The Cambridge Folk Festival

Over half a century of music-making in South Cambridge, and the past couple of decades through my own eyes and ears.

Being a South Cambridge baby, there are a number of things locally that are omnipresent – they will always be there until the world ends (or similar). Addenbrooke’s Hospital’s chimney is one of them. The Cambridge Folk Festival is another. Not surprisingly, the Cambridge Folk Club, an integral part of the festival, has been running for just as long.

You can read this archived copy of the history of the festival from its early days. Ditto this obituary of co-founder Ken Woollard who appeared in the 1974 BBC Old Grey Whistle Test featuring the 1974 Folk Festival. You can watch the video below:

The video that I’m on the lookout for is that of Don McLean’s performance of American Pie at the 1980 Folk Festival, which I’ve seen at the now closed BFI unit at the Cambridge Central Library.

I didn’t get to go to the festival until just after my GCSEs when in my wisdom I thought it would be a good idea to go for one day following a 12 hour gruelling flight back from Mauritius, where to be honest I hadn’t had the greatest of times and was of a mindset of wanting to get on with going to a new sixth form college. So we sat in the grey humid drizzle as Ray Davies of The Kinks sent half of us to sleep that afternoon. I went back to my grandparents who at the time lived almost across the road, thinking I’d snooze for a couple of hours, only to wake up to find it was Monday morning. Pre-internet 1990s folk festivals were a little like this:

It wouldn’t be until 2004 that I returned – mainly because Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy was headlining, and I also knew of a few other people and groups also there. Note in 1996 we didn’t have the internet, but in 2004 we did. That made a huge difference. One of the major musical discoveries for me at that 2004 festival were Oysterband – featured in the 1993 clip above.

Above – The Divine Comedy from 2004.

I remember having a surreal conversation with him when he was off stage about the Britpop craze of the mid-late 1990s – it’s one of those festivals where you can just meander up to whoever has been on stage and have an adult conversation with them and not get star struck. I was reminded of a line from Jack Dee’s stand up comedy set when I met him.

“You’re a lot smaller than you look on the telly!” 

“I dunno – how big’s your telly?”

I didn’t actually say that to him, but I think this was the first time I had come face-to-face with someone who had like ‘been on the telly’ during my childhood & teenage years, with the exception of Roy Castle of Record Breakers back in 1990.

Being separated from a local musical tradition

One of the things I grew up resenting about the middle class culture that dominated South Cambridge in the 1990s was the very narrow worldview that was socially re-enforcing about what one should and shouldn’t do, and what one should and should not like. The number of us young teenagers who stopped playing musical instruments in the early 1990s is astonishing when I look back on it – not least because no one in the local music world ever seemed to ask why. I can’t help but think a major academic research study would throw up more than a few uncomfortable truths for many-an-institution. In my case, by the mid-1990s I associated the violin with classical music, classical music with music exams, church and uncomfortable formal clothes at events I’d rather not be at. Such as the children’s concerts at West Road, Cambridge where you could almost see the various cohorts of parents going to war with each other over the musical talents of their offspring. It was only coming back after spending 3 years in Brighton at university that I started figuring out things for myself – and music was definitely one of them.

Connecting with a local tradition

Put it this way, in early 1990s South Cambridge, folk music was seen as anything but trendy if you were a teenager. It bypassed many of us as teenagers settled into their tribes of grungers and ravers in the early 1990s, morphing into going to sold-out shows at The Junction and The Corn Exchange at the height of the indy/britpop era, and then night clubs. In one sense it was epitomised by an off-the-cuff remark by then Minister for Culture, Kim Howells MP, in 2001.

For a simple urban boy such as me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell,” 

…which was a crazy thing for someone in his position to say, and let to a musical riposte from the Folk Band Show of Hands.

“Roots” by Show of Hands

When the far right tried to hijack folk music a few years later, the band were one of many to fight back – not least with the album Folk Against Fascism. Note the line in the song “Roots” with “I’ve lost St George and the Union Jack // It’s my flag too and I want it back” – a similar theme chosen by Oysterband against the forces behind the Leave vote.

“My Country Too” by Oysterband

“There’s room on board for the odd and the queer

The roundhead and the cavalier

The refugee and the welcome stranger

The dreamer, the rebel, and every game changer”

The more I picked up from the festivals of the mid-2000s, the more I learnt that Folk Music was about people’s stories and histories. At the same time, and mainly through travel and dance classes in Cambridge, I stumbled across more than enough Europop to last a lifetime, whose lyrics can be so simple in nature as to be meaningless. Dutch producer Frank Farian provided us with this example in the 1990s:

…this group somehow becoming T-spoon with Sex on the Beach.

Using music to tell stories

This is ultimately what I’d like to see with Cambridge’s local history given the wealth of our local music scene. Both Cambridge 105 and also BBC Cambridgeshire’s Introducing have been instrumental (excuse the pun) in promoting new and young musicians and bands – as has The Junction’s Fiver events.

One of those stories is about Cherry Hinton Hall, the story partly told on its wiki page. The bit not yet told is who was behind the move to purchase the property for the people of Cambridge by the city council. Turns out it was one of our early women councillors – Councillor Mabel Fell (Lab – Cherry Hinton).

361103 Cllr Mabel Fell Cherry Hinton CDN Photo CambsColln.jpg

Councillor Mabel Fell (Lab – Cherry Hinton).

Cllr Fell was a pre-WW2 councillor for Cherry Hinton between 1936-38. We don’t yet know where she moved on after that, or of her father, Cllr James Fell, also representing Labour in Cherry Hinton. But it was Mabel who campaigned for, and moved the motion at the then Cambridge Town Council to purchase the site.

390323 Cllr Mabel Fell moves motion for Cherry Hinton Hall as Park

Cllr Mabel Fell supported by one of the civic pillars of 20th Century Cambridge, Cllr Clara Rackham, in turning Cherry Hinton Hall into the park we know today. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.


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