At: The Merchant Bar, 25 Peckover Street,
Topic Folk Club: The 30th Anniversary
Transcribed by Trevor H Charnock, this is a copy of an article by Alex Eaton, who co-founded The Topic Folk Club in 1956. It covers his memories of the club at that time, and the wider musical environment in Bradford and London. It was published in three parts in the Summer, Autumn and Winter editions of Tykes’ News in 1990.
All though the heading of this article in Tykes’ News is The 30th Anniversary it is a bit late as the club had the 30th in 1986. It must have taken him a bit of time to get round to writing it. Alex probably left the club about 1960. He started coming down to the club again in the early 80s and I think later that decade rejoined the committee, before disappearing again, I think due to his health not being as good as it should be. TC
Part 1: Summer Edition of Tykes’ News 1990
Life is short and fragile and longevity is fascinating. It is truly remarkable that the "Topic" should have survived without interruption through the changing times of thirty years. People begin to ask how the club came to be, what was it like at the beginning and so forth. Often such questions can be difficult to answer, they have to be dug up from clouded memories and pieced together. In this case however, the present writer founded and named the club and impressed a particular form upon it for the first three or four years of its existence. I was then forced to withdraw after severe disagreement. Though a few sketchy minuets of meetings I had were given some years ago on request to somebody at the club, I still have my diaries to help my memory. Animosity had evaporated about a year after, but by then my wife and I were pouring our energies into the struggle against Nuclear Weapons and raising a family. We continued to visit the club occasionally and put up visiting singers for a while. Then contact was lost. We never lost our interest in and enjoyment of folk music nor our love for the club, which is why I am writing now.
Firstly then as to the dates. The Topic is certainly the oldest British Folk Club in continuous existence since its inception. The only club founded earlier did not last too long. The Good Earth, 44 Gerard Street, London, started in December 1954 and became the 44 Skiffle and Folk Club in May 1956. But in September 1959 “Sing” magazine was only able to list 3 clubs in Britain, The Wayfarers in Manchester, The Spinners in Liverpool and The Topic in Bradford. We commenced in September 1956 (unfortunately I have no note of the exact day) in the top upstairs room of a building then known as Laycock’s Temperance Hotel and for many years a radical political centre. Many famous people in the early socialist and Labour movement spoke there - William Morris, Prince Peter Kroptkin, Margaret MacMillan etc. Today it is Giusseppe’s, an Italian restaurant. In 1956 it was owned by Mr E. V. Tempest of the eminent firm of Tempest and Sons and one of Bradford’s great characters. He installed a café and ran weekly after-lunch political debates and chess in the style of its earlier use.
The room we entered was dingy, dusty and depressing, but we had no rent to pay at least. Most of the chairs were heaped at the back. We slumped in the few chairs arranged around the stained, green baize-covered table where the political orators dispensed their wisdom, for there were not many of us either. I had the only instrument, an excellent cello-bodied jazz guitar and we sang and talked a long time. We continued to meet there every Friday from then on. We had no name and no audience but our hopes were high.
On the 11th of November 1956, under the heading "Music for Youth", we ran a Weekend School at the charitable holiday centre, Highfield House, next to the Cow and Calf Hotel, Ilkley. It was a youth hostel type accommodation ideal for our purpose. The guide-animator of the weekend was John Hasted, the Hasted of the song "Family of Man". Our name is not Dallas (the composer of the song) Hasted or Jones (needed for the rhyme), Dr John Hasted, Professor of Physics John Hasted, University of London (just retired 1986) much loved not to say idolised by our first members privileged to know him. Harry Jackson, a Shipley music teacher and conductor of the Shipley Co-op choir, was there to help us face the problem of reading the "dots", using our voices properly and so forth. His flexibility and knowledge and enjoyment of a wide variety of music made him an ideal companion to John. Professor Hasted played banjo, guitar, accordion and piano and knew hundreds of folk songs and tales; above all he had a happy knack of passing on his knowledge in the most genial and friendly manner. Though we had everything to learn he made us feel at ease and equal because of the equal respect we had for the "material", he and us. He was and is an enthusiast without personal ambition. He drove up from London many times (there was no motorway). We just gave him something for his petrol and put him up at our house. He behaved as an elder in the club family. I have the deepest admiration and affection for him. That weekend was so successful we ran another in the same place the following year, 1957, in April. Harry was with us again and this time John brought a friend, Redd Sullivan, very memorable for the fact we had to produce a piece of tree so that he may properly swing his axe to some purpose when he sang American Negro work songs. He also brought, Oh Wonders of Wonders, a real, genuine bass fiddle upon which Harry Jackson was able to pluck correct bass notes, so that when we moved into the Hotel with our skiffle at lunchtime on the Sunday, we were a sensation. People crowded in from all directions and we played and sang far into the afternoon.
Something was happening now at Laycock’s though we saw no great change in the numbers until the autumn, when things took off with a bang. At first we had practiced as much as we played, trying harmonising voices in Negro Spirituals like "Mary don’t you Weep", which went well as skiffle numbers, and teaching a few elementary chords to people who came along with their brand-new shiny guitars which they were learning to refer to disparagingly as "boxes". By Summer 1957 we had a group with a bit of a repertoire and one or two solo singers, so we could sustain a fairly continuous evening of singing, though we adapted as far as possible to whoever came along, and spent time teaching what we knew. We had long and inconclusive discussions about what name to give the club. Adverts simply asked people to come and skiffle with us. In the Autumn established groups began to have the courage to declare themselves in our audience and were persuaded to play a few numbers. A group of friends who had been practicing climbing on the Cow and Calf rocks had been impressed by the Hotel concert and promised to come down to Laycock’s. They came in the Autumn. Paul Tattersal, "Dad", was their leader though at that time he could only pluck away tunelessly on a tea-chest bass. Professional groups had now been featuring in the Media, but there was little recorded material for local groups to learn. Our little group at Laycock’s had lots of songs and we were desperate to teach them. The dingy top room was on occasion so packed we had to turn people away. The average age of the audience was low, some were still at school, and most had just left. Girl friends were more than happy to run the "Door" and collect and return our coats. There were many more then I suppose, since we all used the bus. They also had the honour of serving “Refreshments”. We consumed several crates of "Pop" in an evening.
The evening we were raided by the Police we had a full house of all ages. Police constables suddenly streamed in. Absolutely silent and overwhelming in number. Orders were barked out. Our hands were to remain visible, no one was to move or dire would be the consequences. We gazed at each other, Police and audience stupefied. There was a heavy and interminable silence. In response to a sharp command two men searched half-heartedly under chairs and commenced embarrassedly to search the pockets of one or two persons, but soon stopped and turned enquiringly to their Sergeant who shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the plain-clothes man. Whatever they expected was not to be found. A buzz of conversation broke out. The “Organisers” were required to step forward and a small resentful group followed me to receive the message. We were reprimanded for having too many people in the room. One or two names were taken with painfully slow care and we were told the Police would be in touch with us later. Whereupon as quickly as they came, they left. A Fire Officer called a few weeks later and warned us not to admit more than 100 people because of the narrow stairs could constitute a hazard, which was very reasonable. Of the Police we heard nothing. One can only suppose they had expected to find ALCOHOL.
We were of age, a fully-fledged club, but we still had no name. For a large part of the evening the music we played was suited to wash-board and multiple guitars strumming simple chords. Our audience was of would-be performers hungry for material and ideas.
Jazz drumming experience came from Rennie Pickles who became a veritable virtuoso on the wash-board. And jazz experience came also from Adrian Potter who actually played the guitar whilst most of us were happy to manage a quick chord change. Barbara Slaughter from Leeds sang Blues, a stunning personality singing anything, but charming, no big head, modest. I contributed North- American Folk derived from Alan Lomax’s Folksong USA and Sing Out magazine, and British Folk from Sing magazine and publications from the Workers’ Music Association.
Though I and a few others regularly sang on occasion alone, everything went into the maw of skiffle. Unfortunately it appears that the only weaknesses of that craze are remembered and ridiculed . But it did in fact offer structure that allowed talented people todiscover and develop that talent. On occasion, as happens with jazz musicians and Irish bands when they "strike form", one has a musical experience of quality and the audience is "sent" I well remember on one occasion for instance when Rennie Pickles surpassed himself in an extended solo on wash-board laden with bells, a horn, sandpaper and sundry other noise-makers. The whole audience stood and cheered as one.
Part 2: Autumn Edition of Tykes’ News 1990
Thus the Folk Club, only recently just one of the two or three enterprises, was now taking all the time my wife and I could give it, to the detriment of the others which in fact fell away.
Basically I had for some time been trying to found a local branch of the Workers Music Association, still a flourishing movement, though small, about which a few words might be apposite.
The WMA was born in 1936 and registered as a Co-op Society. The President is Alan Bush; the composer whose 90th birthday the BBC recently celebrated. A whole host of eminent musicians are and have been Vice- Presidents, Benjamin Britten and Alan Rawsthorne for example. It is a non-sectarian body, non-political in the sense that it is committed to no party or political policy. To quote from its rules. 'We feel, however, that a true art can inspire the People to work for better life'.
The WMA is interested in all forms of music making and especially in helping ordinary people to make and enjoy music at every level. My wife Louise and I attend Summer Schools run by the WMA at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, where they are still such a success that it is rare to get a place unless one has booked by Christmas.
They published (and still do) booklets, sheet music and records as well. Topic records are now, and have been for some time, a separate concern, but were founded by the WMA to help popularise the People’s music. There were few outlets, members like me used to sell them. At the time there were only very small amounts of folk or folk-related music on record apart from instrumental jazz. Leadbelly and Big Bill Boonzy sang and played Black folk music on minor jazz labels. Josh White played authentic music when he first arrived, became a very popular entertainer and made many records for Decca. The Weavers with Pete Seeger were briefly an International Hit, several 10-inch 78s were issued and Burl Ives in those pre-McCarthy-denunciation days was popular on Decca. Perhaps as a result of The Weavers' success there was a small burst of Media attention. Jean Richie, an outstanding "genuine" singer of Appalachian mountain songs accompanying herself on dulcimer, appeared on TV for two consecutive weeks in March 1953. HMV issued a couple of 78s of her songs. They also issued Ewan McColl and Isla Cameron sining unaccompanied, a most unusual thing in those days, explicable only because it was under the "auspices" of the English Folk Song and Dance Society and thereby lent a certain "cachet" to the label.
In the early fifties, however most material was only to be had from printed sources. For American songs we had the magazine "Sing Out" (born 1951 with if I Had A Hammer on its cover) and Alan lomax’s Folksong USA. Soon Lomax was to be giving delicious long lectures on radio which could be recorded for we now had Tape. For British songs we had the song books published by the WMA . For example, in The Shuttle And The Cage (1954) Ewan McColl had given us 20 Industrial Ballads: Coal Owner and the Pitman’s Wife, Cosher Bailey, Four Loom Weaver etc. Reedy River (1955) had given us a good dozen Australian folk-songs. From The Singing Englishman (Key-note booklet No 4) A. L. (Bert) Lloyd we learned a perspective beyond the immediate pleasure in, and involvement with, the songs. In 1954 John Hasted and Eric Winter founded Sing Magazine for the London Youth Choir. I quote from its first editorial. 'The music we print has not grown without roots. The Traditions of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish folksongs together with those from other countries form the tap roots. There are also traditions of classical and choral compositions, of Music hall and Popular music. From time to time we shall print examples of those traditions so performers can ground themselves in their heritage'. They and we took a wide view. The magazine was a valuable help and guide for many years.
We were gathering lots of information from many directions, but we didn’t quite know what to do with it, how to disseminate it. Choirs at first seemed to be the thing. After all, you only needed the will to learn and the help of just one musician. People who knew the "dots" and could play something were rather rare. And no expenditure was involved! Of course there weren’t too many venues. Pubs were difficult to break into. Political meetings and Socials organised by Political Groups were easier. In 1953 I had with Bill Leader founded a choir for the Leeds Young Communist League in imitation of The Weavers, somewhat limply named "The Wayfarers" because we seemed to sing all over Yorkshire. On the 25th of September 1954 we had our first rehearsal for the Bradford WMA Choir. The Wayfarers sang a mixture of folk and political songs to my scraping of chords on the Aristone jazz guitar. The WMA Choir sang four-part arrangements of carols and simple arrangements of folk melodies by Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. We had an expert conductor and pianist from the Shipley Co-op Choir.
Then the Skiffle boom struck. The whole musical entertainment industry was going our way, that is the folk way. It wasn’t easy to recognise that at first when the first sounds hit our ears. The snarling sound of Lonnie Donegan doing an hysterical "Rock Isle Line" didn’t compare easily with Leadbelly’s version. Nor did it compare with the Poor Man’s jazz I had heard that Ken Collyer called skiffle, but by opening a seam of folk music for exploration they had given Folk music some sort of stage. I was in a habit of singing French songs in class at the end of term, a permitted activity in which grateful pupils would join in enthusiastically dodging the hated grammar. On impulse one time I sang a song from Lomax’s book and achieved instant fame. Spirituals and work songs go well with a beat. Unknown to me the school already had several struggling skiffle groups and were soon at me for more songs. The penny dropped for me and the strumming in the newly invented Coffee bars took an entirely new meaning. On a visit to London Bill Leader introduced me to the "City Ramblers" of Russel Quaye and Hylda Simms and I actually felt the almost engulfing lift of better musicians than me surrounding and elevating my bit. I was converted. As I saw it, as we had the entertainment industry at least temporarily with us, clubs for skiffle were bound to succeed and given that initial push could very well continue as Folk Clubs. A large enough body of material existed to train and sustain skilled exponents and provide a consuming hobby of interest, rather like the Dixie/New Orleans jazz which was the young person’s heresy when I was a lad before the war. Though I didn’t understand it then it was also a time when young people were busting their bonds and asserting their independent existence wildly and loudly, needing an area of discovery for the new selves they were discovering. Times were changing and "popular" music, Victorian balladry with dance band chordal accompaniment was at a very low ebb. The need for renewal and the refusal of young people to be ignored any longer as "awful in-betweens" (songs of adolescent misery, way back), their need to yell their new identity as Teen-Agers completely revolutionised popular music. It has never looked the same since. The later return of the industry to Folk, the Flower Power, Simon and Garfunkel type, never engaged with the real stuff, but only lived off the existing movement and brought no Change.
Part 3: Winter Edition of Tykes’ News 1990/91
The first great movement of interest in folk music at the turn of the century was, at least in part, a search for National identity in music conducted by musicians and composers of Classical status, Bartok and Cecil Sharp for instance. The second wave of interest I believe involved similarly a search for a sort of Lower Class identity by socialists, Communists and Trade Unionists in Britain as in the USA. There might not, however, have been the teachers and organisers for a third wave, a search for adolescent identity in Skiffle, were it not for the bomb and the great Peace movement that arose. Enormous International Youth Festivals were held and British participants stared admiringly and enviously at Eastern European and Asian folk performances, music, costume and dance. Intensely embarrassed, the only contribution young Englishmen could make was to dredge up something half forgotten from school experience of the National Students Songbook. Scotsmen soon learned to flash the kilt a wee song. Help was sought. Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl at last had an opening. Accumulated British Folk Music knowledge had at last somewhere to go, things were in motion.
Unfortunately for us all, the World of course left opposition to the Bomb to the communists practically alone in those days, saying that the Russians and their friends only wanted it banned because they hadn’t got one.(Atlee et al) So it was the Young Communists who sang and formed choirs in response to a gradually Sovietised Peace movement. Anyway, the majority of intellectuals – scientists, painters, musicians – then were either Communists or sympathisers. McColl, Llyod, Hasted, the three men to whom Folk enthusiasts owe so much, were Communists. John and Ewan are still proud to say they are.
And one or two members of the YCL choir gave a lot of time travelling quite a distance by train and bus to help get the club going. The main ones were Rennie Pickles, Vince Lacey, Barbara Slaughter and of course myself and Louise my wife. By this time Louise and I and perhaps others needed a non-aligned direction for the flow of our sympathy for the Common Man. Specific politics I didn’t see as appropriate to club activities anyway. We followed the WMA maxim of commitment to follow the broadest notions of the good of the people.
In the successful Autumn of 1957 the club at last acquired a name suggested by me, since I was after all selling Topic records. There was no great enthusiasm for it, but nobody could think of anything they liked better.
Louise and I seemed to be living the club night and day. I have many entries in my diary "Skiffle at our house". Changes were taking place around us. Laycock’s Café had become the Dragon and Peacock Restaurant and soon Mr Yung, the propietor, required the top floor where we operated, to house his growing staff. We moved into the middle floor room, decorated and carpeted as an overflow room for the main restaurant. We bathed in the luxury of bright colours and bright lights. It seemed to express materially our success. It was an immensely satisfying time. We began to meet twice a week, once to teach and learn from each other and once, on Fridays, to play.
We continued to welcome John Hasted, more and more as a performer, but also as instructor and guide, at our home on the Sunday. He brought our first "Star" performer, Shirley Collins, already making a name for herself in London. They did a concert together one Saturday night and they did it for love. We hadn’t much money and what we had was for the Cause, to buy records and song books and books about Folk music where we could. None of our first guests were paid a fee, they were felt to be members of the family. My dream was to establish a Centre with a library of records and books, where film could and would be shown, classes would be held, instruments taught and expert speakers would be heard, a place where all local singers could find sustenance. I hoped the Topic would sponsor other clubs, spreading the message. Not surprisingly perhaps things didn’t quite work out that way, but the dream governed my approach. Concerts for instance were only there to raise money for the educational side. That among other things, my (as I now feel) narrow-minded rejection of Rock and Roll (in those circumstances) was why I came into collision with the committee who wanted to reduce the already low entrance fee of one shilling to ninepence. They weren’t bothered, they said about books and records and speakers, but just wanted to get on with their weekly singing. And of course they were pretty experienced by now, widely admired. They just wanted to enjoy success I suppose. But we did purchase a record player and amplifier with a throat mike to tape to guitars. It was made for us by a well known Leeds jazz and dance band leader Dave Dalmour who came along with his partner Marianne who he was then training to do a double cabaret act with him, singing in the style of a Duo popular then, Nina and Frederik. And we bought a dozen or so records and a few expensive books.
Concerts were special Saturday events, Friday was for our own pleasure and that of our followers of course. Sometimes the unknown "Star" just arrived unannounced, Jerry Silverman for instance (now known as the author of numerous manuals and books). And we had a "special" at our own venue, the Oddfellows’, a large top room on that occasion. On two occasions Louise and I tried our hand at organising a large public event with the idea of gaining publicity for the club and hopefully a little money. We booked Jack Elliott for a percentage of the "gate", persuaded some local Irish musicians and a steel band to join us for a show at the late-lamented Mechanics Institute Theatre which was a relative success, we had a good audience. In the event Jack could hardly see his finger-board for the whisky fumes and caused a bit of a problem by bringing with him a vast following from London amongst whom I remember Davy Graham, already a fine musician, Red Nerk as he named himself, who had an instant success with a version of "Lord Randall", perhaps his own, "he called mother be quick I want to be sick", and a strange character who disconcertingly became twice his apparent height when he stood up, Long John Baldry. The other event we organised at Leeds Town Hall, the only possible venue we felt for the legendary Weavers accompanied by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. It was a nerve-racking success, by no means a sell out, but well attended. As for ourselves of course we were thrilled.
It has been said that only skiffle was played at the beginning at the club. It will be seen that this was not so. Only a few were able to sing solo it is true, but groups played many songs from the folk repertoire and though primitive instrumentation was skiffle, the experience was not quite what you would get by listening to a “skiffle” record.
It has also been said that all the songs were American, North American, but Paul who has claimed this must remember he made quite a thing at the time singing Cosher Bailey from McColl’s Shuttle And The Cage. British, Australian, West Indian and Irish songs were all available to us in magazines and books and were sung. There was a great admiration for the guitar style of Broonzy of course and a strong jazz influence.
By now the "Dragon" was also becoming successful as a restaurant, needed our room and regretfully told us to go. We had several anguished changes of venue, even a cellar at SSt Chrysostom's Church, before we settled in a large and magnificent room that could be extended by opening partitions, at The Oddfellows' Hall. It wasn’t a pub, but it had a bar down below. By now our audience had grown older, were in their late teens and were of the opinion that a bar was needed to make an evening. We painted the dismal shutters in bright colours (allowed because they were not used). We constructed a stage and a friend painted a large portrait of a guitarist in brilliant colour on a folding screen to make a back-cloth for the stage. Tony Davis who had just started the “Spinners” came to see us, how we did things, liked the atmosphere we had created.
We were unique for we already had a history and a large following. In one thing we failed. Only once or twice did we get any real folk musicians to come to the club and when we did they were deadfully embarrassed despite our efforts to make them feel at home and never came again. Louise and I were in touch with a number of excellent Irish musicians and singers and also a group of Carribbean men who played delightful gentle and sophisticated guitar together, old time dances with a Spanish flavour Minuet Schottisce etc.
Cait Mulkerins said I can sing all night with a great turf fire at my back and a view of the mountain through the door, but in that horrid room 'No'. Which was not entirely true, because she sang like a linnet in her Bradford kitchen, but I knew what she ment. The Real thing does not want to be caged. A performer is a disciplined showman, or should be, quite another thing.
About this time I left. There are many more who can take up this story. It would be an excellent enterprise to collect as many reminisces as possible. In this piece I wanted to reveal motivation and descibe the early steps with the help of my diary.
Alex Eaton July 1989.