Oral historians

Howkins, Alun (6 of 17).  Oral History of Oral History

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  • Recording date

    2008-03-03, 2009-04-21, 2009-06-11, 2009-07-30, 2009-10-08, 2009-10-29, 2009-12-10, 2010-04-22, 2010-11-17, 2011-08-15

  • Interviewees

    Howkins, Alun, 1947- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Wilkinson, Robert (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 6: [Session three: 4 June 2009] Became more involved in the folk revival. Folk clubs 3-4 nights a week in Old Harlow, Bishops Stortford, Saffron Walden. Did not like all aspects of the folk revival. Some of it was too hippyfied and medievalised, for example Tim Hart and Maddie Prior before Steeleye Span. Shirley and Dolly Collins did medieval music but more authentic, their Anthems in Eden was staggering. Genuine attempt to fuse medieval songs with medieval instrumentation.  However, the elfin aspect of folk was summed up by the young tradition who mixed Copper family harmonies with weird range of psychedelic, elfish, medieval stuff which had nothing to do with the English tradition. [06:40] Going back to folk clubs reintroduced him to musicians he had been wary of such as Martin Carthy who had developed into a great musician. Carthy wished to work within the folk tradition but build upon it. He was attacked for joining Steeleye Span. Liked the first Steeleye Span album and some later ones when Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick rejoined. Ashley Hutchins and Albion Band were yet more serious although he did not like them.  [08:20] Bands like Fairport Convention had no impact on him. Discusses how his musical horizons broadened when at Ruskin and met people who knew a lot more about popular music. Talks about blues music.  Talks about the unity of working peoples music from around the world blues jazz, flamenco, calypso etc. Which had a proletarian cultural politics to it. Tells a story of when Ewan McColl met Sonny Boy Williams at a folk festival and describes Ewans song as white boys blues. Discusses his route from folk music to more popular forms of music. Talks about the concept of authenticity in folk music. There is no authentic version of traditional songs, for example House of the Rising Sun. Talks about the origin of the song The Owlesbury Lads. [16:00] Talks about a search for an authenticity in folk music. A rejection of the airy fairy medieval folk music and a search for authentic folk music. Talks about the English Folk Dance and Song Society. EFDSS claimed that folk music was dead and there was no point in collecting songs from anyone born after 1840 as universal education had killed the traditional folk song. In 1940s the BBC, with Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy (son of Douglas Kennedy), collected new songs and produced As I rode out which is the basis of Reg Halls twenty volume Topic set. Bob Copper starts collecting in the 1950s commissioned by the BBC. Nick Patrick played him some recordings made by George Ewart Evans of Suffolk singers. Phillip Donnellan, a BBC producer, was a vitally important person in folk music. Recorded Sam Larner, Harry Cox and Shrimp Davies, a singer and dancer from Cromer. And films at Blaxhall in Suffolk with people dancing and singing. [20:00] the folk revival passes the EFDSS by. McColl and Bert Lloyd loathed the EFDSS who they thought were trying to embourgeois the folk song. Wasnt until the mid-sixties that the EFDSS caught up with the folk revival. A club started in Cecil Sharp House but it was still very dance orientated and the music and audience were very strange. The bands that played here were influenced by Jimmy Shand not the English folk tradition. Vic Gammon, Peta Webb, Rod and Danny Stradling and the Hammersmith Morris Men, who were on the edge of Cecil Sharp House, got involved in a back to the people movement. But the EFDSS were not involved. People such as Mike Yates who were collecting again did not get support from the EFDSS. The EFDSS  did record some important artists such as Harry Cox and the Copper family, but these were singers who were already known. The Thaxted Festival was created by the EFDSS. He went a few times in 1968 and 1969. There were still people from England singing in American accents which Ewan McColl had railed against arguing that people should only sing songs from their own tradition. [24:45] The folk clubs he visited in Harlow, the Queens Head, Willow Beauty.  Also a club in Hoddesdon where there were residents singing Copper family style songs. Tim Hart and Maddie Prior used to play there but before his time.  He had begun performing at these clubs. Was singing unaccompanied and in English style. Lists his English influences. Talks about cassette recording of music. Talks about his friend Colin Croker who was an Irish music fanatic and recorded Irish folk music on his cassette player. [31:45] Talks about the organisation of folk clubs. But by the mid-seventies folk clubs were making money. Even good artists such as Martin Carthy were paid small sums of money however and he was required to sing for his supper. By 1968 Martin Carthy was well known and could sell out any folk club in the country. Some artists started to become successful and the clubs were too small for them. Ewan McColl and Peggy  Seeger began to demand a stage to perform on. Mentions that most clubs had a resident artist and their role. A lot of people were visiting folk clubs with at least 600 clubs in the country. There are very few clubs still open now. [40:04] His political activities in Harlow (not very much) and the politics in Harlow Town Square.  [42:20] Talks about his job as a copywriter, started at Pinnacles. Attached to Pinnacles warehouse was Longmans Education. In Spring 1968 moved into new building at Burnt Mill. He did jacket copy, but mostly press advertising, and catalogue leaflets which is more important for education books. Worked in Spring big campaign to launch a new set of primary school books. Talks about selling books via reps. Remembers selling books with the reps. Discusses how his job as a copywriter worked. Many people who worked there were frustrated artists. One of them, Jeremy Gibson, was a respected historian in north Oxfordshire. Around the time they moved to Burnt Mill they began to receive graduate trainees and these people were different. Before he left Longmans was taken over by Cowdray Group. [54:50] Alun wanted to move into editorial work but was only offered an editorial job when he left to go to Ruskin. If he had been offered the job a few months earlier he would not have become a historian.  He was at the time writing bad, dated poetry. Wrote quite a lot but was not good at revising it. Was reading Larkin and Ted Hughes. Knew the writer George OBrien at Ruskin who wrote Dance Hall Days. Talks about the structure of Longmans and publishing and editing. [1:02:00] Decided to go to Oxford. His wife did not like Harlow and still knew people in Oxford. Settled in Oxford quickly his wife got a job and son went to playgroup. [1:04:40] Talks about his house in Harlow. Talks about his neighbours. His wife did not like folk music and did not get to know many people in Harlow. Was friends with the potter Alan Spencer Green who was collected by the Duke of Edinburgh. Potted in the style of Leach [1:08:11 1:09:37 closed until 6th November 2032] His last period in Harlow was much better for his wife. Could have stayed in Harlow as an editor but chose Oxford. [1:12:10] Moved to Stimsons Farm Cottage just outside Oxford. His wife stayed for two years. His wife got a job as a PA in Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford University, through Derek Morell. Explains his daily routine. [1:16:20] He got a grant from the Department of Education. Grant was reasonable. Money was not a problem. Derek Morell kept an eye on his wife and her sister and made sure they were alright. Very positive role in their lives. Morell died in the late 1970s. Remained in touch with his wife. [1:20:25] His first impression of Ruskin was that it was very scary. Went to study economics and politics because he wanted to work in the trade union movement or politics. The other students were all much more experienced in trade union political movement. Hard men who had led strikes, been blacklisted, were members of the Communist Party, broke up fascist meetings with violence. Many of the Ruskin students had received scholarships from trade unions and were working class unionists. He was left out of this group because he was married and lived out of university halls and did not get to socialise with them. There were problems with working class people being uprooted and put into Oxford. [1:28:30] About five weeks he decided to switch to study history after a tutor, Raphael Samuel, said that economics was the possession of the class enemy and told him about the history of Bicester and he realised he would like to study the history of working people. Lists people who studied history in that year. Was taught by John Walsh probably the most important historian of religion in 20th century, and Tim Mason who taught European history. Became good friends with Tim Mason. After Christmas went back to study English history. Also taught by Harry Pollins, an economist who worked on the economic history of the railways, and by the charismatic Raphael Samuel. Probably would not have studied history if he had not met Raphael. Had planned to do economics and politics and perhaps study PPE at University of Oxford. Most Ruskin students did not go on to university. Many went back to the unions who sponsored them. Talks about some of the students who went back to their old unions. [1:40:32] Many students went on to Garnett College, a teacher training college attached to the University of London which had a radical reputation. Ruskin was accused of taking people out of the Labour Movement and betraying the working class. Some did and left the Labour Movement entirely. [1:44:43] There was an argument that the union scholarships were given to troublemakers to get them out of the union. This was true of some at Ruskin who were very militant. Talks about radical member of different unions. But many at Ruskin were simply Labour Party members. Many of these non-radicals stayed more loyal to Ruskin. Many at Ruskin were altruistic and were there to help others. Biggest sell-outs at Ruskin were people like him working as a professor with a mortgage.       [1:51:15 1:52:23 closed until 6th November 2032] In March 1969 he moved out into a bed-sit in Oxford. This enabled him to become more involved in Ruskin, the politics, social life, drinking and history. [1:54:12 - 1:55:51 removed from original track until 6th November 2032]

  • Description

    Life story interview with Alun Howkins, Emeritus Professor of History at University of Sussex and agricultural historian and folklorist.

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