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Grahame Hood on Clive Palmer and folk music in the sixties and seventies
Grahame Hood is author of 'Empty Pocket Blues': the life and music of Clive Palmer
RW: Just as Cornwall is famous for attracting artists in the 40s and 50s, so it attracted folk musicians in the 60s and 70s. In a film of Wizz Jones on the beach in Newquay in 1960 (below), he is described by Alan Whicker as a Beatnik. Who, would you say, were the British Beatniks? What were their values? What brought them to Cornwall in the early sixties and who was amongst them? Martin Val Baker, for example, has mentioned Donovan in a previous interview...
GH: Wizz was 21 at the time and also stated he was only interested in travelling and playing his guitar.
My impression is that the beatniks were largely rebelling against their parents attitudes. Though many of them would have been born in the latter days of the war or very soon afterwards, they had put that behind them, unlike their parents, who would have just wanted to get back as much as possible to how things were in the 1930s.
The beatniks had no long term plans, just wanted to live life and experience what it had to offer. They didn't want conventional work, and were happy to live on what little they made from their artistic skills and short-term jobs. The embraced new movements in poetry, literature, art and music, particularly jazz, which was regarded as more intellectual than rock and roll, even though there were plenty of people who enjoyed both. They were inevitably left wing, supporting CND and racial equality, which of course was another reason they enjoyed jazz and blues music. Folk music was another part of this, though there were "popular" folk bands of which The Spinners were probably the best example, there were also many serious, intellectual young people who loved folk music and were genuinely protective of it, believing it was an honest record of the attitudes of working class people.
Cornwall has always attracted young people, and many of those who came there had many of the same interests. A proportion of the people coming to Cornwall would have been folk singers, and many of the others would have provided an audience for them. Some obviously embraced the culture more deeply than others.
There is a great Tony Hancock episode called "The Poetry Society" which lampoons this wonderfully. Tony's friend Sid asks him where all the members of the poetry society live; "Well eight of them live on a barge on the canal, ten of them live in the basement under the pet shop, and the rest of them live with them."
There were no folk clubs in Cornwall in the early sixties, but they were more obviously established in London and parts of Scotland. As you describe in your book, Clive Palmer started busking as a teenager in London and Paris, Cornwall and Brighton, before moving to Edinburgh where he became more established as a musician. Do you want to describe some of the highlights of his Edinburgh years?
Clive arrived in Edinburgh in late 1962, after being deported from France for overstaying his visa. Within a short time of arriving in Scotland, he was in very good company indeed, musically. He met established musicians like Archie Fisher and Hamish Imlach, as well as legends-in-waiting Bert Jansch and Robin Williamson.
He soon formed a duo with Robin and they were recorded, along with just about everyone else of any merit in Edinburgh at the time for an album called "Edinburgh Folk Festival Volume 1" in 1963. Robin and Clive (the name they worked under) were very popular all over Scotland and the North of England. They even appeared on televison a few times on a show hosted by the great Scottish folk outfit The Corries.
In 1965 the duo were seen in an Edinburgh pub by Joe Boyd, and shortly afterwards they added Mike Heron to the trio. After a brain storming session they came up with the name "The Incredible String Band". The literal meaning of the name was soon lost, the term "string band" being often applied to groups who used stringed instruments (as brass band meant bands who played brass instruments). "Incredible" was a hip word of the time.
In the spring of 1966 Clive's Incredible Folk Club, at which the ISB were residents, opened and is fondly remembered by many, especially Billy Connolly, who was a frequent audience member and occasional performer at the club. Joe Boyd in the meantime had been appointed to be British representative for Elektra Records, and came North to sign the band to his label. This led to their first album "The Incredible String Band" , which caused a sensation on the folk scene on it's release.
By the time the album was out, Robin had headed off to Morocco and Clive was about to hitch-hike from Glasgow to Kabul. As one did in those days... Robin soon came back and reformed the ISB as a duo with Mike Heron and went on to record some remarkable music. Clive went his own way on his eventual return.
The Incredible String Band (above) were remarkable. Musically their compositions were very complex: often with songs over ten minutes long, written using different keys, scales and time signatures and making them, for some, rather difficult to listen to. Yet unlike eg much prog-rock of the 70s their music never seemed pretentious or contrived: it always retained a mystical and visionary quality very much of its time.
How do you evaluate their work and Clive Palmers contribution to it? I know they are a favourite of the art critic Matthew Collings. He used their 'Water song' on one of his TV series...
Clive once said that he had very little to do with the music of the ISB as most people know it. This was true in the period after the ISB's first album when they recorded "5000 Spirits" and "Hangman's Beautiful Daughter", but their next two albums "Wee Tam" and "The Big Huge", embraced a new simplicity in their writing, incorporating American folk influences again, which may have come from their first visit to the US in 1967, but which also, to my mind, harks back to the music they played when Clive was still in the band.
Clive could have contributed to those albums very well, as was proved when the ISB reformed in 2000 with Clive back in the lineup and they played some of the songs from those albums. Maybe he was always there in spirit. Certainly his time with the ISB was always seen as a good selling point for his later bands, particularly COB. In fact one review of the first COB album in 1971 remarked that he had tapped into what the ISB used to have, but had now lost.
I still love the ISB's music, though I happily admit it's not for everyone. But if you let yourself be absorbed into it, particularly Robin's material, the rewards are enormous. I think of them as elder brothers who have experienced things you haven't and are able to guide you. But they never lose their Scottishness, which, as a Scot, I recognise and appreciate.
Coming back to Cornwall, as the sixties wore on folk clubs did start springing up. Do you know much about their history? Am I right that the Botallack Count House was the first - and through its association with Brenda Wootton - possibly best known?
I believe the Count House was certainly one of the first, but it was started as a commercial venture rather than purely for the music, and in fact later became a disco! John The Fish was booked as an early resident singer, and Brenda was initially a member of the audience, until one day the lady who joined in all the songs so well was invited on to the stage. I think many of the clubs at that point were aimed at the tourist market, and as they were easy to set up and lucrative for the pubs in which they were held, they flourished. People forget how genuinely popular folk music was then. I'm always surprised no one has ever written a play set in the folk clubs of the late sixties, there's a lot of material there, the music, the romance, the rivalry!
As you describe in your book, Clive moved down to Cornwall in 1968, and became a regular at the Folk Cottage in Mitchell. Can you explain who he was in contact with in this phase in his life, and how this led up to the formation of C.O.B. and the two albums that are so celebrated now? Its very easy to focus on Clive when discussing C.O.B., but the band was democratic and Mick Bennett and John Bidwell were equally important.
Clive came down to Cornwall and moved into a caravan next to the Folk Cottage with "Whispering" Mick Bennett (who had a very loud voice). At the time there was a core of musicians based around the Cottage, including Henry "the jug" Bartlett and guitarist Pete Berryman.
Ralph McTell had earlier been a part of this scene too. Clive formed The Famous Jug Band with Henry and Pete, later adding vocalist Jill Johnson, who had been in a quartet called The Jayfolk. I had always wondered why Mick Bennett was not involved too, but it seems he may have gone to Morocco for the winter. They recorded an album in the following year, though Clive had left by the time it came out, largely to personality problems. "Sunshine Possibilities" was an excellent album though, and has several songs which went on to become folk club standards, including Clive's much-covered "A Leaf Must Fall" (youtube video above).
The FJB carried on as a trio, while Clive formed The Stockroom Five, who played gutsy American country music. The SF featured Mick Bennett, returned from his travels, plus Folk Cottage stalwarts John Bidwell (banjo/guitar) and Tim Wellard (guitar) who had played together in a schoolboy rock band in Newquay called The Monarchs. Clive and Mick returned to London in the winter of 1969 and John and Tim formed The Novelty Band with Demelza Val Baker on percussion, daughter of the well-known Cornish author Denys Val Baker.
In the spring of 1970, Clive and Mick returned and joined the trio to become The Temple Creatures. That band is the link between the FJB and the later COB, though recordings of them are sparse. They had distinct Indian influences and fitted in with the Cornish hippy scene perfectly. often playing at the Town Hall in Fowey, near to where the band all lived on the Val Baker's land at The Sawmills, situated on the west bank of the River Fowey, a little south of Golant.
After the Val Bakers moved, The Sawmills became a recording studio, which has hosted many of the greatest names in British rock music. Mick and Tim left, the band continuing as a trio, eventually adding Chrissy Quayle, who ran the Mermaid Folk Club at Gurnard's Head near Zennor. At the end of the season Demelza and John headed up to London where they fell in with Judith Piepe, a London social worker who had earlier nurtured the careers of Paul Simon and Al Stewart. Her boyfriend, guitar repairer Stephen Delft, also joined the Temple Creatures for a while. Judith managed to get the band mentioned in the New Musical Express, saying "They will find fame as Simon and Garfunkel did". They didn't.
In 1971 Ralph McTell's manager, Jo Lustig, signed a deal with CBS to provide the label with some "progressive folk" material. He wanted Ralph to get involved in record production, and Ralph offered Clive and Mick the chance to make an album. They also invited John Bidwell to get involved. The new combination was named Clive's Original Band (not Clive's Own Band or Clive's Other Band no matter how many times that appeared in print!) by Jo, better known as COB.
And, apparently, they were living in a caravan between Truro and Falmouth when they wrote most of the songs.
C.O.B. toured with Pentangle in 1972, and played at the Royal Festival Hall, but then it fizzled out a bit. Do you think C.O.B. could or should have been more widely recognised and successful? The thing that makes it special is the fact that a lot of the songs have a religious or spiritual quality, like hymns or psalms. Basically they are very un-rock and roll, and uncommercial, yet utterly unique.
COB were a band very much of their time, and that time was running out. Few acoustic bands of that period, if they survived, did not mutate into more conventional outfits, adding bass and drums for example.
Compare the freshness of the first two Lindisfarne albums, for example, with their later material. Many of the acoustic bands of the early seventies had a finite audience anyway, and few sold many albums. COB had a great deal going for them though, and Mick Bennett was a superb vocalist, who would possibly have acheived more fame in a rock context. I know of no other British band that sound like COB, or cover the range of material they did.
A couple of years ago artcornwall.org interviewed Martin Val Baker, who runs the Rainyday Gallery in Penzance, who got to know Clive in the late sixties and early seventies. Through Martin, and Bob Devereux, of the Salthouse Gallery he had some contact with the visual art scene Cornwall eg I think there were gigs at the Penwith Gallery in the 70s. What else did Clive get up to after C.O.B.?
COB broke up in 1973, and Clive spent a year training to be a musical instrument technician. He got married and they moved down to Cornwall in 1975. There he played solo, in a duo with Bob Devereux and in various bands often with Tim Wellrad. There was a jazz band with Kletzmer influences in which Clive played clarinet, and later a bluegrass band in which he played banjo.
He made instruments, and got very into bagpipes, including the first set of Cornish bagpipes seen for several centuries, built for the band Bucca. He himself became a very good Northumbrian smallpipes player.
At the end of the decade he moved to France with his new partner and lived there until quite recently. From 1999 he began to play in Britain again, firstly with Robin Williamson and then as part of the reformed Incredible String Band.
'Suns and Moons', featuring poetry by Bob Devereux (above), was released by Martin's Rainyday in 1978, just as punk was bursting onto the scene in London. How do you see folk music as having fared over the last 30 or 40 years? How do you see its relationship to the countryside? In my view punk was first and foremost an urban phenomenon, that rejected everything the hippies stood for: which included an affiliation with nature. Would you agree with this? How do you understand folk now, and its status in 2008?
There are not the actual folk clubs anymore but there are plenty of open mike nights and I find the people there are perfectly happy to listen to folk music as long as it is performed with conviction. There are plenty of fine young musicians about who have strong roots in the 70s/80s folk scene through their parents, Seth Lakeman being the best example, and also Kate Rusby, though she has taken a while to mature, I think. But they attract young people to the music and that can only be a good thing.
I'm optimistic, but as I say, the music needs to played with a bit of attitude and conviction. You never know what impression you make as a musician. I play apallachian dulcimer and I know quite a few people who have bought one because of me.
A few years back I was at a wedding in Normandy and at the reception there was a Django Reinhardt-style band playing. There was a three year old boy who spent the whole set standing in front of the lead guitarist watching his every move. Maybe in another ten years he will begin to play too. In Britain they'd probably have a disco playing Girls Aloud.... My point is that if people get the chance to see folk music performed well, they will like it, and some will go on to get more involved.
'Empty Pocket Blues' is available from the publishers website