My stint as a folk ‘lecturer’ at the University of the Third Age

Two morris dancers in costume
Keith and Sue Walter give a dance demonstration in the red and blue of Datchet Border Morris

A quarter to 10 in the morning in a small hall in Ashford, Middlesex. A palpable air of expectation and nervousness as the clock ticks round. Will they turn up? Will other attractions lure them away?

If it wasn’t for the early hour, it could be a description of the average folk club organiser’s weekly ordeal, patiently waiting for punters to arrive.

But no, this was the first of several sessions I had organised for the local University of the Third Age, known in short as the U3A.
This thriving national organisation – well, thriving before the pandemic intervened – is devoted to encouraging those of mature years to develop new interests or hone skills not put to use for decades.

In my borough, Spelthorne, the U3A has proved so astonishingly successful that it has had to split into two sections, both of which usually attract more than 200 members to their monthly main meetings, which feature a guest speaker.

The U3A prides itself on offering a diverse range of subjects at its regular group meetings from the predictable (art appreciation and gardening) through the less common (mahjong and military history) to the downright unusual. Walking cricket, anyone?

I joined the U3A a couple of years ago, but perusing the list of activities available in Spelthorne, I was disappointed to find that among the music-themed gatherings were two jazz appreciation groups, classical music sessions, choirs and even a recorder group, but nothing to grab the attention of an old folkie like me.

Mentioning the fact to a local U3A stalwart, the obvious happened and I found myself volunteering to run a series of six monthly sessions under the title Exploring Folk Music.

That’s how I came to be standing in the little hall of St Hilda’s church in Ashford, anxiously waiting for participants to turn up.

Preparation for the first meeting had brought back pangs of nostalgia from my days running Staines Folk Club in the 1970s and 80s. The search for a suitable venue; the creation of vitally important publicity – without the need for the Letraset and felt-tip pens of 40 years ago – even the lugging of chairs into a semi-circle, with the accompanying clatter echoing loudly around the room and accentuating its emptiness.

At least I had the knowledge that about 25 U3A members had put their names down as being interested. And, as the hands of the clock crept nearer to the advertised start time, I could breathe a sigh of relief as the door slowly opened and a group of early arrivals, smiling expectantly, stepped cautiously inside. Within minutes others had followed and before long all the seats were filled.

The format basically involved playing recorded tracks, either in full or quick snippets, with me wittering on in between. The sound system was very “old school”, using a 20-year-old ghetto blaster to play CDs and even cassettes, along with slightly more modern equipment, courtesy of an iPod Classic connected to a Bose speaker that at least dated from the 21st century.

‘One lady had attended the Troubadour and Bunjies in the 60s. Another had a penchant for the songs of Phil Ochs’

Cost per person was just £1.50 a session which, needless to say, included the obligatory tea, coffee and biscuits. No alcohol of any description, however, which seemed a little strange at a folk music gathering even at that time of the morning!

The U3A had provided the money to hire the hall for all six sessions, the lack of any personal financial risk proving a big incentive when I agreed to be group leader.

Introductions and information-gleaning at the start of the first gathering revealed that many of those present were folk virgins, their knowledge restricted to Streets Of London or the occasional Bob Dylan album.

But one lady had attended Bunjies and the Troubadour in the heyday of the 60s and recalled seeing performers such as Al Stewart perfecting their art. Another chap was a session drummer with a penchant for the songs of Phil Ochs. A husband and wife were regular folk festival attendees – though mainly for the ceilidhs – and I learned we also had an ex-morris dancer and melodeon player, at least one singer-songwriter and the obligatory Fairport fan.

Each of the sessions was given a theme, with the first covering the folk revival, both in the UK and US, which meant dipping into everything from skiffle to Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie to Martin Carthy.

Later months featured singer-songwriters, English traditional, Irish and Scottish performers, war songs (to tie in with Remembrance Day), a Christmas special of festive folk, with a quiz, and a final hotch-potch of personal favourites.

There was also a chance to hear live music, courtesy of some of my local folk friends. An interesting point here – best received of all the live turns was the opportunity to see live Border morris dancing, courtesy of Keith and Sue Walter, who live just a short jig away from the hall.

Members of Datchet Border Morris, the pair went to all the trouble of bedecking themselves in all their coloured array and provided a fascinating narrative and demonstration of their skills, though as Keith mentioned, he was not used to performing solo!

The six sessions proved to be hugely enjoyable, for me as well as my “students”. My research led me to the unearthing of some fascinating folk facts that I had either never been aware of or had forgotten all about.

I was able to relate, for example, that the first traditional folk everyone present had probably heard was the theme to Z Cars, the early 60s police drama, which used a Liverpool folk air as the basis of its theme tune.

Choosing tracks to play led me to ­rediscover some glorious music among the long-neglected sections of my vinyl record collection. Oh the joy of hearing again early Nic Jones and the raw power of the Bothy Band, as well as being able to introduce people to some relative newcomers such as the Young’uns and Jackie Oates.

When I had first suggested the folk sessions to the U3A stalwarts, attempts were made to persuade me to stay at the helm longer than six sessions. Most groups that prove to be popular tend to go on indefinitely, as long as there is someone prepared to do the organising. But I stressed that six was my maximum commitment.

Ironically, as it turned out, the final get-­together took place just a fortnight before lockdown, so I would not have been able to continue even if I had wished to.

Like so many organisations, the U3A has no idea what the future holds, even when it will be able to hold regular gatherings again.

But whatever happens, I will always treasure the memory of those six two-hour ­sessions in a small church hall, when ­musical memories were rekindled, friendships were made and everyone present was able to bask in some fantastic folk.

For more information about the U3A, visit u3a.org.uk or email national.office@u3a.org.uk. Its head office is at 156 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8EN. Call (020) 8466-6139. This article appeared in Folk London 310, December-January 2020-21