REVIEW by John L Williams

NWR Issue 102

Bert: The Life and Times of AL Lloyd & The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

by Dave Arthur; Steve Roud & Julia Bishop (eds)


I met Bert Lloyd once. It was some time during the summer of 1980. I was a nineteen-year-old post-punk who’d recently decided that folk music was the true revolutionary sound of the people. Lloyd was a seventy-year-old communist who’d been one of the key architects of the folk revival. I had recently read his book, Folk Song in England, and liked it so much that I’d even stuck a quote from it on the cover of my band’s one and only single.

The occasion of our meeting was a gig by the Scottish folk singer and communist, Dick Gaughan, at the Half Moon pub in Putney. I’d recently written to Gaughan with some half-baked notions of a radical alliance between the revolutionary wings of folk song and post-punk. Much to my amazement he’d written back, apparently very pleased at the idea of such a connection, and expressing his frustration at the slide of the folk clubs into cosy irrelevance.

So I’d hitched up to London to see the show and said hello to the extremely convivial Gaughan, then in the last of his drinking years. He was pleased to see me and introduced me to various folk world luminaries, among them the fiddler Barry Dransfield, and then, much to my amazement, the great AL ‘Bert’ Lloyd himself. Bert turned out to be a grandfatherly looking feller with a round bald head and glasses, and a manner which managed to be simultaneously twinkly and rather stern.

I only had the briefest of conversations with him. At nineteen, I was tongue-tied and awkward with older people. Anyway, he was just about to go on stage, happy to be just another floor singer at the folk club. He sang two songs, I don’t remember which exactly, but they were both gently bawdy numbers from the folk tradition, sung in a deliberately quavery voice which made him sound older than he was. I remember wondering whether he was actually a traditional singer as opposed to a folk revivalist. This has always been a very live issue in the complex politics of folk music. A lot rides on the distinction between the ‘real thing’, the traditional singer – someone who had come by their repertoire organically, by growing up in a community in which traditional songs had been passed down through the generations – and the folk revivalist – typically someone who’d come upon the music as a student and learned their repertoire from recordings.

So which was Bert Lloyd...?

John L Williams’ latest book, America’s Mistress, The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt (Quercus), was published this autumn.

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previous review: Enemy of the Ants
next review: Hook, Line & Singer, A Sing-along Book


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