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JOHN CONNOLLY




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The Broadside are the resident group and main organisers of Grimsby Folk Song Club. They prefer to remain as semi-professionals since all are well established in jobs. They have been heard at most of the major festivals, have appeared on TV and radio and made three previous LPs. They form a ceilidh band and are much in demand for dances. Apart from their own songs, they sing and play a wide variety of material, and over the past three years have concentrated on adding to their repertoire as many as possible of the songs of their native Lincolnshire." Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s sleeve note for the 1973 Topic release, 'The Moon Shone Bright', is a snapshot of the first folk group I ever saw live, soon after their formation in the late ‘60s. It was one of those seminal experiences for someone whose knowledge of music up to then had been limited to Radio Luxembourg and Alan Freeman (yes, he - and I - go back a long way, pop-pickers). That initial encounter with the hitherto-unsuspected musical heritage of my home county, in the shape of songs like "The Bold Grenadier" and "Creeping Jane", was quite enough to convince me that life would never be the same; but I was also struck by the compositions of an unruly-haired young man with attitude playing what was, even then, a well-used Guild guitar. However, to begin at the beginning.…

John Conolly found folk music, like a lot of people of his age at that time, through the skiffle route, playing with the Beaconthorpe Methodist Youth Club Skiffle Group – or something like that; nearly four decades on, memory understandably fades a little. "I got into skiffle through people like Lonnie Donegan, and traced the music a bit further back and discovered it was American folk music, and then traced that a bit further back and discovered it all came back to English folk music, or British folk music, anyway. The group broke up after a while, and left two of us who were interested in pursuing this avenue of folk music and seeing where it would take us, and we carried on as a duo - called The Wayfarers, like every other folk group in the universe! Unfortunately, it was rather a cumbersome duo, because I played guitar and the other guy, ‘Spud’ Marrows, didn’t sing – he just played the drums, very loudly!"

As the Wayfarers, Conolly and Marrows appeared anywhere that would have them, including most of the North Lincolnshire Women’s Institutes, playing "a complete mixture of folk material, English traditional, American, all sorts, remnants of skiffle songs" and some comic crowd-pleasers. Conolly recalls the first folk club they visited. "At that time, there were no folk clubs in Lincolnshire. Word came to us that someone had started this folk club across the river in Hull - and it was Folk Union One. We got hold of a phone number and rang The Watersons – then called The Folksons - and said, "We’re a couple of keen folk music enthusiasts from North Lincolnshire, heard you’ve got a folk club, can we come over and do a spot sometime?" And they said, "Yes, you’d be very welcome, come over any time you want." We’d omitted to tell them what the line-up was, though; I’ll never forget Mike Waterson’s face when we walked through the door of Folk Union One carrying this drum kit!"

The Grimsby Folk Club started as a result of a fateful meeting in Grimsby Public Library – where Conolly worked, and continued to work until early retirement beckoned – with Bob Blair, posted to Grimsby by the RAF, subsequently a member of Ewan MacColl’s Critics Group and, much later, a respected traditional singer back in his native Scotland. Blair was unhappy about the paucity of folk records in the library; Conolly sympathised. When Conolly told him there were no folk clubs in the area, Blair (who had run a club back home) asked him if he’d ever thought of starting one. An advertisement in the local paper drew a response from Bill Meek.

"So that’s how I came into contact with Bill. He reckoned his claim to fame in those days was that he was the only person in North Lincolnshire who actually owned an Ewan MacColl record and played it regularly! We started having regular weekly get-togethers at Bob Blair’s flat, hatching plots to start a folk club. Before the club started in about 1962, we went round a few pubs looking for likely premises and having a few pints in the process. We decided that we needed a resident group to be there, without fail, to start the proceedings off and Bill, myself, Bob and Helen Blair were the club’s first resident group. We called ourselves The Meggies."

As well as running the Grimsby Folk Song Club and holding a residency at Louth’s Greyhound, The Meggies began to play around the local scene, and to visit the festivals beginning to spring up around the country. At Sidmouth one year they met The Yetties, with whom they became firm friends. Conolly recalls that, on one occasion, they performed on the Sidmouth ‘fringe’ as a ‘supergroup’ called The Yeggies! It was The Yetties who first began to popularise the songs which he and Meek had begun to write. "We started writing songs about a year or so into the life of the club. We always felt that you needed to start the night off with a big noise, with lots of choruses for people to join in, get an atmosphere going - and we started running out of chorus songs. So that’s what spurred us on to write some of our own! There were various ‘squibs’ and humorous throwaways, for example "The Meggies Song", and the "Ballad Of Hewitt’s Ale". We still sing them occasionally, but they were never intended to be serious contributions to the English folk song writing canon. The first song of any value was "The Grimsby Lads", and that one does seem to have stood the test of time. I knew "Fiddler’s Green" was well known, but I’m beginning to discover that there are other Conolly and Meek songs out there that people know. I’ve heard people singing our songs in Germany and Holland, and they all know "The Grimsby Lads" as well as "Fiddler’s Green", much to my amazement." I remark that the extent to which "Fiddler’s Green" has been absorbed into the tradition is quite a compliment. Conolly agrees, "but there’s also the embarrassing fact that it does you out of royalties!"

I ask how the songwriting process with Meek worked. "The way it usually worked - or works, because we still do a bit occasionally - is that one of us will get the idea for a song and write a couple of verses, and present the other one with a sort of prototype which he then knocks about a bit! It goes backwards and forwards a few times and we usually finish up with a decent song. Of course, when we were playing regularly with the Broadside, it was sometimes a four-way process. Bill and I would start the song off and then bring it to one of the band’s practices and then the others would have their chip-in and say "I don’t think that tune’s quite right there, I don’t think that chord fits there". So it was a kind of communal thing. I think we called it that on the sleevenotes of one of our albums: ‘The Broadside Communal Songwriting Process, which takes place in a small Nissen hut at the bottom of Bill’s garden’!"

The Broadside was formed in 1968 – or thereabouts; Conolly admits to being hazy on dates. "The line-up changed because of losing Bob and Helen. It may have been at that stage that we brought John Mumby in, and he brought a lot of kind of American-style music in, because he played 5-string banjo and autoharp, chiefly, and wrote his own stuff as well." The career started to take off. At least, it would have done if the band had been able to give up their day jobs – but circumstances dictated that music would have to continue as a part-time pursuit. There are plainly regrets. Five years ago, Conolly accepted the "magic touch" of early retirement. "Up to then, bringing up a family and needing the old nine-to-five job and the income, it clips your wings a bit, obviously. I would love to have done more touring than I did, but it just wasn’t possible." Even so, for some thirteen years Conolly, Meek, Brian Dawson and Tom Smith were the core of a band which produced six albums, travelled abroad, and played every major festival in the UK, in addition to starting off, without fail, the night at Grimsby Folk Club.

Eventually, it all became too much and, in 1979, the club residency was surrendered. "It was beginning to be not a pleasure any more, and it wasn’t a career - it wasn’t our job. We still enjoyed singing, but the pressure of having to be there and produce half a dozen songs every week was getting increasingly difficult. I think we all felt it was time for a break – we’d maybe have a break and maybe go back to it later on, but we never did!" No, but what about Rational Anthem, formed in 1983? "It wasn’t the same. Rational Anthem wasn’t a resident group. We got it together basically for our own pleasure, just to enjoy playing some music together again. It was just a bunch of mates meeting up after having not seen each other for a while. Pete Sumner came back from Bermuda, where he’d been living and working for some years. He’d always been keen on the songs that Bill and I had written. In fact, he took one of my songs over to Bermuda and got it recorded by a local group on the island – and it was a hit in Bermuda! That was "Punch And Judy Man". I’ve still got a lovely version of it sung by a girl who was the lead singer in a group called Magpie. It’s one of the earliest folk recordings to use a mellotron, like a fake string orchestra – a lovely, laid-back sound."

In the early ‘90s, Bill Meek retired both from teaching and public performance, apart from occasional compering. "Bill took early retirement quite a few years before I did, because the old bugger’s older than me, you know!" Conolly points out, gleefully. The end of Rational Anthem left time on his hands for writing. "I had three songs in a row, my ‘golden three’; each won five hundred quid in the space of a couple of years. I decided this could quite easily become a nice secondary income, so I decided this should be pursued. Of course, it never happened! But we had a songwriting competition in Humberside. I wrote this great long song called "Willie Leonard", a lament, a true story about an old retired fisherman whose body was found floating in the fish docks one winter morning. I was quite pleased with it, but it was very long, quite slow. It really needed more than just me and the guitar to make an impact, and I asked Jane Ludlam if she would put some harmonies to it and enter the competition with me. We felt that the combination of the two voices worked very well, and we decided to form a duo. We did a few gigs, and then we decided to make it a foursome with Pete and Sue Heron. Pete and I were doing some Irish theme pubs, trotting out our old Irish repertoire. We got offered a booking in a local restaurant, where they didn’t want Irish stuff - they wanted local stuff. So Pete said "You’re doing some of your local songs with Jane; why don’t we get together and do this restaurant gig and see what comes from it?" We also roped in Sue, who used to play flute with The Broadside, because we thought we needed another instrument. And that was Donkey's Breakfast. It lasted a couple of years and we got a couple of festivals and a few gigs and made an album, 'The Farmer And The Fisherman', and then it all collapsed!"

The usual ‘artistic differences’? "Well, partly artistic differences, partly personalities, but also partly because we were beating our heads against a brick wall. The folk club circuit hasn’t got a lot of money to throw away, and what money they have got they usually like to spend on a sure-fire banker to bring an audience in. They won’t risk forking out a lot of money for a four-piece band that nobody knows, so we were getting very few bookings. When it fell apart, Pete and I decided to carry on, because we were still doing the Irish pubs, and people seemed to like the sound we made. In the meantime, I took early retirement and decided to try and make a living – well, half a living, anyway – from singing. Pete was able to devote as much time as was necessary to it as well because he was self-employed as a piano technician. It works very well."

Especially the show about Grimsby and the fishing industry, I remark. Conolly agrees. "'Trawlertown', which also includes a bit of poetry and a few stories, is basically songs and stories of the fishermen of the East Coast. It can last anything from an hour to an hour and a half, and it’s something I can do on my own as well." It seems a natural progression from 'The Northern Trawl', the Remould Theatre Company’s production about the deep-sea fishermen, for which Conolly and Meek had written and performed the music in 1985. "A lot of the songs in 'Trawlertown' are songs that we used in 'The Northern Trawl', which is just being revived; Hull Truck are performing it. They’re having a special invitation night for the local press and anyone who’s contributed to the performance, so Bill and I have got an invite. I’m quite looking forward to seeing what sort of a job they make of it."

Conversation returns to Conolly’s work with Sumner. "I don’t do as much work with Pete now, because he’s based in the States. Two years ago, we had a fabulous year. We did about half a dozen festivals in England, and the Fiddlers Green festival in Northern Ireland, which is one that I’d been really dying to get to, and we did quite a bit of work abroad as well. We had a couple of little tours in the States and visited a very big maritime festival at a place called Mystic Seaport in Massachusetts, and we got a fortnight’s work in Bermuda. It was fabulous – talk about the folk-singer’s booking of the century! And this was through Pete having worked and having contacts there. The first trip to the States was based on a booking Pete got us at the Bermuda Folk Club; obviously they couldn’t pay two air fares from Grimsby to Bermuda, so we had to try to rustle up some other work. We had a contact in Jeff Kauffman who runs the Mystic Seaport Maritime Festival. I’d bumped into him at a couple of maritime festivals that I’d played at various places, and again it was the ‘Fiddler’s Green’ connection! Everybody on the maritime scene in the States knows ‘Fiddler’s Green’, and he used that as a lever to get us over there. So the two bookings between them paid the airfares and, once we knew the trip was on, we were able, through some friends, to build up a few more bookings on the eastern seaboard. We did things like the Boston Folk Music Society, a couple of house concerts. You have to be careful not put too much emphasis on the fact that you’re a singer-songwriter, because ‘singer-songwriter’ means something different there, but the kind of stuff I do goes down really well with the traditional music scene in the States. There’s a very alive and dedicated traditional music scene, but they like contemporary songs as long as they’re based on the tradition."

In fact, a good deal of Conolly’s material sounds as if it just might be traditional. Is that something for which he consciously strives? Conolly laughs, but not unkindly, at the naivety of such a question from a non-songwriter. "I think it’s a bit of both, Dave. Through striving, it tends to happen automatically! I’ve always loved the traditional music. I hate pop music; anything commercial just turns me completely off. I know it’s not the way to make money, but this is the kind of music I like. The thing that Bill and I have always striven for is ‘singability’; I don’t know whether we coined that word or whether it already existed! There are songs other people have written that we’ve immediately latched on to ourselves and thought "what a great song; we want to learn that song". We’ve always felt that’s the kind of song we want to write, that’s going to inspire other people to learn it and sing it; that’s when you can say you’ve written a good song. It’s not just to do with a good tune; it’s the way the words fit the tune, so they just kind of tumble naturally out of the mouth as you sing them, without any awkwardness. I think if you can do that, you’ve cracked it!"

Is that the sort of thing he attempts to convey at his songwriting workshops? Conolly is mildly diverted by the idea of doing workshops. "I do a session which is sometimes advertised as a workshop at festivals, and people turn up with their pads and pencils, but there’s not a lot of work done! It’s just me talking about the way I do it, just hints and tips basically, and hoping that if people who like the kind of stuff I do come along, they will get something out of it, because they’ll find out how I go about tackling various problems. But I don’t set out with the intention of teaching people how to write songs, because I don’t think you can do that, quite honestly. What I do is to start off by throwing at them a few examples of songwriters whom I admire and some of the songs that I’ve admired myself over the years."

So whom does he admire? "People like Ewan MacColl. Alex Glasgow is one of the ones I use. You don’t hear anything about Alex Glasgow these days. I heard he went to Australia. But it’s a great shame, because the fellow wrote some magnificent songs. I did get a chance to meet him once. A guy put on a local weekend festival, which I think lasted one year and never happened again. He was apparently at college with Glasgow and, on the strength of that, he managed to get him to Brigg to appear in this festival. We were invited to do the warm-up, start the night off. So we got the chance to hear him do these songs live - and he was fabulous. There was no chat. He just sat there and sang song after song after song with minimal introductions. He performed for about three quarters of an hour and he must have got through, I don’t know, twenty or twenty-five songs and they were all bloody brilliant. Meek and I were sitting there cursing this fellow, saying to ourselves "How does he do it? He’s allowed half a dozen good ones, but they’re all good!" We had a chat with him afterwards; we said, ‘We never see you advertised on the folk club circuit - why?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t really like doing this; I like writing the stuff, but I’m not really a performer at heart. I don’t like singing for my supper’."

Over the years, in between writing the songs of the fishing which will guarantee immortality (as Fred Woods remarked in his book, 'Folk Revival', "a limited fame, perhaps, but a solid one"), Conolly amassed a collection of what he describes as "scurrilous scatology", frequently performed live but never intended for permanent preservation. John Leonard (now better known as boss of Smooth Operations, which produces the Mike Harding show on Radio 2) once recorded "The Librarian’s Lament". Now, in response to popular demand, Conolly has released (although he maintains it escaped whilst his back was turned!) "an album of all – well, most – of the funny songs, called 'Send Us A Postcard'. This has got things on it like "The Librarian’s Lament" and "The Bionic Fisherman" – the ones that most get requested by the bucket and shovel brigade!"

Time presses; we talk briefly of the future. A recent successful tour of Germany and Holland seems likely to be repeated biennially, or as frequently as Sumner can drag himself away from the California sun. He’ll continue to work with the versatile Robin Garside, leader (amongst many other activities) of the Sheffield Traditional Fiddlers Society. For the moment, though, there’s the new CD of ‘saucy’ songs to be promoted, both at the festivals and round the clubs, and Conolly evidently relishes the prospect of this solo work, of moving audiences alternately to laughter and tears just by his personality and all those exquisitely-crafted songs. Finally, freed from the shackles of the nine-to-five and raising a family, John Conolly is a happy man, doing what he does best.

Dave Tuxford

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