The 1960s was a decade of great social and cultural change. Teenagers like Martin Val Baker, Jonathan Coudrille and Mike Sagar, who were growing up in West Cornwall and were later involved in music and music promotion, recall becoming aware of folk music as a significant pop music genre from about 1962-1963 with the arrival of records by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
The Duchy played a special part in this folk music boom because it was already a favoured destination for beatniks from London and elsewhere, and indeed was described by The Guardian ‘as the centre of beatnik life’. To the dismay of many locals, visiting beatniks would usually just sleep on the beaches where inspired by skiffle, blues and by American singer Woody Guthrie, they would play their guitars and banjos.
Amongst their number were musical collaborators Wizz Jones, Clive Palmer and Long John Baldry. Their presence in Newquay in 1960 caused such a kafuffle that it was recorded for posterity by Alan Whicker, who made a BBC documentary. In the film guitar maestro Wizz Jones can be seen singing the strangely endearing: ‘Hard times in Newquay if you’ve got long hair’.
Donovan is the best known of these visiting musicians, and he continues to have a special affection for Cornwall. He bought his first guitar in St Ives, and in all his early TV appearances can be seen wearing a fisherman’s hat that he also bought there. After his first top ten hit in 1965, he even returned in 1966 to make a promotional film depicting those idyllic summers sleeping rough under the Cornish stars.
Some of the young guitar players who came to Cornwall stayed for longer. In 1964 the much loved John Langford, aka John the Fish, was one of the first performers to play at the Count House in Botallack, the first Cornish club dedicated to folk music, which opened its doors in 1964. The Count House is remembered as the place local singer Brenda Wootton, who initially visited the club as an audience member, made her debut. John ended up as her accompanist for several years.
Using the Count House as its blue print, the Folk Cottage (pictured above) opened in 1965. Located in an old barn near Mitchell, the club survived for several years, and helped Ralph McTell (centre), who lived in a caravan at the site, and Mike Chapman, obtain their first record contracts. Clive Palmer, who had made his name as a founder member of the Incredible String Band, also lived in a caravan at the Folk Cottage where he became the nucleus of the Cornish groups FJB (Famous Jug Band) and COB (Clive’s Own Band). The Famous Jug Band included Queen drummer Roger Taylor’s girlfriend from Truro, Jill Johnson, and local guitarist Pete Berryman.
Much of the music being written and recorded at the end of the sixties had evolved away from its origins in American folk and blues, and this is particularly apparent on the early Ralph McTell albums, and the two extraordinary albums recorded by COB.
Brenda Wootton, who opened her own club called ‘Pipers’ in St Buryan, went on a similar journey – in that her early recordings include several blues songs – but in the early 70s her repertoire changed quite dramatically. In 1972 she was asked to perform a song in Cornish at the Killarney Pan Celtic Festival in Ireland. She couldn’t speak Cornish but was introduced to Richard Gendall, the language expert, who ended up providing her with many other songs; mostly his own compositions with lyrics written in Cornish. These, in the end, became the songs Brenda is best known for. The Pan Celtic festival continued to be influential in subsequent years, and inspired the formation of the Cornish festival of Lowender Peran, for which Brenda Wootton’s husband was the first chairman.
Rupert White is author of ‘Folk in Cornwall: Music and musicians of the Sixties Revival’ – available online and at Waterstone’s in Truro.