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Ian Anderson

The Editor's Box

Ian Anderson's comment column

The first folk club I ever went to, when I was around seventeen in the mid 1960s, was, frankly, bloody awful! The audience appeared mostly to consist of little old ladies knitting (they were probably only in their thirties, but that’s how they look when you’re seventeen!), and the guest artists were equally as ancient and uninspiring. I thought the whole thing was a bad practical joke inflicted on me by the friend who’d recommended it as a place to play, and I resolved never to go to another one, ever.

Some months later, having moved up to the nearby city, a girl I fancied announced that she was going to the folk club one weekend. Quandary! Reluctantly, I tagged along and it was everything the other one hadn’t been. The audience were young and lively, as were the floor singers, and the guest artist was Tom Paley. I was hooked, and tried out all the other good clubs around, where everybody involved – audience, organisers and performers alike – seemed to be roughly the same studentish age. I started getting up to play, found a massive social scene among people I regularly met and got to know, heard lots of fantastic music and never looked back.

By the 1980s, though, it was becoming very noticeable that most people involved in the folk club circuit nationally were still of that same early generation, slowly ageing, and clubs were no longer getting an influx of youthfully enthusiastic players. In fact, ‘floor singers’ were starting to become old lags and a bit of an uncertain liability… to the point that many of the clubs which survived started booking reliable support acts and dropped the old floor singer system entirely.

Spin on down the decades and things are barely recognisable. Most of the good folk events around these parts are informal mini-concerts: it’s actually years since I saw anybody get up and do a ‘floor spot’. The generational sea change in artists has been almost total but most of the audiences are still that same ‘60s generation: many of the booked artists are young enough to be their grandchildren! I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be a 20-something artist looking out every night at 60- or 70-something audiences. And there’s little sign of a connected social scene. Something has definitely been lost. Including young organisers…

Recently I went to an excellent CD launch gig in another part of the UK where the audience were all the same age as the young band – but was told that this was because they all were students on the folk music course at the nearby Conservatory, and their friends. It was so refreshing though: the atmosphere and energy were tangible, just like the early days. I realised how much I missed it.

Outside of such college courses I have little idea where new players get to evolve live performance and stage skills these days, before they reach the level of being bookable. Pretty much every ‘open mic’ I’ve ventured into has been almost entirely singer-songwriters with guitars or keyboards (and often music stands) – you never find any folk music – and there seem to be so few clubs where you can try something out informally any more. Baby, bathwater…

Ian Anderson

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