An Outline of History
The Topic was founded in 1956 by Alex Eaton - once he had left the local Young Communist League choir - and some friends. It was the height of the Cold War, with Suez and the Hungarian Uprising dominating the headlines. From its very beginnings as a fairly informal opportunity for like-minded youths to get together and talk politics and sing up to its current policy of around two-thirds guest acts The Topic was always and remains now a weekly club.
Alex has no note of the exact day or date of the first meeting, but it was some time in September of 1956 in Laycock's Rooms in Albion Court. See here for more from Alex on this period. However, for a long time the club celebrated its birthday in early November, including the 25th Anniversary Party in 1981. This probably recognises the point when the club became organisationally more structured. One spur to creating a formal club that charged money was the desire to raise funds for refugees from the Hungarian Uprising of 22-24 October 1956.
Since that time there have been peaks, slumps and shifts in the popularity, influence, styles and purpose of what is broadly called folk music, the definition of which is still argued about and which (arguably, obviously) encompasses traditional harvest songs with unknown authors, 60s protest songs by very well-known authors, international roots music, Mississippi blues, electrified folk-rock, Irish pub songs, songs of the industrial tradition, skiffle, sea shanties, travellers' songs, Celtic new age, various European strands and a capella harmonising groups, among others. With all this the Topic has survived and adapted when all the other clubs formed before it (and many since) have folded up, and now it claims to be the oldest folk club in the world - certainly the oldest continuously-operating weekly folk club.
How do we justify this? Googling "the oldest folk club in the world" all you get is Topic references (admittedly many of the references come from this site...) Well, Ewan MacColl had founded the first English folk club, the Ballads and Blues, in London in 1953; later known as The Singers' Club, it closed in 1991. The Good Earth, also in London, was founded in 1954 but had gone by 1959, by which time, according to Alex Eaton, the only provincial clubs listed in Sing along with the Topic were Wayfarers in Manchester and Spinners in Liverpool, both now long gone (though it seems The Bridge, see below, should also have been mentioned).
The Cornell Folk Song Club in New York was founded at some point in the 50s, maybe only as a university society to start with, and even now seems only to be fully-functioning during term-time. The Bush Music Club, Inc in Sydney was founded in 1954, but seems to be less a weekly folk club than an EFDSS-style organisation with publications along with dance and music - specifically bush music - workshops. The Bridge Folk Club in Newcastle was founded by Louis Killen and Johnny Handle in 1958, putting it in the same sort of ball-park era as the Topic. Its claim to fame is that it has been in the same venue from the start - apart from a 6-month gap for refurbishment of the pub - which the Topic certainly can't claim.
Although it's moved a football team of times in all (see sidebar) much of The Topic's existence has been at just two venues - 22 years at the Star (1969-1991) and 10 years at the Melborn (July 1995 to the end of 2005, when the Melborn announced it was closing as a pub). Pics of the Melborn, Peel and Star are here.
The Topic has always been weekly, and according to records including the 1981 Silver Jubilee History and the Gig List 1960-Now, has been closed on only about 40 club nights (usually Xmas and New Year) in its 55 years. Over the years there have been more than 2,500 club nights and as well as the paid guest acts hundreds of other people have appeared on the Topic stage - paid guests, semi-professional support acts, visiting club exchanges, and local singers and musicians.
In its very early days the club was a place for young people to meet and talk folksong and politics and sing for themselves. The very first guest was London-based atomic physicist Dr John Hasted, but it was a while before paid guests made regular appearances. We do have a very substantial but not yet 100% record of gigs going back to 1960 and it would be nice to fill in the remaining holes. If anyone has old diaries, programmes or other documents, get them to Trevor Charnock, who is collating the information.
We also have links to the websites of or other online references to over 500 individuals and bands who have appeared on the Topic stage since the 1950s. Well-known visitors over the years include Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, Bert Lloyd, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Vin Garbutt, Bert Jansch, Shirley Collins, Robin Williamson and his Incredible String Band, Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol, Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies, Martin Carthy, The Ian Campbell Folk Group, Jerry Silverman, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Ashley Hutchings, Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty, Christy Moore, Gordon Giltrap, Richard Digance, The Watersons, Mike Harding, June Tabor, The Oyster Band, Roy Bailey, Show of Hands, Kathryn Tickell, Alan Hull, Bob Pegg, Dick Gaughan, Kate Rusby, Davy Graham and Alexis Korner. And many others - Roger Sutcliffe made his 40th-anniversary appearance in 2004.
There is anecdotal evidence only that a very young Bob Dylan might have made a floor-spot appearance once, though it looks as though Paul Simon never did show up - despite the legend. Among other names of the 60s and 70s, Al Stewart was never booked and we have correspondence to show that Ralph McTell was booked (for December 1969) but was withdrawn by his agent when his burgeoning career enabled him to fill bigger venues.
There is now a pretty full roster of guests, from the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia as well as all over the UK and Ireland, supported by local floor singers, and when there are no visiting artists there are singers' and musicians' nights, which have sometimes been loosely-themed. On any Thursday night you can just listen or you can contribute a song or two and continue the traditional ethos of the earliest days, with people making music for themselves and each other right there, live.
In 1981 the Topic committee produced a 25th anniversary pamphlet containing a brief history of the Topic to that point. At the end of it the committee looked forward to the next 25 years. We got there, and marked the landmark not with a big party or weekend concerts but with an Autumn Season of guest bookings including blasts from the past such as Wizz Jones, Vin Garbutt, Allan Taylor and Julie Felix.
That second tranche of 25 years is now also in the past and we are well into the third - and on present form we will indeed be celebrating the 75th anniversary in the autumn of 2031.
Come along, show support and join in. In a world where commoditised entertainment is pumped to consumers' homes so that global corporations can lever money out of your pocket and drop it into their revenue streams, it is good to do something for real.