'What's the news, what's the news?' Christy Moore asked the reporter
Song of the Day Revisited: Tim Hart and Maddy Prior - Dancing at Whitsun

What was your route to folk music? Here's John Mayall's part in mine




A former colleague, Bill Stock, once wrote this at Facebook, prompting me to trawl through Salut! Live archives and reproduce,  from 2007, the little piece that follows.

It was originally published just ahead of a John Mayall gig in the French resort of Le Lavandou, where - when Covid permits - I spend part of each year   ...

First Bill, writing in 2017: "Met my all-time UK blues hero, the legendary John Mayall, at his gig in Southend tonight.
Bought a couple of signed CDs before the show (see next photo) and told John I first saw him at Bishop’s Stortford, Herts in the late 60s.
What an amazing gig. After playing non-stop for nearly two hours he and his fab band were given a well-deserved standing ovation by fans. Bear in mind that Mr Mayall was called up for National Service, served in Korea and has been playing the Blues since the Fifties, he sounded as fresh and sprightly as ever.
His multi-skilling abilities amazed me. On some numbers he played Roland or Hammond keyboards with his right hand, played a harmonica held again a microphone in his left hand while singing a few verses in between.
He also played superb rhythm and lead guitars. No wonder he was made OBE for services to music. And at the end of the show John and the whole band met fans in the foyer to sign more CDs and programmes and pose for more photos. Brilliant."

John Mayall - 1

Now for my account of the musical journey that took me eventually to folk music ... republication has prompted fascinating discussions  at two Facebook groups, 6os 70s Facebook Folk Music and English Folk Music from which I have copied and pasted most of the comments you see below ... 

Billy Bragg once told me he was "of folk", though not "from folk".

The difference is subtle but not too hard to comprehend. Unless you are a Waterson, a Carthy, a Copper, a Doonan or a Lakeman, you are likely to have arrived at being "of folk" by this or that route.

How many generations a family needs to have had a strong interest in, and/or experience of performing, folk music before a member can accurately say he or she is "from folk" is open to debate. But for most of us, the test is academic.

Our parents hadn't the slightest interest; if there was music in the house it was the popular music of the age, or maybe light opera or piano lessons for the kids. So we found our own route to folk, or it found us.

We ourselves recoiled in horror from the likes of the White Heather Club or the Spinners whatever we later thought of either. And I certainly winced when hearing Alma Cogan or Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson.  

My route to folk included, odd as it may seem, John Mayall, the veteran British bluesman who [remember this was 2007] brings his band to the Théâtre de Verdure in my present home town of Le Lavandou, on the Med between St Tropez and Toulon, this Wednesday.

I'll be there, as - I suspect - will the mayor, since I am told he's a huge fan and has all the albums to prove it.

Everyone of my generation was aware of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, of course, and in particular the protest songs they made popular.

Some popularity - though perhaps not too much - was important to our knowledge and appreciation.

But we were also becoming aware of the blues, as played by British bands like John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

It may have been an imitation of the real, black thing but it sounded passably authentic to most of us and Mayall already seemed old enough to have acquired a certain credibility on that score alone.

I remember lying on the floor of our sitting room listening over and again to Eric Clapton's guitar solo on Rambling On My Mind, played loudly enough to menace neighbourly relations.

(March 2021 update: I had always thought of that as a slightly shaming admission of teenage nerdishness.

Then I read, in a recent Observer interview, about Richard Thompson's memory of  listening to Django Reinhardt, Lonnie Johnson and Les Paul as a boy and, to quote from his autobiography due out in April , “lying on a sea-green shag-pile rug in the living room with my ear a foot from the radiogram speaker”)


John Mayall 2 - 1 The great man with Bill Stock at the Southend gig described above

But where to find such music without attending big concerts in big towns?

The folk club! Someone had said so, and I had no reason to doubt it.

So off I went to Darlington Folk Workshop, in the Golden Cock pub on Tubwell Row.

And indeed, you could occasionaly hear, barely tolerated by the hierarchy, local youths singing their pale versions of the blues and Dylan, or their own flowery songs of varying quality.

But you also heard Byker Hill belted out unaccompanied by burly men, some of whom even knew all about working hard with their hands, or the lusty harmonies of visiting pros and semi-pros such as Dave and Toni Arthur.

Then, as you started exploring the other folk clubs in the area, you heard Irish ballads and rebel songs, Northumbrian dance music and relics of the Tyneside music hall.

I gradually grew more attached to the traditional music of the British Isles and less so to the blues and contemporary folk, without ever losing my fondness for those other genres. And at that Mayall gig, I will see how well that affection, slightly diminished as it may have become, in the British way with the blues has held up, and how vibrant and accomplished Mr Mayall has remained. [I wrote about how it went at this link]


755px-John_Mayall_06_(cropped) Photo, from Seattle in 2019, by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0,

* John Mayall, now 87, co-wrote with Joel McIver his autobiography, Blues From Laurel Canyon: My Life As A Bluesman. It was published in 2019.


Steve Bayes

Via Facebook

I was taken to see Peter Paul and Mary at Birmingham Town Hall on one of their earliest visits. I was mesmerised by the power of their performance but was also intrigued by the sort of songs that they sang and inquired where one could go to hear that sort of music. I was told about these things called 'folk clubs'. I set out to find these places and the rest is history !

Mhic MacGlashan

Via Facebook

Lonnie Donegan records led me to American music and then at an early Cambridge Festival discovered the Young Tradition and then via them to Copper Family and the Watersons.

Marty Kenney

I did it via the obvious route...
Listening, in my mid teens, to King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Free, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Fairport Convention... what?... who are they, other than another if the Island stablemates on the ‘sampler’ album, ‘Nice Enough to Eat’?... yes, it was Chris Blackwell, I guess, that did it for me...
Fairport, Sandy Denny, Fotheringay, then came Steeleye Span and inevitably The Albion Country Band and the many Albion offshoots courtesy of Ashley Hutchings... Electric Folk Rock at it’s finest... but where did these songs and tunes hail from?... and so it began... the ‘Folk Addiction’... I needed more and more, as much as I could get and from anywhere... Martin Carthy , Cyril Tawney, Shelagh McDonald, Young Tradition, Bothy Band, Dougie MacLean, Christy Moore, Fred Wedlock... what?... yes, Fred was a lical legand and a mighty singer!... you see, it was blues, rock, prog rock, folk rock, rock folk (call it what you will!) and onto ‘folk’ music... traditional, contemporary, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, American, Cajun, African, and far, far, FAR beyond!...
See?... the usual routes...

William J Swain-Nisbet

As with all the above, this comes via Facebook

Andy Stewart! Sonny Terry?
/ Brown McGee Big,Bill Bill Broonzy

Colin Randall

With due respect to Andy (RIP) , I went along with all but the first of William’s influences.

Shaun Brown

Via Facebook

I was a committed Soul Music fan , about 1992 a flatmate had Richard Thompson’s Rumour & Sigh and I really liked the sound of it so started buying his albums, which led me to Fairport Convention , then to Sandy Denny. Amongst that the Island Folk Sampler really opened me up Folks real variety and wonder .

Alan Cynics

Via Facebook

Had a conflicted record-listening upbringing. My parents had some folk lps in their collection (Ian Campbell etc), plus my grandad's bothy ballad 78s. My sister left home when I was small, but her singles were left behind....Pretty Things, Kinks, Stones etc, so I had a good mix. Also the early 70s sampler lps which I bought with paper-round money usually contained great folk music (Shirley & Dolly Collins on Picnic etc). First 2 live gigs as a 14 year old were Pentangle and Hawkwind!

Kevin Winks

Learning to sing John Barleycorn, Blow-Man-Down, Johnny Todd et Al, as an 8 year old, at a country primary school in hampshire.

Steve Fuller

We used to listen to Bluesbreakers and Chuck Berry in my mate Adrian Quinn's kitchen on a old dansette. started listening to folk music after getting an acoustic guitar. Mick Softley and Donovan were from around our area. Then i discovered The Incredible String Band!! never been the same since

Chris Castle

I was born in the early 60s so the folk revival stuff was all over the radio.
But there's no doubt that Tales from river bank (Hammy Hamster) and Bagpuss played a massive part in creating my love of folk music.


Hector Gubbins

As a guitarist I started out on Rock, Pop & Blues & was led into the realms of Folk music by discovering Horslips & Fairport.

David Michael Robinson

Hmm . . . that was a long time ago. I had a 6th grade teacher in 1964-65 who played us Bob Dylan records and talked about the Civil Rights Movement. And then seeing The Byrds on TV in 1965. The finger-picked 12-string guitar. My grandpa gave me his old Stella guitar in 1966 and I bought a book of Donovan songs. Bob Dylan on the radio (I like "Like a Rolling Stone" but really loved "Positively 4th Street"). The Rolling Stones threw us a few largely acoustic gems (Backstreet Girl, Ruby Tuesday). Tim Buckley (I liked his hair on Happy Sad). A local YMCA offered a folk guitar class where I learned Cotton-style picking and Jesse Fuller's Talking San Francisco Bay Blues and High-Flying Bird.

Colin Randall

I'm glad to have given a sort of collective home to all these reminiscences (see the article for their origins)

It's a great discussion and I'd guess there's more to come

Bill Taylor

The origins of skiffle - Lonnie Donegan; Nancy Whisky and Chas McDevitt doing "Freight Train" (from, god help us, "The Tommy Steele Story")
and on to fairly soft-edged stuff such as The Spinners and maybe even one or two early things by The Bachelors. And then, a sudden revelation - 1964: I was working at Doggarts department store in Bishop Auckland and doing a course once a week at Durham Tech in Principles of Retailing and Distribution. Popped into a record shop near the bus station and came across Bob Dylan's first album, with a lot of the genuine article on it.

Ruth Rosie

My dad played folk records at home, and he made me a cassette tape of favourite songs, which I listened to over and over. It was only when I was about 12, I started finding out other music was out there. But by then the damage had been done! I now sing a lot of the songs from that tape in my gigs.

Mitch Lester

I grew up in the fifties and sixties in the USA and encountered traditional English folk music only as rare gems tucked in amongst the pop and rock tunes on the radio. My favorites were Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair, and John Barleycorn. Now that I am older I enjoy looking back at the roots of my family and with a surname like mine I suspect my roots trace back to old England. For some reason the tried ad true old English folk songs seem to resonate deeply with me.

Ruth Rosie

Reading through all of this, I'm definitely "from folk" not "of folk", growing up hearing songs and tunes in the pub with the local Morris dancers. I feel very privileged. Modal music - and the songs from our islands - are in my blood.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)