Black Swan Folk Club

Ahead of a visit from Horizon Award winners at this year’s BBC Folk Awards Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, we caught up with Roland Walls, club organiser of the Black Swan Folk Club to talk folk history, meeting James Taylor and an influx of young talent on the folk scene.

How would you describe the Black Swan Folk Club?

A weekly informal and fairly small concert venue for folk and folk-related acoustic music, presenting mostly professional singers and bands from Britain and overseas in a relaxed and friendly setting.   The club also fosters local amateurs through short “floor spot” supports when there is a booked guest and through monthly “open mic” events called Singers & Musicians Night.  In addition, the club programmes most of the folk concerts at the National Centre for Early Music and runs a very successful free festival each year in early June, the City of York Folk Weekend.  It is not a formal “club” in the sense of having membership fees and such like. The club is run by a nucleus of 4 or 5 enthusiasts who are all involved on a purely voluntary basis.  The club has always met at the Black Swan Inn on Peasholme Green, from which it takes its name, and it’s longevity would not have been possible without the active support of landlords past and present.


What prompted the club to start putting on folk nights and how long have they been going for?

The folk club was started sometime in the mid 1970s, towards the end of the great UK folk clubs boom years which began in the early 1960s. The club was set up by students who wanted to have their own club. Like most larger towns and cities, York had several different folk clubs running simultaneously during the 1960s and 1970s, but only the Black Swan has survived as a structured guest artist-booking venue.


What’s been your favourite performance?

Impossible to say!  Some nights do live particularly vividly in the memory from the early years – blues singer Jo Ann Kelly performing to a sardine-can packed full room only a year or so before her untimely death, or Clive Gregson & Christine Collister on their “breakthrough” folk club tour in 1987, or a very youthful Kate Rusby in 1994 – but there have been many more really outstanding nights over the decades.


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Co-organiser Stan Graham (right) with James Taylor at BBC Folk Awards 2009


In 2009 you won the Folk Club Award in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, if so, what was the ceremony like?

It was a great thrill.  The folk scene is a very friendly, uncompetitive place anyway, and it felt like a giant party amongst friends.  Getting our pictures taken with James Taylor was pretty cool too!


How did it feel to win?

We were notified out of the blue by telephone about a month before the ceremony and it came as a complete shock.  The award had generally gone to much larger (100+ capacity) clubs than us and we thought we couldn’t possibly compete with them.  The award was voted on by a secret panel of professional touring musicians, so we can only assume that we had been booking the right people and giving them the right treatment when they visited us.


Folk seems to be influencing a fair bit of pop and indie music recently – what kind of difference has this made to the popularity of the club nights?

A tricky one, as I am totally out of touch with most non-folk and roots music these days. To be honest, I don’t think it has made much difference to the overall audience, but we do find a few younger performers coming to Singers & Musicians Nights who are probably getting into acoustic music-making under the influence of acts like Mumford & Sons or Jake Bugg.


What kind of people come along to the folk club?

All sorts, but our core audience is people in their 50s and 60s who grew up with folk music in the boom years and have either stayed with it all along, or have come back to it in later life.  We do get younger people as well, but not as regularly or as numerous.  With our national and international reputation, we also get tourists visiting York who are folk fans.


Who have you got coming up that you’re excited about and why?

I’m very keen to see this coming Thursday’s guests, Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, who’ve been making a bit of a name for themselves recently, winning the Horizon Award (best new act) at this year’s BBC Folk Awards.  Greg is only around 21 and Ciaran is still a teenager who has just done his A-levels, so they are yet more of those hugely talented young musicians who have revitalised the folk scene in recent years. Looking further ahead, there’s BBC Folk Singer of the Year, Bella Hardy (a York St. John graduate, by the way) with Canadian singer Cara Luft (formerly of The Wailin’ Jennys) on the 16th October.  Then in December the doyen of English folk singers, Martin Carthy is with us, still going strong after nearly 55 years as a working musician!  We anticipate so much demand that we’ve booked him for two consecutive nights, 3rd & 4th December.


How do you think York rates nationally for folk music?

The local folk scene is very healthy at every level.  There is a flourishing network of musicians’ sessions and informal pub singing events which complement nicely the things that we offer at the Black Swan.  There is a lively folk dance scene as well, both social dancing and Morris dancing (watch out for the Festival of Traditional Dance on 6th September) and we have a flourishing independent music shop (Red Cow Music) specialising in folk and acoustic instruments.  In Blackbeard’s Tea Party we have the most nationally successful York-based band in many years, while Fake Thackray and Union Jill are also making waves across the country from their respective bases in York.  In the world of folk music I would say York punches well above its weight!


Any last words for the punters?

To all those who have helped us keep going over the last 40 years, very many thanks for your support.  To others who like live music, do come and check us out sometime.  There is nothing quite like watching a top class performer “up close and personal” in a small room packed with 50 keen listeners.


Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar play at the Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green on Thursday the 28th of August 2014 at 8pm.