86. Origins

This is a personal post from Steve – rather than Carolan – about musical journeys. My father David passed away recently aged 84. He was keen folk musician, singing and playing various instruments, including guitar, and founding the Cambridge Crofters who performed around the Cambridge area for fifty years.  He also started me on my guitar journey and taught me many songs that remain with me to this day. All of which got me thinking about our two musical journeys and how they intertwined.

Dad became interested in folk music after he left the Royal Air Force, settling near Cambridge with my mum Betty. It was the time of the sixties folk revival, and he became interested in folk music via a dalliance with skiffle, co-founding the Crofters folk club (named after the road where he lived) with fellow musician Andrew Kendon in 1964, the year Steve was born. As the club grew, the demand for the members to play external functions led to the formation of the Cambridge Crofters folk group in 1967 and then the Crofters Ceilidh Band some years after that.

An early photo of the Cambridge Crofters outside the Portland Arms Pub in Cambridge that hosted their folk club for many years.
Left to right: Andrew Kendon, Dave Benford, Richard Brading

Early photo of the Crofters Ceilidh Band. Left to right: Dave Benford, Jim Catterall, Keith Hayward, an unknown fiddler dressed for morris dancing, Richard Brading and Andrew Kendon

The Crofters were a phenomenon. As a semi-professional band with day jobs, they racked up an amazing list of musical achievements over their half century together. There were three albums, on vinyl of course, in 1976, ’78 and ’82; live performances on BBC Radio 2 (I can remember travelling down to Broadcasting House in London for these); an annual show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange which sold out at over 1000 tickets; and multiple appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival, from running the Club Tent to appearing in front of thousands on Mainstage One. The Ceilidh band also played iconic venues around Cambridge, from the lawn in front of King’s College (where trespassing tourists are routinely shot on sight by the porters); to an annual public ceilidh under the lamppost in the Centre of Parker’s Piece. Then there were hundreds of concerts and ceilidhs at folk clubs, village halls and schools across East Anglia.

I always loved Andrew’s handwritten sleeve notes …

… especially the table of who was playing what instruments, or otherwise engaged, on what tracks …

I can also remember being at some of the recording sessions at Spaceward Studios, first in a crowded cellar somewhere near Parker’s piece in the centre of Cambridge in 1976 (when I was 12), and then at their expanded studios in a converted school in 1992 (when I even got to play a little electric guitar, albeit rather badly, on the fireball track of their last album).

Dad recording in the cellar at Spaceward studios in 1976

This history of the Cambridge Folk Festival, published on its 30th anniversary, includes a photo of the band and lists their appearances on the Main Stages and in the Club tent over many years

Dad was a singer, multi-instrumentalist and caller, but above all the showman of the band, and for many years, a driving organisational force behind it too. His singing style was often rousing, leading chorus songs, but he was capable of passionate and subtle interpretation, through his use of dynamics and timing (which made accompanying him fun and great training). He typically played concertina, bodhran and harmonica (which he learned as a kid) in the group, but could be seen on guitar, and even full drum kit and even banjo. His record collection, from which he draw inspiration ranged across many of the greats of 60s and 70s folk music: Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, The Corries, Pete Seeger, The Chieftains, Eric Bogle and many more besides.

Here he is singing Cyril Tawney’s haunting and poignant song The Oggy Man

… and playing the Concertina on The Lonesome Boatman

and finally, singing Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle) …

The Ban Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

With hindsight, there was little doubt that I’d absorb his music as a kid, even if I have dallied with pop and rock too. My dad first taught me – and my friend Andy – to play when we were both eight through regular Saturday morning lessons, but I also learned the songs and tunes that he and the Crofters played and listened to by ear, and I still play many of them today. I guess I even learned how to call ceilidh dances by listening and watching through the evenings when I depped on guitar, or sometimes even drums, for the ceilidh band. I can remember falling asleep in the car as we drove back through the Fens from ceilidh’s in small villages to the North of Cambridge.

So Dad’s and my own musical trajectories interleaved in all sorts of ways – the folk club and I were born in the same year; I heard the tunes and songs from my earliest years onwards; learned to play from him; and played in the band. Even in his final years, after a second stroke had left him in a wheel chair, we would still sing and play together, attending the wonderful monthly Sunday Fulbourn Folk Club. While he was unable to play the Carolan guitar, he was certainly interested in it and would ask me how it was going. I guess that’s how the oral tradition of folk music works, with the music being passed on from one generation to the next. I’ll miss you for sure Dad, but your music will live on.

Dad with Carolan

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