role as ‘The Coachman’ in Peter Bellamy’s 1977 ballad operaThe Transports. Vic and his sister Viv are scions of the extended traveller families of Orchards, Leggs and Renals. Veteran Recordings have released albums by both singers, and also a set of field recordings of their mother and aunts, recorded in 1978 by Pete Coe. Warm Gold – the duo of Chris & Janet Ridley, were very surprised to see themselves referenced in the past tense in the booklet notes of the Grapefruit Records CD box set Dust On The Nettles: A Journey Through The British Underground Folk Scene 1967 – 72, which features their Searching For Lambs. They’d like to reassure everyone that they’re still very much alive! Ballad singer Ben Lang and Cornish dialect singer and storyteller Moe Keast are widely-respected performers in traditional music circles.
This year, the club is extending its commitment to musical traditions by adding a couple of Saturday morning workshops to its Friday evening performance programme. Cath & Phil Tyler will be leading Sacred Harp singing on 2nd April and Anna & Elizabeth will be hosting Ballads and Crankies on 13th August. Forthcoming guests include traditional performers Thomas McCarthy, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp, James Delarre & Saul Rose, Jimmy Crowley and John Kirkpatrick, and singer-songwriters Mike Silver and Sarah McQuaid. We’re especially delighted that Robin Dransfield is performing his first full-length folk club gig in about twenty-five years on 29th July.
Contrary to local gossip, we don’t actually turn away anyone with a guitar (amazingly, that one still occasionally surfaces!) and we’ve been privileged to witness Ralph McTell, Jake Walton, Pete Berryman (Famous Jug Band) and Mick Bennett (C.O.B.) all making unscheduled appearances at the club in recent months. We’re proud of both our long-standing affiliation with the English Folk Dance & Song Society and the fact that material in the Cornish language and dialect is regularly performed in the club. We’re a relic of a bygone era, but so are vinyl records. Sometimes anachronisms are just too good to fade away.