Folk Story: how four undergraduates kick-started a musical revolution

Folk Story: how four undergraduates kick-started a musical revolution

  • Album covers

Gordon Giltrap: photograph and design Brian Shuel. Steeleye Span – please to see the king: uncredited. Gas works: photos Hugh Workman, sleeve design Bob Workman. The best of Rev Gary Davis live in concert: design Terry Eden, photo Valerie Wilmer. Liege & Lief – Fairport convention: sleeve concept and design by Fairport and Roberta Nicol. Peter, Paul and Mary: photo Bernard Cole. Keith Christmas – Stimulus: photography Terence Ibbott. Al Stewart – Orange: photo Marcus Keef.

In early 1954, the British folk revival was in its infancy. The BBC Home Service had only recently begun broadcasting its first folk showcases, As I Roved Out and Ballads and Blues. The men behind Ballads and Blues, folk radicals Ewan MacColl and AL Lloyd, launched a club of the same name in Soho. Journalist Eric Winter started Britain’s first folksong magazine, Sing. And in Cambridge, a handful of music-loving new undergraduates formed the St Lawrence Folk Song Society, one of Britain’s very first folk clubs.

The St Lawrence thrived for more than 20 years, but despite its significance, records of it seem to have all but disappeared. It barely registers online. Singing From the Floor, JP Bean’s weighty oral history of British folk clubs, mentions it only once. And despite being once a member, guitarist Jon Garvey (Pembroke 1970) realised he actually knew very little about the society’s origins. “I started thinking it was a shame it would be forgotten,” he says. So he set about tracking down ex-members and documenting their memories. Their accounts have gradually coalesced into the story of a quietly pioneering society that hosted giants of the international folk scene, produced influential figures of its own and sowed the seeds of Britain’s oldest and biggest folk festival. 

St Lawrence Society is born

When National Service deprived Peter Gardner (Trinity Hall 1953) of his piano, he took up the acoustic guitar. Upon arriving in Cambridge, he befriended fellow enthusiasts Bernard Rudden (St John’s 1953) and Stan Bootle (Downing 1950) and they began playing together, soon joined by Newnham students Elizabeth Cochrane (Newnham 1953) and Anne Taylor (Newnham 1953), who would go on to become the award-winning psychologist, Anne Treisman. “On one occasion we said, ‘Let’s take this guitar and singing thing a little bit further. How about forming a society?’,” Gardner remembers. “It took off from there.” The name came from Bootle, who mistakenly believed that St Lawrence, a third-century Roman martyr, was the patron saint of balladeers. The first British folk boom, spearheaded by song collector Cecil Sharp in the early 1900s, had been a bourgeois, conservative affair. In 1954 the patron of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, based at Cecil Sharp House in London, was Princess Margaret. The revival, however, was born on the left. The leading record label, Topic Records, was established by the Workers’ Music Association and prime movers such as Lloyd and MacColl were working-class communists. Many of the folk songs in the St Lawrence’s repertoire were American labour anthems, with the result that Cambridge English undergraduates often performed songs from the picket lines of Colorado and Kentucky.

For Sonia Jackson (Newnham 1953), the daughter of veteran Labour MP Maurice Edelman, this dimension was significant. “It was quite left wing. That was quite important to me. I was already interested in politics and became more interested at Cambridge.” Not so for the considerably more conservative Gardner. “I distrusted the left,” he says. “I distrusted protest songs that seemed to rouse the rabble – except that I liked the songs.” 

St Lawrence’s early days

Stan Bootle was one of the stars of the St Lawrence’s early days. A Liverpudlian who became both a pioneering computer programmer and a prolific singer-songwriter (under the name Stan Kelly), Bootle sometimes collaborated with fellow St Lawrence alumnus Leon Rosselson (Fitzwilliam 1953). “In those days, anybody who had a regional accent was interesting. Anyone who had anything but received pronunciation was perceived to be working class. We were pretending when we sang these work songs, but Stan was thought to be the real thing.”

The society met in College rooms or at Bootle’s house before establishing a weekly routine at The George and Dragon on Midsummer Common, where members would perform old songs and try out their own compositions. At nights run by the hardline, authoritarian Ewan MacColl in London, singers could only sing material from their own native tradition: an Englishman, for example, couldn’t sing a Scottish ballad. At the St Lawrence, however, there were no such strictures. “It was very open, very free,” says Gardner, who used to record the meetings on his elephantine tape recorder. “It didn’t really matter what the songs were. I played funny songs, sad songs, Russian songs, Swedish songs, German songs, American songs…” Jackson remembers “absolutely no rules at all. People sang whatever songs they wanted to.”

It was a complete antidote to the rocking and rolling that was going on elsewhere. The feeling was that we were reaching back for something worthwhile and beautiful that had been lost...

Rod Davis (Trinity 1960)

Folk music as an antidote

Folk music’s profile rose in January 1956 when Lonnie Donegan’s Top 10 cover version of the American folk song, Rock Island Line, triggered the skiffle explosion. One fan swept up in it was Liverpudlian banjo-player Rod Davis (Trinity 1960), who played in The Quarrymen for a year alongside a teenage John Lennon. Unlike Lennon, he was interested in skiffle’s roots in American folk, especially bluegrass, rather than its relationship to rock’n’roll. 

“It was a complete antidote to the rocking and rolling that was going on elsewhere,” Davis says of folk music. “The feeling was that we were reaching back for something worthwhile and beautiful that had been lost but still had considerable value for us. It had a purity, perhaps, and an innocence that the modern music didn’t have.”

Davis never even saw his erstwhile bandmate perform with The Beatles. The night they played in Cambridge in March 1963, he was running a bluegrass night at another venue. “I was very pleased they did what they did but it wasn’t my kind of music at the time,” he says. He was no more enthusiastic about clean-cut American folkies like the Limeliters, whom he refused to book at the St Lawrence. “Their sort of music was total anathema to me and as it turned out we’d already booked [traditional Scottish singer] Jeannie Robertson that weekend,” he says proudly. “Someone else booked the Limeliters but we had the real thing.” Other guests on Wednesday nights at The Horse and Groom in King Street included Ewan MacColl and his wife Peggy Seeger.

Growing folk scene

The folk scene grew exponentially during the early 1960s, fuelled by dedicated TV shows such as Hullabaloo (hosted by Rory McEwen) and new American stars Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In 1961, St Lawrence chairman Chris Rowley (Clare 1959) convinced a wary Cambridge Union to host a show by Pete Seeger, the forefather of the American revival. “They were very sniffy and said they didn’t have things like folk songs at the Union,” says Rowley. Seeger arrived with an axe and a large log of wood which he proceeded to hack rhythmically while performing a work song, sending chips of wood flying across the hall. “The concert was one of the great memorable things in my life,” says Rowley, who lent Seeger his guitar. “He got everybody in the room, even the most fuddy-duddy scholars, to sing.” Seeger’s £500 fee was dauntingly high, but the Union was so packed that the St Lawrence’s finances were healthy for years to come.

Other big names flocked to Cambridge with the launch of the folk festival in 1965. Masterminded by Sonia Jackson’s first husband, Philip Abrams (Peterhouse 1952) and fireman Ken Woollard, who met through the local Labour Party, the inaugural line-up included Ireland’s The Clancy Brothers, Peggy Seeger and, as a cheap last-minute addition, a young Paul Simon.

Singing from the floor

By the time Garvey arrived in Cambridge in 1970, bands like Fairport Convention Pentangle and Steeleye Span had taken folk-rock into the mainstream and the UK had around 3,000 folk clubs. The St Lawrence’s Wednesday night meetings, upstairs at The Red Cow on Corn Exchange Street, were fuller than ever. True to folk club tradition, guest headliners such as Martin Carthy, John Martyn and Nic Jones would alternate with amateurs “singing from the floor”. When the guests were particularly popular, the room was so rammed that some people were forced to sit on the windowsills, dangling their legs outside.

In Singing from the Floor, JP Bean describes the second half of the 1960s as “an era of purists and policies” in an increasingly divided folk scene, but the St Lawrence retained its catholic ethos. Former president, Keith Sidwell (King’s 1966) remembers singing his version of the 19th century folk song, Tramps and Hawkers, to MacColl himself, backstage at a concert in 1970. “That’s too pretty,” growled the cantankerous old purist. “For him it was banjo, unaccompanied voice or simple guitar chords,” says Sidwell. “We’d grown up with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. We hadn’t isolated ourselves. So we were bound to come up with something more eclectic. You’d have traditional songs, singer-songwriters, parodies of pop songs, blues… Everything, really. People were eager to listen and people were eager to play”

“The year I was treasurer, the secretary was a traditional fiddle player,” remembers Martin Stirrup (Fitzwilliam 1969). “He’d be booking Martin Carthy and I’d be booking John Martyn and those two strands would be weaving in and out of each other.” No performer challenged convention as boldly as Fred Frith (Christ’s 1967) of the avant-rock group, Henry Cow. “He came to the club one day and started playing atonal stuff,” recalls Garvey. “I don’t think anybody understood any of it.”

The strangest lacuna in the St Lawrence story is Nick Drake (Fitzwilliam 1967), who became, at least posthumously, Cambridge’s most celebrated folk-influenced alumnus. Drake’s biographer, Trevor Dann, suggests that it’s “likely that he played at informal folk nights upstairs at The Red Cow”. Sidwell, however, insists, “if Nick Drake did play at any of the folk clubs in Cambridge I’d have heard of him.” Drake, an indifferent student who had already released his debut album for Island Records, dropped out just before Stirrup arrived at Fitzwilliam. “I missed him but I did play with some people who had played with him,” Stirrup says.

It taught me how to stand up in front of a bunch of people and make them happy. That was a lesson for life.

Jon Garvey (Pembroke 1970)

Legacy of St Lawrence lives on

The folk revival faded in the mid-1970s, as the big acts split up or moved on. Faced with waning interest, the St Lawrence merged with the younger Cambridge Folk Club, which still exists today. The St Lawrence did, however, leave a mark on the lives of those who sang from the floor. Although few had the meteoric ambition of Rory McEwen, all of the members interviewed for this article continue to play music to varying degrees. Sonia Jackson’s son and grandson have both been involved with the folk festival. Rod Davis performs with the Original Quarrymen. Martin Stirrup continues to release albums.

Jon Garvey speaks for many of them when he says: “It taught me how to stand up in front of a bunch of people and make them happy. That was a lesson for life.” It did more than that. The night of the John Martyn concert he began dating the woman who became his wife. Their son is called Martyn, named after the man himself.

Words Dorian Lynskey, photography Jon Garvey

To read the stories of St Lawrence members collected by Jon Garvey please visit stlawrence.jongarvey.co.uk.

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This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 77. Find out how to receive CAM.