A Yank at Cambridge:
Pt. 1
Meeting the Dowager of Festivals

Text and photos by V. F. Nadsady
Folkscene, October 1978, volume 6, #8,  Los Angeles, CA

(Webgal's note:  The Red Clay Ramblers only get a short but complementary mention in this piece, but the article is an excellent taste of the musical scene at the Cambridge Folk Festival of the time.)

Cambridge, I couldn’t believe it -- here I was, really in Eng-a-land, really at THE Cambridge Folk Festival!  Hell, up ‘til now, the furthest east I’d been was Detroit.  As the festival slowly gathered its forces, I mingled with Britons of all persuasions (some of whom were pretty persuasive), Scandinavians, Canadians, Germans -- even, (choke) other Americans -- keeping an ear out all the while for the music.  Past the tent city  (some areas were named after groups of yore: Fairport, Hedgehog, etc.), past the food wagons, past the porta-loos, finally…ah, to the massive beer tent. There, sure enough, I heard faint notes in the air.  A shanty?  A Morris tune? An Irish ditty?  I walked closer and the voices rang clear: “Take me home, country roads/To the place I was born…”  Oh well, Tony (Russell of Topic Records) warned me this wasn’t a traditional festival.

Actually the huge beer tent (with smaller Guinness, Pernod and cider tents scattered about) was the heart of the event, offering shelter from the rain, shade from the sun, and assurance that one and all would be happily and continually sloshed throughout the weekend.  In addition, most of the offstage music happened in or near it.  Friday afternoon, someone started flat-picking “Mason’s Apron” (“What have you been doing, “ a kibbitzer remarked, “listening to Dan Crary?”); soon banjo and mandolin jumped in.  Next came the old bluegrass warhorse, “Sool-ty dewg, sool-ty dewg, oy dewn’t wawn’t to be ye mon-a-tewl.”  This was going to take some getting used to…perhaps a walk around the grounds to clear my head.

Cherry Hinton Hall grounds are lovely, especially on a warm sunny afternoon.  Children splashed in the pond, frightening the ducks; young men threw frisbees on the wide lawn, bordered by a nice garden and greenhouses; meanwhile in the tent villages, campers nestled in for the duration.  There is, perhaps, nothing as eerie as walking down a wooded path, haunted at every step by the sound of a lone tin whistle.  Camera in hand, I was tapped on the shoulder by a modern day pirate in beard, headscarf and earring; “Will ye take me picture then, luv?  Ain’t I pretty enoof?”

By nightfall, the scheduled performances had begun, the main tents filled with fans.  The unscheduled performances picked up steam as well, wherever groups of one or more gathered -- Irish here, jazz guitar there, trad ballads with some offhand harmony tossed in by passersby and, oh yes, bluegrass.

A word or several about the professional talent is in order.  First, there was nary a weak act in the two day-three night lineup.  Some of the big guns imported from the States should be familiar to readers of these pages, so mention of them will be brief.  Suffice to say, the love affair between Tom Paxton and his English audience is as ardent as ever (a Cambridge veteran described his performances as “magic, as usual”); Richie Havens’ set remains essentially the same in style and content, though his inclusion of a Steely Dan song was a refreshing surprise; Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn also performed as expected (see McCabes review next month) as did Happy Traum and Dan Crary.

The Red Clay Ramblers showed again why they’re such audience pleasers. Their sets were tight, fast-moving, and polished without being slick.  Their repertoire came mainly from their excellent Flying Fish albums, Twisted Laurel and Merchants Lunch.  Highlights included the witty “Merchants Lunch,”  “Hot Buttered Rum” (bossa nova bluegrass?) and “Corrugated Lady” (with “Paper Doll” in counterpoint).  Although everybody sings and plays well, for my money the star of the band is its shy piano player, Mike Craver.  He has the sweetest, most wistful tenor this side of an Irish bar, and his “Melancholy” is inescapably appealing.

One American group not as well knows was JJ & Silkie (Dion and Miller, respecitively), emigres from Idaho who offered Everly-ish harmonies on standards by Prine, Lightfoot, and -- dare I say it? -- Phillips.  Yes, Wobbly Silkie taught an audience singalong to “Daddy What’s a Train?” and I thought I’d wandered into the wrong festival.

There were two Irish groups that played, Na Fili and Clanad.  The former was a typical (three-man) trad band, but one in the championship class, prize-winning instrumentalists all.  The latter is a primarily acoustic but controversial hybrid of trad and contemporary Irish music, which some have called the successor to Planxty.  Both bands were well-received, proving Cambridge holds no room for bias.  Especially memorable were Clanad’s harp and vocal work.

But it was the Scots music freaks (like me) who were really blessed at Cambridge this year.  I had never heard of, much less heard, Hamish Imlach o the McCalmans, and it was my loss.  Imlach is a veteran performer now on the comeback trail after a serious illness.  He is a Scot born in India and raised in Australia and, as one might suppose, his collection of tunes is diverse.  Picture a younger Burl Ives in a tank top, aggressively strumming his guitar (breaking a few strings in the process), while singing in a thick Scots burr, an Australian cowboy song.  (An Australian cowboy is called a station hand.)  He also has a ready wit and a devilish laugh, which he displayed on songs like “Hairy Mary,” “The Oldest Swinger in Town” and “It’s Better in the Dark.”  He also did Clive Palmer’s “Clive’s Song” (obviously the ISB legacy remains strong in Britain) and even one by Joe Hill.

The McCalmans are a trio of outstanding voices and attractive personalities.  They display old-fashioned (Clancy-like) three-part folk harmony, not overly fancy or decorative, but quite effectively powerful.  Backing themselves on various instruments, they lean toward British folk material, with an emphasis on Scots and Irish, but are not above an a cappella “Paper Doll” and occasional onstage shenanigans.  This is a very smooth act, slick in the Sixties mode, but undoubtedly entertaining.

The biggest, baddest Scot of the lot was the low of brow, foul of mouth, rowdy, raucous Billy Connelly.  Once a Humblebum with current chart star Gerry Rafferty, Connelly has become a favorite music/comedy act in the U.K. as a solo.  Though I missed his late sets, the consensus of my spies was that he was more outrageous than ever --not necessarily better, but definitely more outrageous, even gross.  (Better, perhaps, to pick up one of his many albums.)  Ah well, something for everyone.  The something for me was the act which most lured me to the Festival: Five Hand Reel.  Lead by acoustic and electric guitar whiz (and Folkscene idol) Dick Gaughan, it’s a comparatively new group known only by reputation and records to U.S. electric folk fans.  They did not disappoint.  A bit more rock-oriented than other acts on the bill, that orientation is a more instrumental than psychic one.  Everybody in the band sings, sometimes with three different solo vocalists in one song.  The drums and bass are never too heavy; in fact, bassist Barry Lyons (once in the Peggs’ band, Mr. Fox) is so creative, his lines should have been up further in the sound mix.  His bass and Gaughan’s ever-inspired guitar would share the same melody line, split into harmony, come back and leave again a different way, in the best British electric folk style.  Their songs center on either trad or original Scots or Irish tunes or themes, including reels, pipe tunes and ballads.  Whatever the song, in the 10 hands of Five Hand, the result is dramatic. (We’ll be discussing Gaughan and Five Hand Reel in more detail in a future issue.)

Folkscenes articles involving the Red Clay Ramblers
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July 4, 2004