In the mid-sixties, when I was in my teens and living in Birmingham, I discovered folk song, and fell headlong in love with it. My haunts ranged from the Irish folk club ‘The Holy Ground’ to the rather more dubious ‘Grotto’ in Deritend. I sang, played the guitar, and even got paid for it sometimes – much to the displeasure of my head mistress who spotted an ad in the local paper for a forthcoming appearance. And then I came across Charles Parker. Charles was a red-haired, middle-aged but revolutionary radio producer. He and folk singer Ewan McColl were responsible for the innovative series of Radio Ballads, which are the stuff of legend today – Singing the Fishing, The Travelling People and The Big Hewer.
Charles ran a weekly folk song workshop, hosted by Pam and Alan Bishop, and I trotted along to this to learn from my elders and betters. He was a passionate man, and cared passionately about the music and the voices, songs and lives of the people he recorded – the Radio Ballads were innovative because they allowed working people and the dispossessed to speak up for themselves. He wanted everything to have the same veracity; he would tell you if your song moved him to tears, or if it just reeked of artificiality. I found him at first annoying and then inspirational – he and Ewan were intensely political, but whereas Ewan was a hard man, Charles was imaginative and compassionate. I invited him to my wedding a few years later, and he gave us a set of the Radio Ballad records as a gift. I was saddened to read of his early death not so long after that.
The photo you see here is one that I’ve only recently discovered. It was taken in 1967, when I was doing a post-A level project on folk song collecting. Charles took me on a couple of expeditions to visit Mrs Cecilia Costello in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham. Mrs Costello had already been discovered, recorded, and her songs published by earlier collectors – especially the very beautiful ‘Grey Cock’ –but then (according to Charles) neglected and forgotten. He found her again, living in her humble terraced home, full of tales of bygone days in Brum. She sang and talked, and we listened and recorded. Later, I was allowed to ‘borrow’ (strictly against the rules, I gathered!) some of Charles’s BBC equipment and I went on a visit of my own to record her stories and music.
At some point this photo must have been taken, perhaps by Pam Bishop who was building up an archive. And, as I say, I had no knowledge of it until it was used at a recent Charles Parker Study Day as their background image for the whole day. People there were, apparently, asking, ‘Who is this woman?’ One person in the audience knew. That was Doc Rowe, an old folk club buddy of mine, and a lifelong folklore scholar. ‘I know who it is!’ he said. He obtained a copy and sent it on to me. Thank you so much, Doc!
I am now hoping to get a copy of the complete recordings made of Mrs Costello, which were released a few years ago. I have never forgotten her or Charles. In fact, I would say that they have helped to shape my approach as a writer. I learned how powerful the voice of an individual human being can be, to sing songs, conjure up the past, and convey messages from the heart. I put much of what I learned, indirectly, into my book, ‘Your Life, Your Story’. So, thank you too, Charles and Cecilia.