Fresh folk faces: the new generation of organisers

Tommy MacDonald and Liam Cooper at Old Kent Road Folk and Blues
Tommy MacDonald, left,and Liam Cooper play at their club, Old Kent Road Folk and Blues

It is not uncommon to hear comments such as “Folk clubs are dying out,” “Where are the young people?” and “When we were their age we were running folk clubs!” So it is refreshing to talk to some young people (all 30 or under) who are not only interested in performing folk music but are actually running folk clubs.

Alex MacDonald and his partner, Sarah Jones, have run Tooting Folk Club since January 2019. Liam Cooper and Tommy MacDonald, Alex’s younger brother, run the Old Kent Road Folk and Blues Club (OKRFBC) which launched in December 2019.

Folk music background

Alex and Tommy grew up in Broadstairs, with the opportunity to experience folk live from an early age. As Alex puts it, the Folk Week meant that folk music was part of his life “by osmosis”. Alex’s earliest musical memory is listening to the Pogues. “I was always a child of the internet in terms of music,” says Alex. “Apart from my dad showing me some fingerstyle stuff, I learned all the instruments I play now via YouTube.”

Tommy describes listening to a lot of music from the Irish and Scottish traditions as well as acoustic blues. From the age of 12, Tommy was playing blues piano, later picking up ragtime and jazz as well as fingerstyle folk and blues guitar, and was performing from his mid-teens.

Sarah never really listened to folk until she and Alex started dating and he took her to Tooting Folk Club. “I fell in love with the music and the stories and have been going regularly to folk nights.” She now counts Broadstairs Folk Week as one of her favourite times of the year.

Liam’s interest in folk has developed more recently. Listening to singers such as Ewan MacColl, AL Lloyd and Anne Briggs sparked his interest in the English and American folk revivals of the mid-20th century, overlapping with his interest in the history of labour and socialist movements. “Part of the attraction for me comes from the idea of folk music as a communal, egalitarian form of music-making, and as a record of the struggles experienced by oppressed peoples over many centuries,” explains Liam.

His mother grew up in the Birmingham Irish diaspora, going to folk clubs there. Liam now has a keen interest in playing Irish traditional music. He describes playing at local sessions as “quite intimidating at first but there is something incredibly exciting about this kind of group playing”.

Inspiration and ambitions

Living in south London, they share similar experiences of attending folk clubs, listing the Goose is Out, Bermondsey Folk Club and Tooting (before Alex and Sarah took it on) as their local clubs. Previously, Alex had been a regular at Islington Folk Club. Another regular, the late Tom Paley – the American fiddler, guitarist and banjo player who co-founded the New Lost City Ramblers and played with the likes of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie during his 89-year life – “was a great inspiration”, he says. Many other clubs he attended have moved or closed.

Tommy is just as likely to be found at an open mic session but has recently been introduced by Liam to the Windmill Session in Brixton. Liam really likes the singaround format. “It struck me as quite egalitarian and quite dynamic, as one person’s performance can spark different kinds of responses from other performers.”

New to him was unaccompanied singing, which he enjoyed hearing along with the wide variety of instruments used for song accompaniment at some folk clubs.

‘I think folk clubs offer an opportunity to learn and share songs, respect for performers and a friendly community’

They are all very clear about the atmosphere they want to create in the clubs they run. As Tommy puts it: “I think folk clubs offer an opportunity to learn and share songs, an appreciation for music, respect for performers and a friendly community that is hard to find elsewhere.”

Liam encourages the performance of dance tunes at the OKRFBC, something not always popular at other clubs, leading by example. “We’ve also tried to emphasise that songs and tunes from any folk tradition are welcome,” says Liam. With his blues/jazz background, Tommy performs his own material and original songs are encouraged alongside traditional material.

In Alex’s words, “London is the most diverse city in the world … so there’s no reason why anyone needs to limit their range to the British Isles or even the English language.” His main ambition has always been “to encourage the idea that “folk music” refers to more than either a white guy strumming an acoustic guitar, or English Child ballads”.

Having taken on a club with an established following, he and Sarah are keen to maintain the standards previously set for Tooting Folk Club.

Taking the leap

In January 2019, Alex and Sarah took over Tooting Folk Club, previously in the capable hands of Rupert Browne and Ruth Jacob, who were also relatively young when they started it. “I was pretty thrilled,” says Alex, “as running a folk club had been something I’d wanted to do for a long time. Tooting Folk was also by far my favourite club to attend at that point, so it was great.”

Tommy, with Clarke Camilleri, successfully ran the Queen’s Road Folk and Blues Club from January 2019 until the pub venue closed last summer. Liam had been a regular there so he and Tommy decided to get another club up and running.

The Old Kent Road Folk and Blues Club opened in December 2019 at the DIY Space, a volunteer-run community space known to Liam through political activism. Tommy says that although he and Liam are good friends with similar ideas about music, “we do differ a bit in our influences and expertise which makes for an eclectic range of music at the club. I’m always learning a lot from him.”

Challenges and pleasures … so far

As for all folk clubs, the venue is the biggest challenge. Tooting moved to a new venue, the Gorringe Park pub, in the autumn of 2019. The previous venue had been insisting on a change of gig night. Moving to a weeknight from the regular Saturday would have hit attendance.

Tooting has always been on a Saturday night and as Alex explains, “in a city like London trying to find a big function room that is insulated enough for sound and affordable for a Saturday night is not easy!” He describes the headache of finding and promoting acts that will bring in enough attendees to cover costs for the room and pay the musicians a decent fee.

For Liam and Tommy, although the ­OKRFBC does not book guests, their venue has always had an uncertain future so planning ahead has been hard. Apart from that, for Tommy the biggest challenge is probably “getting the word out encouraging people to turn up but so far”, he notes, “it’s been going quite well”.

As for the pleasures, Liam gets “a sense of satisfaction whenever there is a group of musicians at the club who might not hear each other otherwise”.

For Tommy the greatest pleasure is hearing great performances and learning songs. “As an organiser it’s great to see people enjoy one of our nights. For a night to go well it takes a collaborative effort from everyone at the club. Everyone works really hard on their music and it’s a pleasure to see everyone enjoying the fruits of these efforts.” Running the folk club is the highlight of the month for Alex and Sarah – “getting to hear great folk acts and draw big enough crowds to see them is always a brilliant feeling”.

The age question

As a younger folk fan Tommy is always very keen on getting more young people involved in folk and has tried to encourage this in his clubs “Lots of young folk and blues musicians don’t even know these places exist and folk music isn’t appreciated everywhere,” he says, adding: “It’s very liberating to be able to play the kind of music you want to play and and know people are listening.”

As Tooting is an established club Alex has not seen much of a change but thinks that maybe as organisers they are more adept at using social media. Likewise Liam sees a similar audience as at other local clubs. They were keen to keep entrance free at OKRFBC, partly to encourage a local community audience, covering costs by selling raffle tickets. Liam hopes that the fact that he and Tommy as hosts are “relatively(!) young gives any younger musicians there a bit more confidence and encouragement to perform”.

Into the Zoom world

“It’s been great to be able to keep the club going under these circumstances,” says Liam of the coronavirus lockdown. He notes the advantage of Zoom – being able to ensure that only the performer is audible at any one time – but also the downside of not being able to play or sing together. “Singing and playing with other musicians is what I am missing most under lockdown!”

For the host there is a lot to keep track of: the chat, performances, who is muted and who isn’t, admitting people who are trying to join the meeting. “I find that this means that I’m less able to concentrate on the music than I would be in a physical location.”

Although Tommy is very much looking forward to live venues reopening he is enjoying the fact that people from a much wider geographic area are able to join in. “It’s easier to attend a lot of different nights without worrying about travelling. Also, we’re not at the whim of pubs and venues about when to start and finish (not that there was an issue with that at our venue).”

He notes the technical issues with poor audio quality and adds: “It doesn’t feel the same as being at a physical club.”

Alex also misses the physical atmosphere of a live folk night. Tooting Folk is missing booking guest artists and is running a singaround to keep its presence going. He agrees that there are technical problems.

“Zoom is not really designed for quality and if you’re not very tech-savvy and don’t have any decent equipment, then the level of audio and video proficiency can be quite erratic.” He hopes people will become more tech-proficient the longer this goes on.

Life after lockdown

For all clubs the future is hard to predict. Although with little confidence, Alex will wait for further official advice. “Folk clubs probably don’t fall under the category of large gatherings,” he says, “but they are probably the kind of event that could be risky.”

He suggests they may have to think about spacing of seating – a challenge in small venues – sanitisers and even the use of facemasks for non-performers.

The biggest worry for all of them is the survival of the venues, for which, as Alex points out, there is little in the way of government protection. Liam and Tommy have been asking participants in their Zoom events to make a donation to the DIY Space.

On a positive note, Alex thinks “folk clubs should also use this as an opportunity to sell themselves to venues as an easy way to bring in customers and revenue whenever this all ends – we shouldn’t be taken for granted or treated as though we’re being done a favour”.

Alex’s ideal folk club, probably as with anyone of any age, is one which “can keep going without having to worry about costs and venues, that can pay its performers well and at similar regular levels, and that brings a wide range of people from different ages, ethnic groups and folk backgrounds”. I doubt this has ever existed.

However, without a younger generation of people like Alex and Sarah, Liam and Tommy opportunities for the performers of the future to develop their careers will not exist, let alone for the rest of us to listen and perform ourselves. Long may they continue to enrich the music world for all of us.

Tooting Folk Club is usually on the first Saturday of the month but is holding Zoom singarounds on alternate Fridays (see tootingfolk.com for details). OKRFBC is usually on the third Sunday of the month; Zoom singarounds are on alternate Sundays (facebook.com/OldKentRoadFolk)

This article appeared in Folk London 307, June-July 2020