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Missing the old characters

Mike Harding | 17:06 UK time, Monday, 26 April 2010

I don't want to sound as though I'm a moaning old git because I do think that today's folk scene is a wonderfully exciting place to be, with a vast kaleidoscope of music and song. Amazing new CDs and brilliant young musicians and singers are emerging as we older mortals shuffle along the coil. No - most things on the garden are lovely and if Pangloss were playing a banjo today, he would be more than delighted.

What I miss are the characters. They may be out there somewhere, but if so, I haven't bumped into them yet.

A few of the old-timers are still around, but for fear of their lawyers I will give them a name check only: Taffy Thomas, Vic Legge, Johnny Silvo, Bob Davenport, Bernard Wrigley and Les Barker leap instantly to mind as men with a considerable talent to entertain and amuse.

But many of the giants of the folk scene are long gone; the men (it was mostly men it seems) who thought that it was okay to make us laugh while still singing brilliant songs, are now playing that great gig up in the sky.

Martin Windsor, that six foot plus, goatee-bearded, ex-guardsman who thought nothing of crossing a pub room mid-song to take a ciggy out of a punters mouth and stamp on it saying: "You can bugger up yer own lungs dear chap, but leave mine alone."

Red Sullivan, who with his flaming red hair would insist on the audience not only singing sea shanties but would insist on them doing all the actions (pumping, hauling on ropes, winding the windlass etc.) If he found the audience less than responsive he had a novel way of leaving the stage. I saw him do this one night in the Kingsway pub in Rochdale where the locals were having trouble understanding Red's thick Cockney accent. Donning a sou'wester he poured a pint of beer over his head, fired a starting pistol into the air and shouted: "Ship in distress - goodnight ladies and gentlemen."

Fish Jim (another Lord of Misrule no longer with us) was a fish dealer from Hull and was as tough as old boots. He wore the worst ginger wig you have ever seen, sang his heart out even though his voice was not the prettiest, and often sang such bawdy or politically left-leaning songs that he provoked fights in the audience, in which he gleefully joined.

Tony Capstick was not only a fine singer and a brilliant natural comedian but a most spontaneous and witty man. Once in a Dusseldorf taxi he was told by the driver - on the night Germany beat England in the World Cup - "we have beat you at your national sport." "We beat you at yours twice." was Tony's extremely funny but politically incorrect reply. He walked the rest of the way.

And the others... Ian (Jock) Manuel who sang Bothy Ballads beautifully with the voice of somebody who has been gargling with broken glass and who once stood for election in Hull as the candidate for the Get Stuffed Party. He didn't win, but the returning officer had to read out: "Ian Manuel - Get Stuffed - one hundred and twenty seven votes."

Then there was West Country Boy, Trevor Crozier, who played medieval instruments and wrote that wonderful song, The Piddletrenthide Jug Band, and whose album cover showed him in Edwardian gentleman's dress riding a penny-farthing. The album was called Trouble Over Bridgewater.

And then of course there's Hamish Imlach, Diz Disley, Bob Spray, Jeff Woods... and the bands: Hedgehog Pie, The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band, The Marsden Rattlers, Roaring Jelly, and the Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra.

Someone said I ought to write a book about them all. Perhaps I will. Anybody know a good lawyer?


  • Comment number 1.

    Mike welcome to the association of Moaning Old Gits! I agree wholeheartedly, they were a generation of characters who were larger than life. In fact some of them were Lager than life!

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting to hear about the chap not wanting his lungs poisoned. I remember Dave Swarbrick pointedly lighting up while performing in a no-smoking venue in Milton Keynes. The rest, as they say, is history.

  • Comment number 3.

    Today there are some brilliant, brilliant sober people on the folkscene and the past seems to be a foreign country.
    I served a long and undistinguished alcoholic apprenticeship in the company of a lot of the "folk" characters way back then.
    A man who had a great influence on me was the great songwriter Matt McGinn.
    When he died I put a few of the stories he had told me into verses and I made a song.
    Here is one of the verses:

    Matt was hauled before the court the judge said, “If you please
    explain to me the words you wrote where you mention effin’ bees
    You’ve been charged with swearing and if I find this true
    I’ll have your skin Matt McGinn I’ll have you in a stew”
    Matt said, ”First of all I like to say thank you for the chance
    to explain to you that Effen is a little town in France
    It’s famous for its honey it has more bee hives than trees
    Consequently Effen is full of Effen bees.”

    Ed Pickford

  • Comment number 4.

    O.K. So I'm a year late but we old gits take a while to get going. So glad to hear someone with a good word (or at least a word) to say for the, let's say unique, Red Sullivan. He may not have been the best singer in the world but in my youth I learned a great deal about London songs from him and even remember one or two. Made me realise that folk music was around me in London and could be sung in a cockney accent just as well as a Sussex, Northern or Scottish one (although in Red's case I noticed occasional listeners rather than the singer with hands over ears.)
    Austen Hamilton


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