Soon after Sharp’s Folk Club opened for the first time, more than three decades ago, Time Out magazine sent along a reviewer to check it out. At that time, Time Out was the go-to gospel for music lovers in London because of its incredibly comprehensive listing of gigs of all genres, so the reviewer’s verdict could have a big impact on the fledgling club’s future.
Fortunately, there was no need for us to worry. To our delight and relief the reviewer wrote that Sharp’s was “one of the friendliest, worthiest traditional folk clubs left in London. Hugely enjoyable evenings of songs and music making where everyone is welcome to take part.”
That description remains at the heart of Sharp’s ethos to this day.
It was in 1987 that a group of people, responding to a request from the Friends of Cecil Sharp House, decided it was time that the House had a singers’ club in the building again.
At the time, there was plenty of dance going on at the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), but the “song” in the society’s title was pretty much redundant.
About eight of us met up at the time, including Livy Lyons, Sheila Finn (who produced and edited Folk London magazine for many years) and also John White, still a stalwart of the club at the age of 100.
We decided that the club should meet every Tuesday in the cellar bar, providing a venue for floor singers and musicians, with a guest performer booked once a month.
Our grand opening was set for 2 February 1988, but we had absolutely no idea whether we would get an audience of six or 66. As it turned out, there were nearer 66 people crammed in the room to see Pete Cooper and Peta Webb performing with John Foreman, the Broadsheet King.
Among the audience at that splendid first night was Sue West, who arrived to see what the new club was like, but was rapidly roped in to take the money at the door. She has been doing this job ever since (as well as helping to produce Folk London magazine for many years).
We were soon joined by many fine regular singers, including Martin Nail and the American singer and musician Tom Paley, who had played with the New Lost City Ramblers and the folk revival legend Woody Guthrie.
Sadly, Tom and a number of others who were regulars in the early days at the club are no longer with us, such as Freddie McKay, songwriter Rod Shearman, and Tony Kendall, who (with Barbara Lester) helped produce the 1992 live recording cassette, An Evening At Sharp’s.
We have booked many talented performers who were big names at the time such as Peter Bellamy, and Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, as well as many who made their early performances at the club, such as John Spiers and Jon Boden, Sam Lee, and the Askew Sisters – whose dad, Bob, is a Sharp’s regular and runs a weekly session at the House on the history of ballads.
‘Its location at the HQ of EFDSS brings it to the attention of many young singers but can also make them a bit intimidated’
In recent years there was also Thomas McCarthy, who had no idea when he first came along that such clubs existed where he could sing the songs he learned from, and had only ever sung with, his Irish Traveller family and community in County Offaly. Thomas was captivated and, with the encouragement he received from the Sharp’s regulars, has gone on to win many awards and become a regular performer on the festival circuit.
Throughout our time, we have welcomed many outstanding performers and have received great support from EFDSS. Sheila Finn has kept a list of all the people we booked over the years – far too many to list here, but a real Who’s Who of folk performers.
For many years, John White also used to keep a list of all the different countries that visitors to the club came from, but decided to give up when the number reached 32.
However, floor singers remain the mainstay of the club, creating a wonderful, friendly atmosphere, with terrific chorus singing and a very high standard of singing and songs. As John says: “Not only do we belt out a great music hall chorus, but when there is a ballad with a quiet refrain, we sing it with the sensitivity required by the song.”
The eclectic range of songs John mentions is a very important aspect of the club. Its location at the headquarters of EFDSS has the advantage of bringing it to the attention of many young singers who are just beginning to explore traditional folk music, but can also sometimes make them a bit intimidated by feeling they will need to sing a 40-verse Child ballad.
They will soon be disabused of that notion in a very friendly and supportive way, of course, and one of the great joys of the club is to observe the burgeoning confidence of our younger singers (including the current Folk London editor!) over the weeks.
Since the coronavirus lockdown started in March, the Scottish singer Amanda MacLean has been running a wonderful weekly “Sharp’s in Isolation” session on Zoom. It has been a great success, and the club’s international flavour has been maintained, with many of our regulars joined by singers from the US, Canada, France, Japan, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even Denmark.
Obviously, it doesn’t feel the same as a live club night and we all badly miss the chorus singing, even though we can see lots of the “muted” audience mouthing the words, and no doubt providing the lovely harmonies for which the club is well known.
We are all looking forward to reopening in our cellar bar for live music again as soon as possible, as will other club organisers in the same position. Come and join us when we open up again. You are sure to enjoy the atmosphere and music.
The rapidly increasing decline in the diversity of print media means that Time Out has now sadly been reduced to a drastically trimmed online version of its former influential self. But the friendly and welcoming folk club it praised all those years ago is still going as strong as ever.
Sharp’s Folk Club usually takes place in the bar at Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regents Park Road NW1 7AY from 8pm every Tuesday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for Zoom details during lockdown. This article appeared in Folk London 309, October-November 2020