The Living Tradition
|ALAN BELL by Dave Jones Issue 35 November/December '99||
David Jones talks to one of the stalwarts of the British folk scene about his forty years of involvement in trying to make folk music more accessible.
Alan Bell was indoctrinated into music early in life, he remembers vividly, singing around the piano with his father as a four year-old. But his introduction to folk music came as an 18-year-old as he cycled on youth hostelling breaks and went camping with the Scouts.
''I was in at the beginning of the folk music revival as we know it, I was 20 and just de-mobbed from National Service. I could play three chords on the guitar; [some would say that that's all I can still play!]. I was into Woody Guthrie and sang his songs, in fact all the songs I knew were mainly American, and skiffle was the music of the day.''
It's no surprise that the American group, The Weavers, proved to be an early inspiration, for their No.1 best seller, "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine'', topped the charts in 1952. ''In the early 60s, I stood in the wings at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, as Pete Seeger went on stage to perform his one-man show. Then followed, ''The Dust Bowl Ballads'' and blues, everything was American orientated, because there was no interest in English traditional folk songs''. In those early days most of the singing was done in pubs, as Alan and his pals spent every weekend in the Lake District mountaineering, arriving by bus with battered old guitars. ''We stayed in the mountaineering club cottage in Little Langdale, I was the first club secretary back in 1955, and we sang in the Three Shires pub every Friday night. I sang mainly local hunting songs, that's where my interest in the tradition first came from. Although I didn't realise it at the time, Ewan McColl was on the scene down in London, along with Peggy Seeger, so there was a whole ground swell of a movement beginning.
By the same token, McColl wasn't aware of the interest being generated in other parts of the country. "My world was very much regional, we didn't have a broader aspect of world music. Looking back now it was very limited, very narrow, compared to how music is today. If you wanted to find a recording of a traditional English singer, it was almost impossible to do''.
The one thing Alan still derives much pleasure from today, is to hear a singer get up, with just an instrument and perform, for over-production is one of the curses of music today. ''It's a personal hang up, somebody getting up in a corner of a pub, some people taking an interest, others not. Even if they have the worst voice in the world, at least they're doing it their way. Folk clubs at least give that opportunity, which was the whole ethos of folk clubs in the first place, to foster singer/songwriters''.
Having found his feet as a solo performer, he wanted to get more involved. Another member of the mountaineering club, Brian Osborne, was a ballad singer performing around the Working Men's Clubs in Blackpool. They were invited to sing one night in a pub called the Cartford, ''and that's where we heard about a big bloke called, Pete Rodger, who was about to open a folk club, Geoff Gleave was there and they were doing American stuff, with Stuart Robinson playing banjo. They were called the Taverners Three and Brian and I made it the Taverners Five, and that was the start of Blackpool Folk Club. Jeff Cleave left shortly afterwards, when he finished college and we became The Taverners Folk Group''.
Their popularity grew throughout the network of folk clubs springing up countrywide, and they could have been out performing every night of the week. They rationed their output to three maybe four nights a week, because they were all in full time employment, with young families to support.
It proved to be a welcome extra source of income, although compared with today, they didn't earn very much at all, but they had a great time. Did they ever consider turning professional? ''There was discussion at the time, it was the 60s and we watched other professional groups, The Ian Campbell folk Group, being a case in point. They looked like they would make it, but never did, in the sense of making lots of money and a handsome living from it. Only the Spinners, who went totally professional, took the music and presented it the way they did, were really successful. But we had no regrets''.
The Taverners were together for 20 years, and during that time did literally thousands of gigs. The group was a vehicle for Alan's songs, so was that when the songwriting bug really bit? ''The whole songwriting thing came along as we tried to collect traditional songs about the Fylde coast. In the 60s the Fylde coast was relatively new, there was nothing there before 1750, except a couple of fishing villages, and there remained nothing much until the area was developed for holidays and the population grew. No songs could be found, so in a fit of desperation, I started writing. I'd written a couple of things prior to that, because I wanted to try my hand at it, but really the start of the Fylde songs came in the early 60's, when I wrote 'Blowing Sands' and 'The Packman' about a travelling man on the Fylde coast. It seemed to spark something off, with other groups beginning to write their own contemporary songs, to add to the traditional ones around at that time''.
Alan's songs have been covered by myriad artists the world over, so does he find it easy to write his songs? ''To this day I don't find it easy, I go around with an idea for a long time, then brood about it, before eventually getting round to writing it down, or singing it into a tape and then finding a key on the piano. I don't write with an instrument, I write in my head, which is where I get the melody line, usually sparked by the lyric."
"Curiously, I write better when I'm working on two songs at once, because when I get stuck with one I go to the other, and continue backwards and forwards until I've finished both of them. A couple of years ago I didn't write for two years, because my mind was elsewhere with work and being made redundant. With the Fylde Folk Festival dominating my life, I was so busy that writing took a back seat. I had no time at all to think of other things, no free time in my head to write. When that went away I came back with a surge and a great batch of new songs."
"The easiest song I ever wrote was 'Bread & Fishes'. It was a Wednesday afternoon, I had the idea and the tune, I'd been doing some paperwork and began singing the song, and I jotted it down and finished it in about two hours. I sang it at the club on the following Tuesday, it went down all right, but was a bit long, so I cut it down and suddenly many other artists were singing it too. I've heard it introduced many times as a traditional song, the Irish call it 'The Wind In The Willows', and insist it's traditional Irish, but I take it as a great compliment. My writing style isn't spontaneous, more like a dog worrying over a bone, trying to get everything just right."
"In fact, writing under pressure is much better for me. Woody Guthrie had Pete Seeger staying with him in the then late 30s. Woody had a contract to write a song, Seeger went to bed, leaving Woody with a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon, when he got up next morning Woody had written, 'This Land Is Your Land'. I've always admired Woody as a writer, not particularly as a person, but his songs were fantastic. Ewan McColl was also a great influence as I mentioned earlier, I knew him and listened to the first of his 'Radio Ballads' on the old Home Service in 1958, and in truth, that really triggered things off for me as a writer''.
In many ways parallels can be drawn between Bell and McColl, with the suites, 'The Band In The Park' and 'Wind, Sail, Sea & Sky', showing similarities to those 'Radio Ballads'.
''It was his style of writing that caught my imagination and led me to find my own style of interpreting things. I like a good tune, and that fact alone helps people to pick it up and sing it, that's followed by a strong lyric, with the content saying exactly what you want it to about a given subject, person or event''.
Apart from his writing and singing, Alan is synonymous with the Fylde Folk Festival, the germ of an idea for the festival came during a walk in 1971. ''It started in the pub in Cartford I mentioned earlier. A crowd would congregate on Sunday mornings, the talk got round to what on earth they could do during the summer. Let's swim down the River Wyre was one suggestion, but someone said they couldn't swim, let's go by canoe then, but that was discounted for the same reason as the first suggestion. So a walk was planned following the course of the river, raising money as they went for Fleetwood Lifeboat. A bus load of people took part, and walked it over two days. We camped overnight in Garstang, having a singaround, before arriving in Fleetwood on Sunday morning. The Garstang Morris Men danced and we had a big sing in the North Euston Hotel.
It went down so well that we planned a one-day festival for 1972. I persuaded artists I knew to come for a ridiculous price and we ran a concert in the North Euston Hotel. We put on some activities for children in the morning, a concert in the afternoon, followed by another one in the evening. It was really quite good and grew so much that within three years the North Euston couldn't cope with the numbers. I then took the gamble of booking the Marine Hall, which was in a really tatty state, but within two years, Wyre Borough Council realised that by putting on some good ale and refurbishing the hall, they could turn it into an attractive entertainment venue''.
Back in 1972, there were a few festivals up and down the country, with Sidmouth being the most famous. It was run then by the EFDSS, it was a dance festival, with music being introduced more recently. Planning is surely the key to any successful festival. ''Here we are in October, already the rooms are booked for 2000, the Marine Hall is booked ahead for 2001, while all the magazine listings are in place. The books go to the accountant this month, and he tells me how much I've got to spend! I then put my presentation to the committee in early November, telling them the budget and plans for next year. We set the ticket prices, and that in turn determines how much can be spent on artists and the structure of the weekends contents. We work at Fylde on a 'bums on seats' basis, with little or no grants, the battle is always to balance the books''.
1973 saw the first Fylde Festival, with the celebration of the 28th in 2000, so has a sound legacy been left? ''I hope so, the biggest problem is finding somebody to take it on, in the same enthusiastic way as myself and my wife, Christine, (who's the festival secretary,) have done. Perhaps not everyone is as altruistic as we are for the music. At Fylde, we don't shut the general public out; we take the events out to the public, into the hotels, pubs and bars, so everyone can enjoy it. It's just as much a community event as well as for the dedicated folkies''.
When it started the festival embraced the town, but now the town embraces the festival. ''It's a huge spin off for the town, not just the festival-goers who turn up at concerts, but commercially it's good. Folk music is doing something for the community in its own particular way. We've also tried to be catholic in our taste with the music, across the whole spectrum, especially with young people. It's thanks to people like Rusty & Stu Wright, who started working with the youngsters 15 years ago, that we have a whole generation of young performers, some of whom have gone on to national and international success. Seeing people like, Kate Rusby progress gives me real pleasure, knowing they started out at Fylde. I spotted Show of Hands' immense talent, as well as giving a young Kathryn Tickell her chance and the Battlefield Band their first gig in England''.
Away from the festival, Alan continues to write, so what's in the pipeline? ''The Lancashire Folk Arts Network, is a new idea to try and create in the North West, using Folkworks as a model, new writing based on traditional music, both song and dance with beginners workshops. There's no money yet, but we've had recognition from the Arts Council that there's need for such an agency. I'm tasked now with writing a business plan to get things underway. I've also been approached to try and put something together for the Millennium, so I'm trying to write a piece that will include children, a local brass band, the Fleetwood Choral Society as well as some folkies! The brain is inert at the moment, but is likely to slip into gear any time. I also want to do a series of concerts next year, as well as recording a new CD of my Lakeland songs. For the last fifteen years I've been writing a folk opera on and off, which I hope to complete soon. The trouble is there's never enough time''.
Whenever I look at Alan during the festival weekend, he looks like he's got the cares of the world on his shoulders, which I suppose in some ways is understandable, but does he really enjoy the fruits of his labours? ''I enjoy the music, I sit at the side of the stage, and get real satisfaction from putting the festival on. From a blank piece of paper in October to the following September, when there are 18 venues and 3 days of sessions from 240 artists, that's where I derive my pleasure''.
He may work hard, but he also plays hard as well. He has to make do with fell walking these days, rather than his first love climbing. Whilst skiing is still high up on the agenda, he still has a license to teach, which he does, in the Highlands of Scotland every year as well as in Italy. This winter will herald his 45th on the slopes.
Alan is the first to pay tribute to his family, his wife Christine and sons, Jamie and Alastair, being owed a great debt of gratitude for their love and work over the years. Alan Bell was 65 years young earlier this year, and continues to work as hard, if not harder, than men half his age, and he reckons he hasn't met a dozen people he dislikes during that lifetime.
He has given so much to the cause that has been his life, and so many have so much to thank him for.
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