A history of Edinburgh Folk Club

40th Anniversary (2013) 

updated 2015 from the original 

Here, long-time EFC member Jean Bechhofer shares her memories of Edinburgh Folk Club over the years. 

She writes: “I have been a regular attender and singer at the club since 1975 and chaired the committee often enough to have known better, but when in 2003, Paddy Bort (the current Chair), asked me to dig into my memory box and present a history of the club, I agreed. This was very much a personal reminiscence of the EFC.  

"Tempting as it was, I decided not to do this in ballad form, although I did once present my chair-person's report as a Talking Blues! Ten years later Paddy asked me to up-date the account.”

Long standing members - and those with seats - will have to forgive me if they feel they have read it all before. Those of you who have become regulars in the past decade, and who are so crucial to the continuing existence of this club, are most welcome to read or remain in ignorance!

Although much remains the same there are inevitably gaps in the roll-call of faithful members, whom we remember so fondly.  particularly Maggie Cruickshank, Paddie Bell, Nick Keir, Bobby Eaglesham, Rita and Dougie Anderson, Al Burns, and Bob Bertram.  There are also too many missing names of artists whose performances delighted and moved us - Davie Steele, John Watt and Michael Marra to name three club favourites.

The folk music 'Revival' came to prominence in Scotland over 40 years ago, although it soon became clear that songs and singing were indeed alive and well in most rural areas.  By 2003 we preferred to speak of ‘The Carrying Stream’ acknowledging the past, present, and future of the songs and music of our folk.  The roots of our music are still strong although some of the branches have, alas, died off.  From a time when there were many small and larger clubs enabling musicians and singers to plan Scottish tours of up to three weeks in length, there are now many fewer clubs and indeed some of the best loved have fallen by the wayside.  There was a period in the 70s when Edinburgh could boast of having four weekly clubs. The EFC, the Triangle, The Crown and The Police Folk Club (or as it was affectionately known Fuzz Folk), all overlapped in audience to some extent but also had their own regulars.  The EFC alone has managed to survive for 40 years while overcoming various crises on the way.  A welcome newcomer in the last decade has been The Leith Folk Club.

The EFC had a varied life in its first twenty or so years, having to pack bags and move on far too frequently. However it has been our fortune to be able to stay put at The Pleasance for almost all of the past two decades.

So how did it all start?  Most people in the folk scene in Edinburgh have heard of The Howff and The Buffs, Edinburgh’s original folk clubs, which were active during the early 60s. By the early 70s, the Buffs' folk club had been closed by the police because it was operating as a club within a club!  Three of the clubs mentioned above had by then been established.  However the Triangle was non-licensed, the Crown was mainly a student venue, and the Police Club membership was limited to the police (some of whom at least appreciated folk music).  Independent folk concerts were also taking place from time to time.  
Enter stage left Three Wise Folkies.  Kenny Thomson, alas now no longer alive, who was a journalist with The Daily Record, a fan of skiffle and a well regarded song writer; Ian Green, Sergeant Green in those days, who had grown up around Forres and could sing a fine bothy ballad and was involved with Fuzz Folk and of course founder of Greentrax; and John Barrow, who while still a student, had already been putting on folk concerts for the Edinburgh Students' Charities Appeal and Edinburgh University Yorkshire Society.  There was a fourth member of this group, Sid Kyman, who moved away shortly afterwards.  These founders eventually met up in Sandy Bell's, which had become the Mecca for folk musicians from far and near.  John admits that it was as well he had been unable to find Sandy Bell's while he was an undergrad (because it was then officially called The Forrest Road Bar).  Touring and local artists were always looking for small venue bookings.  Folk clubs were thriving in other Scottish cities. The lads all felt Edinburgh could do with another club after the demise of the Buffs.

So, in September 1973, Edinburgh Folk Club opened up in the basement of the Chaplaincy Centre in George Square.  Kenny was Chairman, and MC, John was Secretary, and Ian, Treasurer.  Of course the women were not left out.   Lesley Barrow, June Green, and Hilda Scott were much involved.  In the George Square years, sausage baps, or sandwiches were available in the kitchen during the interval prepared by these willing slaves.  This room achieved a certain notoriety.  The Person 'On the door' sat at the entrance to the kitchen in the corridor leading to the hall, and not in the venue, which made it difficult to hear the music.  Hence the rule that the only person, committee and floor-singers included, who didn't pay for entrance was the 'Door'.  The other access to the kitchen was from the back of the hall.  The cognoscenti, and the intolerant, would escape from the hall into the kitchen from time to time!  It was the Cool Place to be, although not exactly cool.

The club rapidly acquired a large following of floor singers and a regular crowd of members.”

The club rapidly acquired a large following of floor singers and a regular crowd of members.  By the time I joined the club in 1975, you had to clock in before 7.30pm if you were after one of the six floor spots on offer. The room was full to capacity with 60 people, and felt quite busy with 30.  Indeed during the summer months, we often had the House Full sign up. At that time it was customary for singers to be given hospitality in the home of a willing member which frequently led to after-club partying till the wee small hours.

It would be space-wise very difficult to list here individually all the established and up-and coming singers and groups who appeared at the EFC during the 70s  Many more Edinburgh based artists looking to develop a career in folk music were also starting to look for gigs.

The original triumvirate pulled out gradually, Kenny because of work commitments, Ian ditto, although he continued to run Fuzz Folk for like minded enthusiastic Boys in Blue.  John resigned as secretary in 1978 to become the first director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival.  By then the club had an active committee, and a formal constitution was worked out. This was necessary because the club began to look for funding for specific events from the likes of the Scottish Arts Council. The EFC promoted several concerts during the 70s and 80s, with varying degrees of success financially.  In addition each summer the club presented major acts on the already expanding 'Fringe', which made the club more secure financially.

During the summers of the mid-70s the club also put on extra folk nights in the George Square venue.  When the weather was good we used the garden for Singer’s Nights.  I recall Jock Weatherston, a very fine bothy ballad singer, perched on top of a backward facing chair, which slowly toppled to the ground while he never missed a note.

By the late 70s it became apparent that the George Square venue was no longer ideal either in size or in its facilities.  The Chaplaincy Centre was unlicensed, and located away from the centre of town - although rather near Sandy Bell's.  The drouthier members of the audience would depart for Bell's at half time and often forget to come back!  Audiences, which had often been at capacity, dropped in numbers. The committee of the time decided to take the plunge and moved the Club to the Carlton Hotel function suite.  This was a good move although it meant more work for the committee to ensure larger audiences.  There was a bar at the back of the function room and we tried to train staff not to be too noisy.  The chairs were a lot more comfortable than those spartan basement oddities in the Chaplaincy Centre.

After an initial good spell, there was a brief period when numbers fell away again.  However by 1982 the club was flourishing once more with an enthusiastic committee.  Good presentation has always been a major feature in ensuring the club's success.  The Carlton's function room had a high bandstand in one corner, which was not ideal.  We had a very competent DIY member Tim Giles, who built a 4-part folding stage, which was set up in the middle of the long wall and which we were able to store under the offending bandstand.

Then came the bombshell. In the Spring of ’82 the EFC had planned a benefit evening for Nic Jones, one of England's best loved singers, who had suffered a horrendous road accident earlier in the year.  At 5pm on the night, I was rung up by the Hotel management to say they had been informed by the Police that their entertainment licence was out of order. Because the club charged admission we could not go ahead that night, or indeed for some time to come, until they had sorted out their licence.  We got round it that particular night by asking for ‘voluntary’ donations.  However, for the next few months, we were indeed Travelling Folk personified.

The committee researched a variety of venues in Edinburgh.  The club appeared in various places such as The Queen's Hall, Oscar's Disco (Dave Swarbrick rather enjoyed playing in a disco!), the West End Hotel, The Scottish Experience and, for the first time, The Pleasance, which was a student bar, not at all as it is now,. Our loyal members followed us round town. Keeping them informed from week to week was a major publicity headache, but the press and the BBC were very accommodating. There were no e-mails, Facebook or website facilities available then.  Quite the most successful 'outing', was to Theatre Workshop for 'A Duck on His Head', a theme night presented by Bill Caddick, Pete Bond and Tim Laycock.  The venue was perfect since we were able to use proper stage lights and sound for a delightful show.

When the Carlton sorted itself out we returned there, but only briefly.  The economics of club running require the venue management to behave reasonably and not wish to milk a regular booking.  The committee decided it had to leave the Carlton which was due to be rebuilt anyway, and we moved back to the Scottish Experience and then eventually again to The Pleasance Bar.

As it was then, The Pleasance had one student bar with booths and a few tables.  The Cabaret Bar did not exist. The rebuilding and development of the area had not yet been completed, and generally audiences at that time were less willing to visit this side of town.  Once more the Club committee decided to up sticks and moved to the more central Osborne Hotel.  This was a good venue, although it was hard work keeping the club in the public eye.  By the late 80s, the club's popularity was waning and there was a decided risk that it might even close down.  A determined group of regulars took over, and once again reversed this trend.

However by the time we reached the early 90s, the Osborne management like the Carlton's, thought it saw an opportunity to milk the club and tried to raise the rent beyond our means.  So once again the club moved on, this time to The Café Royal, which turned out to be an excellent venue.

The Café Royal has the best natural acoustic of any venue we have used.  There was PA available, but it was not always necessary allowing a wonderful intimacy with the audience - broken only by the noisy hand-drier in the ladies!  The bar was in a separate attached room available only to our audience - and local 'musos' who crept in after half time.  We were able to offer The Poozies their first gig!  And as I recall Fiddler’s Bid’s first Edinburgh gig.  

This was a venue which took a lot of running but which attracted good audiences and a fine roster of artists.  And of course, eventually the management became greedy and did not value the benefit of a regular income from us once a week as opposed to an occasional Wednesday function booking, so the Club made yet another move -back to the ‘new’ Pleasance.  By now the conversion of the Cabaret bar had taken place, thanks to the popularity of Stand Up Comedy at 'The Fringe'.  It had become in many ways the ideal venue for our club.  For a few years the club prospered.

Fortune keeps the wheel turning though not always for the best.  By the late 90s the booking style of the Club changed and with this went popularity with the public.  More concerning was a period of mis-management with a major loss of funds.  Drastic measures were needed. Once again a determined group of old hands, encouraged by founder members, stepped in and took the Club into the new century, increasing its membership, popularity and funds to a very respectable level.

Indeed, according to Radio 2, EFC was Folk Club of the Year in 2002, and in October, a committee headed by Paddy Bort with new and experienced club members took over.  As you are all aware, he is still at the helm.

Perhaps what has changed most over the years is the quality, standard and overall performance of ‘folk’ music.  Those qualities varied considerably in the earlier years within the scene.  However looking back at the programmes of those earlier years in the 70s and 80s you can find many singers and musicians still touring and delighting audiences - some of whom may even be here tonight!

The biggest change has to be in the prevalence of small groups duos and bands whose individual talents have continued to push standards of performance to higher and higher levels.  There are of course still many soloists who are welcomed at small clubs and festival venues and EFC tries to bring the best of these to The Pleasance.

There is little doubt that good, bad, and indifferent performances can be found in many other venues in Edinburgh.  We also have to compete with those places offering the musical equivalent of ‘tartan tat’ to our tourist visitors for free.

On the whole I think the club circuit offers a better deal to fans, devotees and visitors looking for music presented with respect for its origins.

In order to remain alive the Edinburgh club has constantly had to review its venue, presentation, booking policy and publicity.  Only the committed, (and maybe they ought to be), appreciate the hard work involved in running a successful club.  For instance compering has always to be taken seriously.  Ours has varied from the witty, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously-slanging style of one long term compere who led most regular acts to believe they were slipping if he didn't insult them, to the Swabian-Irish charm of our present chairman who never uses 3 words if 5 will do!

The committee’s considered decisions, though not always welcomed when they herald change, are essential to ensure the Club's continued existence. Do we all know the joke about how many folkies does it take to change a light bulb?  “One, but four to sing about how good the old one was!”

Singers' nights were very much part of the club’s programme in the 70s and 80s.  Theme Nights, which were also presented occasionally at that time, related to a particular idea such as 'Emigration', 'The Demon Drink', 'Love' or 'A Trip round Britain'.  Regular floor singers chose appropriate songs.  These were then linked by selected readings, poems and humorous anecdotes researched by the narrator, and the whole thing rehearsed as a mini-show.  For the back-drop, the late Ian Cruickshank would create a superb paper sculpture which was raffled off later.

Eventually the committee decided that audiences were falling away for informal singers' nights, and after all there were many sessions, both instrumental and for singers, available free in the pubs of the city. The expansion of places and pubs which encouraged ‘free’ music and session players, resulted in smaller and smaller paying audiences at singers nights. It was suspected that audiences felt, why should they pay for a club ‘session’?

An historic aspect of the club scene which has long gone from Edinburgh is visits to other clubs.  At the period when there were many more weekly folk clubs, inter-club visits were popular.  Floor singers and musicians, and regulars would hire a bus and invade other like-minded souls’ territory if within reasonable driving distance.  We were all a lot younger then and found it easier to get up the morning after.  I can recall such visits to Linlithgow, Dumfries, Hawick, Perth, Melrose, Biggar, Langholm, Alloa, Peebles, and Glenfarg, the only one of these clubs which has survived.  The furthest afield club singers went was in 1983 when Maggie Cruickshank, and Liz Barkess (her beloved sister), Kay Thomson and I were booked by Shetland Folk Festival as support artists.  All that is said about that particular festival is still true!

I also recall taking part in my one and only football match, EFC -v- The Triangle.  They won by virtue of youth on their side, at least that’s what John Barrow and I claimed.  I had tried to persuade my then 11-year old son to sign up for our team but he preferred to play for his school side that day.  Can't think why, he is quite musical after all.  Nowadays he plays in an English Ceilidh Band.  Other social events which came and went were the Quiz Nights, Skittles Matches and Christmas Nights Out at a Chinese restaurant.  Such gatherings had their time, and are remembered with affection.

As time went by, the conventional format of several floor-singers before the booked artist, altered and has eventually settled into  the format of a 'booked' reliable opening floor-spot with drop-in artists, if available, performing before the booked artist in the second half.  As a result, most punters have arrived shortly after we open at 8pm instead of drittling in any time up to 8.30.

More or less at the same time as they were establishing the EFC, not having enough to do with their spare time, John, Kenny and Ian set up the Sandy Bell's Broadsheet.  There was a need for a gig list for artists touring Scotland as well as gossip and reviews of what was going on in the folk world including the various festivals and clubs from Thurso to Newcastleton.  Modern publicity methods and improvements in publishing have overtaken the old, but The Broadsheet served its purpose well.  In the 70s the Club began to produce its own newsletter which was a brief resume of gigs past and gigs to come, which often served to raise the blood pressure of the unwary.  By the 80s the club newsletter had become larger including features about people and events.  Nothing stands still.  The editor of the day, Lynn Cooper, decided to try to go independent and expanded the newsletter to produce a folk mag., Folk's On, with a wider distribution.  In time she was unable to carry this on, and John Brown and Gill Bowman took up the task of editing The Scottish Folk Gazette, as it became.  Such labours of love are very time demanding and inevitably this too folded.  The Living Tradition, a commercial enterprise, has provided a regular overall view of mainly Scottish traditional music..

The EFC newsletter now takes the form of info on coming gigs, supplemented by regular e-mails.  If you are not on our e-mail list, do please sign up on the list at the door, whether you are a member or otherwise.

Looking back I note that the EFC has always responded to a changing scene.  The club programme reflects the increasing quality of as well as quantity of folk music across the board - soloists, duos, groups and bands

Paying audiences expect a high standard of music presented professionally and with good sound in a comfortable venue, preferably with cheap booze.  The Club's programme today involves many more instrumentalists than previously reflecting the preferences of many of the younger musicians.  The club has always tried to present the best of Scottish music.  The proportion of Scottish performers in the programme has increased greatly over the years as a result of the extraordinary flowering of music here, which has produced a folk scene in Scotland which is much stronger than its southern neighbour's whatever media hype may suggest.

"Over the years there have been crises, yes, but there have also been nights, events and people to remember."”

Over the years there have been crises, yes, but there have also been nights, events and people to remember.  In the early years the club would celebrate its anniversaries with a birthday party often in fancy dress.  Much ingenuity was shown by members in producing costumes illustrating a folk theme or song.  To illustrate 'Green Grow The Rashes-O', Liz sported a horrendous case of green measles! Then there was the Christmas Party night when Santa Claus, inadequately disguised as the late Hamish Imlach, greeted bairns and punters alike with 'Ho, Bloody Ho!'.  Another Christmas night there was a crazy Pantomime 'Geordiella' starring Baron Roxy Aden (work it out!).  We also presented a version of the Borders Galoshan Mumming play, and repeated it again some years later.

There are very few well known and well regarded folk singers who have not appeared at the Club”

There are very few well known and well regarded folk singers who have not appeared at the Club in its forty years.  I have two personal memories of great folk singers which I can’t resist recalling.  There was the night when Archie Fisher dropped in with the late Stan Rogers from Canada, and we all were swept away by Stan’s wonderful irreplaceable charm.  Then at long last in November 2001 I arranged for Tom Paxton to sing and run a workshop in our club.  After that I was prepared to give up being on the committee for ever!  To the surprise of many, I can also remember my 60th birthday, which happened on a Wednesday, and as well as the booked artist Wizz Jones, the floor spots came from far and near.  But I also remember the night (which just happened to be April 1st)) when every raffle ticket Frank drew out of the bag had the same number on it.

The club’s Burns Nights have never been conventional, and have even sometimes been 'Non-Burns' nights focussing on what Burns himself might have enjoyed rather than the more conventional celebrations from which he might well be barred were he still around. At our suppers he is still the Bard.  'The Immortal Memory' was, on one early occasion, proposed by dear Hamish Henderson.  After 30 minutes the regulars were getting restive.  When, after a further 30 minutes, he finally ended a magnificent, but time-wise a rather inappropriately judged address, the punters were dying of thirst and the haggis was definitely not reekin’.  Our Burns Nights as well as our love for Hamish however survived. In recent years the Burns Night has attracted many visitors just because of the informality and relaxed atmosphere and good music.

The death of Hamish Henderson in March 2002 was a huge loss for the whole folk community, but particularly for Edinburgh.  The Carrying Stream Festival which was established as a mark of respect to Hamish Henderson, is now a fixed event in our Autumn programme and like all else changes - and stays the same. The EFC committee also decided to celebrate his life by establishing the Hamish Henderson Lecture.  This now  takes place as part of the Carrying Stream Festival, around the time of  Hamish’s birth date on the 11th November 1919.   The  variety of speakers over 11 years has included singers, politicians, writers, and  academics who have given tribute to Hamish at this well attended annual event hosted in the Edinburgh City Chambers jointly by the  EFC and Edinburgh Council.

The Carrying Stream mini-festival, again organised by EFC, brings together artists whose interests and repertoires centre largely round the traditional music of Scotland, past and present, in which Hamish was so deeply involved, collecting and restoring it to prominence. Since this summer, The University of Edinburgh Library has housed a large collection of Hamish’s writings and correspondence, now available for consultation.

In 2011 the indefatigable Paddy Bort , our present Chairperson rallied the EFC committee and many artists and supporters, to commemorate the legendary first People’s Celidh of 1951 with a memorable concert held in the original setting of The Odd Fellows Hall.   Those taking part included Flora MacNeil who sang at the original concert.

Paddy has over  the past few years edited three books, published by Grace Note Publications and  available from the club, covering, first the legacy of Hamish Henderson ( 2010), then Scottish music in the sixty years since the People’s Ceilidh Festival of 1951 (2011), and finally a collection of essays and reminiscences of Hamish (2012).  The wide range of writers, as do the lecture presenters, focus on Hamish’s contribution and importance to the place of the ‘revival’ in contemporary Scottish culture.

Times change, standards alter.  Styles in folk music continue to develop and change while still retaining a firm hold on the roots of the tradition.  ‘The Carrying Stream’ is indeed a more accurate definition now rather than 'The Revival'.  The Edinburgh Folk Club has moved with the times and our programme reflects the changes which have taken place over the years.  Performers frequently write their own material, both songs and tunes.

This tendency was spotted early in the Club's history when the annual Song Writing Competition was established in 1976.  Every year anything up to 30 songs will be entered.  Several well known and well respected singer-songwriters have carried off the cup.  Nancy Nicolson was barred from entering after winning three years running, and appointed a judge instead!  Three judges, a song-writer, a media person, and a member of the club committee wrastle with the task of placing the 'best' three.  Inevitably, each year there are disagreements about the judges' choice.  Recognising this, the committee has provided an Audience Cup - one vote per person - but in that first year audience and judges awarded both cups to the same songwriter.  Hasn't stopped the arguments however!  The Competition continues to attract song about a wide range of topics, and provides an excellent night of music and argument.

There is lack of a folk festival in Edinburgh although every week-end nowadays there appears to be a choice of such gatherings somewhere in Scotland.  However recently there has evolved out of the Ceilidh Collective events at Easter, a bigger event , Tradfest, which EFC contributes to along side other folk-based Edinburgh gatherings.

I am sure that my reminiscences of Wednesdays nights spent at the EFC over nearly forty years, will create arguments over the fact and fiction of our beloved institution.  I did begin by saying these memories are highly personal.  I am exceedingly proud to be one of its select band of life-members.  The club has featured largely in my life and hope will continue to do so as I look forward to the 50th anniversary.

Jean Bechhofer
October 2013