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Leicester Special Collections

Case Study - Folk Music

Harvey Tucker performing at the Leicester Folk Song Club.

Harvey Tucker at the first night of the LFSC, 1961.

As has been noted by local author Roy Palmer, folk songs and music in Leicestershire go back many years, and there is evidence of Morris dancing in Leicester in the 16th century.[1] At the start of the 20th century the 'Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society' identified the noted local collector of folklore Charles Billson and the Hon. Norah Dawnay of Dingley as its only two members from Leicestershire. By 1928 Billson had moved to Sussex and the only listed member was the Dowager Lady Beaumont of Swannington House, near Leicester.[2] In a 1927 book about Leicester the wife of Victor Thomas, a musician, conductor and organiser of local choirs, is noted as: 'Well-known as a singer, especially in Scottish ballads. Her natural northern accent and unaffected manner of expression of these quaint songs make a direct and irresistible appeal to her audiences'.[3]

After WW2 there was more enthusiasm for folk dancing. The local Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) report for 1947-48 recorded ‘an influx of new members’ at the Vaughan College Folk Dancing Society and Leicester's De Montfort Hall hosted one of the major folk dance events of 1948.[4] The Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society reported that, 'The first large Regional Festival was held at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, on the afternoon and evening of 20th November, 1948. The Bacup Coconut Dancers, the Grenoside Sword Dancers and a Ukranian team helped members of the Society from all over the Midlands to put on first rate shows before enthusiastic audiences'.

In the summer of 1949 a course on traditional dance was held at Vaughan College and by the 1950s the Leicestershire & Rutland branch of the English Song & Dance Society was holding regular events based in Vaughan College. In 1947-48 the WEA report noted that new dances included Morris and sword dances, with an interest in American Square Dancing. By 1956 the events covered Barn Dances including English Traditional and American Square Dances.[5] Eric Swift was the tutor at Vaughan College and the Vaughan Folk Dancing Society grew out of the lectures he gave. Swift was a local historian and, according to the website of the Leicester Morrismen, 'In the 1920s a side of dancers was performing Cotswold Morris in Leicester, and the current side were in touch with one of them, Eric Swift, until his death some years ago.' The website also says that, 'The present Leicester Morris men were formed in 1953, and they initially met just to learn the dances, with an occasional demonstration. In 1957 Steve George organized the first summer season of “dancing out”, and the side has never looked back.'[6]

Also in the late 1950s a young Leicester man, Harvey Tucker, visited London and Birmingham folk clubs to see Ewan MacColl, Ian Campbell and other nationally known singers and musicians. As there was no folk club in Leicester, in 1961 Tucker placed an advert in the Leicester Mercury and the Leicester Folk Club started on the 10th October 1961 in the Red Cow pub on Belgrave Gate. Local singers that day were John Hayes, Geoff Hallford, Russ Merryfield and Harvey Tucker.[7] Interviewed for this project in 2017, Geoff Halford mentioned the influence of the BBC radio programme 'Country Magazine' with presenters Francis Collinson & Francis Dylan and others (such as Dylan Thomas, occasionally). This went out on a Sunday lunchtime and produced song books that aspiring musicians could buy. 'Country Magazine' was also a TV programme in the 1940s fronted by Jack Hargreaves and others. It was replaced by 'As I Roved Out', which ran from 1953-1958.[8]

The Leicester Folk Club prospered and was helped by Leicester being one of the venues for the playwright Arnold Wesker's Centre 42 initiative. These festivals were held during the autumn of 1962 and the program included theatre, music theatre, poetry, jazz, and exhibitions of local artists and children’s art. The first major concerts of the folk song revival movement were given in the program and a sixteen-piece band was formed, including most of the leading modern jazz soloists in Britain.[9] The event lasted for a week in Leicester, folk sessions were held in pubs, the singer Anne Briggs was one of the performers, and Russ Merryfield, who helped with the project and had the performers staying at his house, remembers a lot of drink being consumed.[10]

Russ Merryfield talks about the music played at the LFSC when it started.

Other names associated with the LFSC include Toni Savage, who ran the club for several years. Savage was an opera singer and folk fan who is mainly remembered as being responsible for a revival of broadsheet printing in Leicester in the early 1960s, as told in A Paper Snowstorm: Toni Savage and the Leicester Broadsheets (2005) by Derek Deadman & Rigby Graham.

Roy & Val Bailey also attended the club and went on to became very well known, recording with Leon Rosselson among others.

Link to Roy Bailey's website - http://roybailey.net/

In 1964 another club opened. The Couriers Folk Club was run by Jack Harris and Rex Brisland, and started at The Queens Hotel in Charles Street (now the Ale Wagon), but soon moved to The White Swan, which was near to the Corn Exchange where the open market square is.[11] The list of acts who played at both the Leicester Folk Club and the Couriers over the following years reads like a who's who of folk music and includes Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Joni Mitchell who played one of her first UK gigs in the White Swan in 1967.[12] The White Swan can be seen in Ray Gosling's 1963 film 'Two Town Mad' and is described by one of the locals as being frequented by 'hard men' and 'tough geezers'![13]

[1] ‘Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland’ by Roy Palmer, The History Press; 2Rev Ed edition, 2002, p.171.

[2] Membership details are from the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 2, No. 6 (1905), pp. i-viii and Vol. 8, No. 32 (Dec., 1928), pp. i-vi.

[3] ‘Leicester Civic, Industrial, Institutional, Social Life’ (1927) p.276.

[4] All information in this article about the WEA is from ‘Still Learning. 100 Years of the Worker’s Educational Association in Leicester’ edited by Cynthia Brown, (2008), p. 31.

[5] The date of the festival and the course at Vaughan College are given in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Dec., 1949), p. 27. The March 1956 event is from ‘Leicester Diary, March 1956’ published by the City of Leicester Publicity Department

[6] https://leicestermorrismen.co.uk/a-brief-history-of-leicester-morrismen-aka-red-leicester/ (Accessed 12/06/2018)

[7]‘Russ & Harvey talk about the Leicester Folksong Club’ by Will Parfitt in ‘Sounds Alive’, Issue 5, Spring 2001, p.2.

[8] Details of the radio and television versions of ‘Country Magazine’ can be found on the website http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/ (Accessed 12/06/2018)

[9] ‘Arnold Wesker: A casebook’, edited by Reade W. Doman p.92

[10] Interview with Russ Merryfield, 2017. Uncatalogued.

[11] http://thecouriersinleicester.blogspot.co.uk/ (Accessed 12/06/2018).

[12] Information from https://www.songkick.com/artists/310304-joni-mitchell/gigography?page=10 (Accessed 12/06/2018).

[13] ‘Two Town Mad’ presented by Ray Gosling, produced by Monica Sims for BBC TV. The film was made in 1963 but broadcast on 28th February 1964. For details see http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/eastmidlands/series7/revisit.shtml (Both accessed 12/06/2018).