DAVE ARTHUR'S ‘BERT, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A.L. LLOYD’
Interview by Alex Gallacher 28 May, 2012
Dave Arthur is the author of the biography ‘Bert, The Life and Times of A.L. Lloyd’ published by Pluto Press. He has gained a considerable reputation as a researcher, collector, writer and broadcaster of English song, music and folklore. He edited English Dance and Song for twenty years, and in 2003 was awarded the EFDSS Gold Badge for services to folk music.
To celebrate the book launch of ‘Bert, The Life and Times of A.L. Lloyd’ at Cecil Sharp House on May 31st 2012 ALEX GALLACHER (folkradio.co.uk) interviewed Dave Arthur at his house in Tunbridge Wells. Dave talked about his background: from his introduction to folk music and bohemian lifestyle leading up to his first introduction to Bert Lloyd.
I’m originally from Cheshire where my grandparents were farmers, butchers, thatchers, builders and sheep-shearers. When my father was a boy he used to go out around Little Sutton and out onto the Wirral as tar-boy with his father who was a self-employed seasonal sheep-shearer. My paternal great-grandfather came from the Welsh slate village of Glyn Ceriog where he bred and dealt in Welsh ponies and horses. He was eventually kicked to death by a stallion he was breaking. My mother was a farmer’s daughter from Heswall on the Wirral. She attended Hoylake School for Girls, was a good pianist and singer and wrote poetry for her own amusement. She encouraged me to read and to listen to music, and to attempt to learn the piano. Unfortunately I was not a good student and soon gave it up. At an early age my mother gave me collections of narrative ballads which I would read under the bed-clothes by torch-light. Ballads such as ‘Hiawatha’, ‘Young Lochinvar’, ‘Dick Turpin’, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, and Macaulay’s romantic and heroic Roman epic, ‘Horatius’, in Lays of Ancient Rome. She also gave me a set of 78rpm records of shanty singing from which I learned ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Bony Was A Warrior’, ‘Blow the Man Down’ and several others. Being a farmer’s daughter she taught me ‘To Be a Farmer’s Boy’, and popular pieces such at ‘Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair’ and ‘Come into the Garden Maude’.
We had moved down to London when I was four or five, and I eventually got into St Olaves Grammar School at Tower Bridge. A year or so above me was Martin Carthy and Bert’s son, Joe, and the school actor, Roy Mold, who wisely changed his name to Roy Marsden. The skiffle craze hit when I was around thirteen and I started going to the Saturday night skiffle sessions in the Chislehurst Caves. A year or so later I had met another young lad who was also interested in trad jazz and skiffle and we started to go up to Soho and hang out in the Gyre and Gimble (the Gs), Sam Widges jazz coffee house, the Skiffle Cellar and various other cafes, coffee bars and clubs, including, a bit later, the famous left-wing Partisan, the Nucleus, the Singers Club, and the cellar coffee house and art gallery the Barn in Monmouth Street, in which I ended up working.
In all these places you could hear music both impromptu and organised from performers of American folk music and the blues such as Davey Graham, Wizz Jones, Jerry Lochran, Pete Stanley, Alex Campbell, Clive Palmer (with whom I spent a summer busking under the arches in Villiers Street and working as a pavement artist outside the National Gallery). Long John Baldry, Marion Grey, Redd Sullivan and Martin Windsor as well as the more left-wing, more trad British Isles material-inclined, group which included Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Isla Cameron, John Hasted, Shirley Collins, Steve Benbow and Dominic Behan. Also around was a group of very influential American singers – Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger (who taught Pete Stanley the banjo), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and banjo picker, Derroll Adams. These last two were a huge influence on many of us younger tyro banjo and guitar players. Many of us adopted the Levi or Lee faded denim jeans (which we had to wear initially whilst sitting in the bath, to shrink them to size), the short black oilskin rain-slickers, and desert boots. Then, our Levin Goliath, Gibson or Harmony Sovereign guitars slung across our backs, we hit the road for Paris, the south of France – or Spain, Which is where I ended up on my first hitch-hiking adventure down to the sun. Mik Paris and I slept on the beach at Sitges, smoked strong, black-tobacco’s Celtas cigarettes, slipped hopeful (but largely unfulfilled) messages of assignation to young holiday-maker girls, sitting outside cafes with their parents, and played guitar and sang Woody Guthrie songs to assuage the wrath of Franco’s military police, who regularly woke us up in our sleeping bags in the middle of the night to demand a song and a cigarette, Life didn’t get much better.
I never went back to school after the summer of the year I became fifteen. I lived, what we called a ‘bohemian’ life (which I think pre-dated the popular use of ‘beatnik’ and ‘beat’) painting, hanging out in picture galleries, playing music, reading a lot of Beat poetry, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Huysmans and the novels of Steinbeck, Hemingway, James Baldwin and William S. Burroughs, living in communal flats and studios around Soho and Fitzrovia, or sleeping out in the Embankment Gardens at the bottom of Villiers Street (known as ‘the garden of lost souls’) wrapped up in copies of The Times. Not much fun in winter. At weekends in the summer we’d catch the milk-train down to Brighton and sleep on the beach with, hopefully, a young ‘mystery’, live on cold baked beans and dance to the music of Russell Quaye’s City Ramblers skiffle and spasm band. During the week we’d sit around in Soho Square playing guitars and banjos. Life still didn’t get much better.
When I needed some money I’d get a job for a week or two – trainee hearing-aid audiologist, kiosk attendant on platform one of Charing Cross Station for W.H.Smith (the chance to read the Agatha Christie oeuvre!), washer-up, booking agent for Cooks travel agency, theatre booking agent, trainee dental mechanic, bookseller (many times), timber yard labourer, gay-nightclub waiter, coffee bar manager, trainee theatre scene-painter at the Mermaid, and many more. I used to write each job on my guitar case until I ran out of space. At one time or another I worked in most of the best known and most interesting bookshops in Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and Baker Street, including the famous ‘Bomb shop’, Collett’s Political Bookshop, where I got the chance to spend hours chatting to the famous 1930s Marxist editor, Edgell Rickword, who ran the second-hand department, and who, with Bert Lloyd, had been a co-founder of the famous Left Review magazine, in which had appeared Bert’s first published writing.
When I was around nineteen I met my future wife, Toni, we married and moved to Oxford to run a university bookshop for Robert Maxwell. While in Oxford, we got to know a lot of the students who were interested in folk music and frequented the University folk music Heritage Society. One of these was a six-foot-seven-inches-tall banjo-playing American mathematician, named Tom Westbrook, who taught us a lot of Appalachian songs, and also gave us several tapes of British traditional singers such as Harry Cox, the Coppers, Jeanie Robertson and Bob Roberts, from whom we started to learn songs. The bookshop also had a record department that, for some reason, had the complete Folkways and Topic catalogue. We’d borrow several albums a night, take them back to our haunted (literally) flat in Divinity Road, and dub off all the tracks that interested us. In this way we developed our first repertoire. Encouraged by Karl Dallas, who heard us sing one night when he was the guest at the Wantage folk club, we started to sing around the local clubs. We became interested in the Alfred Williams’ collection Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, many songs from which had been collected in the villages around Oxford, and researched traditional tunes to put to the words from Williams’ collection. Several of these ended up on our first album Morning Stands On Tiptoe, which we recorded a few years later for Transatlantic Records.
Like so many other people we eventually fell out with Robert Maxwell, gave in our notice, and returned to London. We decided to give up academic bookselling for a few months and try and sing full-time before opening our own bookshop. The months spread to years, the years into decades and thirty years later we got divorced, and the bookshop never happened. Although we did collect enough research books over the years to stock a medium-size bookshop.
Through these years we toured all over the British Isles as a folk singing duo, and for a short while as a trio with ex-Watersons’ bass-singer, John Harrison, during which time we toured America. We recorded albums for Topic, Transatlantic and Leader. Researched the modern Wiccan religion, thanks to Alex Sanders (the ‘King of the Witches’) and his wife Maxine, looking for connections between folk customs, ballads and dances and the ‘supposed’ Old Religion. While touring the British Isles performing at folk clubs and festivals, we took the opportunity to record the life stories of farmers, gamekeepers, fairground folk, canal workers, clog-makers, Travellers, and, of course, traditional singers, dancers and musicians. Believing that folksong was rarely performed in isolation we learnt clog and morris dancing, broom dancing, bacca-pipes jig, and collected and started telling folktales. After a few years we were given the opportunity to put all this together as script-writers, researchers and presenters for many TV and radio programmes and series for both children and adults. We toured Africa several times for the British Council working in schools and teacher training colleges introducing ways of using traditional song, music, dance, drama and storytelling in education. We worked in Belize for the British Army, singing in jungle camps up on the Guatemalan border. We performed in East Germany, Poland and Russia for the British Peace Committee along with the Marxist art critic John Berger. We spent several years working in the theatre, sometimes with David Wood, writing plays for the Young Vic, Manchester Library Theatre, Derby Playhouse, Nottingham Playhouse, and many more. For three years I was writer-in-residence at the Canon Hill Puppet Theatre in Birmingham writing for puppets, actors, dancers and masks. For a number of years I was deeply involved in martial arts, both oriental and European (fencing, quarter-staff and long-bow archery).
From the 1970s I spent over twenty years editing English Dance and Song magazine, also at various times, Storylines (the magazine of the Society for Storytelling, of which I was a Director) and Animations (the national puppetry and animation magazine at the time).
During the last ten years I’ve recorded albums for Fellside and Wildgoose Records, compiled a lengthy Bert Lloyd bibliography, worked as a writer, musician and storyteller and toured Hong Kong, France, America, Sri Lanka and Japan. A few years ago I teamed up with fiddle player, writer and Director of the London Fiddle School, Pete Cooper, and guitarist Chris Moreton, to form the Anglo-Appalachian string band, Rattle on the Stovepipe.
Do you still play in Rattle on the Stovepipe or any other bands?
Yes. Rattle on the Stovepipe is my main band, but I also play melodeon for dances in a ceilidh band called Swallowtail with Dan Stewart (guitar) and his sister Sarah (fiddle). Dan and Sarah have been playing together since they were young teenagers and Swallowtail was their band, I joined them two or three years ago.
Rattle came out of the album Return Journey that I recorded for Wildgoose Records several years ago. I’ve always been interested in the cross-over between Appalachian/American and British music, and Return Journey was a musical exploration of the two-way transatlantic connections and influences – morris tunes that morph into banjo and fiddle breakdowns, minstrel songs that were brought to the UK by travelling minstrel shows such as the Christy Minstrels and which were taken up by rural singers in Norfolk, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, narrative ballads that travelled across to the States with the early emigrants from the UK, and suffered a sea-change, many losing some of their supernatural elements, and some becoming democratised, e.g. the Lord in the ballad of the ‘Gypsie Laddie’ is transformed into Little Billy Lord in our American version. For that album I brought in two friends who also happened to be great musicians, Pete Cooper (fiddle) and Chris Moreton (guitar).We had so much fun making the album that we decided to continue playing together as a band. Our name came from the Canadian lumberjack song ‘Rattle on the Stovepipe’, which we had recorded.
Eventually the logistics of trying to get together to rehearse, with Chris living in Wales, Pete in London and me in Sussex, proved too much, so Chris left. We then invited Dan Stewart to join us, whom I’d seen playing in local Sussex clubs since he was a mere youth, and who also played in a local Old Time band, Old Faded Glory, with my ex-duo partner, banjo player, Barry Murphy. Dan and I swap around between guitars and banjos, sometimes, horror of horrors, playing double (stereo!) banjos with Pete on fiddle. Over the last few years Dan has developed into one of the top two or three Old Time clawhammer banjo players in the UK. Our joint interest in Appalachian Old Time music and British material, and our line-up of guitars, banjos, fiddles, melodeon, mandolin, viola and dulcimer means that we are equally at home playing American Old Time or English songs, ballads and dance tunes.
When did you first meet Bert and how close did you become?
I first saw Bert perform in the folk clubs, cellars and coffee bars of Soho in the 1950s when I was a very young teenager, who had left home at fourteen to live in Soho to try and pursue the romantic life of an artist. I was addicted to the Impressionists. I painted and hung around the National and the Tate galleries during the day, and worked in cafes and clubs, washing-up and cooking, during the evenings and often all through the night. I shared this dream with another young south Londoner, Mik Paris (now the eminent writer and modern historian, Dr Michael Paris). It was Mik who introduced me to the music of Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliott and Derrol Adams, and taught me my first few chords on the guitar. I soon acquired a banjo and Mik and I became a duo playing around Soho and following in the busking footsteps of Wizz Jones, Alex Campbell, Davey Graham, etc., down to St Ives in Cornwall, to sleep on the beach, or to hitch down to Paris to hang out at the Bar Monaco, and then on down the National 7 to the south and the sun. Bert was very much a part of the Soho scene along with Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, John Hasted, Shirley Collins, Alan Lomax, Eric Winter, Fred (aka Karl) and Betty Dallas and many others. His influence was already being felt through his own singing and through popular singers and recording artists such as Steve Benbow who, as well as accompanying Bert on record and concert, also sang a number of his songs – ‘Whaling in Greenland’, ‘The Molecatcher’, ‘The Gentleman Soldier’ etc. So, although I knew Bert as a performer and a mover and shaker on the nascent folk scene I didn’t get to know him until the early 1960s when, having got married and working as an academic bookseller, my then-wife, Toni, and I moved to Lewisham, just over the hill from Greenwich where Bert was living in Croom’s Hill.
Toni, whom I’d met whilst running a coffee-bar called The Twelve-Stringer, off Wigmore Street, was an ex-Royal Academy trained singer and pianist who could actually read music and sing harmony! We soon retired from real work and started performing as a duo, gradually dropping our American material and concentrating on researching and collecting British traditional songs, music, dances and folktales. It was through this research that I contacted Bert and invited him to dinner to chat about some work I’d been doing on the Derby Ram family of songs. He couldn’t make the date but soon after, on returning from a collecting trip to Hungary, he invited Toni and myself over to listen to the fruits of his expedition. From then on we’d occasionally go over to dinner with Bert and Charlotte, and we’d meet up at clubs and festivals, and a couple of times a year I’d collect him from Croom’s Hill and drive us both up to Cecil Sharp House for meetings of the Folk Music Journal editorial board, of which we were both members.
We were not close friends, more like mentor and apprentices, he was thirty or forty years older than us, and vastly more knowledgeable on all aspects of folk music, and much else. I didn’t realise just how much else until I started working on his biography some twenty or so years later. Unlike Toni, I always felt a bit intimidated by him, although he was invariably friendly, helpful and encouraging. When researching the biography, I discovered that I was not alone in feeling this.
When did you take the decision to write the biography and what inspired the undertaking of this mammoth task?
After Bert’s death in 1982 I was asked to write an obituary for the Folk Music Journal, and a bit later a Radio 4 documentary on his life. These projects required me to dash around the country interviewing a number of Bert’s old friends and acquaintances and looking through, and listening to, a lot of his literary and radio output from the 1930s to the 80s. I ended with a sizeable archive of interviews, many of the interviewees, being older than Bert, died within a few years of my recordings. I felt that it was a shame to just leave them in boxes in my attic, and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher who would publish a Bert biography. I already had a biography of Gilbert Sargent, an old Sussex countryman, published by Barrie and Jenkins but they weren’t interested in Bert. Lawrence and Wishart, Bert’s old Communist Party affiliated publishers, hadn’t got any money, and neither had Arthur Scargill at the Miners’ Union, so I left the boxes where they were for another twenty years until the Vaughan Williams Library Director, Malcolm Taylor, suggested that the EFDSS might publish it. So I dug out the boxes and set to re-reading all those old letters and files, listening to the voices of long-dead men and women and trying to get my head around it, and to remember names, dates, places, events, that had once been in the forefront of my mind. Anyway, I started reworking and soon realised that there was an enormous amount of research still to do, if I was going to do the job justice. Years rolled by, the manuscript grew and grew. We had a book launch two or three years ago, when it was hoped that I would have finished. No such luck. Eventually I dumped a large manuscript of well over 260,000 words on Malcolm’s desk. At which point we both realised that it was too big a project for the EFDSS to publish. Eventually we succeeded in getting the left-wing academic Pluto Press interested in going in with a joint venture. And the rest is history.
What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of the biography?
Knowing when to stop researching and writing, and how to get fit again after several years of spending many hours every day sitting at a computer and taking little, if any, exercise. It took a good year of dieting, drinking gallons of green tea, and walking many miles each day with my lurcher, Dusty, before I got back into some semblance of shape.
What discovery has maybe surprised you the most?
That I survived long enough to finish the book. As far as Bert is concerned, I was surprised, gob-smacked, astounded, with the range and quality of his accomplishments in so many areas. Folk music was really only a small part of his life-long achievements. He could, had he so wished, have become a success in many artistic and intellectual areas. He really was the archetypal Renaissance Man.
What aspect of Bert’s life have you found the most inspiring?
The dedication and hard work he applied to any task, and his generosity with that most valuable of our possessions, time. He always had the time (or found the time) to help, share and inform anyone who asked for his knowledge and advice.
In terms of myths that have grown up over the years about Bert such as him being asked to join Fairport Convention as a band member what are some of the bigger myths you have dispelled in this biography?
Mainly aspects of his origins and his time in Australia. Despite what Bert said at various times, to various people, his father wasn’t an East Anglian fisherman with a repertoire of family folk songs. He wasn’t an orphan when he was sent to Australia. He was back in England by 1930, four or five years before he generally claimed to have been back. He didn’t spend the 1930s in the dole queue shuffling between the Labour Exchange and the British Museum Reading Room, he was working for much of that time as Foreign Books Manager at Foyles bookshop. There is also a big query as to what songs he actually collected/learned in Australia and on the whaling trip, the answer would appear to be not a lot. There are other small things that escape me for the moment. But these (apart, perhaps, for the provenance of many of his songs) are insignificant, but no less interesting from a psychological point of view, when compared to the things that he did genuinely do and achieve. I just wish that I had worked on the book when he was still alive and could, perhaps, have explained so many unanswered questions. But we have to work with what we’ve got, and I believe that the picture that comes across in the biography is sufficiently truthful and all encompassing to enable the reader to get a pretty good understanding of Bert and his times.
You set out to give as accurate a portrayal as possible, warts and all, did you find yourself at odds on any revelations, especially as you clearly admired the man?
No. One of the reasons I wanted to write the biography was that I knew that Bert, the Marmite of the folk scene, inspired undying loyalty and respect as well as dislike, and from some in Australia, an almost pathological contempt. So I figured that as the world seemed to be split between Bert lovers and haters, the chances were that one side or the other would eventually come up with a hagiography or a hatchet job. Therefore I was determined to approach it from as neutral a position as possible and to put forward both sides of the story – the good, the bad, the ugly and the mundane. And to leave it up to the reader to come to his or her own assessment of Bert’s life. To the best of my recollection there was only one thing that I discovered that didn’t get into the book. It was a personal thing that in no way affected the over all biographical narrative, but involved other people who are still around and I felt that it would have been an intrusion into their privacy and was not essential to the book. Of course, a number of things were eventually edited out but that was only because we had to reduce the manuscript of over 260,000 words by some 30,000 words. And much of what came out will probably end up on my website <www.dave-arthur.com>
I always thought Bert was a very private man and I suppose it would be fair to say that his political connections were never as public as say Ewan MacColl but your biography depicts a very different individual, can you tell us a bit more about this side of his life?
Bert was a very private man, who seems to have kept his life in various self-contained compartments with, frequently, no overlap between areas. You’re correct, I think, in saying that Bert was not as overtly political as MacColl. This, however, in no way meant a diminution of his political convictions and aims, but merely represented the personality differences between the two men. As is quoted in the book, MacColl was potentially a bludgeon man, while Bert would have favoured the stiletto. Bert was much more circumspect in his public pronouncements than was MacColl. MacColl wore his politics and opinions on his sleeve whereas Bert kept them in his back pocket, to be taken out when necessary, but not worn as a badge. MacColl was didactic and bombastic in his edicts; things had to be done his way, and you were either with him or you were beyond the pale. Bert tended to influence things more subtly with ‘suggestions’, encouragement, and by example. He was also, perhaps, more pragmatic than MacColl. For example he could write anti-war lyrics criticising Dunlop’s commercial, exploitative interests in their Malayan rubber plantations, the preservation of which was part of the reason for the Malayan ‘emergency’ in the early 1950s. It wasn’t declared a ‘war’ by the British Government because loss and destruction of property and assets wouldn’t have been covered by insurance companies if a state-of-war existed, however, a less threatening word such as ‘emergency’ had no such negative impacts on the finances of Dunlop and other colonial companies that were so essential to Britain in the post-war years. On the other hand he was perfectly content to take a large fee from Dunlop a few years later to write a booklet on car breaking-systems, that financed several weeks of unpaid folklore research. But he was a hard-line communist from his early twenties when he returned to Britain from Australia just in time for the ‘Hungry Thirties’, the Jarrow hunger marchers, the means test, the rise of the fascist movement in England and continental Europe, and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ where thousands of East End residents and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) challenged Sir Oswald Mosley’s right to march his Black Shirts through the East End. During the ‘Battle’ Bert managed to get a bicycle wrapped around his neck.
One of the surprising aspects for me was Bert’s contribution and support of the Folk rock movement as well as his devotion to Sandy Denny, is it fair to say that he was a greater advocate of progressive folk music than people generally gave him credit for?
I always felt that it was a well-known fact that Bert was in general an advocate of progressive folk music, folk music with its roots in the tradition. An open-minded attitude that differed considerably from that of Ewan MacColl who believed that the heavens would fall on our heads to the accompaniment of Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls. Bert, taking his cue from eastern European experience, felt that it was not the instrument that defined folk music but what you did with it. As we all know, the concertina and melodeon are relative newcomers to the musical instrument field, and nineteenth-century Ewan MacColls were probably just a suspicious of them and of the danger that they might usurp the ‘more traditional’ fiddle or pipe and tabor, as the twentieth-century MacColl was about electric folk/folk rock.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Fairport Convention had among its members Sandy Denny (one of Bert’s favourite singers), and Dave Swarbrick, his long-time accompanist.
Despite his undoubted prejudice in their favour, Bert did feel that electric instruments were capable of providing another emotional dimension to the music, and could create an atmosphere in a large concert hall that would be impossible with acoustic instruments or a solo voice.
He had also been involved years earlier in the experimental use of electronic music as an accompaniment to poetry on BBC radio’s Third Programme, and was familiar with, and had friends and collaborators within, the contemporary and avant-garde music world.
Returning to the actual writing of the biography can you tell us a bit about the lengths you went to to complete the work and the sort of challenges you faced?
A lot of the work was very mundane, such as carefully reading through five-year’s worth of passenger lists of liners sailing from Australia to Britain from 1929 to 1935 to find out exactly when Bert returned from Down Under. The time expended on such necessary, unromantic, work immediately becomes worthwhile when you find a 1930 reference to ‘Lloyd, Age 21, Sydney to London’ with a destination address just a couple of roads away from where he had been living in the early 1920s. But because this was four or five years earlier than the date Bert usually gave for his return to the UK, you still have to go through hundreds of lists for the next five years to make sure that you’ve got the right one.
Then you’ve got the detective work of looking back through a hundred or more years of birth, death and marriage records, census returns (to try and confirm where Bert and his various family members were living at any particular time in his childhood), army records for both Bert and his father (on whom there was, in fact, a lot of personal information and medical records). Reading the 400-page (un-indexed) journals of the surrealist writer David Gascoyne on the off-chance that he might mention Bert – I knew they had mutual acquaintances. The pleasure, when up in the three-hundreds, and your eyes and brain are hurting, you come across several, hitherto unknown, lengthy references to Bert and his place in the artistic and political world of 1930s Fitzrovia. Reading through all the articles and letters in the weekly photo-journalism magazine Picture Post from the late 1930s to 1950, when Bert resigned, and learning to recognise his style in the dozens of articles and major features he contributed to the paper, the authorship of many of which were not credited. Reading through decades of delicate, brittle, copies of the Daily Worker in the Marx Library, as well as complete runs of magazines such as Left Review, Penguin New Writing, Lilliput, and many more magazines and papers.
Research also involved tracking down surviving friends, acquaintances and work colleagues, many of whom were older than Bert, from the 1930s and 40s, and travelling all over the country from Scotland to Cornwall to North and South Wales, and many places in between, often more than once to conduct interviews.
Ultimately, of course, you end up with possibly a hundred hours of recorded interviews, hundreds of books, papers and magazines, and thousands of pages of research information on everything from cycle units of the First World War, physical descriptions of Sydney, Australia, in the 1920s, the history of the Artists International Association, early BBC recording equipment, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, the poetry and murder of Lorca, the whaling industry in the 1930s, Theatre Workshop, the skiffle boom, the Radio Ballads, erotic songs, the training of tank crews in the Second World War (Bert trained as a gunner/radio operator), the folk revival, electric folk, and a hundred and one other subjects, some of which provided only a couple of lines in the final book, some never made it into the book at all, but it all had to be researched and evaluated.
The final and most difficult job was assembling this mass of material into a narrative, that is coherent, informative, original, honest, entertaining and fair to the subject.
Being so well connected to the folk scene as you are what sort of Bert Lloyd legacy would you like to see new folk artists taking forward, if any…and do you still see/hear his influence in music today?
Bert’s legacy is all around us on the folk scene. Even young singers who may hardly know of him will undoubtedly have heard many of the songs he introduced into the folk clubs, if not from his many available recordings, then through the singing of people such as Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Fairport Convention, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Frankie Armstrong, Louisa Killen, Bob Davemport, Roy Harris, Johnny Handle, and even myself.
His book Folk Song in England remains an essential read as does his and Vaughan Williams’ The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, reprinted by the EFDSS in 2003 as Classic English Folk Songs. A follow-up collection The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, published in 2012 by the EFDSS, will provide young singers with an abundance of fresh material.
What I like to see young artists taking forward is the desire to research original material, to go back to original sound recordings and manuscript collections of traditional songs and tunes and soak up styles and techniques of performance and repertoire, and then with that knowledge go on to interpret the material in their own way. Be original, search out different versions, multiple versions of songs that interest you, don’t simply learn all your songs and tunes from the revival singers of the 60s, 70s and 80s, whose albums are available on CD. Read about the background to the songs, set them in a social and historical context. Check up on words, names, places that you don’t know. The more you know about a song or a tune the more convincing and satisfying will be your performance. Don’t be pedantic and make a fetish out of folk song, there are no right and wrong texts or tunes, musical folklore is always in a state of flux. When that ceases it becomes a mere museum piece, a sad thing trapped forever, unchanging, like an insect in amber, or a butterfly pinned down in a museum case. Be inventive, original, but always from the vantage of knowledge and understanding of the material. Above all don’t take yourself too seriously, be suspicious of all the hype and flim- flam of the commercial music world. Even if in general, folk music is just one more tributary of the commercial music river, try not to treat folk songs and tunes like packets of sausages in a supermarket, to be packaged, hermetically sealed, piled high and sold cheap. They invariably taste like crap compared to free-range organic pork sausages, produced from lovingly-reared happy pigs, by farmers and butchers who care, and understand their trade.