Life within the Holy Ground
‘…There’s whisky in the jar!’ – A tuneful roar of voices giving out the last line of the chorus…a moment’s hush…a thunder of clapping – laughter – chairs scraping on the floor – feet rushing, coming my way, downstairs. I make my way up, cradling my guitar carefully, against the flow. Smell of cigarette smoke, faint wash of stale beer, touch of rough jackets, knobbly jumpers as I push my way up and through into the warm fug of the club room. ‘You singing tonight?’ asks the girl with long dark hair on the door. I nod, a small frisson of fear shooting through my stomach. She nods back, and waves me in: no charge for floor singers. I am in the Holy Ground.
In the mid-sixties, while still at school in Birmingham, I discovered folk song, and fell headlong in love with it. I lived for the nights when I could turn up at folk clubs with a bunch of friends, order a daring half pint of shandy, and wedge ourselves in among the crowd. Then we would settle in for an evening of songs ranging from the bawdy to the tragic, accompanied by guitars, penny whistles, concertinas, dulcimers, spoons, or anything else that came to hand. We didn’t know it then, but many of these old Birmingham pubs only had a short life left before demolition razed them from existence (see my earlier post ‘Finding Brummagem’). Many of those wonderful etched glass panels and wrought iron Victorian tables would soon become a thing of the past. (I see that a single original table can now sell for over a thousand pounds on the internet.) The images below come from an article about a few that escaped demolition and makeovers, which you can read here.
The Folk Song Revival
There was a major folk song revival at the time, following on from the earlier jazz club phase of the 50s and indeed slightly overlapping with it. To put it simply, American folk singers held sway from the 1940s, and ran alongside skiffle, jazz and blues in the 50s, but in the 60s the British and Irish folk traditions rose up in popularity. Key figures such as Ewan McColl, Shirley Collins and Bert Lloyd promoted ‘the voice of the people’, and moved the folk song movement on from the polite drawing room where collectors and composers such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams had left it at the turn of the century. It opened the door to more energetic, earthy performances – and was very good for business in the pubs too.
It also generated a new wave of song-writing in a folk style, as in this famous one, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw your Face‘ by Scotsman Ewan McColl, and sung by American folk singer Peggy Seeger. The pair formed a lasting duo.
Folk music may have hit Soho earlier, as I’ve mentioned in my blog on the Soho Coffee Bar, but for a more general population in the provinces, it was only just beginning in the 1960s. The nation woke up to its heritage, and folk clubs sprang up like mushrooms throughout the land; Birmingham was especially enthusiastic in this respect Anyone could have a go – all you needed to do was to get hold of a guitar, learn a few basic chords, and then you could take it to parties and clubs, and trot out a few songs. Even Youth Hostels and Greek beaches ‘benefited’ from the wandering minstrels of the folk revival. Such music often had a broad base, too. Wherever you went in the world, you were never too far away from someone intoning ‘We Shall Overcome,’ crooning ‘Will ye go, Lassie, go?’ or giving a rendering of Davy Graham’s ‘Angie’. (I hasten to say, I love all of those!) And many performers took it to a much higher level, working hard on their singing and playing. Just as a side note, I think it’s been work in progress to this very day, since the standard of instrumental playing among folk musicians now is phenomenally good, at a level which was only reached by a few exceptional professionals back then.
Here’s a version of the famous ‘Whisky in the Jar’, sung by the Dubliners. As my own photos for this post are all black and white, I’ll spice it up a bit with some music! This recording has some delightful pictures of Irish scenes. And I particularly liked a recent comment: ‘Even in Ukraine me, and my friends love to sing this while we drinking. Cheers to the Ireland and lovely Irish people from far Ukraine!’ Yes, Irish music travels well.
It was the traditional British and Irish music that enchanted me. Even though I began by learning all kinds of songs, I focused more and more on the true traditional repertoire. If I heard a song that took my fancy, I delighted in copying it out into my own notebook. The oral tradition, in the sense of collectors trudging to remote farmhouses in search of a song, was almost past and gone. (I did try it as a teenager, on my pushbike, panting up Shropshire hills with a heavy, low quality tape recorder in a rucksack on my back, but soon gave up.) But we had a way of sharing songs between ourselves, which was in its own way just as exciting. Scribble down the words, and a few chords, and do your best to remember the tune. And if it did come out a little differently, well, that was part of the tradition too. There was still a sense of songs being passed from singer to singer.
I could afford to buy a few songbooks, some of which I still have, including The Penguin Book of Folk Songs, minus its cover and in fragile condition now, and Marrowbones edited by Frank Purslow. A friend’s brother made a guitar for me – most kind of him, and it did work, sort of, but when I managed to scrape enough money together, I bought my own Spanish guitar. I was never very dextrous though, so my instrumental playing, including piano, remained at a basic level. Pages from my own song books here show ‘Bridgwater Fair’ in my handwriting – something I was proud to have dug out of an archive – and in another hand, the sea shanty ‘Sally Free and Easy’, which was often sung by Cyril Tawney. This was followed by ‘The Nightvisiting Song’ which I expect one of the Munstermen wrote out for me (see below). There’s a version of it sung by Luke Kelly on the YouTube link below.
The Birmingham Folk Scene
It’s on record that The Holy Ground Folk Club opened on Saturday April 24th 1965 at 7.45pm at the Cambridge Inn. . And according to my old diaries, I was there with a friend the following week, May 1st.
‘Went to the Holy Ground in the Cambridge Inn. Club itself was pretty good – Bloke with a lute singing May day songs – we both enjoyed him best.‘
Sat May 8 – ‘Later, when it was very full, they said the ladies had got to sit on the gents knees.’
Sat May 15th – ‘…Sang ‘Flowers & weeds’ and ‘The Dear Companion.’ Not too bad. Not v. good though…
Sat May 22 – They had a wild Irishman as the guest singer tonight – Joe Heaney. He said he’d teach me Gaelic, but I don’t think he quite meant what I meant.
Below are some tiny, blurred and rare relics from that period, garnered from the ‘History of Brum Folk Clubs’ website (see below).
The Holy Ground became the favourite venue for a bunch of us to spend a lively Saturday night out. It was run by the Munstermen, who were somewhat similar to the Dubliners, full of energy and good humour, and vibrant playing and singing. There were guest singers such as the incorrigible Joe Heaney, mentioned above, and frequently Diz Disley, who had been more famous as a jazz player, and overlapped with those Soho cafes which I wrote about. There were also regulars such as singer-songwriter Harvey Andrews, and Jon Swift who unusually played a lute, and was the man I mentioned in my diary write-up. I suppose male singers were more prominent at that time, but female ones were certainly present and welcomed. I did a duo act with another schoolfriend for a while – there’s a photo of us practising a little further on.
Other clubs which I gravitated to included the Partisan, the Peanuts and the Camp, all listed in an astonishing compilation here . (If you look at Grey Cock, Precursor you will see my name listed as a regular singer, misspelt as Cherrie Phillips.) The folk clubs were a melting pot at the time of different tastes and interests. However unified our bellowing of Musha rain dum a doo, dum a da, there were diverse views as to whether folk singing was all about having a good time, or should be approached with a missionary zeal and a purist creed. Diversity ran through the audiences too, which were a great mix of younger and older people, and from all backgrounds. It was also an ideal place to meet up with my own friends, and to eye up the slightly older and preferably handsome male folkies there. But, surprisingly, I never really took up with a boyfriend in the folk clubs, though there were a few serious pangs of the heart and more than a few casual kisses. It was mostly about fun and friendships. And I was genuinely serious about the music.
It got to the stage where I was actually getting paid a modest amount to appear in some of the clubs. My diary entry for the Holy Ground of July 17th, 1965, relates: Mick says that in a couple of weeks, instead of one proper guest, they’re going to have John Swift, Peter Moggs and me!! Wow! (getting paid too!)
But one day at school, I was summoned to the head mistress’s office. She was holding up an advertisement – a very tiny advertisement – from the Birmingham Mail. It announced that Cherry Phillips would be singing at the Grotto Club in Deritend. Yes, it did sound a bit dubious.
‘Do your parents know you’re doing this?’ she asked sternly.
‘Yes, they do,’ I told her, which was indeed true. They were rather pleased, as I recall.
She tried another tack. ‘But this – Grotto – club – it’s not in a very nice area of town.’
I shrugged. No it wasn’t, but it was in no way dangerous, and I wasn’t there late at night.
She had one more try. ‘I do know that it’s not illegal for you to be on licensed premises at 16, because I’ve checked the laws. But only if you don’t drink.’
I nodded in what I hoped was a mature and understanding manner.
‘And can you honestly say that you would never get tempted into – drinking alcohol – there? Perhaps if – if a man offered to buy you a drink?’
Now was the time to look shocked and mildly offended. ‘Oh no, Miss Wilkes.’ I added a touch of bewildered innocence to give it greater authenticity.
I was dismissed, under caution, with severe warnings about compromising my homework and academic standards. I calculated that the occasional bitter shandy would harm no one, though my diary records that I did accept the odd extra tipple from MEN.
During this period, I made very good friends among the other singers, some of whom I am back in touch with today:
Pam Bishop – who with her husband Alan Bishop, formed the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, which I’m about to mention. Pam has remained a singer, story-teller and archiver of folk music recordings all her life. See my blog on Black Country Humour for a closer look at their performances of the time.
Laurie Green – who has since led another life as an Anglican bishop, involving much charity work in India, (details here) and who still finds time to sing and play his guitar. He, Doug and Spike had a brilliant trio, with a repertoire of saucy songs and comic monologues. Below are Spike and Laurie performing ‘The Battle of Hastings’ (left) and a song with Doug on banjo (right). Both photos taken by me on club nights. You can hear some of Laurie’s current recordings on his website.
Mick Treacy – There were three Micks in the Munstermen – Mick Hipkiss, Mick Lillis and Mick Treacy, who were all Irish as you might expect. They were the liveliest folk band in town, and could get everyone tapping their feet and singing along with gusto. Mick returned to his old hometown of Mitchelstown and we plan to meet up and reminisce when travel is possible again. He is still playing and performing to great acclaim, as you can see from this recent notice about a concert in Cork (under Spanish Civil War songs).
Doc Rowe – now an esteemed folklorist, who has attended traditional folk customs for more than 50 years now, and created a unique archive of recordings. You can see him with part of his collection in the photo below, and read an interview with Doc here conducted by John Wilks. Doc has supplied marvellous photos of Tar Barrel Rolling for my recent blog Topsham Celebrates. He was one of those I knew as ‘the Devon crowd’; there were always links between the Birmingham folk and the Torquay folk, and visits were paid between the two places. My summer just before going up to university was spent in Devon, working in a hotel kitchen by day, and singing in folk clubs there by night. It’s probably part of the reason I’m living in the county today!
The end of ‘Careless Love’ and the beginning of ‘Strictly Pure’
But my carefree approach to clubs and singing was about to change, when I came across an entirely different type of person:
Charles was a red-haired and radical BBC radio producer. He and folk singer Ewan McColl were responsible for the innovative series of Radio Ballads, which are the stuff of legend today – Singing the Fishing, The Travelling People and The Big Hewer.
I first saw Charles eating cornflakes at breakfast during the Keele Folk Festival, where I had persuaded my parents to let me go for the weekend. It was long before huge and noisy festivals were invented, and was a concentrated, well-programmed series of workshops, talks and performances by the likes of A. L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs and even Arlo Guthrie, who was in his late teens at the time, but already a very able musician following in the footsteps of his father, Woody. I took against Charles, however, when I overheard him criticising the ‘warm bath of sentimentality’, which he claimed that many folk singers were immersed in. How dare he! I was having a really good time, thank you.
But a little later that year, I grudgingly admitted that Charles might have a point. He ran a weekly folk song workshop in Birmingham, hosted by Pam and Alan Bishop, and I trotted along to this to learn from my elders and betters. This workshop was formally known as the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, though it mostly took place in the Bishops’ living room in Mosely. Charles cared intensely about the music and the voices, songs and lives of the people he recorded – the Radio Ballads were innovative because they allowed working people and those on the margins of society to speak for themselves, something rare at the time. As I came to know him better, I developed a great respect for him, even if I didn’t always agree with what he said. His passion was genuine. He wanted everything to have the same veracity; he would tell you if your song moved him to tears, or if it just reeked of artificiality. Charles and Ewan were intensely political, but whereas Ewan was too dogmatic for my taste, Charles was imaginative and compassionate.
Sometimes a group of us met at the Parkers’ flat in Harborne, where he would pull down piles of books off his shelves to make a point, complaining that he needed to have a mild incapacitating illness in order to read everything he wanted to. He would hand out copies he didn’t need any more – I still have his Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial English, J-Z. (It’s a great book, and recently I sourced A-I to make up the pair!) I invited him to my wedding a few years later, and he gave us a signed set of the Radio Ballad records as a gift, which of course I have kept, though with nothing to play vinyl on these days. I was saddened to read of his early death not so long after that. A trust has been set up in his name, to keep the spirit of his work alive.
You can listen to an excellent account of his life and work here
Field work at last!
The photo you see here is one that has only come to light recently. In July 1967, when it was taken, I was doing a post A-Levels project on folk song collecting. The tradition wasn’t quite dead, even in industrial Birmingham, and in the old Jewellery Quarter, Charles introduced me to Mrs Cecilia Costello. She was the child of Irish immigrants, but had grown up as a Brummie in hard circumstances in the old back-to-back streets of houses.
She adored her repertoire of songs and stories, and had already been discovered and recorded in 1951 by earlier collectors.
Her very beautiful version of the ‘Grey Cock’ appears in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. (You can now hear the original recording of her song on YouTube below). But she had since been forgotten, and presumed dead. And it was only when some public mention was made of ‘the late Cecilia Costello’ in the late 60s, that she re-surfaced and declared herself still fully alive. In her humble terraced home, she sang and talked, while we listened and recorded. Later, I was allowed to ‘borrow’ (strictly against the BBC rules, I gathered!) some of Charles’s equipment and I went on a visit of my own to record her stories and music. (There is now a collection of all the Costello recordings which I acquired a couple of years ago, and I can hear my laugh on it in one or two places. Mine was very minor input, however, and Rod Stradling took on most of the hard work of collating and editing all the recordings later on.) These are obtainable at present via this link.
At some point in my sessions with Charles, this photo and the one above must have been taken. I had no knowledge of it until it was used at a recent Charles Parker Study Day as their background image for the conference. Apparently the question was going round: ‘Who is that woman?’ Only one person in the audience knew. And that’s how I came to have it, very late in the day, thanks to Doc Rowe!
I have never forgotten Cecilia Costello or Charles. In fact, I would say that they have helped to shape my approach as a writer. I learned how powerful the voice of an individual human being can be, to sing songs, conjure up the past, and convey messages from the heart. I put much of what I learned, indirectly, into my book, ‘Your Life, Your Story’, and included a dedication to Charles Parker.
Singing has remained a part of my life, and I went on to train as an early and Baroque music singer in my twenties, performing as a concert singer in my thirties, and as a chorus member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields a little later. My love of folk music remains, though, I still prick up my ears like an old war horse, when I hear those Irish choruses!
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