Interview by Simon Haines Unless you are a folk performer, you may not have heard of Alan Bearman, but he has been involved in the English folk scene for over 40 years, starting as a folk club organiser, moving on to being heavily involved in organising the Sidmouth Folk Festival. He is currently Artistic and Marketing Director of the festival, now in its 65th year, as well as running Alan Bearman Music (ABM), an agency representing major artists on the folk, roots and acoustic music scene. He is also one of the few holders of the EFDSS Gold Badge, awarded for services to English folk music. Alan has famiy connections with the area and is a regular at Folk East Festival and at pub sessions in our area. Here is my recent interview with Alan.
Could I start by asking you about your connections with Suffolk? Were your family from this part of the world? My family were from Essex, but moved to Leiston in Suffolk in the early 1970s as I was leaving for Teacher Training College in North London. I spent many weekends and school holidays in Leiston through to the late 1980’s. Some of that time coincided with Taffy Thomas and Magic Lantern being very active in the area so we got quite involved with them and went to sessions and events around the area. We have been regular visitors to the area ever since and always expected to return permanently at some point.
Would you say the folk scene in the area is special in any way? Is it different from any other rural area? It’s hard to compare with other rural areas as Suffolk and London are the main areas that I’ve been familiar with. Suffolk’s sessions have always seemed special to me and it was listening to the likes of Oscar Woods, The Ling Family and Percy Webb that deepened my interest in traditional music. For years, it seemed to me that despite the rich traditions and great sessions there was a severe lack of concert and club activity with honourable exceptions like The Everyman. That has changed dramatically in the last few years, largely through the impact of Folk East.
Since Suffolk Folk ‘morphed’ into mardles.org in 2017 the idea of putting on events in East Anglia was always near the top of the agenda for the steering committee. Enter Vintage Squeeze! a group of enthusiastic melodeon players based in Norwich who will travel almost anywhere to reach a workshop that would help them improve their mastery of the instrument.
Through a mutual contact, the idea was raised that as a first venture into organising a folk-related event putting on a day of melodeon workshops in Norwich would be a good place to start. It was! And it was a good collaboration too.
The melodeon players themselves decided on the format and level of the day. They researched and found a brilliant venue in St Luke’s Church, Norwich and did a great job of spreading the word in the local area.
In the meanwhile, mardles.org were getting on with publicity material, sourcing the course tutors - the wonderful Mary Humphreys and Anahata - and setting up a system for handling tickets sales, advertising and general ‘official’ things that are always associated with putting on a public event.
It was after tutoring for The West Country Concertina Players (WCCP) for several years at their workshops held alongside Sidmouth Folk Festival and at their annual ‘beginners’ weekend held at Kilve Court in Somerset that I thought it was time I did something about my ambition to start a new group here in Norfolk. My experience was in teaching very-nearly-absolute beginners, through to those becoming a little more conﬁdent, post-beginners/intermediate players.
Together with my husband, I had previously belonged to The East Anglia Concertina Players, a group formed in the early 90s with members travelling here monthly from as far away as Ipswich and Stamford, but this group had diminished in number and eventually folded. The group had, however, set up and run an annual ‘Play in a concertina band for a day’ event called SqueezEast, held in Stamford Arts Centre, and conducted by my husband, Paul.
Paddy Butcher is a familiar face in the world of folk music and is often to be found in the folk clubs of East Anglia and beyond. A loyalsupporter of local music sessions, he brings a wealth of good quality songs and tunes and also a folksome gravitas that comes with modesty, humour and good cheer.
Skiffle music was Paddy’s inspiration in his teen years – a fan of Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber - he even made a sawn-off tea chest bass for The Rebels an early skiffle band with friends. Although he started off taking piano lessons, Paddy moved on to the guitar and later joined the newly formed Bury St. Edmunds folk club in 1964 at what was then The Cricketers. The club hosted many top folk performers of the day and he became interested in traditional folk music starting Triad with Brian Francis and Bridget Danby. During his involvement with the club they booked Peter Bellamy and Paddy struck up a long-lasting friendship with the folk singer even once singing on stage with him at Cambridge folk festival. It was while Paddy was performing regularly on guitar doing traditional songs as a resident singer at the Bury club that he bought a melodeon and played with the short-lived St Edmundsbury Morris Men. Around this time he was also playing guitar with Geoff Singleton and Tony Preston in a band called Oakenshield.
Serious interest in the melodeon began during Paddy’s sojourn in London in the early 70s where, for a short while, he was MC and resident performer at the Shakespeare’s Head folk club in Carnaby Street. As well as appearing at other local South London clubs he danced with Blackheath Morris but Suffolk called and in 1973 he returned to help form Hageneth Morris Men and join John Goodluck’s band Trunkles. After this came The Suffolk Bell and Horseshoe Band with John and Katie Howson as well as being involved in the formation of Bury Fair Morris and playing trombone for The Haughley Hoofers.
It was when Bury Fair Morris side got invited to a local school to meet a French Dance group that a dance exchange to Angers was arranged. Paddy then embarked on a new phase in his folk music – he was inspired by a French band called Ellebore to take up the hurdy gurdy and started playing French tunes. After many festivals in France and elsewhere he eventually, in 1984, constructed his own instrument. This awesome building project was completed during a year under the watchful eye of gurdy guru Bill Molen (a player and a fine gurdy-maker). Having passed that one on he is now the proud owner of a second self-made hurdy-gurdy which is still going strong. Shortly after 1984 Paddy formed Champetre playing gurdy, along with Bill and others in that band for many happy years.
Video by Bill Johnston
His involvement in a band called RSVP started in the late 80s and continued until recent years. He has also been playing with Bof! since 2000 performing French and Breton dance music at many gigs in the UK and festivals in France. The Bury Folk Collective is proud to have this eminent folk artist and multi-instrumentalist as its patron and is fortunate enough to enjoy his performances at many local club events as well as the annual Bury Folk Festival at Nowton Park – he’s doing a gurdy workshop there this year. Paddy’s musicianship and warm stage presence continues to delight audiences in the region as he sings fine songs and plays guitar, melodeon, hurdy-gurdy, cajon, cas-cas and even occasionally, rumour has it, the trombone.