Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies!

by C. P. Lee

I was in love with an obscure object of desire, and her name was Denise. And that is how I got into Folk Music and Bob Dylan. 

I was born in 1950, exactly half way through the century, and I was lucky enough to be a teenager throughout the most exciting time Popular Culture has ever known, but in 1964 I was a boring, fat pig, just a couple of years out of a TB sanatorium, ashamed of my body and obsessed with Airfix kits. Added to that was the uncomfortable fact that my hormones were raging rampantly around my body. I’d been shaving since I was thirteen and I was oozing testosterone from every orifice. Pop music was exploding all around me, but I affected an air of disdain when the Beatles, or the Stones or whoever, appeared on the telly.

In my desperate attempts at being an ‘adult’ I was losing sight of being a teenager. Then for Christmas 1963 my aunty Pat gave me a copy of Freddie and The Dreamers’ first album – signed by the group! It turned out that the drummer, Bernie Dwyer (who died in January this year) was my second cousin, as, I was to find out years later, was Morrissey, a fact that I still haven’t quite come to terms with.

At last I had a bona fide connection to the world of Pop. Now at last girls might like me! But possession of one long playing record was an unlikely passport to sexual pleasure, whatever sexual pleasure may have been. I might be hornier than a three-balled tomcat, but I had no idea of the mechanics of the damn thing! This was the early 60s after all. Taking the album to school and clutching it under my arm like a magickal talisman had absolutely no effect on girls whatsoever. Perhaps it was my insistence on dressing like my father in tweed jacket, cavalry twill trousers and a cravat while all my contemporaries were wearing Chelsea boots and Beatle jackets that was holding me back? Whatever, learning how to be hip was a painful business. 

It wasn’t that I disliked Top Of The Pops or Thank Your Lucky Stars. It was simply that a lot of Pop didn’t make any connection with me. When we got a radiogram in the 1950s, instead of buying soundtrack albums like South Pacific and The King And I  like all my friends’ mothers did, my mum bought albums by people like Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy. And so it was that the Blues and R’n’B emerging from the early Beat movement wasn’t strange or exotic to me. Further, I’d been brought up to the sound of my mother’s voice singing me songs about fishermen and gypsies and soldiers who went wooing, and oddly, it never occurred to me until later that my mother was singing Folk songs. To us they were simply songs she’d learned from her mother when she was a little girl and she was repeating the process by handing them down to me. 

I became aware of a thing called ‘Folk Music’ because it was being taught to me at school. Our music teacher was a big bearded bear of a man whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. He only lasted a year and went off to have a breakdown (not connected to us I hope). He veered away from the standard ‘music appreciation’ format of sitting down at your desks and listening to a piece of classical music, by having us sit down at our desks and listen to LPs by people like Pete Seeger and then sing songs from a publication entitled Something To Sing, that had been compiled for schools by Ewan McColl.  Then one day I inherited an elder brother’s Dansette C30 portable record player and I would take the school LPs home and listen to them in the privacy of my own bedroom. There, surrounded by plastic Dorniers and Stuka dive bombers, I learned to sing songs like The Titanic, Pretty Polly, and the haunting Willie Moore. This, combined with the public face of the Folk Revival as it was beginning to appear on TV unleashed a passion for Folk that’s still with me today. I also fell for Denise. 

Denise was a willowy blonde who was in the sixth form. She wore a duffel coat and a CND badge. To my eyes, she appeared tremendously sophisticated. I was in the fourth year, wore a blue raincoat and a blue Alpine hat with a feather in it. Occasionally I sported a pipe to make myself more mature than my fourteen years of age. I was definitely not sophisticated. When I discovered that she went to Folk Clubs and that one of them wasn’t too far from where I lived, I was thrilled. Surely the Gods had contrived to bring us together? All I had to do was turn up there one night and impress her. And, I decided, I would do that by becoming a Folk singer. 

One major obstacle to my attending a Folk Club was my age, but with steely resolve and the cunning deployment of my pipe, I considered I might pass for sixteen. Actually, I was a big bugger and figured I could pass for eighteen on a dark night and a judicious application of Old Spice aftershave to add a veneer of maturity. The next obstacle was becoming a Folk singer. Just exactly how did one do that? 

I’d read in a local Folk rag that the only true Folk singing was performed unaccompanied, so not having an instrument, let alone being able to play one would be no problem. I would rely on my voice. The purchase of an Alex Campbell Live LP in Woolworth’s bargain range provided several more songs for my growing repertoire and I retired to my bedroom to practise. Whenever Alex had an instrumental break in one of his songs, I would simply leave a gap – God, it was so simple! Soon Denise would be mine. 

The Friday evening of my triumph arrived. I walked up the steps of an old Victorian mansion in south Manchester, enquired if it was a ‘singer’s night’ and paid 1s-6d to a bearded beatnik at the door. So far, so good. Jauntily cocking my Alpine hat with feather onto the back of my head and clutching a glass of brown ale, I strode manfully down into the cellar to make my world debut. After negotiating the stairs I arrived in the basement where the club took place. About twenty feet long it had eight or nine rows of benches facing what essentially looked like an open space on the floor. Indeed, it was an open space on the floor. The phrase ‘floor singers’ which I’d read about in Folk magazines now took on a more literal meaning. Half a dozen or so members of the audience were dotted hither and yon. Denise was not amongst them. 

It was time to take stock of the situation and ready myself for my debut. Nothing was happening yet except for the quiet murmuring of the audience, so I decided to mentally run through my set. It was then that I realised my mind had gone completely blank. In my youthful naivety I hadn’t even written down a set list, so I had no idea what numbers I was going to sing anyway. As I pathetically tried to recall just one line, or even the title of any of the five or six tunes I’d been working on I became aware of an argument going on behind me. 

“Dylan’s a bastard! He’s a stinking sell-out bastard!” An intense young man with a guitar case was entering the cellar and talking loudly to another young man who was with him. I’d hardly ever seen such passion roused in anybody before (people tended to be very polite back then), and as they walked to the front of the basement their conversation continued, “Aw, come on, man. He’s a great song writer”, exclaimed the second guy. “He was!” shouted the first one excitedly, “until he went commercial! – Look, Folk doesn’t sell out to the top ten and that’s all he’s doing on his new album – writing shit for the top ten! If he wants to be in the top ten all very well and good for him, but he doesn’t have to drag us there with him! Dylan’s sold out!” 

I forgot about my set problem and tried to tune in. Who was this Dylan they were arguing about?

Before I could find out anything more, the beatnik from upstairs came to the front and announced the evening was about to begin. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen And welcome to the Ladybarn Folk Club. We’ll open in a couple of minutes with a set from an old friend of ours, Glyn Hughes, then it’s open-floor time for anybody who wants to get up and do a few numbers. After that we’ll have a short intermission and then Barry and Les will be inviting us to join in on some shanties before our main guest of the evening, Ryan Harris. But first of all – Glyn Hughes.” 

To my surprise, the young man who’d been arguing got up and took his guitar out of its case. After tuning his guitar he introduced his first song, The Dirty Black Leg Miner, which he explained was about ‘scabs’, those ‘bastards who’d sell out their kith and kin’ while their fellow miners were on strike. He sang it with gusto and despite his guitar, I warmed to him. Then he sang a song about the IRA and we all laughed at the ‘Oirish’ whimsy of it all. Finally he sang a song about ‘washer lads’ who got paid fourpence a day and he had me totally won over. By the time he finished the space had filled up quite a lot, and I noticed with a quickening of the heart, there was Denise. She was sat at the back with a group of girl friends. I decided to play it cool by remaining totally rigid with fear. 

The beatnik came back and announced that now was open-floor time and did anybody want to get up and sing. I sat quietly, hoping that he’d forgotten me. Nobody said anything. The beatnik spoke – “You said you’d like to do a couple of numbers. Ladies and gentlemen, a new face here tonight. Come on up and sing us a song.” 

I looked around and then the growing realisation that I was the object of his introduction settled over me like a blanket of diarrhoea. I automatically stood up, as if in a dream – or a nightmare. I was - to use the vernacular - totally fucked and if I didn’t sing I’d look like an idiot, and if I did sing I’d look like a complete idiot. I plumped for complete idiot. 

I stumbled towards the ‘stage area’ and blinked out over the rows of benches. There seemed to be enough people there to fill Maine Road football ground, and they were all looking at me … in fact, they were all looking at me expectantly. I undid my raincoat and shot a glance over at Denise who was, given the circumstances, looking rather more puzzled than shocked. “And what’s your name?” asked the beatnik. “Chris Lee”, I answered weakly. “Ladies and gentlemen – Our first floor singer for the evening – Chris Lee” 

I started rather well, I thought – “Thank you”, I said. Then I descended into gibberish. “I’d like to do a traditional song by, er, well, it’s traditional, so it isn’t by anybody that I know of, and tonight I’d like to do it by myself – thank you – It was written by the eighteenth century.”

I then lurched into an indefensible version of Oh Rare Turpin Hero stolen from the school’s Something To Sing book, possibly marred only by the fact that after the first couple of lines my mouth began to dry up, and as I croaked out ‘kind sir, said he’, I had to stop and have a sip of beer. This momentary pause led me to forget what key I was in and my pitch began to vary slightly to accommodate all the possible ones at my disposal. Crucially, I reached the end of the song and at the same time my knowledge of the lyrics ran out. It was over. All in all, I thought to myself, not bad. 

To several bewildered looks and a faint smattering of polite applause my first ever gig came to an end. I lurched back to my seat quite pleased with myself, and when I sat down I re-ran it all over again in my head and felt even more elated. In the meantime, some pathetic no-hoper took the floor and sang a couple of tunes properly but without what I felt was the right level of commitment. Then came the intermission and I went to look for Denise. I was slightly disturbed to find her in deep conversation with Glyn. They were holding albums and looking intently at the covers. I wandered closer as casually as I could manage. “I  didn’t know you sang,” said Denise looking up for a moment. “Yeah, well, you know. I’ve always been into Folk,” I replied. 

“Right then, give us your opinion of Dylan,” snapped Glyn. “You’re obviously a traditional singer. I can’t see you having much time for him.”  Having never heard of Dylan before I walked into the club that evening, I was obviously at a certain disadvantage, but, I thought Glyn’s set had been good, plus he was older than me and therefore presumably knew what he was talking about, so in order to further impress Denise it seemed a good idea to agree with the outburst I’d heard him give when he arrived in the club. “Well he’s obviously sold out, I mean, he was quite good once, but now… well, he’s gone commercial hasn’t he?” I answered waving my pipe around for authority. 

“I totally disagree, said Denise looking a tad too feisty for my liking. “I think he’s brilliant.” What!!?? This wasn’t supposed to happen! What was going on?! “What about Times They Are A Changing?” Said Denise testily. “Oh well, that was a good one,” replied Glyn. “Definitely,” I added weakly. “Don’t Think Twice!” snapped Denise. “I didn’t,” I defended myself. “A great song I’ll admit, but what’s it got to do with the ‘people’?” argued Glyn, completely ignoring the idiocy of my comment and putting an emphatic intonation on the word ‘people’ that eluded me. “I don’t think we’d find Chris singing it.” “Too commercial? I smiled vaguely, “but a very good song.”  “Oh, you two are hopeless,” shrugged Denise and wandered off to find her friends. 

And so it was that I entered the Manchester Folk scene. It didn’t take me longer than 24 hours to track someone down at school who had a Bob Dylan record. I recognised Blowin’ In The Wind, but had been totally unaware that it had been written by someone other than Peter, Paul and Mary. The first album I heard was Times, followed the next day by Freewheeelin’. I immersed myself in a crash appreciation course. Bloody Hell! There was his first album too! How prolific was this guy? Thirty nine years later, I’m still wondering. 

All this new music led me to other artists. Soon I realised I’d have to get a guitar. This put me in an invidious position. The Folk scene was definitely polarised into two camps – the Traditionalists, who saw themselves as defenders and propagators of some kind of ‘People’s Art’, pure and aloof, untainted by commercial considerations – and on the other hand, for want of a better phrase, the modernists who were more eclectic in their tastes and seemed to me to be broader in their genre likes and dislikes. Within a couple of months I was an enthusiastic flag bearer for the latter, with Dylan as my guru and my guide. 

As for Denise – she went off with Glyn, but by that time I was too busy burning bridges to care.