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!