It started with a walk
The origins of the Fylde Folk Festival
Words from various sources, edited by Pete Heywood. This article was published in issue 92 of The Living Tradition magazine. This will form the basis of the central story in the book but with additions and links to various ‘side stories’. We welcome your comments on this article or any corrections or suggestions for inclusion in the final book.
It started with a walk. It didn’t really start there of course, that was the first fruit of an idea, a vision. And like most good ideas which are essentially simple, they usually take one, or at most a handful of people to bring them to fruition. In the case of Fylde the driving force over 40 years has been Alan Bell backed by his wife Christine. It is a significant achievement for any festival to reach its fortieth year, but that is an achievement shared or soon to be shared by many folk festivals throughout the country. To reach such a milestone with the same people at the helm however is less common, and possibly unique. Alan and Christine Bell as festival director and secretary respectively have stamped their mark on Fylde and to some extent on music throughout the region. It poses questions of where next, but for the time being there will be celebrations at this year’s Fylde Folk Festival to savour.
Alan Bell tells the first part of the story. “I was in an hotel called the Cartford, so well known to generations of folk fans living in the Fylde, late in the autumn of 1971, exchanging views, opinions and drinks with a man called Graham Wallwork. We dealt with the weather, the state of the nation, trade, and the more real issues of folk music, the price of beer, and how to occupy ourselves at weekends in the following summer. We felt the need to do something positive.”
“Our ideas ranged from swimming downstream from the Cartford to the next hotel, the Shard — a plan quickly abandoned when we discovered that our friends, otherwise the main participants in our scheme, were poor swimmers. An alternative idea of canoeing the river also sank for the same reason, but what about a walk along the whole river bank? So, in the spring of 1972 we walked the length of the river Wyre from source to the sea and established that it could be done. But we needed a reason. Every cause has to have a reason, thus we decided to promote a sponsored walk to raise money for the Fleetwood Lifeboat. Graham and I organised it. Dozens of people rolled up to take part. The weather that September weekend was superb.” The rest, as they say, is history.
At the time Alan was a member of the Taverners Folk Group and persuaded the group and other artists to appear for nothing, in a concert to celebrate the end of the walk. The concert, featuring the Taverners, Bernard Wrigley, Garstang Morrismen and the Cod End Mummers, was so successful that it encouraged Alan Bell to stage the first Fylde Folk Festival in 1973 – the beginning of an event which has dominated his life ever since.
The idea of a festival had been in Alan’s mind for some time. This was 40 years ago and Alan wondered why the north-west didn’t have its own folk festival on the coast. The south-west had Sidmouth, the south-east Broadstairs, the east coast Whitby but nothing in the west.
The first Fylde Folk Festival emerged in 1973 with help from Fylde Arts Association. As with the concert the previous year, it was held in the North Euston with the artists from the previous year’s concert also forming the main part of the bill. A similar event was held the following year in 1974, again in the same venue but this time taking in a Friday evening and the whole of Saturday. The guests were The Taverners, Blue Water Folk, Tony Capstick, Garstang Morrismen, Horden Raikes, Marie Little, Sullivan, Cyril Tawney, Ripley Wayfarers and Wassailers and capacity crowds filled the ballroom on both evenings.
In 1975 the festival took the bold step of moving to the much larger Marine Hall and due to a tremendous stroke of good fortune managed to fill the hall for the Sunday evening concert. The big attraction was of Mike Harding fresh from his Top Ten hit The Rochdale Cowboy. All roads seemed to lead to the Marine Hall that night and the House Full signs went up. Happily this became almost obligatory in the following years at the Final Concert. The Final session made Fylde almost unique at that time as most festivals then finished on Sunday teatime and it demonstrated the tremendous local support the festival has enjoyed.
Fylde Festival built gradually and went on to develop a nationwide reputation, in part due to the array of top names within the ‘Folk World’ who have appeared on the Marine Hall stage and in the other main Festival venues, but largely due to special events and other programming decisions which gave the festival its distinct identity.
The festival’s sense of place in the local community was and is very important to Alan. The constitution states that it is non-profit making, dedicated to present folk music for the enjoyment and pleasure of the local community and visitors. Some people have queried the free events which are included in the programme, a decision Alan defends: “These events often feature local artists, giving them an opportunity to perform, and they’re aimed at local people, the local community. The national folk scene is thriving again now, but it went through the doldrums when there was little communication with local people. There is this strata of music that many people don’t realise is there.”
The festival has had a spin off all along the coast and is the biggest single tourist event in the borough of Wyre and attracts a good proportion of returning visitors. Alan and Christine acknowledge that the age profile is getting older and although they recognise that green-field sites tend to attract younger people and families, it doesn’t suit their idea of a festival. “Green field sites tend not to engage the community; here at Fylde the financial benefit stays in the community.” Alan says. “It’s a great meeting of friends,” adds Christine, “it brings thousands of people into the town and, unlike some other events, the visitors spend money here.” Although there is a distinct North of England and Scottish profile to the visitors, festival goers come from all over the country, as well as North America and as far away as Japan.
Music Hall has always had strong support in the Fylde area. Blackpool has always been a centre of musical entertainment, and most of the famous names of music hall have appeared along the coast in one or other of the main theatres, nearly all, now sadly gone forever. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, once performed as a clog dancer in Blackpool in a troupe called the Lancashire Lads.
Although Fleetwood was a relative backwater in the entertainment field in comparison to Blackpool, what once existed within the town was substantial. The Ballroom of the North Euston Hotel was used as early as 1877 for entertainment by a ‘troupe’ featuring comedy musical items, clog dancing etc. The first permanent theatre building was the Albert (Alhambra) Theatre in Albert Square, opened in 1863.
The great boom in Music Hall, generally, resulted in the adoption of the Queens Hall, Adelaide Street into the Queens Theatre and in 1909 a new theatre, The Empire Hippodrome was opened in Lord Street. This later became the Art Cinema and was taken over by the Blackpool Tower Company in the 1930’s. The Art had, until its demolition in the 1950’s, possibly the most attractive auditorium in the Fylde, apart from the Grand Theatre in Blackpool. As far as genuine Music Hall was concerned the Queens Theatre was the local Mecca and by all accounts the atmosphere there was typical of the small ‘Grade Two’ music halls scattered throughout the North.
The Saturday evening music hall became a traditional feature of the Fylde Festival weekend and after starting life in the North Euston Hotel, ballroom, moved to the more spacious Sea Cadet Hall. This was an ideal venue for the event, with its gallery running all the way round the hall, bringing all the audience close to the performers. “In staging a music hall, one far removed from the artificial ‘stage’ of television, we are attempting to re-create a style of entertainment, which fifty years or so ago, was so popular in the Fylde area.”
The Festival committee decided to name the event after Jack Easy, the old music hall concertina virtuoso who retired to Fleetwood. Jack, better known locally by his real name Joe Maley, was instrumental in the establishment of the Music Hall event and his talented playing was always a highlight of the show. Following his return to the boards at the 1978 Music Hall at the Festival, the organizing committee asked him to star in his own show in 1979. “It is rare to find someone whose theatrical life links to-day’s entertainment stars with the greats of the past, yet such a man was Joe Maley. Under the stage name of Jack Easy, he was an absolute concertina virtuoso playing in Music Hall and variety for over 50 years. Joe became a professional ‘tina player when he was only 15 years old, and went on to play in all the country’s leading theatres, such as the Metropole in Glasgow, the Leeds Empire and the Liverpool Pavilion. He also appeared in the Sunday night shows at the Blackpool ABC (old Hippodrome) and the Queens Theatre.”
Joe’s wife Liz, was also working the shows, but they managed to raise a family, one of whom is a local catholic priest, Father Joe. Following a severe heart attack, Joe retired to the Fylde, but was happily ‘discovered’ by local folk fans. Even with age and ill health his talent was stunning. Perhaps a genius.
Sadly, Joe died in January 1980. In fond memory, the 1980 show was called ‘The Jack Easy Music Hall’. A small tribute to a great performer.
Dialect verse and clog
Another event unique to Fylde is The Samuel Laycock Competition for Dialect Verse or Song. Started in 1978 and organised with the help of the Lancashire Dialect Society, this competition is the only one held at a British Folk Festival. This grew in importance and became the foremost dialect competition in the county. Samuel Laycock was one of the best known dialect poets of Lancashire and Lancashire dialect verse is one of the few ‘folk arts’ to continue in an uninterrupted form over the years. Though a Yorkshire man by birth and writing many of his most famous works whilst working in Stalybridge, Sam came to the Fylde and was for a time curator of the Whitworth Institute, now the Fleetwood Central Library and Museum. Two of his well known classics are Bowton’s Yard and Bonny Brid. As well as the Sam Laycock Trophy for Lancashire dialect, there is the Bill o’Bowes Trophy, which is an open competition for writing in any English dialect, and the Topping Trophy for the performance of an English dialect piece – i.e. someone else’s work and in any English dialect and where the emphasis of the competition is on performance.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries clog dancing was a very popular form of entertainment in the North of England. Many music hall bills included a clog dancer and in addition, contests involving large sums in prize money, were frequently held. Dan Leno, the famous character comedian of the music halls, was a clog dancer of great fame and he won the World Championship Belt at Oldham in 1883. The belt still exists and is in the possession of Dan Leno’s only surviving son, who lives in Surrey. A book The Funniest Man on Earth dealing with Dan Leno’s life, describes in vivid detail how clog dancing competitions were organised.
With help and advice from clog dancer Sam Sherry, the festival launched the Lancashire and Cheshire Clog Championship, lapsed since the 1930s. In time, the revival of Clog Dancing in the North West may be seen as one of Fylde’s enduring legacies.
Sam Sherry, “Old Clever Clogs”, was one of a third generation of Music Hall and Variety performers. His father was a comedian and step-dancer and a contemporary of the great Dan Leno. Sam learned to ‘team the toe’ (shuffle) almost as soon as he could walk. He joined up with his brother Peter in an acrobatic dancing act, after leaving school in 1927. Later on he was one of the ‘Five Sherry Bros.’, a successful family act which toured the variety theatres in the thirties. He then spent five and a half years in the army during the war. After the war he returned to the variety theatre with his brother Peter, doing a double song and dance act. In 1956, he left the variety theatre and went into business.
Sam joined the Lancaster Folk Stir when the club was first formed and he began clog dancing again. He soon found himself in great demand for Festivals up and down the country. He appeared twice at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Sidmouth International Folklore Festival twice and at Loughborough Folk Festival, Barnsley and Birmingham. Sam has appeared at the Fylde Festival over a number of years and was actively involved in the revival of clog dancing competitions and championships throughout the North of England. Sam was one of the real old time variety performers, now sadly, so few and although he has long since passed on, the competition and his legacy continues.
The Worst Singer in the World Competition was also established at Fylde. What began as an amusing interlude in the Festival programme reached majestic proportions and became a very competitive event, provoking fierce rivalry amongst the contestants! The audience have to determine if the singer is a genuinely bad singer, or merely faking.
Themed performances, shows, have been another enduring feature at Fylde. In the 1970s, Alan wrote scripts and songs for radio and television programmes, including the regional TV series, The Ballad of the North West and in the early eighties started to write what has become several suites of songs. The first one Band in the Park won the Radio Italia prize for original work on regional radio, this was followed by Lakeland Seasons. Not restricting himself purely to folk music performances, Alan has worked with brass bands and choral societies. Centuries People was written for the 2000 millennium won The Heritage Award, and Wind, Sail, Sea and Sky, written to celebrate Fleetwood’s 150th anniversary in 2011, was a collaborative piece with Fleetwood Choral Society. Almost all Alan’s suites of songs have been performed at Fylde Folk Festival, giving it a distinctively local strand of programming.
Over forty years, the festival has presented many of the major names on the British folk scene, with a good smattering of performers from Ireland and North America, but in general Fylde has not been a follower of fashion and there has always been a strong commitment to local performers. Dance remains an important part of the festival, and although the Saturday night ceilidh is no longer in the Marine Hall, there are still several ceilidhs over the weekend, as well as dance workshops, the clog competition and dance displays.
Gary and Vera Aspey are one example of distinct local programming and of the first ten Fylde Folk Festivals, Gary and Vera appeared at no less than nine of them. That was simply a reflection of the popularity of this duo amongst local residents. Other local names include Bernard Wrigley, Strawhead, Scolds Bridle, Jolly Jack, Marie Little, Harry Boardman and Tom Tiddlers Ground – but there were many more.
Two other local artists who appeared early in Fylde’s history went on to have a big impact on the UK folk scene in a different role. From the 4th Festival programme we read: “Paul and Linda Adams are a young married couple who live on the edge of the Lake District. Their first L.P., Far Over The Fell (Sweet Folk & Country), released last year, was extremely well received by the critics and sold out of its first pressing in twelve weeks. Their second album, Country Hirings has recently been issued and it too is selling well. They are deeply interested in the traditions and songs of Cumbria and have recently launched their own recording label, known as Fellside Recordings. Paul and Linda have just released their first L.P. on their label featuring local singers – many of whom appeared on Paul’s radio programme in Carlisle.” Paul and Linda of course went on to head what became one of the most significant independent record labels in the UK, picking up many artists as a result of hearing or meeting them at Fylde.
Fylde has always welcomed and encouraged young people and has a very active workshop programme. They also have The Fylde Young Performers Competition which was started by Tallyman, a local group, to encourage young people to perform during the festival. The competition has attracted singers, instrumentalists, bands, jugglers and dancers, all with skill and much enthusiasm. Previous winners include a young Tim Van Eyken, Kate Rusby, Richard Woods, Maz O’Connor, Joe O’Connor. The latest protégé is Niamh Boadle, who was a BBC Young Folk Award finalist in 2010.
Although little traditional music had been discovered in the Fylde area, the festival provided a focus for Cumbria to the north and in other parts of Lancashire. Just as many years earlier Alan had questioned why their wasn’t a festival on the North West coast when there were others to the south and east, Alan became conscious that the north-west region as a whole needed the kind of folk arts development that Folkworks and had brought to the North East, and Folk South West to the South West. In 1999, he founded Folkus, a regional folk arts network for the North West. It is funded by Arts Council England and Lancashire County Council, providing workshops in different parts of the region and currently running an annual residential weekend. Successful workshops at Fylde provided the inspiration, and in 2011, the music ensemble, Orchestra in Folkus, led by Jenny Shotliff, made its debut performance at the festival, in a performance of Alan’s Wind, Sail, Sea and Sky.
The legacy of Fylde, in common with so many festivals, is before our eyes and ears as new generations start to carry the music onwards. What the future holds for Fylde as a festival is something that no doubt occupies part of the thinking of Alan and Christine. Organising such an event is both a huge achievement and a daunting task. What will the next 40 years bring? Who knows, but for the meantime at least, the focus will be on the hard work that remains in the run up to the festival and then savouring the celebrations during the event. Well done Alan and Christine.
Alan was born in 1934 in the village of Staining near Blackpool and began singing at four years old with his father at the piano. There is far more to Alan’s life story than music, but it is Alan’s contribution to music which we are concentrating on here. He served his National Service in the army in Korea and the Far East where he had his first encounter with that broad brush term that we call ‘folk music’. Alan heard Woody Guthrie songs from American Soldiers and sang them on climbing weekends in the Lake District as early as 1954. His first gig was in the Climbers Bar in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Great Langdale in 1954. He sang six Woody Guthrie songs and payment was three bottles of brown ale!
There are many triggers which people will claim as being ‘the roots of the folk revival’ but in the North of England and Scotland the role of musical evenings in the bothies and pubs after a day in the hills or mountains shouldn’t be underestimated. Alan and Brian Osborne met at the Fylde Mountaineering Club in the early 1950’s and they soon became integral members of the group of young men who sought freedom and adventure in the mountains at weekends. They were also to play a big part in the development of folk music on the Fylde as members of The Blackpool Taverners folk group. The Taverners was a group with a significant regional influence and who alongside groups such as The High Level Ranters, The Spinners, The Ian Campbell Folk group and The Corries gave some media focus to what was a developing National ‘folk scene’.
Brian Osborne was born in Blackpool. After school he became an apprentice electrician with the Blackpool Tower Company. Without fear of heights he was soon working at the top of Blackpool Tower. His favourite prank when working outside the viewing platform was to pretend to slip and fall off to the horror of onlookers. In reality of course, his safety harness swung him back onto the Tower: his prank was soon outlawed by management.
Brian had taught himself to play the guitar and in 1956 he and Alan formed a skiffle group which they called ‘The Marauders’. Brian played lead guitar and they shared vocals. Alan says that “We only had one gig. I don’t think we were very good!” By this time they were singing in the Lakeland pubs at weekends. Their repertoire was American folk songs and Woody Guthrie but, significantly, they were beginning to hear and learn local songs too.
In 1960 they heard of an embryonic Folk Club in Blackpool and went along where they met “Big” Pete Rodger and Stuart Robinson. This was a major turning point in their lives as they founded the Blackpool Taverners Folk Group and the Club. In those heady days of the revival, the Taverners were soon performing three and four nights a week and the group settled into a routine. “Big” Pete was the lead singer. Stuart was the lead instrumentalist. With an abundance of guitars, Alan learned to play the concertina and Brian became the ballad singer. Brian developed a unique style of playing which suited his voice and choice of songs very well. To a generation of folk fans Brian was the Taverners ballad singer with songs such as The Queen of Hearts, Ramble Away and The Shearing’s Not For You.
Before the holiday industry, there was little in the region apart from a few farms and a limited fishing industry, and no traditional songs had been collected in the area. In his search for songs from the North West, Brian found a poem written in the 1920’s by two brothers, Milton and Alan Lambert who lived in Padiham, entitled Old Pendle. (Pendle Hill dominates the Ribble Valley in Lancashire.) Brian added a verse, composed the tune and sang the song. Old Pendle is now a folk club standard in Lancashire.
Alan wrote songs for the group and noticing that many folk groups included local songs in their repertoire, but having found nothing in the area where he lived, he set about writing his own. One of his early songs, Windmills, was about the Fylde Coast. In 1968 he wrote the song Bread & Fishes. Recorded as Wind in the Willows this song was No 1 in the Irish Hit parade and under the additional title of All of Mankind for the American market, it became No 1 in the Japanese Christian Hit parade in 2001. The song has been translated into many languages.
Beginning in 1970 in collaboration with Peter Pilbeam of BBC Radio, Alan wrote The Ballads of the North West which were regional stories told with words and music. Cape Famine, the story of Sunderland Point near Lancaster, was the first ballad broadcast and was the pick of the week on BBC Radio 4. He later rewrote several of the ballads for BBC regional television in the North West.
Alan was still a member of The Taverners during the early years of the Fylde Folk Festival but after twenty one years of working together, producing six LP’s, appearing in thousands of clubs and in concerts and on radio and television, The Taverners disbanded after an appearance at the Royal Command Performance in May 1981. Since then, Alan Bell has sung solo as well as with the Alan Bell Band.
As well as writing individual songs he tackled more complex projects. His song suite, The Band in the Park with brass band and singers was awarded The Radio Italia Prize for original music on regional radio in 1981. He also wrote choral pieces including Wind, Sail, Sea & Sky written to celebrate Fleetwood’s 150 Anniversary. This was followed by Lakeland Seasons. He continued to experiment with music for voices and Brass Band, which culminated in a show called The Century’s People in the year 2000. This was an ambitious show involving over seventy people and included a brass band, choral society, folk singers and two narrators and won The Heritage Award for the Fylde Folk Festival in 2001.
He continued writing songs such as a trawler song The Jacinta and So, Here’s to You, now very popular in Ireland. Later songs included In My Homeland and Letters from Wilfred concerning the poet Wilfred Own who was billeted in Fleetwood in 1916. More recently he wrote The Cocklers to commemorate the Chinese drowning in Morecambe Bay. The song has yet to be recorded.
Alan is one of very few English musicians on Scotland’s prestigious Greentrax record label who released a CD, entitled The Definitive Collection featuring many of his own classic songs.
Alan continues to sing with his band which is now Eddie Green, Andrew Green and Sue Jennings, at clubs, shows and open air concerts in parks during the summer Months. He is still the full time working director of both the Fylde Folk Festival and Folkus.
Fleetwood and the sea have always been inseparable. Before the early growth of the town in the 1830’s and 40’s, the safe anchorage of the Wyre estuary had been a haven for sailing ships and for a while, ports flourished at Skippool and Wardleys further up-river. The coming of the railway in 1840 brought great benefits to Fleetwood, not only aiding the new port but bringing thousands of day trippers to the town for a day at the seaside. In the summer of 1844 for example, over 60,000 visitors travelled to the town by train. The visit of Queen Victoria to Fleetwood in September 1847, further heightened its popularity as a fashionable resort.
During 1845 vessels laden with guano from South America, sugar from the West Indies, flax from Russia and timber from both the Baltic and Canada, landed in Fleetwood. A new bonded warehouse was opened in the same year, to house wines, spirits, tea, tobacco, and all manner of goods from the East Indies. Also during this period Fleetwood developed rapidly as a passenger port with regular sailings to Belfast, Londonderry, Ardrossan, Dublin and the Isle of Man.
The middle years of the last century also saw the arrival of fishing smacks from the Southport area, from Scotland and from the East Coast. This marked the beginning of the fishing industry in the port — later a source of employment for many thousands of local people.
During the 20th century many steam trawlers were added to the local fleet and each tide saw trawlers sailing down the Wyre channel to unload their catch. After World War I, the cargo trade declined and the passenger service to Ireland was discontinued. However the Fishing fleet continued to expand and during World War II, Fleetwood became the Premier fishing port in Britain.
In recent years the fishing industry, despite the building of new trawlers and the construction of one of Europe’s most modem fish markets, struggled mainly due to International fishing policy. However this decline was counterbalanced by a huge upsurge in general cargo trading, based to a large extent on the success of the giant Pandoro roll on roll off terminal dealing with container traffic to Ireland. In Wyre Dock the new grain terminal and scrap metal berth are also well used and Fleetwood entered the big league of British ports. In July 1982, it was announced that Fleetwood had experienced its busiest ever trading period, with well over one million tons of cargo being handled in the first half of the year.
Sadly over more recent years Fleetwood as a working port went back into decline once more. The RoRo ferry no longer operates from Fleetwood and much of the port infrastructure has been stripped and cleared. The channel is still being dredged to keep open options for the future but for the time being at least, the jobs are gone. In 1995, the then deserted Wyre Dock was developed into a marina. The derelict dock landing area has been developed into Fleetwood Freeport, a retail centre.