Posted by Lucy Castle on her blog. 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