Nowt so queer as...

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Mention folk clubs, and non-afficionados will imagine groups of beardy wierdies with beer bellies singing about the good old days. But in the basement of a trendy Brighton cafe, James Bennett finds the stereotype missed the mark, just

In a candle-lit basement, a red-haired woman who looks a little like Kate Bush is sitting on a stool, gently strumming a guitar and singing sweetly about the night the moon tried to climb in her window. Women in long skirts and men in beards sit around, humming. The performer is primary school teacher Stella Clifford. This is what she likes to do when she's not in the classroom.

Stella moves on to another song, about smog and whisky and bar-room girls.

Her fragile voice trips prettily, executing daring twists and turns before reaching the chorus, all about "last night's spangles and yesterday's pearls".

Ah, lovely! You don't get many of them in the curriculum.

We are at the local folk club. This one happens to be in Brighton, but it could be in any of countless Britlsh towns and villages where small but passionate groups of like- minded people get together in pubs, halls or basements to swap and keep alive precious words and tunes handed down through decades and centuries.

Having got the ball rolling, 43-year-old Stella, our host, steps down from the stage y barely 12 inches off the ground. She's replaced by a woman in a homely woolly-pully who sings, quiveringly, about a turtle called Myrtle who lives on the 27th floor.

An ugly fate befalls the turtle, and the woman is followed by her husband, in a beard and sailor cap, who plants his hands on his thighs and sings saucy sailor songs. "Oh, she was right, I was tight, everybody has their way...'

This is followed by a song called "Fourteen pence a day" (that's old money; about 6p for post-decimal readers), which turns out to be the daily pay of a soldier y and ultimately the price of this soldier's life y at the time the song was written. Very educational. And rather moving.

Not everything you may have heard about folk clubs is true. No one sang "Greensleeves" or "Early One Morning" or "All Around My Hat". No one stuck their finger in their ear. And no one drank real ale, possibly because it wasn't on offer at the basement bar of this trendy cafe.

Stella believes the old stereotypes discourage new blood from joining folk clubs, particularly young people. Which is a shame, because they must be starved of the delights of narrative song, living as they do within a dance music culture where lyrics typically progress no further than, "I'm so horny...horny, horny, horny".

She does what she can to instil an appetite for traditional song in the classrooms of Lewisham and Greenwich in south-east London, where she works as a supply teacher, though there's littie room for manoeuvre within the curriculum. "My contribution is minimal," she sighs. "I might sing them a Woody Guthrie song at the end of the day. It makes me sad for them because I remember doing country dancing around the maypole at school, and learning traditional songs. The curriculum really doesn't give enough attention to our traditional heritage."

The New Labour types who throng the Millennium Dome and Tate Modern are rarely found at folk clubs, despite their apparent enthusiasm for "heritage".

If they dropped by, they'd find a Britain radically different from the one celebrated at, say, the Brit awards. The biggest songwriting star here is a bloke called Anon. A folk Top of the Pops, Stella tells me, would include the likes of Cyril Tawney, the Poozies, an accordion band called La Cucina and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Peering by candlelight at the latest issue of Folk Diary, I do see some names I recognise.

Though you might have hoped they'd disappeared beneath their hats, it seems Seventies folkies Steeleye Span are still doing the circuit. From even further back, Sixties troubadours Fairport Convention have just played a festival in Kent. And there are still rare sightings of the Strawbs, no longer so confident, one would imagine, about being "part of the union".

Elsewhere are advertised dozens of folk nights, festivals and weeks, including the Glastonbury of the circuit, the Cambridge Folk Festival in July.

Oddly enough, the place to find out more about this most traditional of worlds is within that most modern domain, cyberspace. Go to the excellent website of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the plentiful links take you to an index which displays your nearest gathering, from the Aberdeen Folk Club to the Wurzel Bush Folk Club in Brinklow near Coventry. Another index lists an archive of folk songs y 7,718 of them y starting with "A Gathering Nuts in May" and ending with the "Zulu King". Click the song title and you get the full lyrics ("0 the Zulu king had a big nose ring). For her part, Stella sings mostly folk and country blues. She runs clubs in Brighton and Deptford in south-east London, where she lives. She also plays at many other clubs in the South-East. Supply teaching allows her to do this, and although she'd recommend regular attendance at a folk club to other teachers as a refreshing break from the world of school, she says a regular commitment to folk music is impossible if you are a full-time teacher.

"It obviously makes a good addition to your teaching skills to learn about music history and to learn songs and pass them on in the classroom, but getting fully involved in the folk scene is a big commitment. As I do supply teaching I can cancel a day at short notice. I'd find it impossible to be a full-time teacher and keep a commitment to music alive."

Stella's career has always been split between music and teaching. "I trained to teach after studying art at Brighton poly- technic because I was fed up with scraping a living playing in a rock band and having no money for food.

But I didn't like secondary art teaching and gradually crept out the back door, doing things like modelling at art schools, usheretting in a theatre, working with 'school refusers' y anything but teaching."

She was outside the profession for three years, during which time she became part of a trio called The River Sisters, who made a name for themselves on the folk circuit. "Well, we did appear once on TV y on Pebble Mill.

I flen I began to teach vocal harmony workshops and found I really enjoyed teaching the thing I knew about y singing. I also found I enjoyed teaching small children music too, and now I teach general supply at key stage one and two, where I feel I can fit in."

Back in the basement, a woman with flowers on her jumper and snowflakes on her skirt is singing about her bonnie grey steed and imploring us to "bestrew her grave with flowers". Then she tells about an illegitimate baby and the search for its father. All human life is here.

Now a man with a grey pony tail and a ukulele y and a beard, of course y sings a song written, he says, by a friend of his. It's about the friend's grandfather, Harry Brewer, who died in the First World War. "So where are you now Harry Brewer! yer lying in some dirty hole." We all join in, lustily, in 12-part harmony. By the end we feel we knew Harry Brewer All kinds of music are played here tonight.

Some purists in the folk world insist that certain narrow genres be adhered to at gatherings like this, but Stella's having none of it. "There is a big divide in the folk scene, and I stand firmly on the side of eclecticism."

She describes the opposing attitude as a kind of "musical fascism", and insists: "All musics join somewhere along the line."

Now a man with a beard and a banjo and his wife with a guitar pretend to be Beverly Hillbillies, manically picking strings and tapping toes. Ma Hillbilly trills: "Oh, put another log on the fi-yer..."

Finally its time for tonight's star act. Stella announces: "They've come all the way from Woolwich to sing for you..."

Which they duly do, he in a beard and banging a drum; she towering over him, shaking maracas and taking the baritone part in a booming voice that makes Alison Moyet sound weedy. They sing a dozen diverse, fascinating, rousing, beautiful songs that I never knew existed. They take us from remote Scottish crofts to the Napoleonic Wars, to the gypsies of eastern Europe, to the mighty Amazon to a South Africa still in the grip of apartheid.

"This one needs to be backed by a drone," says Beard. "You can all drone along..."

I emerge from the basement feeling like I've just helped save a species from extinction.

And, weeks later, I'm still droning along.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society website is at Tne 36th annual Cambridge Folk Festival runs from July 27-30, Tickets pound;50 for tne full festival. To oook, tel: 01223 357851.

Website: The 12th Folkworks youth summer school (for students aged 1 5-25) and fifth adult summer school (for students over 20) will oe held in Durnam from July 31-August 5.

Tel:0191 222 1717

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