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Willy Russell talks...


This article appeared in FOLK ARTS NETWORK

When I was fourteen I stumbled into the Cavern for the first time. It was before the Beatles were known and I had two years of the best kind of music you could possibly imagine, right on my doorstep. In those days it was mostly soul and rhythm and blues - the kind of stuff you'd normally only hear on Radio Luxembourg or American Forces Radio. The idea that someone was doing something as visceral as that only six miles from where I lived was absolutely astonishing.

But subsequently the music scene went fairly decadent. Everybody was trying it and it all went a bit commercial because the record companies had come up to Liverpool. Everyone was trying to 'get a deal' - and I went very much off what had become a highly commercial operation.

About that time I heard a Peter, Paul and Mary album, and remember going to an Animals gig down here. They played a song called Don't Think Twice, It's Alright by a guy they said was called Bob Dye-lan?

It was fantastic, so me and some mates went round all the record stores the next day. 'Have you got anything by Bob Dye-lan?' Fortunately at one store a fellow said 'I think you mean Bob Dylan,' so I managed to get hold of a Dylan album - and that was my route into folk music: throwing away all the electric gear, going acoustic, trying to be Dylanesque, and beginning to write my own songs.

Willy on guitar in a Liverpool folk clubI remember being with my then band, which played kind of quasi-ersatz contemporary folk sets in Working Men's and Social Clubs. We were supposed to be going to some big club in town, but me and one of the others, Dave Bell, we didn't fancy going to another bloody club with a lousy rock'n'roll band. We'd heard of a place in Liverpool's London Road where they played folk music and we persuaded the others in our band to come and have a look. The others HATED it - called it cow-shit music. But me and Dave, although some of it was a bit hard-core for us, we were intrigued, and we could see the connection back to Dylan. In fact we discovered some of the melodies we thought he'd written were actually composed two, three, four hundred years ago. So it was that predictable route, really - through easy melodic, American finger picking songs into traditional music. Then of course I became aware it wasn't just one club - any night of the week in the Liverpool area in the early 60s you could go to half a dozen clubs if you wanted to.

In those days it was a very very catholic scene with a healthy balance of hard-core folk through to blues and bits of jazz. You also had lots of people who were performers and writers, and although they weren't writing 'Folk Music', that milieu provided a wonderful opportunity for them to present literate songs, trying to say something. And the comedians were trying to do that too, while going through the motions of pretending to sing, so you would have the Connollys and the Carrots, Hamish Imlach and the like, as well as seeing Fred Jordan! That's when I started seriously trying to write. I could write a song on Monday afternoon and be performing it on Monday night, trying it out.

But what happened subsequently, certainly here in Liverpool, was that a certain group of people started to become more and more puritanical. There was a place called The Traditional Club where you weren't allowed to play a guitar! So a movement that had its roots in a kind of socialist spirit seemed to have become totally reactionary, and overnight it became 'Protected Heritage', so I moved away from that.

Also by then (67-68) I was widening my writing into other forms, and I wanted to take what I'd learned and what I lived about folk music into those other forms. Folk has effected my writing totally. It has been a tremendous influence in my work, especially in the matter of narrative - story telling. Often in the theatre and literature, in academic debate you find a certain amount of sneering at the idea of a plot or narrative or story, the main reason being that it is so bloody difficult to do! If you're telling a tale, there's no hiding place - you can't hide behind conceptualisation. If the tale doesn't work, the listeners don't listen, and I learned the art of story telling in the folk clubs of the sixties.

The first 'real' piece of writing I did was to adapt, update and relocate Burn's Tam O'Shanter, because I had Scots friends, including Tich Frier who read it to me and I got to know it. But I wanted to do it for an English audience because they couldn't understand it and I couldn't really do the dialect. So I wrote a version called Sam o'Shanker, and I remember doing it at the Carlton club one night. You could do that in those days. (actually I'm still doing it - did it at the Edinburgh Book Festival).

As to the folk scene today, I don't really feel so qualified to give an opinion, because I'm looking at it from a certain distance. But apart from that distance it's interesting to see the Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby doing their kind of thing. It seems to me they're reaching a far wider audience than the narrow folk community, and that's all to the good, especially as (to my ears) they're not sacrificing the real essence of the music I love. It was always sensational listening to Nic Jones, who I adored. There were colleagues of mine who thought he'd pushed it too far and taken it beyond folk music; to me he never did, he never compromised his original materials.

As long as there's folk music, as ling as there's jazz, there'll always a debate about 'purity' and 'widening the audience'. The practitioners, the believers - they will always want it to reach a wider audience. Things go in seasons, in waves. At the moment Kate Rusby is getting TV coverage; OK it may be just BBC4, but it was great a few weeks ago to see the whole of Saturday night devoted to folk music, and treating it with respect. It's brilliant seeing the likes of Jools Holland opening up his programme to an eclectic mix of ethnic, world and traditional music.

Like the members of FAN, I'm sometimes troubled by the people who resist widening the appeal of folk music. One of the things about this music is that it allows the completely untalented to have a platform and what happens is that often they are the very people who have the time to stitch things up politically! The talented tend to get on with making the music. I feel very positive about the present folk scene. I really do, including some of the bigger bands. But one of things that concerns me is that some bands (no names mentioned) are playing this music in such a freeform way that they're moving virtually into jazz. I sometimes wish they would just get off and enjoy themselves, and not cripple good tunes. If Ralph Vaughan Williams could profitably loot these tunes, and not try to disguise them, admit that he was looting them, then I think the rest of us could pay them the same kind of respect today.

Currently my 'listening' consists of working on my own album. We're just at the stage of trying to sequence it, and it's driving me mental! I don't know when the release date will be, and I don't even know how to describe the album, but it's been a lot of fun. We've got guest artists like Loretta Murray, Barbara Dickson, Kate Rusby, and Ann Rusby. On guitar I've got lovely playing from Andy Roberts and Mark Griffiths; I play guitar myself, with Tim Firth on piano, Andy Cutting contributing some fine Melodeon work, Bernard O'Neill on bass, Paul Allen on drums, Herbie Flowers playing tuba - I've absolutely had a ball. I've been threatening to do this for years, and my great friend the poet, now deceased, Adrian Henri (who in fact appears on the album posthumously), one of the last things he said to me before he died was, 'Be sure you make the album.' It's not that I'm doing it for Adrian - we'd been talking about doing it for a long time - but I can't tell you what a delight it's been.