I got into the ‘folk scene’ entirely by chance. Growing up my family simply weren’t interested in music. At school I thought I might learn the cornet but I was a martyr to cold sores which soon put a stop to that. At art college skiffle was all the rage but I was much put off by middle-class hobos from the London suburbs with their washboards, tea-chest basses and dreadful mid-Atlantic accents. Newly married Sal and I explored classical music and jazz pretty indiscriminately on record and at concerts. I knew nothing about folk music except that Sal’s father, James Boswell, was a director of Topic Records, which came about because of his long political involvement with AL ‘Bert’ Lloyd and Alan Bush - and his boundless ability to produce record sleeves. He had already done twenty or more by early 1962 when it occurred to him that it might be helpful if he actually found out something about the ‘folk scene’ for himself. Bert made some suggestions and we started with a concert in Richmond, west London. Then we took off to Teesside, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Manchester and Liverpool. We met folk singers and musicians of all sorts. Jim wasn’t entirely convinced (Sal says he was never particularly interested in music of any sort) but went on with the sleeves anyway until he died in 1971. I, on the other hand, was bowled over. Before the end of the year I had photographed many nights at the Singers Club and other places, the recording of ‘The Iron Muse’, an LP iconic in the history of industrial folksong, a couple of Centre 42 concerts (Culture to the masses) and the very first appearances in Britain of one Bob Dylan, of whom you may have heard. I had become part of the folk scene myself, ‘The Folk Photographer’, with more or less unlimited access, at any rate to the Topic/traditional side of it.
By early 1963 I had already amassed a considerable collection of pictures, one of which found its way onto a Transatlantic Record sleeve. The Ian Campbell Folk Group I think it was, taken at that Richmond concert. Astonishingly, that led to my designing about 100 record sleeves for Transatlantic, providing photographs for well over half of them – the others were purely graphic or had pictures by other photographers. I was still a graphic designer by trade.
1963 had a couple of other highlights. I did a speculative story about Irish singers in London, mostly around Camden Town. I was impressed by their casual virtuosity and was intrigued by how different these Sunday lunchtime music-and-Guinness sessions were from the average folk club night. I don’t think ‘The Favourite’ pub in Holloway had been invented then but John Harrison was a regular ten years later. I still love Irish music (and Guinness) though I’m not sure Irish protestants (well, ex-protestants) are supposed to listen to it. They are irritated that republicans have all the best songs. In the summer Sal and I went to the Edinburgh Festival for a week, an adventure which yielded a whole new crop of pictures including first sightings of Bert Jansch, and The Dubliners even before they were The Dubliners.
We were at the first Keele Folk Festival in 1965, a novel, exciting and very successful occasion organised by the EFDSS. I was happy to go again the next year but the third year I didn’t really want to go, though I did and then had a car accident on the way home. So my next festival was the 25th anniversary. Renamed the National Folk Festival and moved to Sutton Bonington, I was asked to show the Keele pictures you can see here. Some new faces after 25 years of course, but otherwise nothing much had changed.
From then on it was mainly pictures for specific sleeves, until 1971 when Jim Boswell died and Topic fancied a new regime. At about the same time I fell out with Nat Joseph, boss of Transatlantic, so that job was gone too. Freelance life. I decided to give up the music and concentrate on Customs which I had been doing simultaneously since 1963. I had neither the time nor money to do both but, though I like music in general (except skiffle, trad bands of old buffers who haven’t had an original idea since 1950, lieder, opera singers singing folk songs) I am very much a visual person and to me the customs seemed much more varied and interesting. I did them for 30 years. (See Custom).
Still, I had a great time with the folk singers and musicians and I’m quite pleased with this little collection since I hadn’t much clue what I was doing back then. I was learning on the job. To be honest that’s why they are so atmospheric and spontaneous. What amazes me is how many of the pictures get used now. Youthful shots of today’s folk icons appear worldwide in books, magazines and on re-issues of the original LPs on tape, CD, and, would you believe it, good old vinyl. I do enjoy listening to these recordings, indeed I have a big collection of them – all with my pictures on the covers!
About John Harrison, who gets in here for very good reasons. He was an original member of The Watersons, who emerged from Hull in the early sixties and became folk megastars, starting with the three siblings, Mike, Norma and Lal and their cousin John, through bewildering combinations with their children, partners, spouses and friends. Martin Carthy came along, married Norma and they produced Eliza, a megastar in her own right.
John left The Watersons towards the end of the sixties. There was acrimony and I have heard both sides, but I am definitely not saying anything. John and his wife Yvonne came to seek their fortune in London, but found themselves temporarily homeless at one stage and asked if they could stay with us while they sorted themselves out. No problem. John was already interested in photography so I taught him what little I knew about processing and took him around with me on jobs. Later he took amazing shots of the Waterson Family (friends again, but not a group member), Sandy Denny and the beginnings of Fairport Convention, and the maestros at The Favourite, a legendary Irish music pub in Holloway now buried under Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. He was so taken by the music there that he and Yvonne went to live in Ireland for a while so that John could improve his fiddle playing. Similar reasons took them to northern France for a few years to absorb French folk music. Finally they went to Greece because John fell in love with Greek music. They are still there, John playing the bouzouki.
In 2013, completely unexpectedly, a parcel turned up at Collections/our house containing about 50 sets of negatives and contact sheets which he wanted me to look after for him because he was convinced they would wind up in the bin after he was gone. These are what I found. Extracting meaningful caption information from him was much more testing! Even I can’t tell the difference between John’s pictures and mine. Not sure whether that’s good or a bad ...