Sandbach Folk Club

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31 Years of Acoustic Music at Sandbach                               

This article appeared in The Chronicle, Friday 22nd August 1997

Folk Club evenings that have a touch of magic

MENTION the words "folk" and "music" in the same breath, and chances are that the eyes of most people would glaze over as they imagine a room full of off-duty school teachers each with an index finger in one ear, singing soulful dirges and sea-shanties (writes Don Haines.)

The mental image will probably include a degree of pipe smoking, a penny whistle, probably an accordion and at least one Arran sweater.

While this may well be a quite accurate representation of many folk clubs in the British Isles, at least one such club has broken the mould. At the rear of the cobbled square in Sandbach is the Crown, where, in an upstairs room with bare boards and little or no heating, Sandbach Folk Club meets every Tuesday evening. Any regular member of the folk club will tell you that the upstairs room will clear at the first sign of a finger remotely approaching an ear. For years the members have been trying to think of an alternative name for the club, one which would more accurately describe the kind of music which they perform and listen to each week, a good smattering of blues, some jazz and some ragtime, but with a sprinkling of Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, too. The one thing that most of the music has in common is that it is usually accompanied by acoustic guitars, that is, guitars without any amplification. This is perhaps just as well, since the small room will only seat around 30 people, although on a quiet night there might be only five or six die-hards attending.
Favourites
The man in charge, and the lynch-pin of the club, is Winston Baldwin, a local farmer, who plays a very accomplished blues harmonica, performing songs by such old Mississipi delta favourites as Muddy Waters, the Memphis Jug Band and Joe Williams. Winston arrives late most weeks, after feeding the cows and making sure that his elderly mother, who was recently widowed and has suffered a mild stroke, is comfortable for the evening.
His habitual late arrival causes no problems, since the evening begins some time after nine with a couple of songs each from some of the regular “floor” singers. There are usually one or two who are only too happy to announce themselves and get on with playing and singing to whatever audience has arrived by that time. They know that, barring accidents or the imminent birth of a calf, Winston will be there around half-past, in time to introduce the last of the floor singers for the first half. Most weeks there will be a guest singer, who will follow the local performers, winding up the first half by ten o' clock. On a good night — and no-one can predict which nights these will be — Winston will find it difficult to fit in everyone who wants to sing or play. Indeed, such is the quality of some of the performers that sometimes he will leave out no-one, and the guest must wait patiently until everyone has had a turn, before beginning his or her own second "set", often as late as 10.45 p.m. or so. On such nights, the first song of that second set is likely to be interrupted by a raucous shout from the foot of the stairs of "Last orders at the bar please", which means that the evening will not finish until well after 11.30 p.m.. If the guest is a particular one, such as Snaky Jake, a well-known local blues performer, who plays a fascinating collection of valuable ~old guitars, then it will be approaching midnight before the audience disperses into the night
Talent
Asked to define what makes a "good night", Winston, an articulate man who only recently gave up teaching English at a local comprehensive school, finds it impossible to pin down. "What we have," he said, "is a mixture of good local talent and originality — singers and players of varying abilities, who co-operate with each other in impromptu duets and trios. Most of the guests who come here are impressed by them, and also struck by the attentiveness of the audience. "Our guests have to be good communicators. There's nowhere to hide when you're standing only two feet from the first row of your audience. I like to give an opportunity to newcomers, and our regulars give them a chance. We're listeners, not mockers.
One thing I do insist on is that politics are left at the door— too often I've seen an audience alienated by 'in your face “political views”’. Winston carries around with him an old khaki bag containing harmonicas in a variety of different musical keys. Such is his own talent that some of the regular guests will ask him to play them, which he will do at the drop of a hat, in addition to making his own contribution as a floor singer. He is probably too modest to admit, or maybe he is unaware, that one of the ingredients which makes this club so different is his own contribution to the proceedings. He has developed a fine line in patter between performers, his own benign kind of sarcasm which puts most at their ease, even young players who can, as yet, play only a few notes. Dave Hughes is a structural engineer, who makes a 60-mile round trip to Sandbach from Warrington each week in order to perform. He was one of the earliest regulars at the club, which.began in 1978 as a weekly sing-around in a downstairs "snug". "Even in those days the music was never traditional," he said. "We were all young amateurs who just wanted to play music that we liked, just to amuse ourselves, and this was one of the few places where we had a chance to do that I’ve been to a number of more traditional folk clubs where there are one or two regular resident floor singers, and hard luck on any other performer who wants to get a look.
Enthusiasm
Dave agrees that "the reason the club has lasted so long is down to the enthusiasm of Winston. Dave said: "He's a bit of an odd-ball, a quirky character to say the least, but he keeps the evening going, no matter how many or how few are in the audience. "He's willing to give anyone new a chance, but if he thinks their music doesn't quite fit in, he has a quiet way of letting them know: nothing to do with their musical ability — their enthusiasm and the type of music is much more important to Winston. The venue is important too. Once or twice over the years we've moved temporarily to other pubs in Sandbach, but it hasn't worked and we keep coming back to this tiny room at the Crown". I visited the club on a typical night, and as usual Dave Hughes was first on to perform a couple of songs. He was followed by a duo in their 40s calling themselves "The Amazing Oatcake Brothers". They are not brothers at all, and the word "oatcake" is an obvious reference to the local Stoke delicacy. They took to the stage twice during the evening, their repertoire including such popular material as the Walker Brothers' "No Regrets", and another song introduced with an explanation by Tom, the elder of the two, that he had once heard it sung, solo by a huge black lady dressed as if for church in a coat and tiny white pill-box hat and playing an expensive Fender guitar. She had bemoaned the feet that after she had written the song, "some white kid stole it", and the Oatcakes proceeded to sing - Elvis Presley's version of "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog".
Members
They were followed by Sue Wyatt, another of the original members. Sue is a French teacher at the local girls' school and, as well as playing her own guitar, she is often accompanied by Phil Brightman. Phil, another regular, never sings, but his fine guitar accompaniments are always in demand with local performers. He played again later with local radio presenter and singer Kate Tebby, who during one of her songs provided her own superb solo break on flute. Female singers were well represented, with two songs next from Frances, whose quiet voice had a sweetness which kept the audience completely silent throughout her performance.
Next, Winston put on a trio from Northwich who had never played at the club before. Once they started, it was plain that they had never played anywhere else either, but nevertheless they succeeded in entertaining. In their 40s, unshaven and balding, they played and sang their own songs, in a three-part harmony reminiscent of more youthful modem boy groups such as Boyzone or Take That. The spectacle was amusing, the guitar-playing was basic to say the least, but they held the attention. I spoke to Winston on a landing littered with a dozen black guitar cases, while they performed. "Look at them", he said. 'They're enjoying themselves. I think we’ll have them back". Later, Winston played and sang himself, accompanied by Phil Brightman and Keith Haines (no relation to the writer). Keith is arguably the finest guitar player at the club, and he added a dazzling solo break to most of the songs they performed. On one song he even played a tea-chest bass, an instrument which is notoriously difficult to play in tune. His virtuosity is perhaps not surprising, since he played professionally from the early '50s, graduating from skiffle through rock 'n' roll to jazz. With typical modesty, he reluctantly admits to having played in the '60s with "Gary B. Goode and the Hot Rods" on the same bill as the Beatles. Only recently, after a break of many years, has he begun to perform again, both in folk clubs and with a newly-formed local rock band called "Nothing in the Can". Keith tries to describe the kind of music they play. "We play what we like, to call 'big boys' music - good material with more than three chords in it". The evening continued with a song from Mark Richards, an enthusiastic performer with the look of a young Bob Dylan. He sang a manic version of "Little Red Rooster" which brought the house down. The room cleared at around midnight, and Winston, smiling, remarked: "I don't know why, but some of these evenings develop a momentum of their own. It may be the talent, the variety of people from all walks of life or some magic ingredient that makes the evening gel. We have everything — wit, humour and some damn fine music besides. Better go. I've the cows to milk at five."