A folk club is a regular event, permanent venue, or section of a venue devoted to folk music and traditional music. Folk clubs were primarily an urban phenomenon of 1960s and 1970s Great Britain and Ireland, and vital to the second British folk revival, but continue today there and elsewhere. In America, as part of the American folk music revival, they played a key role not only in acoustic music, but in launching the careers of groups that later became rock and roll acts.
From the end of the Second World War there had been attempts by the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London and Birmingham to form clubs where traditional music could be performed. A few private clubs, like the Good Earth Club and the overtly political Topic Club in London, were formed by the mid-1950s and were providing a venue for folk song, but the folk club movement received its major boost from the short-lived British skiffle craze, from about 1955 to 1959, creating a demand for opportunities to play versions of American folk, blues and jazz music, often on assorted acoustic and improvised instruments. This included, as the name suggests, the ‘Ballad and Blues’ club in a pub in Soho, co-founded by Ewan MacColl, although the date and nature of the club in its early years is disputed. As the craze subsided from the mid-1950s many of these clubs began to shift towards the performance of English traditional folk material, partly as a reaction to the growth of American dominated pop and rock n’ roll music. The Ballad and Blues Club became the ‘Singer Club’ and, in 1961 moved to The Princess Louise pub in Holborn, with the emphasis increasingly placed on English traditional music and singing the songs of one's own culture, e.g. English singers should avoid imitating Americans and vice versa, using authentic acoustic instruments and styles of accompaniment. This led to the creation of strict ‘policy clubs’, that pursued a pure and traditional form of music. This became the model for a rapidly expanding movement and soon every major city in Britain had its own folk club. By the mid-1960s there were probably over 300 in Britain, providing an important circuit for acts that performed traditional songs and tunes acoustically, where some could sustain a living by playing to a small but committed audience. Scottish folk clubs were less dogmatic than their English counterparts and continued to encourage a mixture of Scottish, Irish, English and American material. Early on they hosted traditional performers, including Donald Higgins and the Stewarts of Blairgowrie, beside English performers and new Scottish revivalists such as Robin Hall (1936–98), Jimmie Macgregor (b. 1930) and The Corries. Some of the most influential clubs in the UK included Les Cousins, Bunjies and The Troubadour, in London and the Bristol Troubadour in England's West Country.
Although the name suggests a fixed space, most clubs were simply a regular gathering, usually in the back or upstairs room of a public house on a weekly basis. These clubs were largely an urban phenomenon and most members seem to have been from the urbanised middle classes, although the material that was increasingly their focus was that of the rural (and to a lesser extent industrial) working classes. The clubs were known for the amateur nature of their performances, often including, or even focusing on local ‘floor singers’, of members who would step up to sing one or two songs. They also had ‘residents’, usually talented local performers who would perform regular short sets of songs.
Many of these later emerged as major performers in their own right, including A.L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy, and Shirley Collins who were able to tour the clubs as a circuit and who also became major recording artists. A later generation of performers used the folk club circuit for highly successful mainstream careers, including Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Ian Dury and Barbara Dickson.
The number of clubs began to decline in the 1980s, in the face of changing musical and social trends. In London Les Cousins in Greek Street, where John Renbourn often played, and The Scots Hoose in Cambridge Circus, were both casualties. The Singers Club (George IV, Lincoln's Inn) closed its doors in 1993.
The decline began to stabilize in the mid-1990s with the resurgence of interest in folk music and there are now over 160 folk clubs in the United Kingdom, including many that can trace their origins back to the 1950s including The Bridge Folk Club in Newcastle (previously called the Folk Song and Ballad club) claims to the oldest club still in existence in its original venue (1953). In Edinburgh, Sandy Bell's club in Forest Hill has been running since the late 1960s. In London, the Troubadour at Earl's Court, where Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Sandy Denny and Martin Carthy sang, became a poetry club in the 1990s, but is now a folk club again.
The nature of surviving folk clubs has also changed significantly, many larger clubs utilise PA systems, opening the door to use of electric instruments, although drums and full electric folk line-ups remain rare. The mix of music often includes American roots music, blues and world music as well as traditional British folk music. From 2000 the BBC Radio 2 folk awards have included an award for the best folk club.
In Dublin, Irish music pubs are now part of a well-advertised tourist trail. Also, Irish cultural centres have existed in the United Kingdom since the 1950s, primarily for the descendants of Irish immigrants. Mostly on Friday and Saturday nights these have been folk clubs in all but name. They have been able to book major Irish bands that ordinary folk clubs could not have afforded. Changes in the law mean that players often have to become a member 24 hours beforehand. Since 2002 A "public entertainment licence" is required from local authorities for almost any kind of public performance of music. To avoid the constant need to re-apply for licences for new events, some folk clubs have opted to create a "Private members club" instead. This requires that members of the public join at least 24 hours in advance, not on the night of the actual performance. Previously you could pay on entry.
New York's Greenwich Village was the most famous nexus for folk clubs in the Sixties. While some music took place quite informally in Washington Square Park, a number of clubs, such as The Bitter End and Gerde's Folk City were also central to the development of what was originally called "Folk Music" but would evolve into "Singer–songwriter" music as more and more acoustic musicians performed original material. The Lovin' Spoonful is one example of a pop group that started in the folk world.
In Boston, the most famous venue was the Club 47, where Joan Baez got her start. Later, this became Passim's. (During most of the Seventies, local station WCAS (AM) produced a live broadcast from this club called "Live at Passim's"; today the club is known as Club Passim). Other lesser known clubs, such as the Turk's Head and the Sword in the Stone (on Charles Street) and, later, the Idler (in Cambridge), also helped to make up what was known as "The Boston Folk Scene". A number of lesser-known but still active musicians, such as Bill Staines and Chris Smither, also developed in this milieu.
Philadelphia offered two such non-alcohol clubs: Manny Rubin's tiny Second Fret (The New Lost City Ramblers, Ian and Sylvia, Lightnin' Hopkins), and, in the Bryn Mawr suburbs, Jeanette Campbell's The Main Point, an intimate club featuring artists on their way up such as Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen.
Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York claims to be the oldest folk-oriented Coffee House, having opened in 1960. The Eighth Step Coffee House, originally in Albany, New York and now in Schenectady was founded in 1967.
While the folk boom gave way to its rock descendants, forcing many clubs to close or to move to more electric music, in recent years, a number of venues have offered acoustic music (usually original) in a way that continues at least part of the function of the folk clubs. Traditional music, however, which was at the root of these developments, is more often offered by local folk societies, such as Calliope: Pittsburgh Folk Music Society, Athens Folk Music and Dance Society, etc.
- M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), pp. 74-7.
- G. Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 231.
- M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), pp. 77-8.
- G. Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 237.
- M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival 1944-2002 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003), p. 114.
- B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 978-0-19-517478-6, pp. 256-7.
- B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 978-0-19-517478-6, p. 37.
- B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 978-0-19-517478-6, p. 113.
- B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 978-0-19-517478-6, p. 112.
- R. H. Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), pp. 57-61.
- B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 978-0-19-517478-6, p. 45.
- M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002 (Ashgate, 2003), p. 132.
- J. Harris, Christoph Grunenberg Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s (Liverpool University Press, 2005), p. 139.
- Folk and Roots, http://www.folkandroots.co.uk/Venues_North_East.html, retrieved 24/02/09.
- B. Shelby, Frommer's Edinburgh & Glasgow (Frommer's, 2005, p. 124.
- P. Barry, ed., Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Salt Publishing, 2006), p. 173.
- ’Previous winners’, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/event/folkawards2009/previouswinners.shtml, retrieved 24 February 2009.
- http://www.meandthee.org/History.html History of the Me and Thee Coffeehouse "such institutions as the Sword in the Stone, the Unicorn, the Idler and Club 47 in Boston and Cambridge"
- http://www.garagehangover.com/?q=taxonomy/term/18/9 Garage Hangover interview with John Compton