The folk club opened at The Recreation Hotel (‘The Rec’) in 1964 during the ‘Folk Revival’. It was the brainchild of the late Brian Hughes who had strong connections to CND and the sixties protest movement. That first night 16th March, the audience seemed to consist largely of Brian’s personal friends but by December that year membership stood at 300 and weekly audiences were between 80 and 100. Its first guest artist was a young Julie Felix who was about to become nationally known for her appearances on That Was the Week That Was. The following year, The Essex County Standard reported that Julie Felix had verbally agreed to play for the first birthday on 22nd March but in fact was booked by The Troubadour and Dave Moran of Chelmsford Folk Club to play in Colchester’s Moot Hall on the same night. After this mix-up the club went ahead and celebrated the first birthday with Sandy and Jeanie, Bob Davenport and other residents performing to an audience of 300. To the folk club’s delight, Julie Felix turned up (along with The Spinners) towards the end of the evening after the concert at the Moot Hall and treated the audience to a few songs. Organizer Brian Hughes claimed it as a triumph for the club pointing out that only 98 had attended the concert at The Moot Hall!! The third time Julie played, her agent phoned the organiser to say she’d like to play the club but there was to be no publicity and it was to be for members only. By then she was filling big concert halls. The fee was £50 so the ticket price had to be doubled. Many years later Julie returned (in 1999) to play for the club’s 35th birthday.
In the early years guests booked included Mike Harding (formerly of the BBC Radio Folk Programme), Arlo Guthrie (of Alice’s Restaurant fame), Long John Baldry, Jasper Carrot, Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, Louis Killen, Alex Campbell (a regular visitor), Sandy and Jeanie, A.L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs, Nadia Catoose, Bob Davenport, The Strawbs, Alexis Korner, The Watersons and Martin Carthy. Many artists were repeatedly booked since there wasn’t the network of professional artists there is now and with the explosion of folk clubs starting up and down the country the few professionals were very much in demand.
1964 was the time Paul Simon was temporarily resident in Essex most notably playing in Brentwood, Chelmsford, Witham and Braintree. Alas, when Brian Hughes was offered Paul Simon the diary was full, and despite offering expenses to feature him in the break Paul Simon never did appear at Colchester – despite the myth, repeated on the radio by John Peel, that he turned up to do a floor spot and was turned away!
The final night at The Rec was the club’s fifteenth birthday when the residents staged the show ‘Captain Swing’ written by Phil Manchester about the agricultural labourers’ riots in the 1830s and their mythical leader Captain Swing.
After a move to The George Hotel in High Street in 1979, the Folk Club soon found the cellar bar too small and three years later moved to its current home, Colchester Arts Centre, St Mary-at-the-Walls in June 1982. The club was invited by the first administrator of the newly formed St Mary’s Arts Centre, Mike Prochak, who was a folk musician himself. Mike went on to join Flash Company (including Drs Marfleet and Brogan). The opening act at both The George and The Arts Centre was Adrian May who was a favourite regular guest and still appears as support in his duo, Face Furniture.
The club still meets every Monday (except Bank Holidays) between mid-September and May and each week professional folk singers, songwriters or instrumentalists perform two sets of the very best in traditional and contemporary folk music often with a local act supporting. During the club’s years at The Arts Centre highlights have included The Albion Band, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Ralph McTell, Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band) Richard Digance, Kathryn Tickell, Kate Rusby, Gordon Giltrap, Isla St Clair, Roy Harper, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, The Full English and Bellowhead. The club was proud to be asked by legendary folk band, Pentangle to stage two warm-up dates for their reunion at The South Bank in 2008 which, with the help of The Arts Centre, they did.
Other highlights from the past include the annual day trips, a boat trip from Harwich, a narrow boat down the Chelmer, a picnic on Layer Breton Heath, Resident ‘Swaps’ with Ipswich, Southend and Chelmsford Folk Clubs and the residents acting as a backing band to Andy Caven’s rock’n’ roll (known variously as the Spanners, Kid Menthal and the Rubitons, and Herges Adventurers). The only recording of the ‘residents’ is from the early days of the Arts Centre. A cassette was recorded to celebrate the club’s 25th birthday. Residents in those days included Paul Riley, Elaine Barker (both still involved), The Popular Wobblies, Nick Chapman, and Andy Caven, In more recent times grants awarded by the National Lottery for a series of Young Tradition concerts and by Eastern Arts for a set of four Celtic Connections concerts introduced many fine artists to the Colchester audience.
During the late seventies and eighties the club residents put together productions based on local historical events. Shows such as The Witchfinder General, Captain Swing, (written by Phil Manchester and performed by members of the club in the ‘70’s) The Great Colchester Earthquake, Honest Thieves (about smuggling off our coast), The Siege, (written by Jonathan Seath and performed by an expanded Rough Justice in the 80’s) and Castle Keep (written and performed by Flash Company) employed theatre, dance, song and spectacle.
Many of the club’s ‘residents’ have been stalwarts of the barn dance band scene, including The Hosepipe Band and the now sadly defunct Bass Instincts, Economy Seven and Itchy Feet. Current support artists include Adrian May’s duo Face Furniture, Singer-in-the-Bath Tony Winn, Bof! (specialising in French music), Rosewood, Phil Lyons and guitarist/mandolinist Paul Riley. Welcome additions to our roster have included No Strings Attached, Gwendal Moele, Dragonfruit, Silbury Hill, Shorelark, The Larks and Stan Harvey.
The policy of introducing new young acts in amongst the stalwarts of the folk scene continues, the likes of Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Martin Simpson rub shoulders with Sam Kelly, Moore Moss and Rutter, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar and year on year we find we attract new audience and the best of local support acts – long may it continue!
To keep updated on who is appearing at Colchester Folk Club visit www.colchesterartscentre.com
Colchester Arts Centre, Church Street, Colchester CO1 1NF Box office 01206 500900