Picture above is the Winster Hobby Horse in about 1870.
Click the link below for an article Pete wrote for Living Tradition magazine spring 2018.
Picture above is the Winster Hobby Horse in about 1870.
Click the link below for an article Pete wrote for Living Tradition magazine spring 2018.
There are times when I can’t believe how lucky I am to do what I do for a living. This was one of them. For a week at the end of June/beginning of July I found myself working alongside some of the finest artists and craftsmen from Kent, Virginia and Senegal on the spectacular Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the middle of Washington DC USA. It was the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival which has been described thus:
“The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an international exposition of living cultural heritage annually produced outdoors on the National Mall of the United States in Washington, D.C., by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The Festival takes place for two weeks every summer, overlapping with the Fourth of July. It is an educational presentation that features community-based cultural exemplars. The Festival, like the Smithsonian museums, is free and open to the public; it typically draws more than one million visitors each year.” [Smithsonian press release]
or more poetically:
“Seven city blocks; 10 days of arts, crafts, music, sports and games; 32 languages; 90-degree temperatures; 103 tents; 415 volunteers and 707 guest participants: Yes, the 41st annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall promises to be a bustling, sometimes overheated, multi-tented and multicultural mini-metropolis.” [Washington Post]
I got involved because by birth I am a Man of Kent, (although for the past 20 years I’ve been nurturing an identity as a folk singer and storyteller from Derbyshire!) Kent has links with America going back to the first settlers at Jamestown in 1607 and in recent years those links have been strengthened through official contacts at local government level. Thus it was that a delegation from ‘Kent County, England’ became the first official English participants in the 41 year history of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and as I did a song in the opening ceremony I can claim to be the first English person to officially participate!
The Festival actually works as three festivals on adjoining sites, our section was called the ROOTS OF VIRGINIA CULTURE and further up the Mall were large contingents from the Mekong Delta of SE Asia and from Northern Ireland. During the day we worked independently but, out of hours, we all mixed and socialised.
We musicians/storytellers did several sets each day on one or other of the various stages and joined random selections of other artists to discuss a variety of topics on the discussion stage. (On one of these I, a 30 year vegetarian, found myself in a conversation about food with a couple of Blue Ridge Mountain cooks who kill and eat anything that moves! They took me aside afterwards to check that I was really well, could I survive without meat, was my blood OK and did I have enough energy?)
It was a bit unreal to find yourself sharing a stage with a great blues singer like John Cephus or some of the Appalachian banjo pickers who looked as though they’d walked straight out of Deliverance! and preachers lining out Southern Baptist hymns. But they were all great people who respected my material and shared much the same ideas about how the tradition is used and abused; how it might or should develop. “That crap coming out of Nashville” said one, “That’s turning the young folk towards real music.”)
I’d been asked to perform at the opening ceremony. By the time I was on stage the audience had been listening to strange music and long speeches for nearly 2 hours so it wasn’t the time for a serious ballad or long story! ‘Hopping Down in Kent’ proved to be the right choice and I’m told that the Governor of Virginia, the Ambassador for China, Martin McGuinness et al were joining in and swaying along behind me!
For all the participants, I’d guess, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. You don’t often get the chance to be heard by over 160,000 people in one day! (They reckon on 1 million people during the course of the festival. It’s all free—a ‘museum without walls’.) I’m not sure who said the quote at the top but it summed it all up. To eat breakfast with American Indians; to hear Chinese, American, and Vietnamese musicians jamming together; to engage in good natured banter about politics with a Rev. from Northern Ireland; to share a lift with exotically clad dancers from Cambodia… you think you’re in a dream.
Because we had a busy performance schedule I didn’t have much time to see other artists perform except those with whom I was sharing stages. I was particularly struck by Brien Fain and Jim Marshall and saw a bit from a young bluegrass band—No Speed Limit but their name seemed to sum them up. On a couple of occasions I managed to get a brief glimpse of Jack Lynch working with that fine singer Len Graham in the N.Ireland tent but I didn’t venture into the Mekong Delta area because there wasn’t time to make it worthwhile.
Sadly, apart from a walk across the Potomac into Georgetown on the last morning before flying home, neither did I see anything of Washington except the couple of miles between the hotel and the Mall! The Mall is surrounded by some of the finest museums in the world and they’re all free but apart from a quick look round the art gallery when I went in to use their ‘bathroom’ I didn’t see them either.
Excitingly the hotel was on Route 66 so I can now claim to have travelled at least 200 yards of that famous highway! Another trip is called for!
The car bomb incidents at Glasgow airport and in London happened while we were in USA so we were faced with increased security on the way home. This was more than made up for though, by the fact that the two of us who flew home after the first week were bumped off our Virgin flight onto an earlier United one and upgraded to Business Class! Now that is the way to travel!
(I was there for the first week along with Tim Laycock and Sonia Ritter doing a play set in Kent and Lucky Moyo from Music for Change. For the second week I was replaced by the Millen Family and Dave Arthur. Why it was decided that way I don’t know…)
It was a huge investment in time and resources by the regions involved—N.Ireland in particular poured money into it and KCC must have spent a lot. In return they should all get a higher profile, recognition, a place on the world stage. The same should apply to the individuals. We’ve all returned with contacts and friendships and I, for one, am going to get as much return as I can from the experience.
Posted by Lucy Castle on her blog.
http://not-the-maramures-tunebook.blogspot.co.uk/ on 24.2.2012
Tomorrow is my dad’s sixty-fifth birthday. It’s hard to believe. My parents have always seemed younger than most of my friends’ parents, partly because they are, and partly because they have a young attitude / approach. They got married when they were at college, and left when they’d qualified as teachers but not got their full degrees, so that they could start working and start a family, so I came along ten days before my dad turned twenty-three, I think, and a couple of months before my mum did.
I don’t think we’ve ever been an “ordinary” family. My parents have never been ones to live the conventional, safe life, and harbour revolutionary feelings behind the scenes. They’ve just got on and lived the way they believed in. And in many cases they’ve inspired and organised others to do so too. That’s one of the greatest gifts of my upbringing, I feel. I mean some people spend a fortune, and many years, on life coaching to try and gain the courage to leave the “golden handcuffs” of a safe but boring career, and start to work at something they love and believe in. My parents have always just got on and done that, and that has been passed down to me as the natural, obvious and only way to do things.
My dad left primary school teaching when I was about ten years old, to “be a folksinger” full-time. There was no safety in that decision. It meant that we always struggled for money, and there was no knowing where the next pay packet would come from, when, or how much it would be. It usually wasn’t very much. There was no big organisation behind him. This was just one man and his guitar, earning what individual folk clubs could afford to pay him, and of course with a lot of travel and other expenses to pay from that too. It wasn’t a fashionable or prestigious thing to do, either. Folk music was no longer trendy as it had been in the late sixties/early seventies, and my dad’s style has never been a commercial one. Yes, if it hadn’t been for the increased popularity of folk music at the time when he was at college (and, allegedly, my mum approaching him to ask him to accompany her singing some songs from the Joan Baez Songbook!) he might never have discovered it, but his carrying on singing and playing it well into the next four decades and beyond, had nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with him finding an art-form that he loved, believed in, and felt had something to offer other people, that was rare to find elsewhere. Another thing about my dad: he persists. He doesn’t get put off. He just keeps on going. Things come in and out of fashion around him. He notes it all, brings in the influences he approves of, rejects those he doesn’t, continues to hone his style, but never veers off course.
My childhood was full of music in a very non-ordinary way, too, for which I am very grateful, and which influences the way I try and pass things on to the next generation myself – whether in my teaching or my parenting. In my early childhood, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to go to sleep listening to my parents practising songs for their next folk club “floor spot”. They used to organise Carlton Folk Club, when we lived in Nottingham, and later were very involved in the running of Luton Folk Club and Luton Folk Festival. In connection with these, there would often be people rehearsing or playing things to each other round at our house. Perhaps, looking back, the most significant fact about this, was that these were not necessarily great, or professional musicians, but just ordinary people, who had been influenced by the folk club ethos of everyone being able to join in and express themselves somehow. But there was a lot of magic in the music, the songs and the performances I was exposed to, and I grew up with a head full of images and sounds from the heart, as well as the edges, of the English folk tradition, which left me with a love of storytelling, literature and all sorts of music. Some kept me awake at night, in terror, and would probably be deemed by some educationalists or child welfarists to have been totally unsuitable, such as “Long Lankin”, who breaks into the house through the tiny kitchen window, and stabs the baby over and over with a pin! Others, such as “Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy”, were more straightforward, but introduced me to a world of imagery (“I’m going across the ocean”) and turns of phrase (“Come change your ring with me, dear girl”), that were of a different era and lifestyle, and gave me access to a much broader world than would otherwise have been available to me, even given the rich world of children’s books I was also given access to.
The house was full of musical instruments, and I was allowed to play on them pretty freely. I was not formally taught them, but just played, watched and listened to other people play, and played some more. The biggest influence was watching other people playing, getting to know their music inside out, and then playing and playing myself until I had some things worked out for myself. (Much as I discovered in my later research into Maramures fiddle music, the fiddlers there learn their trade.)
Later on, I learned recorder at school (though I’d already taught myself the notes and to play by ear by watching my mum, as a toddler) and then went on to learn violin. Here I was at a huge advantage, not because anyone in my home knew how to play the instrument, but because a) I’d had lots of varied music experience already and was raring to go, and b) because while my classmates had to go home and practise boring open string exercises that didn’t make much sense in themselves, my dad would put interesting guitar accompaniments to mine and made practising a pleasure from the beginning! Soon it was part of the regular evening routine for my dad to call me down from my bedroom to ask if I wanted to play some music, and we’d play things like “Andantino Grazioso”, which was from a piece by Pleyel, I think, and pieces by Wolfahrt (sharing in the hilarity of the name) with beautiful guitar accompaniments which made my practise sessions into real music-making sessions. This is something I try to recreate for my beginning violin students to some extent, by sending them video and audio files to play along with, and by emphasising to their families the importance of sharing in their music-making, but this can only be recreated to an extent, and I know I had a really privileged childhood in this respect.
My dad was a great bedtime story reader – we shared all the fantasy tales, with the tantalising traditional elements, such as those by Alan Garner (eg. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), and I remember being read The Forest of Boland Light Railway in a caravan with torrential rain rattling the roof! – were the leprechauns trying to get in?! But sometimes he would bring stories to life in different ways too. I remember a phase where he used to get my fuzzy felts out and mesmerize me with improvised stories in which the felt characters, such as witches and Jack of the Beanstalk, floated across the fuzzy board. Of course, when he decided to become a storyteller as well as a folksinger, this was no great leap into something new – this was just bringing something he’d been doing a very long time into a new context and format.
As I began to grow up and become involved in my own musical training and experiences, he not only helped me develop as a musician by practising and playing with me at home, but gave me chances to perform too. At first it would be a case of suggesting I do a few short fiddle tunes (and before that it would be recorder tunes or something else, as really I was doing this as far back as I remember) at the folk club, along with other people (mainly adults, admittedly) who were doing floor spots – the “open mic” section of a folk club evening. This was a great, supportive environment to start performing in. Totally informal, and for a group of people of whom a significant number would also be performing themselves. Really, more people should go to folk clubs, and this basic folk club, sharing, community format is so under-rated, as people go to big, more commercial folk concerts which lose the folk ethos. As I became more accomplished as a musician, and he went “pro”, from time to time he would allow me to accompany him on a few songs in his set, and by the time I was in my mid-teens, as far as I remember, we often did whole gigs together. By then, it was not just folk clubs we were performing in, but festivals, arts centres, schools, giving workshops as well as straight performances. He was in charge, of course, and I was increasingly chomping at the bit to do things my way, but this was an invaluable and unique apprenticeship that I could have had no other way.
I attended Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester, as a boarder, from the ages of fourteen to eighteen, and it was extremely strange being from a folk music family and at specialist music school, where they played “serious music” and looked down their noses at anything else! But who else had a dad who could come in and give workshops and performances on something none of the other staff knew anything about?!
After music school, I sought to redress the balance by going on to a very broad and modern music degree at City University, to help me reconcile what was becoming an increasingly schizophrenic musical life. This led me on to ethnomusicological research in Hungary and Romania, and from my specialism in the fiddle music of Maramure? came our collaboration in the trio “Popeluc”, and to a deeper, more varied and integrated set of duo material.
These days I concentrate on teaching and workshops, and although I, naturally, bring in a wider range of influences than those gained during my childhood and “apprenticeship”, my priorities and approach are deeply affected by these experiences. I still use my dad’s songs as learning material with younger learners, remembering the magical world they opened up for me, and I still think that the personal, small-scale approach, where everyone is empowered and encouraged to find a way in which they feel comfortable to join in, is the most educational and the most musically powerful.
My dad’s still doing his thing. I don’t see any signs of retirement, and he is still maturing and developing what he does. He now has a fine reputation as a respected and long-term contributor to the English folk and storytelling scenes, though has never been a big name. He just gets on with it and keeps on doing it, changing and touching lives along the way. If something needs doing, such as Facts and Fiction storytelling magazine, he doesn’t gather together a big committee, or wait until funding is available, and compromise how he feels it should be, to come up with some big, glossy, money-making venture that, again, misses the point of what is the people’s art-form. He just gets on and does the whole thing himself, giving others a forum for their own talents and opinions along the way. Fortunately he’s a multi-talented individual, for the most part self-taught and continuously self-educating. In this world we’re in, we need more of this! I haven’t always agreed with everything my dad’s done, or the way he’s gone about things. I’m his daughter – it’s my job to criticise! But when I look at the idiocy of the government and institutions around us, and the extent to which so many people’s lives are governed by fear and the herd instinct, the domination of big business and commercial interests, how art forms become more and more alienated from their audiences and fail to deeply touch people ‘s lives and hearts in constructive ways, and everything becomes so terribly good but so terribly samey, I’m extremely thankful and proud to have been brought up by such a man as Pete Castle. Happy Birthday Dad! x
Popeluc formed a large part of our lives—musically and in other ways—from 1995-1997. The trio had originally been seen as a one-off, very short term, project but it gelled so well that we came to see it as permanent (or as permanent as ‘groups’ ever are!)
By the third tour in 1997 we were getting quite a high profile and there was an ongoing demand to book us, but somehow the next tour never happened. As time went by and things changed it looked as though the idea had passed its sell-by date and eventually I put it in the box marked ‘past experiences’. I had even started re-arranging some of the English items from the Popeluc repertoire so that I could play them solo (that’s why Jack Orion didn’t feature on that tour, I’d struggled to find a way to do it and had finally succeeded!)
Then, at very short notice and out of the blue as far as I was concerned, the idea of a short reunion tour in the UK suddenly came up. Popica had been asked to speak at the Voluntary Arts Europe Conference in Wales so he would be here. There was barely two months notice so a lot of people who would have liked to book us couldn’t because they were already booked up and publicity was in short supply because we were still confirming dates and details up to the very last minute. We missed copy dates for all the folk magazines.
BUT people went out of their way to accommodate us—The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum in W.Sussex put us on out of season; Belper Folk Club ran an extra night on a Thursday (they usually meet on Tuesdays) and so on.
The resulting tour wasn’t the most logical from the travel point of view—we had to come back to Derbyshire from Kent because I had a solo booking I couldn’t miss already arranged, and then go back down to London. Given more time we could definitely have filled a Saturday night in the south.
Musically it was as though we’d never been away. Once we started practising the break could have been 8 weeks not 8 years! Our repertoire for this tour was the highlights of previous tours plus just a few new items and everything came out feeling fresh and surprisingly tight. There were just one or two items where we struggled to remember how we had done it before—in fact I had to put on a video to see what chords I’d used for one song!
The very first gig was the WEALD Museum. It was a still, cold day and the frost didn’t shift in the shade, we were playing out of doors and there weren’t many people around but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. A good, public, rehearsal which got us really on the ball before TENTERDEN the next night. Turn-out there was disappointing. Lots of people I would have expected to be there weren’t but it went alright.
LONDON—a Romanian Restaurant near the Old Bailey was a revelation. We knew they had sold about 130 tickets in advance and when we arrived there seemed to be that number of people in but, we were told, these were all people who hadn’t booked in advance! The audience was predominantly ex-pat Romanians with a good few English people who had come to see us specifically. Popica was a bit worried that the Romanians might give us a hard time—be extra critical, but he needn’t have worried. They clapped, shouted, danced and made us very welcome. Personally it goes onto my list of Top 10 gigs of all time. An eye opening experience was that several Romanians asked about the English songs we played. Were they Irish? they wanted to know. They didn’t believe they were English because they were unaware that there was such a thing as English folk music!
At BURY ST EDMUNDS the next night there was also a Romanian contingent in the audience – there is quite a population of them in rural Suffolk apparently – they run Social Services! That gig was put on by church people who had visited Popica’s village of Hoteni and it doubled as a fund raiser for a Romanian charity. Somehow it was the most difficult gig of the lot. We didn’t play well for a variety of reasons although I don’t think the audience noticed. Popica wasn’t happy with the whole idea of playing in a church, which wouldn’t happen in Romania where the musicians stay outside. Strangely the gig had been moved at the last minute from another church which objected to the local morris side doing a spot and the raffle for the charity, so the same kind of feelings exist on both sides.
The rest of the gigs were nearer home. BELPER folk club was Popica’s favourite of the tour. Then we did an afternoon of workshops at a primary school in LEICESTER and in the evening a benefit for the Woodcraft Folk at the same venue.
Lucy’s pet project was the workshop and concert in the village hall at BURTON OVERY where she then lived. The afternoon workshop was an introduction to the music with the chance to join in and sing and play. The evening concert was a different approach to presenting our music: Lucy put together what was almost a drama narrated by her daughter Ioana and two other village children which traced ‘the Life of a Man’ and linked together many Popeluc favourites. It went very well.
We finished the tour with a ‘house concert’ in DURSLEY, Gloucestershire where we narrowly escaped the blizzard which came down the next morning by which time I was taking Popica to Luton Airport for his flight home and braving the snow on the M1 in Leicestershire on the way home. A vague sprinkling of snow in England causes chaos; half a metre in Hoteni is no problem at all!
We had intended to do another short tour but it all went awry at the planning stage although, so as not to disappoint one organiser, we did a one-off performance at the Chelsea Arts Club and Lucy and Popica did a workshop in Wales.
In 2003 both Tradition and EDS (English Dance & Song) carried interviews with Pete. They were both taken from this longer interview by Roy Harris.
ROY: Pete , how do you see yourself at this time in your career? Are you a storyteller who occasionally sings? A singer who occasionally tells? 50/50? Club and festival musician? Community musician? Or a combination of all of these things?
PETE: A combination really. If pushed to one word I’d probably say now that I’d plump for ‘storyteller’ but with the proviso that at least half my stories are sung.
ROY. Do I read that proviso as meaning that when you do sing you are chiefly a ballad singer?
PETE. Really that’s always been the case. I think it’s usually been the song words that have attracted me first. Over the years I’ve sung a shanty or two or song that I’m not entirely convinced about to try to please the audience, but I’m definitely not a shanty singer, and I wouldn’t do it now.
ROY. I’ve noticed over years of hearing you singing that you’ve not been loath to sing on topical subjects, controversial subjects, criticisms of society. Politics of course. I recall one that you used to sing about the case of David Oliwale. Has that element now disappeared?
PETE. No, definitely not. Most of those songs were probably story songs as well. I sang ‘Masters of War’, wrote ‘The Iron Lady’ about the Falklands. They were pretty much telling stories even though they were political. I still think traditional stuff, storytelling stuff, must have a modern, contemporary relevance, commenting on what’s going on now, not just museum pieces.
ROY. Do traditional stories do that?
PETE Some of them do, yes. I think the same about songs and stories. Most of them are about people and people haven’t changed since they first became people. The trappings of what you’ve got, where you go and what you do change, but basically, inside, I think we’re the same as we were when we lived in caves. And so if you’re talking about feelings and peoples’ relationships, things like that, it doesn’t matter how old the story is. It still works.
ROY. On the other hand it could be said that a modern generation is unlikely to believe in fairy tale princesses, tales of feudal days and disaffected peasantry and the like.
PETE. That’s a shorthand though isn’t it? A stereotype, to enable you to avoid having to go into a 45 minute description about who she was and what she was. That’s the superficial aspect of the story, and what really matters is what they do, their relationships to each other, troubles they have to overcome and how they reconcile it, things like that. And I think whoever it is, whatever age bracket, you can tell them stories about ogres and fairies, things like that and they see past that and they enjoy it because it’s some innocent, helpless, little person overcoming the ills and wrongs, coming out on top by using their wiles. A song I’ve recently started singing is Green Brooms, which I’ve been aware of for donkey’s years but haven’t sung before. I introduce it by saying “You’ll all be able to identify with this; it’s a song about a teenage son who can’t get out of bed before noon every day and his Dad threatens to set fire to his bed if he doesn’t get out and find a job. And I know about that situation because I’ve had a son like that and I’m sure many others have.”
ROY. I suppose it is the case that all the protagonists in your stories have got their modern day equivalents so the girl in the high tower or the boy at the mill could easily be someone in a high block of council flats, or working in a hairdressers. Are there any stories about such people?
PETE. There probably are, but I don’t do any. In a way that seems too restrictive – identifying one particular person in one particular setting, whereas if you leave it more abstract everyone can identify with it, it won’t go out of date.
ROY. Okay, so there’s a little about what you’re doing now, but give me a little bit of background. I know that I first heard you in the field of folk singing. But you didn’t start out that way. So just tell me where you started out and what route you took to become what you are now.
PETE. I started out, 14/15 years old, wanting to join a pop group because the Merseybeat thing was big at that time. I got a guitar for Christmas and started to play that sort of stuff and The Shadows etc, but somehow progressed. I was hanging around with people 3 or 4 years older than I was and they had a lot of American R&B, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles – Smokestack Lightening, that kind of stuff…. Then I went to college at Bretton Hall, Nr Wakefield, Yorks, and there was very little outlet for that there, but there was a folk club. So I thought “What can I play on acoustic guitar in the folk club?” The answer came down to ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘The House of the Rising Sun’…! so I went, and gradually got into Dylan and Paul Simon, those kinds of things. After college, living near Spalding, I started to go around folk clubs in Boston, Peterborough, and so on. I saw John Pearse, Martin Carthy, Alex Campbell – I believe I probably saw you too. So from the singer/songwriter type of folk music I got into Carthy, Nic Jones, people like that. I was writing songs as well as singing traditional stuff. When I started seriously thinking about going out for gigs I thought that the two styles did not really go together so I had to make a decision about which did I really want to do. I chose the trad stuff.
ROY. Was the introduction to folk music after pop a ‘road to Damascus’ experience for you?
PETE. No it wasn’t really, not a sudden ‘flash of lightning’. It was a long road, gradually going back one step at a time from English pop to American pop, to the roots of pop, and so on. And in folk I learned from the revival people, then looked back to the source people. Which I probably listen to a lot more than any other kind nowadays.
ROY. To put down a relatively safe occupation and take up the arduous and risky business of going on the road as a professional singer must have been a hard decision to make?
PETE. I had enjoyed teaching but the school I eventually ended up in I did not enjoy! I was fed up and there seemed no way out but there was, perhaps, a possibility of doing music full time. I thought “Give it a go. If I don’t now I never will in the future. If it doesn’t work out that’s too bad but at least I gave it a go.”
ROY. Would you like to go back into teaching?
PETE. No! Couldn’t stand it. It was bad enough then but with all the restrictions now…. I do enjoy going into school now, doing what I do, I’m sure I teach the kids far more in the half a day that I’m there than I did in a week as a teacher.
ROY. In your singing… what did you think of the club and festival scene when you first started?
PETE. When I first started professionally it was just past the boom years really.
ROY. What year are we talking about?
PETE. 1978, 25 years ago. There were plenty of clubs, you could make a living purely from clubs and festivals, which you couldn’t do now. There were some hard years – lots of hard years! but still, they’ve been fun years. Then, I think there was a bit of fragmentation. Some clubs were trad clubs, some were contemporary clubs, and somehow I was never traddy enough for the trad clubs nor contemporary enough for the others, so I went around the clubs that had a bit of everything. I’m not too annoyed about it but I think some people have perhaps misunderstood what I was doing. I’ve never been fashionable enough to be in with some of the movers and shakers of the folk scene. I had to try to be fashionable at times but now I’ve reached the stage where I can do what I want to do and if people don’t want it, okay, they don’t….
ROY. Has the folk scene changed in the 25 years you’ve been active?
PETE. Oh it has. There are nowhere near as many clubs and there aren’t very many that are as well supported. I really love folk clubs, I must say that. They’re still the core of what I do, of my philosophy of how to do it. I’ve had some fantastic nights in folk clubs, but also some of the most frustrating disheartening nights too. I don’t like the way some have got so businesslike and fashion conscious if you like… who will only book the people who are ‘flavour of the month’, and other things that annoy me about how lazy some clubs are.
ROY. In terms of what?
PETE. In terms of everything. Attitudes like “We’ve got a dozen people who come. We can get by with that so we don’t need to tell anyone else.” “We know 10 songs so we’ll sing those 10 songs. We don’t want to know number 11.” “We can play this on our melodeons so we don’t need to get any better.” Some organisers are brilliant, some couldn’t organise a thing! The most annoying thing about some organisers is that they don’t know anything about the wider scene. They know what they read about in the fashionable folk press and don’t bother to look at other events or even read more widely. Some are so parochial, they guard their clubs like a personal empire. That’s illustrated by clubs where you try year after year and can’t get a booking, suddenly the organiser changes and you’re booked for the next 6 years in a row. Or vice versa…. Failure to start on time, going on too late, bad timing of floorspots and guest spots, failure to provide accommodation previously agreed…. It goes on.
ROY. What’s the worst thing about being a professional?
PETE. Well, the travelling is a bit of a bind, bad weather, bad road conditions. And you’ve got to go out whether you actually want to or not.
ROY. And the best part?
PETE. Performing. When it all goes well. For me, that’s my drug. That keeps me going, now and again when you get it right and they know you’ve got it right, and you continuously search for it to happen again. This applies to telling as well as singing, I don’t differentiate between the two. I’ ve just done 8 one hour sessions in the course of one weekend and they were all different in that the audiences were different every time. One session had a lot of children, another had a lot of elderly ladies, that’s part of the challenge.
ROY You were, to start with, primarily a singer. How did you become a storyteller?
PETE. I can’t really remember. From around 1985 I became aware that there was storytelling going on because I was running a folk club at Eaton Bray and I booked a storyteller for that. Then when I was working in schools stories seemed to do well and I wondered if perhaps they might fit in a folk club gig so it was then a case of hunting around for something suitable to tell in clubs. Some of my ballads had similar stories anyway so why not try telling it instead of singing it?
ROY. When you are booked in a folk club, which after all is mostly concerned with song and music, how do you balance out your performance? What’s your percentage, songs v. stories?
PETE. Usually in folk clubs I’ll put in 2 or 3 short stories, roughly the same length as a song, if it does well I might try something longer in the second set. But mostly the balance is towards songs. Some clubs will say ‘no stories please’, others say ‘We hope you’re going to do some stories’. Sometimes an audience member will come up and offer a story. It feels good to know you’ve moved them to respond in that way. I’ve done telling at old peoples’ luncheon clubs and had people come up and tell me stories that are close to things in my repertoire.
ROY. You work in the wider community as well as the enthusiast clubs for song and story. What sort places?
PETE. Schools of all kinds. Further Education places, Youth Clubs, The Rotary, that sort of thing. Recently, the local elderly persons circuit. Community plays and songwriting projects involving whole villages, that’s very exciting. Like the village project at Bassingham, Lincs. That was the first one. Rosie Cross, ex-Pyewacket, now an Arts Officer, asked me to do that. It took about a year to do and produced drama and home-made songs. At the end we had a packed village hall, with the W.I, teenagers, schoolkids, old folks, it all went out on Radio Lincolnshire. I’ve done similar things now all over the country.
ROY. Is there a storytelling movement these days?
PETE. There is, there are story clubs and there are tellers booked in arts festivals, and story festivals. I’d like to see more grassroots clubs to help the form spread and continue but I’m not sure that will happen.
ROY. Is there much participation as in the early days of folk clubs – or is there an elitist aspect?
PETE. Both of those. I have the folk club approach – but a lot of tellers come from theatrical/literary angle. They do take up a more of a star system, less participation.
ROY. Some tellers are theatrical, mobile, costumed – others more conversational – which are you?
PETE. The latter. I work in places without much setting facilities. All I need is an audience. I don’t use a PA if I can help it.
ROY. Your thoughts on community work. Do you tailor your material for each group?
PETE. I use the same kind of material wherever I go and it usually works. I sing folk songs not Daisy, Daisy. Obviously not the heavy stuff but things like The Devil & the Farmer’s Wife can be appreciated by anyone. I’ll go anywhere I am invited although experience has taught me to be wary of some gigs – works parties for instance, places where they don’t realise that they have to listen, but basically I’d consider anywhere. And the stories often work where the songs don’t. I’ve done some interesting work at the Summer School of the WMA (Workers Music Association) at Wortley, Sheffield. They have all kinds of music making – brass bands, choral, orchestras etc, people of all standards. I’ve done their Folk Music course for the last few years and it’s very refreshing because a lot of them are new to it. I did my first bit of dance calling there.
ROY. Other venues? I seem to remember Nottingham Playhouse.
PETE. Yes, last year working on reminiscences we created a play. Great fun.
ROY. Do you see your telling life overtaking the singing?
PETE. I want them to run in tandem. I wouldn’t want to lose either.
ROY. Telling – entertainment, therapy or consciousness raising?
PETE. It can be all of those things but above all I see it as entertainment. If it does other things for some listeners so much the better but I’m a bit wary of people doing telling as therapy or enlightenment etc because they may not be trained as therapists and what might they open up? Storytelling as a tool from a trained therapist is fine, but I would draw the line at telling for someone who asked me to tell as a sort of therapy group.
ROY. Stories on TV – good or bad?
PETE. I would leap at such a chance. I think it would be a good medium for stories. I once saw Garrison Keillor doing one of his shows from a theatre in America, just standing talking to the camera. It must have been the cheapest show ever done. He just stood there and talked to the audience and it was absolutely riveting and I think to do a programme like that would be fantastic. Another person that did it to great effect was Dave Allen. He was thought of as a comedian, but he was a great storyteller. There has been storytelling on telly but in children’s shows, with props and costumes. The Keillor thing was done with a live audience, I should think that would be far easier than just standing talking to a camera. Without an audience, that would be difficult. I think that properly handled storytelling on TV would be a great thing.
ROY. Tell me about family music and Romanian music.
PETE. Family music began when I met my wife Sue. We used to sing together in folk clubs as a duo, also with various groups. Sue only stopped when I got into being a pro. Our son Chris isn’t into folk music, he likes House and Garage etc. Lucy was into it from the start, as soon as she could get a note out of the violin she started playing along with me. She became a very good player, and at around 17-18 years of age she decided she wasn’t going to follow the classical music career she had planned out but would go into folk music, although East European folk music rather than British, though she still played some English music with me. Her East European interest led me into it – Romania, Hungary, Transylvania, then specifically the Romanian district of Maramures. Her research led to bringing a Maramures musician to England, enlisting me into a trio playing a mixture of English and Romanian music – a band called Popeluc. We did a lot of touring at home and abroad and it was a great experience, opened a lot of doors. It’s ended now but Lucy and I still play and there is an influence into our English songs.
ROY. Facts & Fiction…
PETE. My storytelling magazine… I’ve been editing it for about 4 years. It comes out quarterly. I took it over from the late Richard Walker, known as ‘Moggsy the Storyteller’. He’d done his bit and we agreed that he would do one more edition then hand it over to me but sadly he died, so I took it on at a moment’s notice. It has built up nicely. It’s a lot of work but I enjoy editing it. I get a lot of support from the storytelling world. I get plenty of material submitted. My biggest problem is fitting everything in. Sometimes the magazine is full a month before publication so the problem becomes what to leave out.
ROY. Do you simply edit all incoming material or do you maintain an editorial policy that might preclude some of it?
PETE. I suppose there could be some things that I wouldn’t include but the only things I have rejected so far have been from people who sent poems and short stories thinking it was a writers magazine. Basically I try to cover as wide a spectrum of the storytelling world as possible, and the nooks and crannies where telling is relevant, bits of folk, theatre, film.
PETE. I’m pleased to say I’ve managed to create some. The biggest thing though was when I dared to print a bad review. I didn’t write it, I just published it. And I think it was a very fair review, the writer obviously caught a well-known teller on a bad night and said so. Someone cancelled their subscription because of it! But controversy is no bad thing, constructive criticism makes people think. As I said, not everyone shares the same opinion, one mans meat etc. There are some readers who say the mag shouldn’t be controversial – the ‘we must stick together’ attitude, but on the whole reaction to the magzine is good..
PETE. We have gone up in pages from 12 to 34, without an increase in cost. Added many more subscribers. I would definitely like more subscribers so that we could afford a colour cover and just a few more pages. Content wise I’m pretty happy with it. It has a good variety of articles written by a good variety of people. Sometimes I commission articles, sometimes people volunteer them. And there is an open invitation for people to send in stories, and they do. For the last edition I went out and hunted up an Iraqi story. I glean from wherever possible. We circulate to GB, Europe, USA, Australia, not hundreds abroad just the odd one here and there but it’s encouraging. I’d like more. I love doing the magazine. I consider it my hobby as much as part of my work.
ROY. Tell us about Steel Carpet Music.
PETE. That’s my publishing and recording arm. Steel Carpet is an anagram of my name. All my own recording now is on Steel Carpet and I’ve done storytelling tapes including other people. Also CDs of Derbyshire songs with various singers and Kentish stuff. But basically it’s my own stuff. I don’t want to record just anybody.
ROY. Pete, it’s now 25 years since you had that fateful thought about turning pro ‘Do it now or else’. Has it been a success?
PETE. Just keeping going is a success. I’ve never been a superstar but I’m still here. I’ve progressed as a performer a tremendous amount, which is another plus. And I hope I’ve given a lot of people a little bit of pleasure along the way. That’s success.
PETE CASTLE: MEARCSTAPA
by Genevieve Tudor in Living Tradition 1999
Pete Castle is one of those people who seems to have been ‘always there’. A stalwart of the folk club scene and a professional, easy-going performer. He recently released a new album, ‘Mearcstapa’, which has been widely praised. Born in Ashford in Kent there was no particular history of music in his family and he didn’t learn his songs at his grandmother’s knee, throughout his teens he was set to follow a career in art although he became a primary school teacher, so folk music seemed an unlikely career choice, but it happened – so how did it all come about? I spoke to Pete about his background and his 21 years as a working musician…
Did you come from a musical background?
Not in the slightest – not connected with the arts at all – exactly the opposite. I was born and brought up in Ashford in Kent – a Man of Kent. Dad’s parents came from that area – Folkestone, Dover, and had lived there from time immemorial. Mum was from Wiltshire with London connections. My only vague link to the folk culture was that my great-granddad on my mother’s side and his brother and his father – the whole lot of them, were shepherds in the Salisbury Plain area. There’s obviously a lot of folklore about shepherds, but I never met him that I know of. I was going to do art when I was at secondary school – and I’ve tried ever since but I still can’t do it!
What – Fine Art?
Yes, painting – that sort of thing. I was good at drawing so I was destined for a career in art – but I just couldn’t do it – and I’ve tried ever since and have always been frustrated – I can’t do it as well as I’d like.
So what prompted you to take up music?
Accident – I was 14 or 15 – I wanted to play a guitar and I wanted to be Hank Marvin! I had a guitar for Christmas and we formed various groups at school and progressed from The Shadows to The Rolling Stones and then I got in with some lads who were slightly older than me and we played a whole lot of blues stuff that I never heard the originals of until quite recently – I learnt them all second hand via the Yardbirds and the like. I think we probably got to a stage where our group was quite good, we did a few local gigs – then I went off to college and there was no opportunity for R’n’B there but there was a folk club – and I could play the House of the Rising Sun so that was alright! I met Sue at college and we got married there – broke all the rules – we had to get permission from the Principal, which we did. Sue had a Joan Baez Song Book, so I chatted her up and said “Could I borrow your book?” After college the two of us played around doing gigs and organising folk clubs – doing a mixture of the odd traditional song and a few contemporary songs and a lot that we wrote – weird Incredible String Band type things that went on for 15 minutes or so and rambled around …
That must have made you popular!
Yes! We moved to Luton in 1975 because of my new job – I was teaching at the time, and I hated the new job so I had a big rethink about the music – made a decision – all this stuff is going out of the window – from now on it’s all going to be traditional cos that’s what I really like – and I concentrated a lot more on what I was doing. I went out and did a lot more floor spots. Then in ‘78 I could stand teaching no longer and said I’d give life as a musician a go – and if it doesn’t work out try life as a milkman (there seemed to be a shortage at the time!)
What did your family think when you took up folk music as a career?
Well, Sue was right behind me, she knew I was unhappy teaching. My wider family didn’t actually say anything but, although they probably wouldn’t have chosen it as a career for me, they’re behind me.
Was it hard getting started as a professional?
It wasn’t an overnight success story because having a wife and two young kids I couldn’t do what some other people did – spend three months on the road and not go home – from festival to festival and clubs in between just to get seen, so it’s been a long gradual process and I’m finding now, although occasionally people will say they’ve never heard of me, it doesn’t happen very often.
Do you ever get asked for a demo tape?
Oh yes, mainly from people who may have heard me a while ago but not know what I’m doing now.
Who were your major influences?
Obviously Martin Carthy & Nic Jones – and so many people compared me with Nic I made a deliberate decision not to ever see him! But I did see him a few times. The last time I saw him we played football together!
It’s perfectly reasonable for two people to develop along the same lines – I wonder if anybody ever said to Nic – you must be copying Pete Castle?
I very much doubt it actually! Other influences were Roy Harris, not for style but philosophy and ideas, and melodeon players! I love the simple bass thump and that influenced my playing.
What about the folk clubs at that time?
There were more of them and they were fuller and more lively. The regular clubs you got in with you could get three bookings a year. I remember a little club in Dursley and another in Orpington in Kent and you’d do a booking and they’d say – ‘When can you come back?’ and you’d say four months time – and they’d have you back. Obviously you were only getting paid about £8 a time but it didn’t matter. In fact at Dursley it was £8 plus a jar of home-made jam or a cake! Lovely! It was before things got too serious, too purist – and a ‘bit of everything’ went.
Did clubs become too purist?
There was the split between contemporary and traditional. There were some clubs that wouldn’t book me because I was too traditional – and some clubs because I wasn’t traditional enough! It did become far too serious and people forgot that it was entertainment as well. I remember asking people to be quiet if they were nattering – now people natter quietly if they don’t want to listen and as long as it’s not upsetting other people too much, well… Since then the biggest crime has been complacency and an unwillingness to take chances … everyone finishes up singing bland imitation trad. songs about nothing in particular. I’ve always felt there should be a bit of comment and politics in it and even though I almost always do traditional songs you can twist them round, make them relevant. I remember, during the Falklands War, upsetting one or two people so much they actually walked out – I put some songs together to say we shouldn’t be going off to the Falklands – like The Flowers of the Forest and My Son John. If they walked out I counted that as a compliment!
We’ve seen folk clubs wither and die – is complacency the reason?
I think so – we had an audience and we didn’t need to bring anyone else in so when that audience – for perfectly good reasons – began to disappear we didn’t have anyone to take their place. Also a lot of the reason was bad press. The media think the folk scene is a laughing stock and some of the folk press themselves think folk clubs are a load of rubbish. They’re only interested in big concerts.
How would you go about changing things?
Well, it’s impossible to put the clock back. You need a whole army of committed people to run folk clubs and an army of very, very trusting people to go along and listen. I’ve always felt a good organiser should be able to put on anyone they think is good enough and, even if the audience hasn’t heard of them, they should trust them enough to go along and listen. If they don’t like it – well they’ll probably like next week. So many people won’t go along to the club unless they are on intimate terms with the guest. They won’t take a risk
Why do you think the media revile folk music?
Ignorance mostly. They can’t understand it so they poke fun at it. And fashion.
You are now doing stories as well as songs. How did that come about?
I never told stories when I was teaching but I made a point of reading them every day – the last quarter of an hour of the day. I think that was far more valuable than all this ‘Reading Hour’ hype! Then I became aware of a ground-swell of storytelling and I had a few for kids so I gradually started introducing stories, now and again, into folk clubs. I found it worked really well and I became more interested, there were more openings for storytellers and it just grew.
Presumably you always did that though, because you quite often introduce a song with a story.
Yes, but at first they were just anecdotes – “I remember when I last sang this song, so and so happened…” but now it became a case of ‘proper’ stories.
Some people have made a career of this haven’t they?
Yes but the stories took over and no songs! If it’s a folk club I keep the stories quite short and do more songs and vice versa at a storytelling event. There are some events that are billed as 50/50 and those work really well.
After 21 years are you still enjoying what you do?
Yes – and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
Is it hard graft?
You’ve got to keep on at it – you can’t sit back and let it drift because if you do you end up with a dead patch. That’s the bit of the job I don’t like – I don’t like hassling for work. There’s always some coming in, some unsought work, but there’s not enough of that and you have to chase it. It’s always easier to sell someone else – ‘They’re really good, you’ll like them’ as opposed to ‘I’m really good you’ll like me!’
Tell me a little about your daughter, Lucy. She’s followed in your footsteps and taken up the fiddle – were you pleased?
Yes, she actually started in about 1978 too – she was about 8 and they started violin lessons at school and she took to it like a duck to water. She did all the proper classical violin lessons up to grade 8, and a degree, but she also used to accompany me – right from when she could first play a tune competently she’d come and do a floor spot at the local club – and I remember taking her to a gig in Scarborough because I didn’t have a car and it was cheaper if I took her with me on the train than if I went alone! But she was still going to do serious, classical music right up to when she was at university studying viola. Then she suddenly got switched-on to Eastern European folk music, Transylvanian music, and made the change. It suddenly rang bells with her.
Why not English traditional music? Were you disappointed?
No, I fully understand her reasons – she’d ask “How do I play this?” and the answer would be “However you like” whereas with the much more living Transylvanian tradition there are rules and you have to stick to them and play it properly. You can’t just play how you like. She took to that, and spent a lot of time out there researching and probably became the expert – certainly in Britain.
That resulted in the Popeluc music.
Yes, Ioan Pop was her mentor and they were playing together out there. Lucy was playing with his band Iza. The two of them wanted to play in England and they needed a third person to make the traditional trio so they drafted me in and later we started exploring a bit more – not just sticking to the tradition but blending it with English music – and it works very well.
Does that band still exist?
Theoretically yes, but Popica lives in Romania and it’s such a hassle getting work permits and things. We’re all too busy to do it. For that we need an agent!
So what is on the cards for the future?
In the summer I’m doing a lot of work at Cromford Mill in Derbyshire – the first water-powered cotton spinning mill in the world – we’re trying to get funding to do a sort of radio ballad on CD. Apart from that it’s more of the same – schools, libraries, folk clubs … possibly a trip to Canada, and whatever else turns up – workshops and performances.
And, of course, I’m plugging my latest CD -’Mearcstapa’.
You’ve done radio and you edit the storytelling magazine Facts & Fiction. You are a one man enterprise aren’t you?
Yes – untrained in everything I do, but enjoying myself!
* Mearcstapa is an old English word which means ‘boundary strider’. Pete used it in the sense of someone who explores and extends the boundaries but has recently discovered that it crops up in Beowulf as being a monster who lurks beyond the pale. Take your pick!
POP WITH POP
Eric Winter on the Romanian adventures of the Castles
(Roots Salad from Folk Roots #148 Oct 1995)
Think about Eliza Carthy, Nancy Kerr, Simeon Jones… these (and more) were born into it. Folk music was going on all round them. If they had a childhood like that of my daughters Jane and Susan, they were carted around clubs and festivals from the age of six months (when children are at their most portable).
Lucy Castle, now 25, comes from this honourable background. Daughter of Pete and Sue Castle, who’ve been folkin’ around for years, Lucy took up the violin (so-called when you play classical music) at eight, and picked out the tunes she’d heard around the scene on the same fiddle (so-called when you play folk stuff). She began to accompany her dad and to do the odd floor spot’ and then gigs in her own right. Through the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra, she progressed to Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, and London’s City University. That’s where she got hooked on east European fiddle music.
Lucy made three short trips through Hungary Into Romania in 1992-93. In summer 1993, she heard that Iza, a Romanian-based band led by loan Pop, was playing in Nottingham. She played, by invitation, in their final set and she and Pop agreed to meet up in Romania in October of that year.
On that field trip (it lasted ten months), Popica (or Pop) acted as guru. Lucy played with loan and with Iza, went to village weddings and parties. Her birthday party yielded so many musicians that the affair became a jam session (I’ve got a video tape to prove it). Lucy learned to play Transylvanian music outwards from the inside – especially that of Popica’s region, Maramures. She and loan did well as a duo and thought they would give it a whirl in England. Would Pete like to join them to form a trio? Try and stop him.
No; they didn’t. But getting a work permit for loan nearly did stop them. Four days to go, and then, perhaps a little under-rehearsed, Popeluc made its debut at Broadstairs Festival 1994. Pete had worked out chords for a couple of songs from a tape Lucy had sent to him. He quickly picked up the three basic Maramures rhythms. Pop learned chord sequences for a few English numbers. The trio integrated their performances as they went along with fingers crossed.
Things have progressed. The Maramures music is now played to its traditional line-up: fiddle zongora (a type of guitar), and doba (tabor) Ropica also plays braci (a member of the viola family) and cetera (fiddle).
That first tour took in local and national radio and eighteen gigs – Pete is an indefatigable publicist -that included clubs, festivals, a couple of arts centres, and Chetham’s school (Lucy, of course, has connections). The group laid down a tape and Pete told me he was glad that their Folk On 2 session, recorded very late in the tour showed a better standard of performance.
No wonder. Pete now 48, turned professional close on twenty years ago as singer, instrumentalist, story teller and song writer. He’s worked in the community and with children, as well as doing the clubs/festivals circuit. And he’s no stranger to out-of-the-way combinations: he made, a modestly under-publicised cassette with Bengali singer and musician Aroti Biswas for his own Steel Carpet label.
loan Pop, still under 40, served his time (ten years) with the folk ensemble Maramuresul, regionally based but nationally known. As a child, his idea of playing grown-ups was to run mock wedding ceremonies and to provide the music. Later he was one half of two duos that (separately) carried off first fiddling prize at the national festival, Cintarea Romaniei. He formed the group Iza, which has toured Austria, Hungary, France, Britain, and Switzerland…
The trio’s name Popeluc is invented—POpica, PEte, LUCy but the word has the ring of a genuine Romanian word. The group’s cassette is also smartly named, Maramures Et Cetera – the cetera is, of course, the Romanian fiddle.
In my time, I’ve heard quite a lot of Romanian folk music, there and here, and Popeluc has the authentic ring about it. The way Lucy (offstage she’s rather quiet and dignified) has absorbed the boisterousness and style of the Transylvanian music idiom is unbelievable.
Popeluc will be back in Britain in October/November. I guess loan Pop may have to fly home. After last year’s inaugural tour, he planned to drive back to Romania with Lucy, bound there for extra research into the music. France, Belgium, Holland and Germany were among the nations that welcomed the fall of communism. But none of these bastions of Western democracy would give Popica a transit visa. Lucy motored with the gear; Ioan flew home. What a waste of time and money!