Joe Stead - The Ramblings of an old Codger.  Volume Twenty  - May 2002.

"I wouldn't book you if you were the last folk singer on the planet" - ANON
(Well almost).

I visited Cornwall with Nora in April having decided it was time to visit
our old pals Nigel Mazlyn Jones and his good lady Margaret.  Whilst down
there they persuaded us to visit The Eden Project.  Nora enjoyed it, but I
have to confess to being completely and utterly bored.  I am of course a
Philistine in such matters as horticulture so perhaps my attitude was not
completely unexpected.  My demeanour was not helped by queuing for 90
minutes in the car to actually gain entrance.  I confess it was a
remarkable building and a remarkable project, but what at the time I found
even more remarkable was that people would actually want to go look at the
vast array of tropical plants, let alone pay for the privilege.  My advice
to any prospective traveller to Cornwall is to be careful before spending
10 entrance fee to be really sure you want to look at such a grand array
of greenery.  To me any one tropical plant looks very much like another.
But if you like this sort of stuff - then I urge you to go.

It was later, upon reflection, that I appreciated the importance of the
underlying message.   A lot of these plants are nearing extinction and
without them the chain of nature will be broken leaving mankind in a bigger
mess than we already are.  To lose these plants altogether would be a
complete disaster so every last one of them is extremely precious.  Vast
areas of rain forest are being demolished daily. We are in great peril.

Passing through Truro town centre on my travels I reflected upon a post
card I received from a folk club organiser some 8 or 9 years ago.  I had
decided to do a very big post shot to virtually every folk club in the
country and I got one post card back that simply said "I wouldn't book you
if you were the last folk singer on the planet".  The card was unsigned and
without a stamp, but post marked 'Truro', so unless some very crafty folk
club organiser who lives in Carlisle had decided to seek absolute anonymity
it was not difficult for me to determine who had actually sent it.  I found
this card very sad.  Not because the sender had been too much of a coward
to sign it or that it was such a clumsy effort to abuse and upset me.  The
bitter twisted writer of the card had overlooked the very important fact
that no matter how bad a folk singer I might be, I would, if I were the
last folk singer on the planet, be an extremely rare and important link to
the past.  For if I were truly the last folk singer on earth I would surely
be a species to be treasured rather than abused.    At the time I thought
it sad that someone who purported to love folk music would treat the last
folk singer on earth in such fashion.  Eight or nine years ago the
organiser of the Truro folk club was a woman so I considered it even more
surprising, if it was indeed she who sent it, that a female from whom all
human life springs should be so blinkered and unseeing. (I digress slightly
here - but I remember visiting a private museum in Maske by the Sea a few
years ago where the aged owner of the museum was a mine of knowledge about
the area.  But he refused point blank to put his knowledge onto tape or
book.  When he died that knowledge left with him.  Absolutely criminal.)

And so it was at that point of my reflecting that I realised the importance
of the plants I had just idly passed by an hour or so earlier.

But what is it that makes a 'good' or a 'bad' folk singer?  Stan Hugill for
example was a great performer, a mine of information who sung from both the
heart and the soul.  In his later years his singing whilst authentic was
atrocious.  But considering his age that is not surprising.  Pete Seeger
has the same problem today.  But they are/were both great performers who
could not only put bums on seats, they were true interpreters of an
important idiom.  The information they imparted to the world was invaluable
and they spent a lifetime wearing their voices out.  So is bums on seats
that's important or is it the message?  Do you want to hear your folk songs
sung in a gutless fashion or do you want to listen to something that comes
direct from the heart?  I know what I want to hear, but I appreciate the
general public might have a different opinion.

I may have seen things through rose tinted glasses years ago - but back in
the 1960's there did not seem to be the animosity among performers that
there is today.  Perhaps the abundance of clubs meant that we encouraged
rather than deprecated each other.  There was plenty of scope for all and
it seemed like we were on an everlasting roller coaster of fun.  There was
of course the odd fight like the notorious fisticuffs between Ewan MacColl
and Dominic Behan, but on the whole the scene was one of tranquillity and
encouragement.  Now news has reached my ears from a very reputable source
that a member of a well known shanty group from the south coast has started
knocking the reputation of Kimber's Men even before he has seen or heard us
perform.  Apparently Kimber's Men are 'rubbish'.  Well what brought that
on?  I'm inclined to think it's either insecurity or jealousy on his/their
part - neither of which makes any sense to me as this particular group are
well established and were I thought friends to boot.  One should not take
hearsay too seriously, but when the information comes from a friend you've
known and sung with for 30 years who spoke with the person involved then
there has to be a degree of truth involved. 

We all know the folk scene is in recession and has been for many years, so
we need to encourage each other.  We need young blood and we need it
quickly.  The folk scene is after all very much now in the hands of the
youngsters and we must certainly encourage them when and wherever possible.
They might not have the depth of knowledge we old codgers have but at least
there are many recordings left for others to learn from.  But there is
nothing quite like seeing the original item at work, (come in Hugill.
Seeger, Carthy, Tawney, Woolley etc.  Woolley?  Yes certainly he's the
finest exponent of modern naval material - probably in the world).  I
remember seeing one young popular singer at the Topic Folk Club in Bradford
a few years ago whom the folk scene holds in high degree.  There was a
large audience there too.  What struck me about the performance was the
lack of passion, the songs were sung prettily enough - but they had no
soul.  But given time that passion and soul will doubtless come to the
fore, providing of course there are enough venues.

By the way whilst talking of soul and passion, for those who know them,
Nigel and Margaret are well underway with the restoration of their new home
and will be completing it soon ready to let this coming summer.  If anyone
wants a nice friendly place to stay in Cornwall - please contact me and I
will forward your address to them.

Nigel is still deeply involved in the poisoned water project that hit the
Camelford area some 13 years ago.  I know he will not rest until justice
has been meted out to those still alive who have suffered from the water
authority that at the time poisoned the drinking water with their
inefficiency and carelessness.  Thirteen years of various government have
done their best to sweep this problem under the carpet, but in Nigel they
have an adversary who is not going to give up.

April saw the passing of one of the old timers of the 1960's and early 1970
folk scene.  Notorious in the town of Portsmouth and the surrounding area
Jon Isherwood was a much loved dreamer and folk comedian whose partnership
with the late Pat Nelson has drifted into legend.  Fame always just eluded
Jon who had an incredible talent for making his audiences enjoy themselves.
 Signed up by the Beetles to Apple Jon actually received a royalty cheque
from George Harrison dated 19th April 1970 for 1/10d.  (For those who don't
remember the old currency that's just under 10p).  Jon never cashed the
cheque.  I wonder what happened to it?  He was later signed by Decca and
also recorded a live album on my own label which we recorded at Jasper
Carrot's folk club (the Boggery) in Birmingham.  But Jon's singing career
really came to an abrupt halt one summer evening in Somerset when he was
involved in an horrendous traffic accident which left him hospitalised for
many months.  He came back on the folk scene - but his body was frail and
he was never the same man.  I spent many enjoyable nights with Jon. I
remember seeing him swallow a lighted cigarette in front of a stunned
audience in Downe, just outside Bromley, only to declare afterwards that he
didn't quite know why he had done it - "Because it didn't half hurt".  I
remember another evening at the Railway Folk Club in Portsmouth ending an
evening on stage with Jon and Pat when Jon poured a whole pint of beer down
the insides of my trousers.  Why?  Because it probably seemed like a good
idea at the time.  I then drove back to London with the car stinking like a
brewery.  Luckily I wasn't stopped by the police.  Those who knew Jon will
all have their own incredible memories of a talent that was abruptly ended
by that wretched car crash and his later addiction to alcohol.  Goodbye old
Pal.  At 61 you went too early.


Hi Joe,
You and I share many things in common. One of my earliest memories is of
sitting on the lap of a huge black man who sung to me.  I can still hear
that voice now - 50 years later. It was Paul Robeson as I found out much
later when I was of an age to understand what that meant.
My parents were also hunted by the McCarthy forces.  They were musically
inclined radical union organisers. I grew up in New York City during the
late 40's and 50's listening to the likes of Pete, Woody, Millard Lampell,
Bess Hawes, Oscar Brand, the Almanac Singers, Odetta, Ramblin' Jack, the
Weavers and the like. I was playing guitar and banjo by 1955.  Later, I
haunted the Gerdes Folk City basement from which I got to the McDougal
Street apartment and spent some time with Van Ronk and Mississippi John
Hurt.  Dave was perhaps the most irascible, cantankerous and kindest man
I've ever met.  He is sorely missed.
Someone e-mailed me a copy of your song about Pete. It's a GREAT JOB!!!!!
Thanks from someone who has been listening to him since the 1940's.

One of the hats I wear is one of the song pages editors for the San
Francisco Folk Music newsletter, 'The Folknik."  The newsletter gets mailed
out to members 6 times a year and I'd love to publish your song in it
sometime.  It would help if you have a lead sheet but it's not absolutely
necessary.  If you send me a tape of it I can transcribe the melody to
Please let me know what you think of the idea.  I'll send anything I do for
your perusal and permission before I send anything to print.
Best regards,
Ray Frank (Song pages editors for the San Francisco Folk Music Newsletter,
'The Folknik").
2240 Muir Woods Place
Davis, CA 95616, USA

Dear Joe
Nice to see so many of us old farts still plugging on.  I was very
interested in your memories of Paul Robeson in the Spring Issue of Folk on
My mother, who died at the end of the last Century aged 91, was a big fan
of his.  She always used to say "It's such a pity he's black and a
communist".  Which just goes to show good music can overcome racial and
political prejudices, I suppose.
I believe that hearing his 78 recordings of songs like 'Water Boy' probably
set me on the path to becoming a bluesman.  I always thought it was such a
pity he used those messy concert party piano accompanists rather than a
good folk blues guitarist or boogie pianist, but I suppose it enabled him
to gain acceptance from the establishment.  But then he never was a
sharecropping field hand (any more than me) was he?
Can't wait to read your Ramblings about the "Anglers" era, though.  It's
time somebody chronicled those days before we all forget, don't you think?
All the best
Skyport 'Ade' Tucker

I was brought up on bawdy rugger songs.  They were in very bad taste, as am
In the thirties and forties the police and Mayor Laguardia tried to stop
the music at Washington Square.  They insisted on each person applying for
a license to sing.  The police kept on dragging Woody Guthrie, Pete and me
in for a bench appearance. Then one day in '48 or so we exploded and fought
the police and made them think.  A tremendous accomplishment (see my book
"The Ballad Mongers").  Fiorello was gone by then and they agreed to let
one person apply for a group permit each year.  Lionel Kilberg, the Brownie
bass player who was on my radio show took it on.  It's been quiet since
Oscar Brand.

This might make you smile.  I think there is something just slightly wrong
here.  But who cares?   It's a review of 'Valparaiso round the Horn' from
Mike Miller, a member of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society.

My mailbox, at the PFS office, is like a slot machine at the Showboat.  As
a rule, it taketh and giveth not in return. But, every few weeks, it erupts
like a berserk cornucopia, spewing CDs and books and tapes, many with real
quality sound and substance.  Lynn, our trusty secretary, calls me and
sweetly requests that I get down to the office and take these packages off
her desk, bins and work area or she will, personally, deliver them to an
area not of my choosing.  OK, she did and I did and here is my report on
some of the best of them.
Joe Stead is an Englishman who lived among us some years ago. He is a
traditional singer who, also, writes songs, as who doesn't.  When he dwelt
among us, he ran the Bothy Club, when that venerable institution was housed
in Cavenaugh's Bar, across the street from the main Philadelphia railroad
station on 30th St.  He's been back in Old Blighty long enough to have
forgotten what good food tastes like, but he is putting out some fine
music.  His latest, and best, effort is "Valparaiso Round The Horn".   It
is a delightful, informative musical trek that brings the listener on a
sailing ship, out of Liverpool, bound for South America.  This is what
folksong recordings can be, and should be.   Joe explains every step in the
journey, from the days ashore to the workdays aboard.  The songs are well
performed and, thank goodness, understandable.  I recommend this one, a
lot.   Joe's web page is >



A virtual one man folk revival Joe Stead's been touting banjo and a varied
repertoire for longer than any care to remember. His name permanently blue
tacked in the listings all that happens is the venue changes from week to
week.  Okay enough sarcasm, actually his is a remarkable career, and here's
the reality, he's sixty and must have seen the folk scene through its many,
many changes.  Changes that don't seem to have dimmed his popularity or
left a mark beyond a few greying hairs and a new pair of glasses.
Beginning his 'Birthday Party' series of gigs in 1979 as part of a wider
festival, the location has now shifted to Sowerby Bridge, but still a cross
section of roots and folk players turn out.  Some arrive without fail -
take a bow Paul Downes, others like Pete Coe are revival lynch pins, yet
more Archipelago for one are new generation of world music players, proving
Stead's wide musical appreciation.  For a homespun recording, the quality
is excellent - so there's a few crackles and pops, but that's what
happened, warts and all, and it adds to the charm.  At over an hour, this
is perhaps a better snap shot of what's really going on at the grass roots
than a thousand higher profile compilations.
By the way - a bit late perhaps but, Happy Birthday Joe Stead.
Simon Jones - Traditional Music Maker


I can remember my old granddad playing the banjo in the kitchen in
Winchester way, way back in the early 1950's.  He played plectrum style on
a five string.  He played in the kitchen because it was far enough away
from the rest of the house.  My grandmother who lived to be 102 had no
patience with him at all.  It may have stemmed from the fact that he bought
that damned banjo brand new just after the First World War for the princely
sum of 18.  My grandmother (apparently) went absolutely spare!  Eighteen
pounds was a fortune in those days and eighteen pounds could have brought
provisions for 6 months or more.  But no, he went and spent that money on
that damned banjo.  He only knew a couple of tunes as well.  Maybe only
one.  Well my grandmother said every tune sounded just like the last one.
But old pop didn't care, or at least he didn't seem to.  You see he never
ever argued with my grandmother.  If she started an argument he used to
just walk away whistling.  This of course infuriated my old grandmother
even more.  "I didn't marry you to argue with you" he used to say.  And off
he would stroll, either up the allotments to pull some leeks, or into the
garden to tend the chickens OR down to the kitchen to play that damned

When I was on holiday in Winchester (which was quite frequently) I would go
down to the kitchen to watch and listen to him.  He liked an audience and I
was the only one he ever had.  He would whistle away and play these marches
and tangos and I always did think (if I'm really honest) that my
grandmother had a good point about the similarity business.  But of course
I never mentioned it.

My grandfather was 79 when he died in December 1961.  I remember popping
down to see him a couple of days before the end.  By this time they had
moved to Worthing.  He was bed ridden with cancer of the throat, quite weak
and receiving visitors for a limited period only.  To my astonishment he
handed me his banjo.  "It's no use to me any more son" he said "I would
like you to have this."  What a legacy to receive!?!  Here was I a Pete
Seeger nutcase being given a five-string banjo - just like my hero.  But
more importantly I was being handed a family heirloom. I remember I
clutched that banjo to my bosom like it was the most important thing in the
entire world and at the time I think perhaps it was.  I often think he is
with me on stage, sitting in the corner, puffing away on his old pipe,
chuckling away with his eyes twinkling.

I thought I would be able to sound just like Pete in a couple of weeks. The
awful reality is that 41 years later I still can't play anything like as
well Pete.  But I was to learn the basics eventually - not however for a
few years.  When I discovered that banjo playing actually took skill and a
lot of practise I resigned the banjo to the bedroom cupboard and went on
with my rugby career.  I had no form of tutelage, none of my close friends
could even play the guitar.  One old school pal played a bit of guitar, but
the banjo was in different tuning - so the banjo had a sabbatical.  It had
a Sundical, a Mondical and a Tuesdical too in that dusty old cupboard and
the strings were rusted and limp by the time that damned banjo saw sunlight
again.  A Clifford Essex XX Special banjo worth over a thousand pounds
today - but there it lay for four years dusty and almost (but not quite)

To be continued


Kimber's Men kicked off April (over Easter) in the recording studio.
Lancaster Festival of the Sea didn't want us, so we utilised the time
working on the new CD.  It's starting to sound quite exciting - even if I
say so myself.  Our gig at Bollington Folk Club was cancelled at the last
minute due to a flooded room, but Barnsley Folk Club kept their room dry
for Monday April 15th and our gig with Shep Woolley was another hoot and a
sell out to boot at The Barge and Barrel in Elland on Friday April 19th.  I
also found myself involved in a photo shoot for an advertisement which I
guess will either be used on street corners or in magazines.  It will run
under the title "Guess which one has Cancer".  I get all the best jobs!  Oh
yes, and Karl Dallas invited me to be the first performer of songs and
poetry at The Orpheous Poetry club held at The Melbourne Hotel in Bradford.
 That was a great honour

Next month gets off to a hectic start.  I'm a featured guest at The Sweeps
Festival over the Bank Holiday weekend of May 4th and 5th.  Then when I
finish at 11pm in Rochester on the 5th I have a four hour drive home to be
ready to start three days filming on the set for Coronation Street with a
7.30am call time on Monday morning!  So after a four hour drive I might
just catch a couple of hours sleep before setting off to Manchester!  (If
the Ramblings suddenly cease - you'll know I never made it).
May 10th Kimber's Men are playing at The Grove in Leeds and May 31st will
find me doing a solo gig at The Cock Inn in Stony Stratford.

Well I always try to end on an amusing note - and as nobody has sent me
anything this month I will print something I received from my old friend
Soazig Lemoine in Paris, France about 4 years ago.  Apparently it's all

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846
John F Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860
John F Kennedy was elected President in 1960

The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain 7 letters

Both were particularly concerned with civil right
Both wives lost their children while living in the White House

Both Presidents were shot in the head
Both were shot on a Friday

Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy
Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln

Both were assassinated by Southerners
Both were succeeded by Southerners

Both successors were named Johnson
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln was born in 1808
Lyndon Johnson who succeeded Kennedy was born in 1908

John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839
Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939

Both assassins were known by their three names
Both names comprise fifteen letters

Booth ran from the theatre and was caught in a warehouse
Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theatre

Booth and Oswald were both assassinated before their trials

And Finally

A week before Lincoln was shot he was in Monroe, Maryland
And a week before Kennedy was shot he was in Marilyn Monroe.

Keep smiling, keep singing.
Talk to you next month: President Bush willing!

Joe Stead