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Pete Castle: Mearcstapa


Pete Castle is one of those people who seems to have been ‘always there’. Known as a stalwart of the folk club scene, Pete is a professional, easy-going performer whose recently released new album, ‘Mearcstapa’ has been widely praised. Pete was born in Ashford, Kent to a family without a particular connection with folk music so he didn’t learn his songs at his grandmother’s knee. Once an adolescent set to follow a career in art, then a primary school teacher, folk music seems an unlikely career choice. Recently I spoke to Pete about his varied careers and more importantly his 21 years as a working musician.

When asked about his family background and a possible connection with the music he contends there isn’t one, "Not in the slightest - not connected with the arts at all - exactly the opposite." Despite the strong connection with Kent on the paternal side, Pete claims that the only vague link to folk culture was his great-granddad on his mother’s side, and his brother and his father – "the whole lot of them, were shepherds in the Salisbury Plain area. There’s obviously a lot of folklore about shepherds, but I never met my great granddad that I know of." However, rather than follow in the footsteps of his herding ancestors, he chose to plough his energies into the study of art.

Despite his talent though, Pete felt frustrated with his inability to master the skills required to paint, and his attention shifted to music. Quite by accident (and the desire to imitate Hank Marvin) he began, at around 14 or 15 years old, to play with a group of local lads citing the Shadows and the Rolling Stones as influences. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us) his progression to college severed his links with the boys in the band, but his continued interest in music introduced him both to the folk scene and his wife Sue. After spotting her on campus with a Joan Baez songbook, he introduced himself and shortly afterwards they applied to the Principal of the college to marry. During his time spent teacher-training, he began to frequent the local folk club as he could play guitar there and after college Pete and Sue played around doing gigs and organising folk clubs. Here they mixed the odd traditional song with a few contemporary songs and a lot that they had written themselves, "weird Incredible String Band type things that went on for 15 minutes or so and rambled around" remembers Pete. The real move into folk, however, came in 1975 when the couple moved to Luton because of Pete’s new job and a big reappraisal too, in terms of musical direction, coincided with his new location. "I concentrated a lot more on what I was doing and thought, "all this stuff is going out of the window - from now on it’s all going to be traditional 'cos that’s what I really like", so I went out and did a lot more floor spots." Consequently, in 1978 Pete made the choice, with the full support of Sue, to give his musical career a chance full-time and resigned his teaching job.

Pete owns that it wasn’t an overnight success story. Having a wife and two young kids meant he couldn’t do the conventional three months on the road and not go home. Travelling from festival to festival with clubs in between just to get seen, was simply not feasible. Despite the long gradual process his dedication has paid off greatly in the long run, as he can now say "although occasionally people will say they’ve never heard of me, it doesn’t happen very often."

Since strumming along to R’n’B in his teens, his musical influences have obviously broadened considerably and he lists both Martin Carthy and Nic Jones amongst his major influences. Pete is not unaware of the comparisons often made between himself and Nic, to the point where once Pete made a deliberate decision never to see him perform, but conceded this and on their last meeting the two even indulged in a quick game of footy! Alongside these artists, he places the philosophy and ideas of Roy Harris and the "simple bass thump" of the melodeon as highly influential to his musical development.

Pete also suggests that folk clubs, in the days when he began performing, were somewhat different to the clubs of today. "There were more of them and they were fuller and more lively. At the regular clubs you got in with, you could get three bookings a year. I remember a little club in Dursley and another in Orpington in Kent where you’d do a booking and they’d say - ‘When can you come back?’ and you’d say four months time - and they’d have you back! Obviously you were only getting paid about 8 a time but it didn’t matter. In fact at Dursley it was 8 plus a jar of homemade jam or a cake! Lovely! It was before things got too serious, too purist - and a ‘bit of everything’ went." The problem as Pete saw it was the split between contemporary and traditional. "There were some clubs that wouldn’t book me because I was too traditional - and some clubs because I wasn’t traditional enough! It did become far too serious and people forgot that it was entertainment as well. I remember asking people to be quiet if they were nattering - now people natter quietly if they don’t want to listen and as long as it’s not upsetting other people too much, well... Since then the biggest crime has been complacency and an unwillingness to take chances … everyone finishes up singing bland imitation traditional songs about nothing in particular. I’ve always felt there should be a bit of comment and politics in it and even though I almost always do traditional songs you can twist them round, make them relevant. I remember, during the Falklands War, upsetting one or two people so much they actually walked out - I put some songs together to say we shouldn’t be going off to the Falklands - like The Flowers of the Forest and My Son John. If they walked out I counted that as a compliment!"

But by far the greatest problem, Pete suggests, is the complacency and his comments on the subject seems to suggest a desire for an end to this and a greater unity between those involved in the folk scene. "We had an audience and we didn’t need to bring anyone else in so when that audience - for perfectly good reasons - began to disappear we didn’t have anyone to take their place. Also a lot of the reason was bad press. The media think the folk scene is a laughing stock and some of the folk press themselves think folk clubs are a load of rubbish. They’re only interested in big concerts. You need a whole army of committed people to run folk clubs and an army of very, very trusting people to go along and listen. I’ve always felt a good organiser should be able to put on anyone they think is good enough and, even if the audience hasn’t heard of them, they should trust them enough to go along and listen. If they don’t like it - well they’ll probably like next week. So many people won’t go along to the club unless the are on intimate terms with the guest. They won’t take a risk."

Nowadays when Pete appears in clubs, it is often to display a duality of talent – Pete now sings and tells stories. The roots of this interesting development can be found in his school-teaching days. "I never told stories when I was teaching but I made a point of reading them every day - the last quarter of an hour of the day. I think that was far more valuable than all this ‘Reading Hour’ hype! Then I became aware of a ground-swell of storytelling and I had a few for kids so I gradually started introducing stories, now and again, into folk clubs. I found it worked really well and I became more interested, there were more openings for storytellers and it just grew. At first they were just anecdotes - "I remember when I last sang this song, so and so…" but now it's become a case of ‘proper’ stories. If it’s a folk club I keep the stories quite short and do more songs and vice versa at a storytelling event. There are some events that are billed as 50/50 and those work really well.".

After 21 years, Pete Castle cannot think of any other job he’d rather do, but it seems his characteristic modesty creates problems at times as he enthuses, "You’ve got to keep on at it - you can’t sit back and let it drift because if you do you end up with a dead patch. That’s the bit of the job I don’t like - I don’t like hassling for work. There’s always some coming in, some unsought work, but there’s not enough of that and you have to chase it. It’s always easier to sell someone else - ‘They’re really good, you’ll like them’ as opposed to ‘I’m really good you’ll like me!’ ".

Someone whom Pete does think is "really good" is his daughter Lucy. She started in about 1978 at about eight with violin lessons at school. With a father’s pride, Pete recalls "She did all the proper classical violin lessons up to grade 8, and a degree, but she also used to accompany me - right from when she could first play a tune competently she’d come and do a floor spot at the local club - and I remember taking her to a gig in Scarborough because I didn’t have a car and it was cheaper if I took her with me on the train than if I went alone! " But she was still going to do serious, classical music right up to when she was at university studying viola. Then she suddenly got switched-on to Eastern European folk music, Transylvanian music, and made the change. It suddenly rang bells with her." Pete is not at all disappointed with her choice of Transylvanian, over English, traditional music. "I fully understand her reasons - she’d ask "How do I play this?" and the answer would be "However you like" whereas with the much more living Transylvanian tradition there are rules and you have to stick to them and play it properly. You can’t just play how you like. She took to that, and spent a lot of time out there researching and probably became the expert - certainly in Britain."

It was this expertise and collaboration with her mentor Joan Pop that led to Popeluc music. Both musicians were playing together in Eastern Europe in the band Iza and wanted to play in England but they needed a third person to make the traditional trio so they drafted Pete in. Later they started exploring a bit more, not just sticking to the tradition but blending it with English music. In theory, the band still exists but with Popica in Romania and the added difficulty of obtaining work permits means that there are no immediate plans for any new material or gigs.

As far as Pete Castle’s plans go, he’ll be involved with a lot of work at Cromford Mill (the first water powered cotton spinning mill in the world) in Derbyshire over the summer months, trying to get funding to do a sort of radio ballad on CD. Apart from that it’s more of the same - schools, libraries, folk clubs … possibly a trip to Canada, editing the storytelling magazine Facts & Fiction and whatever else turns up - workshops and performances. And, of course, he’s plugging his latest CD -’Mearcstapa’.

Most importantly to Pete though, he’s enjoying himself !

* Mearcstapa is an old English word which means ‘boundary strider’. Pete used it in the sense of someone who explores and extends the boundaries but has recently discovered that it crops up in Beowulf as being a monster who lurks beyond the pale. Take your pick!

by Genevieve Tudor


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