A public service upload: Alex Campbell (1931-87), the godfather of all modern troubadours in Britain – ‘there’ before all the 60s people – live at the BBC 1966-79. These recordings are sourced from transcription discs and give a flavour of his folk club act in the middle 60s and then a concert recording from the mid 70s and finally Cambridge Folk Festival in 1979.
Alex was foremost an entertainer – from the Paris streets in the 50s to being a top draw during the peak of the folk club boom in the 60s and on into being a grand old man of the European folk festival scene in the 70s and 80s. He did write some songs – ‘My Old Gibson Guitar’ is among the songs in the montage, while ‘Been On the Road So Long’ (not in the montage, alas) remains his compositional classic.
Repertoire-wise, he was a bit like Leadbelly in the US in the 30s and 40s – a repository of songs from all kinds of sources, from Scottish traditional songs to Music Hall numbers, blues, Woody Guthrie songs, and original songs by his peers that took his fancy. He was, for instance, among the first to record songs by Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs (on his 1967 Danish LP ‘Live at the Tivoli’ – amazingly, the only one of his recordings currently available on either CD/DL).
The influence went both ways – Jansch, for instance, recorded Alex’s ‘Been On the Road So Long’ in 1965 and then again in 1989, and kept playing it to the end. He also recorded songs that Alex sang, gleaned from other places – one fantastic example is the Scottish trad song ‘I Loved A Lass’ (in the montage here at 13:35 – my highlight of the whole 70+ minutes), and another is ‘Love Is Teasing’, which Alex also plays in the montage, telling the audience that he heard it during the early days of the folk revival, in the late 50s, from the singing of Isobel Sutherland – so that’s Sutherland to Campbell to Jansch: the folk process in action.
When I wrote ‘Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival’ (published 2000), I made a point of stretching the research out sideways and back, to try and capture something of the whole British folk club world of the 1960s. I knew that I’d be chronicling people who would probably never ‘get’ their own biography – and besides, I was curious.
(I did this to such an extent that the publisher, Bloomsbury, didn’t get it – they wanted a linear one-artist biography and prepared a heavily edited version. I stood my ground, prepared to walk away from the deal – though I willingly conceded to a very tight line edit within my -Artist+scene’ parameters. Bloomsbury acquiesced. Ironically, the editor I was doing battle with at that point is now my literary agent. :-D)
Anyway… Alex Campbell was one of those people I had in mind. A hugely important figure in British music, but probably not with the qualities that would get him over the line with a modern publisher – even were anyone to tackle his tale. Looking at Wikipedia, I’m a bit shocked to see that five of the 10 source citations are from ‘Dazzling Stranger’. Looks like I was right. 🙁
Here is an extract from ‘Dazzling Stranger’ on the man who began it all – for every touring singer/songwriter from Britain that you can think of. The list goes all the way up to Ed Sheeran. But we can’t hold Alex entirely responsible for that…
* * * * * * * *
Clive Palmer, Wizz Jones and Davy Graham all had experience of Europe to impart but the greatest role model of them all, the king of the road both then and for years to come, was a Glasgow man. A deeply charismatic, romantic figure who ricocheted off every corner of the embryonic folk revival, never stopping long in any one place, save perhaps his kingdom on the streets of Paris, Alex Campbell was some years older than the Bert Jansch generation but still one of them. An entertainer first, with no left-wing ties, Campbell knew all about Ewan MacColl and his views and disdained them. MacColl would have reciprocated in kind save for one complication: Alex Campbell was married to Peggy Seeger, the woman he loved.
‘Alex married Peggy for Ewan,’ says Steve Benbow, ‘and the story is he never got paid. She couldn’t work here unless she had a work permit or became a British citizen. I think they used Alex. I don’t know why. A strange business.’ Ewan had fallen for Peggy on their first-time meeting, in March 1956, but he was already married to his second wife, Jean Newlove. They met again at the World Festival of Democratic Youth in Moscow in July 1957. Peggy returned to Britain to work with Ewan in the spring of 1958, but someone reported her expired work permit to the Home Office and she was given two days to leave. She went to France but was deported back and forth to Belgium and Holland, in a sequence of international buck-passing, before finally ending up, seven months pregnant, at a friend’s flat in Paris.
‘Alex Campbell broke the chain of events by marrying me in Paris on January 24 1959,’ she later wrote. ‘It was a hilarious ceremony. The American priest, in surplice and sneakers, lectured Alex at length on his forthcoming lifetime commitment to the poor girl whom he had gotten into such trouble. The following day I arrived, unimpeded, in London, six weeks before the birth of my first son. I swore allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and settled down with Ewan, with great upheaval for everyone concerned.’
One must wonder whether the marriage was, to one of its participants at least, greater than a thing of convenience: ‘Alex, whenever he got drunk,’ says Bert, ‘that was the one subject he brought up. You’d have to take that on board to assess Ewan’s character.’
Born in Glasgow in the 1920s, Alex Campbell was a true romantic: a tearful sentimentalist, a ribald comedian, a troubadour, a legend in his own lifetime and perhaps in his day the most loved man in British folk. He would be the British blueprint for the Bert Jansch generation. Alex passed through all the key places at all the key times, played some songs, gave encouragement to the young up-and comings, and moved on along the road. He is recalled, for example, as an early performer at Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner’s Blues & Barrelhouse club in the late fifties; he was a regular at Malcolm Nixon’s Ballads & Blues during its ACTT period; and he managed one visit to the Howff, enjoying the place so much, in Hamish Imlach’s words, that ‘he ended up staying for days, missing gigs all over the country’. Alex Campbell, in the early years of the folk revival, was everywhere. But who was he and where had he come from?
In response to what must now be viewed as the definitive Campbell interview, for Folk News in 1978, Dominic Behan wrote a lengthy letter questioning Alex’s version of history, effectively his place in the folk revival, and his ‘criticisms’ of MacColl. In fact, Campbell had been both generous and philosophical about his old adversary: ‘I don’t think there’ll ever be as good a writer as MacColl,’ said Campbell. ‘He’s written some rubbish but his work on the Radio Ballads, that’ll stand for all time. I went to see his show recently. After all the kerfuffle about him being him and me being me and never the twain shall meet, we are both doing literally the same kind of show. Because MacColl’s now a showman. I don’t know, perhaps he always was.’
‘Alex certainly met Peggy when he was in France,’ wrote Behan, a tad mischievously in response, ‘but did he know Ewan well too? I do not recollect Ewan talking about him and I do not remember seeing him except in the circumstances I have described.’
The circumstances Behan referred to were essentially those occasions, the earliest being the Edinburgh Festival of 1963, when Dominic and Alex worked together. Dominic was falling into the trap of believing that because he had not been aware of Alex prior to this (and Alex had initially been recommended to Dominic as an accompanist by Steve Benbow, otherwise engaged at the time), Alex had therefore played no previous role in the folk revival. He could not have been more wrong. In articulating a view held by many of those hundreds of younger performers – some destined for greatness, others to be no more than floor singers at their local club ± a subsequent published response to Behan’s revisionism, from one Michael Sutton, provides a compelling testament to Alex Campbell’s place in history:
‘From giving encouragement and instruction to young performers,’ wrote Sutton, ‘we saw him giving due acknowledgement and homage to the original sources of the songs he sang and, above all, we saw him reaching out to audiences, many of whom knew very little about folk music, and turning them on to it – planting a rich harvest for others to reap. In those days the folk scene was a very factional affair, full of splinter groups with chips on their shoulders. But while the scribes and pharisees were haggling over the finer points of doctrinal orthodoxy in small back rooms, Alex was going out among the folk, spreading the good word.’
‘What I do is so ephemeral, man, it’s a nothing,’ Alex once said. But he did not really mean it. ‘In those days it was like being a missionary. I was at a party once. There were fourteen people and thirteen said I was the first folk singer they’d ever heard.’ Alex Campbell reputedly made a hundred records in his lifetime. He never took them too seriously and, in any case, they never sold. As for himself, he always learned songs from people, not records, and only ever wrote a handful of songs himself. One of these, ‘Been On The Road So Long’, was penned in the early sixties and became his calling card, his ethos and his epitaph. Bert Jansch would record it several times during his own career.
‘Alex was larger than life,’ says Dolina MacLennan, who put him up in Edinburgh many times. ‘A total and utter romantic, totally outrageous and a wonderful entertainer – full of jokes but always close to tears as well.’ ‘He was good at getting himself gigs,’ says Martin Carthy, ‘but he didn’t tour in the same way you do now. He’d come back from Paris in the winter, get himself some gigs and then go back to Paris. There were people who despised him, others who thought he was wonderful. In his way, he was a star.’
‘When you’re a young man you think you’re going to be a poet,’ said Campbell. ‘I came into folk music from poetry, reading the ballads. I never realised they were sung. Then it must have been 1947 or 1948 I saw Jean Ritchie at the Festival Hall. It floored me. [But] I never thought I would sing folk songs in my life. The whole thing’s an accident.’
Campbell’s eventual embracing of music as a living and his near-invention of the troubadour lifestyle that went with it can be traced back to Baden Powell, the ‘gang shows’ and the arduous country hikes that were part of a Glasgow boy scout’s experience. For a slum kid, it was the only way to see what lay beyond the concrete. By the 1930s Campbell’s family, originally from the Hebrides, were poverty-trapped city dwellers. His mother, father and two sisters had all died from TB in the same year. Alex was rescued from an orphanage by his grandmother who managed to bring him up on a meagre pension. Being involved in scouting’s contribution to the war effort in Glasgow enabled him to mix with the various Polish, Australian and American servicemen based in the city, and to soak up their songs and culture: ‘I knew Leadbelly songs during the war. I knew ‘‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton” before I heard it sung by anybody else. I knew ‘‘Goodbye Booze”. These were all wartime songs. [But] Northern children in my generation, in any town in Scotland, were brought up with a whole background of folk music.’
Campbell got a job with the Civil Service and made his way up to Higher Executive Officer. One day, in 1955, he lost his temper, took it out on two of his clerks and was obliged to resign. Having already visited Paris and enjoyed the place, he returned on a whim and took a course at the Sorbonne. ‘I went over with £800 which was a lot of bread in those days and I ran through that in a month. So there I am without any bread or anything at all except a guitar, so I started to sing in the streets.’ It would be a way of life for the next six years.
‘I was lucky being in the right place at the right time in Paris. How was Ito know there was going to be a folk revival? It was so unusual then to see a street singer. There were the chain-breakers and the sword-swallowers and the fire-eaters but there were no folk singers in the streets. It was against the law. It was foreigners like myself who would do it. I was singing Leadbelly, skiffle numbers, occasional Scottish songs that I’ve known since I was a wee boy. Then again, I didn’t consider them folk songs– I was just a skiffler.’
After a year or so, Campbell and a hard-drinking American called Derroll Adams secured a residency at the Contrascarpe, a popular cabaret cafe,which Campbell maintained for three and a half years on fifteen shillings a night, seven nights a week. He continued to work the streets, and to sell the New York Herald Tribune around the cafes at midnight. ‘Paris at that time was a tremendous melting pot. We all mixed together: poets, painters, artists, writers. It became a sort of proving ground. Almost all the young kids like Wizz Jones, Malcolm Price, Davy Graham, they all came over. We had a system: the good cafes, the good theatre queues, that was for the residents, the guys who’d been there a long time. The new ones, you could tell them, ‘‘You work there . . .” I was called King of The Quarter at one time. I was more or less The Man.’
Alex would also make forays back to Britain. The sixties were approaching and the London folk scene rapidly growing. ‘When I came back MacColl was a huge influence on the scene. I sang at the Ballads & Blues when he was still singing there. I think maybe we didn’t get on too well because, maybe, I was more of a Scotsman than he was. I’ve a tremendous respect for the guy but I didn’t like his approach to the people.’ Campbell had first heard MacColl on record, and had assumed him to be an Englishman imitating a Scots accent. When MacColl’s diktat of singing only music from one’s own national or regional background came along, Campbell was having none of it: ‘I was of the opinion that I loved Guthrie songs particularly, and I was going to sing Guthrie songs. Whether I was doing it authentically or correctly or not I didn’t give a damn. So much so that it crystallised in an article in the Observer that said you were either a MacCollite or a Campbellite. I was put into a position that I never wanted to be in. [But] those days were good days because there was excitement and controversy on the scene. Josh MacRae called it ‘‘Schism & Booze”. But it made me get to the point where I almost refused to sing any Scottish songs just in defiance of everyone expecting me to. If there hadn’t been that controversy I would have developed differently. I would have been singing my own songs a lot earlier than I did.’
When the spread of folk clubs around Britain began in earnest, Alex became a victim of his own generosity and reputation as an entertainer: ‘I found I was being asked to open folksong clubs. There were very few pros in those days. I don’t think anyone would ask Ewan MacColl to open up a club. For a start, he’d charge a lot more. I went on to open up maybe six hundred clubs. When I reached my nadir it must have been about 1962. I was getting fifteen to thirty bob a night from the clubs. I was sick and fed up with it all.’ By this time Alex was living in London with his partner Patsy and the first of their children: ‘There was one Christmas Eve, we had one egg in the house for the three of us. An egg, that was all. I said, ‘‘Fuck it, Patsy, I’m going to go out and busk.” So I went up to Regent Street and it was marvellous. I really worked, I put on a show. I’d just got to the end of my second song and the police came up and stopped me. I said, ‘‘For Christ’s sake, fellas, let me alone. I need the bread.” ‘‘We can’t,” they said, ‘‘you’re blocking the whole of Regent Street. There’s no traffic moving.” There were literally thousands of people there. I walked away disconsolately. I thought: ‘‘What am I going to do?” And I bumped into Bruce Dunnet. I told him the story and Bruce gave me ten quid. We got a chicken and everything else and that was a good Christmas. Then, of course, it picked up. I rolled along with the revival. But that’s how low it was.’