Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Cambridge Folk Festival

The Cambridge Folk Festival
So the extended Occasional family went to the Cambridge Folk festival last week - four days of an eclectic mix of music, and still the most prestigious folk event in the UK, running now for over fifty years.

In America the quintessential folk event was the Newport folk festival, where Bob Dylan horrified purists by playing an electric guitar in 1965, and “folk” started to embrace a lot more than nasal protest. It led on to events like Woodstock. You may remember the film of Woodstock. What sticks in my mind from that movie are the performances by heavily pregnant Joan Baez looking radiant, and Richie Havens and Joe Cocker both stoned out of their minds. And the mud. And the “state of emergency”. (It rained.) It didn’t of course change the world, and the next major festival had a member of the audience killed by Hells Angels in front of the stage while the Rolling Stones were performing. That was sort of goodbye to the 60s – peace and love and all that - and a dubious hello to the 70s.

For all its pretentions, folk music of course changes very little. It makes some of us feel good temporarily, and on occasion it makes people think. Nationalistic and religious music probably has a far greater effect on those with a predisposition. But that is about the limit of its influence. But feeling good temporarily is OK with me.

But I have to say that Cambridge this year made us feel good.

Just the look of the place made you feel good. There were about ten thousand visitors, and most of them were there for the long haul. In the circumstances, the venue was extremely clean. Now festivals aren’t exactly known for this, but folk sort of blends with a “friends of the earth” mentality, so it is all pick up trash and recycle and save the planet while you are about it.

Perhaps one look has changed a bit since my last major festival a few years ago. Fashions change. A few years ago it was all portly men with bad cases of slipped chest or brewer's goiter - with bald heads and incongruous pony-tails as compensation, and women of a certain earth-mother shape wearing tents. (I am reliably informed that that should read Kaftan.) But now there are lots of younger people, sporting wispy facial hair, bowler hats, midi-shorts and snake tattoos on lower legs. And that's just the women...

Even with my T-shirt showing me to be a self-conscious child of the 60s, I felt somewhat improperly dressed. But of course no-body noticed.

And of course we camped. Normally we are used to luxury glamour camping (known as glamping) but this time managed with borrowed tents that were small but at least you could stand up in them. We had airbeds that gently settled down flat, battery lights, blankets, our trusty eReaders and an interesting contraption that Mrs O in a misguided moment bought online called a bog in a bag. No - don't ask.

We also brought away with us some strange little festival seats that we also bought online. Basically these are seats without legs or feet. You lay them on the floor and with straps holding the seat and back together you just sit down and lean back… As I surveyed the stars with my legs in the air, I was somewhat relieved that my glass of red had not been in my hand at the time. Mrs O gave up immediately, and trotted off to the campsite shop for a luxury (i.e. extremely expensive) proper folding recliner. I didn't need it, I was fit, I was able, lot of fuss about nothing...  I lasted another half hour and trotted off to buy one myself. We have loads of the things at home, but home was over two hundred miles away - the need was NOW. The youngsters - daughter and son in law - borrowed our original seats and managed a lot better than we did with them.

And I have to say it made a great difference. We couldn't sit inside the huge marquees, but could sit on the grass outside and watch a little figure in the distance, or see the action close-up on video screens. I have reached the age when this is fine. I haven't QUITE reached the stage when staying home watching it on TV is preferable - but I'm getting there...

As with most festivals there were workshops for juggling, face painting, willow weaving, mysterious healing rituals, unicycle riding, and playing obscure musical instruments. There were numerous outlets for clothes I wouldn't be seen dead in, strange jewelry, esoteric fast food for the pretentious palate, said obscure musical instruments, and even one stall doing a roaring trade in ear protectors. Pardon? I said DOING A ROARING TRADE IN EAR PROTECTORS! There were CDs galore, a vinyl resurgence, and musically, four tents with stuff going on in all of them most of the time. So you had to switch around to see who you wanted to see.

So what stays in the memory now we are back at my daughter's and have had much-needed showers? Well, there was a young lady named Amy Goddard there who we have bumped into before. A late night sing around hosted by a local school teacher, some of whose former students were in the audience, which led to some interesting moments. Then there was sitting in the sun listening vaguely to new wave folk hopefuls, while wrestling with the intricacies of Pittsburgh cemetery burial registers. As you do. And funny little things like one singer having an extra couple of minutes and doing Stand by Me, and the whole audience joining in. In case you wonder what on earth a Ben E King song has to do with folk music it can be traced back to a hymn written by Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave who became a Methodist minister. Another of his hymns evolved into the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome. (Pass the Trivial Pursuit board please, that’s surely worth a plastic wedge - or cheesecake as we call them here.)

I am not going to trot out a review of all the performers, many from America, who appeared; but there are two I must mention.

The headliner on the Saturday was Joan Baez. Her heyday was when American teenagers and college students suddenly “discovered” folk music in the early 60s. It had been there all the time, but its general left-wing sentiments didn’t sit too well with mainstream America in the 50s. But suddenly there was Bob Dylan, impersonating Rambling Jack Elliott’s voice, and putting new words to old tunes, just as Woody Guthrie had done before him, and a number of female singers. My favorite at the time was Caroline Hester. She had been a friend of Buddy Holly – she went back THAT FAR – and sang in a Texas twang with a huge vocal range. She sometimes went off-key, but her music was REAL. Joan Baez had a voice that was very pretty; too pretty for me. (I felt I wanted to throw a custard pie at her at times.) But as she got older and her voice got more “lived in” she got more interesting. And I have to say that her one hour set was good - very good. In her mid-70s she can still hit the notes. I have heard some folk icons from her era that really shouldn’t be let out of doors nowadays, but Mrs O felt she had been magically transported back to the 60s.

And a bonus for me, she actually sang a John Stewart song “Strange Rivers.” Her recorded version from 20 odd years back changed the last line and messed up the point of the song, but how many people really listen to lyrics anyway? And as Stewart said in one interview, the royalties helped him pay his gas bill.

The second highlight was an old favorite of mine, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. A troupe of men and women all playing ukuleles of different sizes, in ultra-respectable evening dress – doing classical, rock, punk, grunge, as well as folk – you name it. All with a completely straight face, but amusing patter in between. For me this time the highlight was The Who’s Pinball Wizard done in the style of a British Sea Shanty - complete with the obligatory finger in one ear.

I am a great fan of bonsai guitars - it's the not having to struggle with more than four strings that does it for me - but they make real music out of it. So I live in hope. I sometimes do a parody of Old Time Religion. My uke verses go something like:

You learn music now in layers
Even ukulele players
I’m a ukey player slayer
And that’s good enough for me

This song is three chords heaven
Try out G and then D7
Throw in C and G again then
And that’s good enough for me

Gimme that old time religion...etc.

But I digress.

But the less than burning question is - did Occasional sing? Well, yes, in a late night club tent, and suitably mellow he was manoeuvred into an offer he couldn't refuse by his daughter, and sang twice. Both were John Stewart numbers. A couple of years ago now, my daughter recorded me on one of them and made up a slide show, and posted it to YouTube. Fortunately without my real name, I remain generally anonymous. Although at the time, news got out locally.

I have probably told this anecdote before, but you have to remember that old people repeat themselves - so get used to it - I had been booked for a few days' official visit to a congregation to give talks and the like. I turned up at the Hall on the first night, resplendent in smart suit, collar and tie, orthodontist smile, and briefcase of necessary equipment. I was greeted by someone who I have known for rather a long time. He pointed and said LOUDLY - "Hey - I heard you on YouTube..."

All heads turned.

There followed a pause and the best of all put-downs...

"The pictures were good..."


  1. I have no clue what happened to the formatting or how to fix it.

  2. An occasional reader3:20 PM

    'Tis strange - but you can virtually see the edits - I did two rough pieces and then sort of put them together, and this is how they came out when you posted the final piece. Never mind, it's readable - or perhaps I had better rephrase that, you can still read the words.

  3. I think I've fixed the problems.

  4. Nice to bump into you again Mr and Mrs O. and thanks to the Pixie for posting my Cambridge photo.

    I too enjoyed Joan Baez, I knew every song. It's what come of having parents of a certain age.

  5. My dad's a living fossil. If he weren't I'd be more culturally illiterate than I am.

  6. An occasional reader3:29 PM

    The music you know tends to date you quite precisely, unless of course you have parents who mercilessly inflicted their tastes on you - in which case you look a bit young for the songs you know. Have just come in from a folk/acoustic club, where you could date most people by their choice of music to sing. Me? I had a politically incorrect night - singing songs with names like Rough Justice, Jobsworth, and Merry Minuet. It's probably because Mrs O wasn't with me as a restraining influence.