John White: a century for the Sharp’s song-and-dance man

John White at Sharp's
John White performs at Sharp's. Photo: Doc Rowe

John White will be familiar to many as a well-loved stalwart of Sharp’s Folk Club at Cecil Sharp House (CSH) where he still performs regularly. He is especially known for his championing of music-hall songs alongside his traditional folk repertoire. As he prepares to celebrate his 100th birthday, Folk London was delighted to talk to him about his long life in folk music.

John’s life not only encapsulates a history of the London folk club scene but also the ways in which people become actively involved in the traditions of folk dance and song and music hall. As John points out: “I am very conscious that it is the English Folk Dance and Song Society [EFDSS] and the two should be equal.”

He is pleased to say that he has done as much dancing as he has singing and proud that he has brought music hall to CSH. In 1998 John was awarded a centenary award for services to EFDSS.

Early experiences of song and dance

John was born in New Cross, south-east London, on 22 March 1920. His first involvement with folk song came at elementary school, singing from The National Song Book edited by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams. “Now isn’t that marvellous, the link between the two?”

He remembers the song Early One Morning. “Of course when you are 10 years old you don’t appreciate all the significance of the words. The way the sadness of the song was echoed in the music has stayed with me.” John remembers the way they would “belt out the sea shanties” and was interested when 60 or 70 years later everyone was singing sea shanties. He still knew all the words.

Music was an important part of daily life in his childhood home. John has only recently come to realise his “genetic inheritance”. His father had been a bandsman in the army. Returning from the trenches of the first world war, he joined the Lambeth Silver Prize Band; “he lived for his band”.

On Sunday mornings the band performed outside the Brixton White Horse pub, other times at park bandstands. “I grew up hearing him practising all the overtures, like The Barber of Seville and so on.”

‘Someone would pull out a fiddle and we would dance a longways set up and down the platform of Waterloo station’

John describes his mother as “a very lively outgoing person”. “She would sing all the time and you never heard such a mixture. First of all it would be the latest musical of the day, Rose Marie I Love You, then she would go into music hall, And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back. The next thing would be Sankey and Moody hymns, Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam, then a song from the Great War, Keep The Home Fires Burning.”

Working in service before her marriage, John’s mother found great enjoyment at the music hall on her weekly evenings off. “When she was talking to me about it her face lit up. ‘We always used to sing together and forget all our troubles.’ Just an illustration of what a social force music hall was in Edwardian times.” John regrets that his parents had no education beyond the age of 13, which he sees as “a waste of lives”.

In his teens, John joined the Woodcraft Folk, which he describes as “a great organisation to have your teenage revolt in and a marvellously liberating experience”. There was singing when hiking and at campfires – and dancing too. He describes waiting for trains at Waterloo station. “Someone would call out: ‘Let’s get up a set.’ Someone would pull out a fiddle and we would do a longways set up and down the platform.” He says: “It was a marvellous feeling of what folk song really is – the spontaneous enjoyment of ordinary people. That has always been at the back of my mind.”

John’s first visit to CSH came in 1938 with Woodcraft friends attending one of the Saturday tea dances in Kennedy Hall. They were allowed to dance a set, an Austrian folk dance they had learned at a Woodcraft international camp. John was at one of these camps in Belgium in 1939, only two weeks before war broke out.

A return to dancing and singing

For the six years of the second world war John served as an RAF navigator. “The only songs I sang then were rather naughty bawdy ones in the mess.” After the war he went to teacher training college, got married, had two children born in 1952 and 1953 and started teaching in the evenings as well as his daytime job. “So I did very little [singing or dancing] for many years.”

Always great walkers, it was on walking holidays that John and his wife Ruth encountered informal ceilidhs which they much enjoyed. In the late 1960s, when the children were “old enough not to need babysitting”, they decided they wanted to dance more regularly. They found the Wayzgoose Club, a ceilidh club in Stockwell, run by George Smith and his family. “A wayzgoose”, John explains, “is a printer’s day out, a beano”. Between the dances people would get up and sing. “I hadn’t really sung at all in public. Seeing everybody having a go I started and I enjoyed it and other people seemed to enjoy it,” John laughs. “That is really how I got started, at Wayzgoose.”

So, 30 years or more after John’s first visit, the Smiths introduced them to CSH. Not only did John and Ruth attend the Saturday dances but in order to improve they took technique classes with Sidney “Nibs” Matthews, who became director of EFDSS. They became more involved with CSH, joining the panel of hosts and hostesses for the dances.

“My wife was a beautiful, beautiful dancer.” John has a large framed photograph hanging in his hallway of them dancing on the lawn at Sidmouth: “The Hole In The Wall, John Playford,” he remembers. “She had a lovely voice and we used to do poetry recitals together. I don’t think she ever tried singing but I am sure she would have been very good if she had tried.”

Their love of dancing took them to “a very lively dance club” in Beckenham, where someone told John about the Croydon Folksong Club. This is where John began to sing in earnest. “I was very active at Croydon from the 1970s onwards for about 30 years or so.”

With this club John performed at the annual folk festival run by Jim Lloyd at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. “Not only did we do informal stuff, like morning singarounds in the lounge, but Jim used to give us a half-hour slot on stage along with all the professionals that he booked. That’s the only time I have performed to 1,300 people.”

A dreadful time at Cecil Sharp House

John mainly learns songs from recordings – “I must have a couple of hundred cassettes” – and sometimes from songbooks. He remembers a song he learned from an Ian Campbell songbook. “He had a beautiful song called The Old Man’s Song and it is virtually my father’s life almost year for year. I sing it particularly for remembrance time. The only trouble is I can hardly manage the last line without my voice breaking.”

Having become very involved with CSH and EFDSS, John remembers clearly the day in the late 1980s when a letter arrived informing them that “due to the financial situation” the EFDSS executive had decided to sell Cecil Sharp House.

“It was the start of 10 years of the most dreadful internecine strife. People who had been dancing together for years weren’t on speaking terms. It was a very, very sad and I found it a frightening situation.”

So many people attended the emergency annual general meeting that there was an overspill from Kennedy Hall to the Trefusis Room. It was demanded that the whole thing be postponed until there had been a proper investigation and an examination of ways to raise funds to keep the House.

The Friends of Cecil Sharp House (FCSH), in which John was very active, hosted many fundraising events during this time. After some research, especially into the Kennedy Hall mural, CSH became a listed building, ensuring its protection and survival.

Sharp’s gets going

John tells me about how, in the late 1980s, Sharp’s got started. The Cellar Folk Club, run by Peter Kennedy, had been held at CSH since the 1950s. It even made enough money to create a recording studio in the Storrow Room. When the folk shop was moved into the cellar, the folk club was “pushed out”.

John explains that this is why Sheila Miller started the still very active Cellar Upstairs and explains the name. “And while we are on Sheila Miller, she is like me in that she sings as much music hall as she does traditional.”

Through FCSH John had met Olivia (Livy) Morrison Lyons, Sheila Finn and Sue West, who had always been concerned with folk clubs. “It was awful that there was no folk song going on at Cecil Sharp House.”

‘We sat at the first Sharp’s wondering if we were going to get six people and in the end nearly 60 people turned up’

They decided to book the bar with Peta Webb and John Foreman as guests. “We sat there wondering if we were going to get six people and in the end nearly 60 people turned up.” They soon realised that many people who came along were singers and so decided they would only book guests once a month, keeping all the other weeks for singers. John can be heard on the 1991 recording An Evening At Sharp’s.

At one point, John sang at the Capital Folk Club in Covent Garden on a Sunday, “run by a very jolly character called Jock”, Croydon Folksong Club on Monday and Sharp’s on Tuesday.

These days John only sings at Sharp’s but as often as he can, relying on good friends to take him as he now has macular degeneration. “Tempus fugit! I mustn’t overdo it.” Apart from the transport issues, John describes the poor accessibility at so many venues with “dreadful, deathtrap staircases”.

Music hall comes to CSH

During wartime John paid a number of visits to the Players’ Theatre, which held music-hall performances and was the inspiration for the longrunning TV series The Good Old Days. “It brought me back to my days in the Woodcraft Folk and the spontaneity of singing and the marvellous tunes,” says John.

When war ended John attended Newland Park teacher training college. For the traditional end-of-year performance, he suggested a music-hall event. “We got permission to have a bar in the college and we had waiters in costumes. I did the chair bit and maybe a dozen or more people did individual acts.” It was a great success. “It made me realise how popular the songs themselves could be.”

John had always done a bit of amateur acting and for a number of years belonged to a very good theatre company, the Tavistock Repertory. In 1952, when they moved to the Tower Theatre in Canonbury, music hall provided a successful way to raise money.

At Christmas they stopped doing the serious plays, “Ibsen and Pinter and the like, and let our hair down”. Not only was it a lot of fun but it gave about 30 people the chance to get on stage. John took on the chairman role and also directed, building up a collection of songs. “So when I started singing in folk clubs I had about a hundred songs at my fingertips.”

Teaching at Dunraven school in the 70s, John remembers putting on a show, an anthology of life during Queen Victoria’s reign, ending with music hall “to get loads of kids involved”. To John’s surprise, not only did 50 or more children turn up for the audition but when “the pianist struck up My Old Man Said Follow The Van they all burst into song. It was amazing how many songs they had learned from their parents and how these songs had lasted over the years.”

But as John points out the song, although funny and entertaining, is really about people not being able to pay their rent. A music-hall company with which John performed regularly were the guests at Sharp’s. Later, Sam Lee, who was working for the education department of EFDSS, invited John to give a talk about music hall at one of the Saturday classes.

“The lecture had the title Songs Of The People, Songs Of The Music Hall. I wanted to bring out the many similarities between the two and how they are both the voice of the people, coming out of ordinary people’s experiences.”

Still singing strong

Last October, with a group from the Furzedown Project, his local activity centre for older people, John was again performing at Sharp’s as the guest act.

Delighted that Sharp’s continues to flourish, John is interested in the wide range of people who come, alongside the regular characters. “I kept a tally of the countries that people come from. I think I got up to 32 different countries.”

John is especially full of praise for the young women he now hears singing at Sharp’s. “They sing the oldest and most beautiful ballads with great tenderness and insight and very nicely produced voices as well. It really warms the cockles of my old heart to hear this.”

John will be celebrating his birthday at Cecil Sharp House – 82 years after his first visit.

This article appeared in Folk London 306, April-May 2020

Sheila Miller writes:

I was touched to be mentioned in Sarah Lloyd’s interview with the splendid John White, but I want to correct what he said about the origin of my folk club.

I didn’t start the Cellar Upstairs when the Cellar folk club was “pushed out” of CSH at the beginning of 1985 to make room for the folk shop: I took over the Cellar folk club, initially along with three other people, when the EFDSS stopped running it in 1974. When we had to move out of CSH at the beginning of 1985, I moved it to a pub, and changed the name to the Cellar Upstairs because we were in an upstairs room (obviously).

Also, John Foreman and others have told me that, although Peter Kennedy started the club, he didn’t run the evenings. John White says the club had been held at CSH since the 1950s, but I believe it actually began in December 1960 – at any rate, that was the month in which it was first mentioned in English Dance & Song (now EDS), listed under the heading “New events”.

Shirley Collins told me that, in the ’50s, people used to meet in Storrow to sing and play in a fairly informal way, before the Cellar club existed, so I think that may be what John is thinking of.

Incidentally, the person in charge of the studio in Storrow that John mentions was none other than Bill Leader. The acoustic tiles on the ceiling (required when recording songs and music) didn’t help the sound quality for the club, but it did help to reduce the sound of dancers in the hall upstairs – there were always ceilidhs or dances there on Saturday nights in those days.