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.