I’ve always considered myself doubly blessed at being born into and brought up amongst a beautiful mixture of both Scottish and Irish cultures having Irish parents but growing up in Glasgow where the family had relocated from Belfast during the Second World War. My fascination with folk song and music began around the mid fifties when my Irish relatives came to visit with us in Glasgow and I was exposed to the huge expansive resource of Irish traditional songs and stories during the family parties and get-togethers. My Uncle Samuel was an exceptionally gifted singer with a beautiful tenor voice which he used to great effect and I very soon learned a large number of interesting songs from him. Frequent visits to Belfast to stay with my grandparents during school holidays and further exposure to the culture simply fed and nurtured my growing passion. My interest grew and developed during the folk boom of the 1960s and was augmented whilst mixing with American, Australian, Canadian, German, French and New Zealand forces around the world while I served in the R.A.F. In this way I gathered songs from many different cultures though my abiding passion however was for the songs of the Scots, Irish and English tradition, especially ballads.
In late 1970, I began working as a civilian aircraft engineer at R.A.F. St. Mawgan, near Newquay employed by Airworks, an Aviation Services Company, sub-contracting to the M.O.D. From here I began to visit the famous old Folk Cottage which had relocated from Mitchell, near Truro, to the Church Hall at Rose, near Perranporth. Along with my old friend Joe Lappin, also employed by Airworks, and performing as a duo called ‘Poteen’ – we were welcomed and quickly accepted by this very friendly, open hearted community. Our repertoire was mostly gleaned and copied from the Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners though there were some gentler songs from the writings of the celebrated Scottish Bard, Robert (Rabbie) Burns too.
Poteen were also invited to perform at some non-folk club venues like Village Halls, Social Clubs, Working Men’s Clubs and such and, if the resulting gigs were not always strictly in line with our declared folk ethnicity and roots, they did seem to be enjoyed with evident delight by all those who came and attended our performances. Enchanted perhaps by Joe’s forthright and rumbustious style and my all too often highly irreverent and sometimes very inappropriate ‘comedy’. To say that we enjoyed ourselves – and immensely too – would be a major understatement! Joe however lacked my passion and commitment for the partnership and the regular rehearsals and research required so we soon parted as musical collaborators, but we remained staunch and life-long loyal friends.
Now on my own I became one of the club’s so-called ‘itinerant’ singers, i.e. those performers who turned up ad hoc perhaps just visiting during a holiday and those enthusiastic amateurs who attended regularly. As time progressed and my skills developed, I graduated to Resident Singer i.e. one who was invited to perform at every club night and often functioned as M.C. when occasion demanded. John the Fish was one such Folk Cottage Resident and he actively encouraged me to develop my skills, with good advice and assistance at every turn. These performers also got paid – just a small sum usually and only ever when spare money was available. Often the organisers, John Battensby, John The Fish and Carrie, John Sleep and Ella Knight, invested their own money just to keep the club afloat.
(Photo: At Truro Boys Club.)
My weekly appearances at Rose meant mingling with the nationally known and professional ‘name’ acts who toured the National circuit performing in all the established folk clubs. Artists such as Martin Carthy, Alex Atterson, Tony Capstick, Noel Murphy, Derek Brimstone, Barry Dransfield, Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, Ron Gleeson, Allan Taylor and many, many more. These artists not only gave me advice on what songs I ought to consider for my repertoire, songs they were certain would suit my vocal range, abilities and timbre, they also shared their musical skills too. Though perhaps crucially, they encouraged me to believe in myself and my talents enough to get myself out onto the circuit and tour. By now I was also one of the Resident Artist at Pipers Folk Club with Brenda Wooton and John the Fish and as my popularity grew I was soon invited to become a Resident Artist at most other Cornish clubs such as Padstow and St. Columb.
In 1972, while living with John & Jill Battensby at Perranwell Station and working (sporadically) as a labourer for John, I formed another duo; this time with singer and guitarist Richard ‘Dick’ Reynolds who were called, among other things: Club Foot – The Hot Cup Of Teeth – Arkadus – Warm Front. We showed great promise, a publicity photo shoot out on the windswept moors of West Penwith even took place early one very cold, windy and wet morning. However, in spite of the promise shown, the photo shoot and our genuine friendship, we didn’t stay long together, though neither of us can tell you why – even to this day!
One of the highlights of the club year was the annual pilgrimage to Cambridge Folk Festival and when it became known I’d be going along in 1972, two of my club friends Joan and Bert Bidwell, told me to look out for their son John who’d be appearing there with C.O.B. (Clive’s Original Band). This I duly did and this very soon led to a friendship and an irregular though satisfyingly rich collaboration with John, who introduced me to lots of songs and influences. This friendship in its turn, led to a very amiable relationship with Whispering Mick Bennett and an even firmer friendship with the famed Clive Palmer which, though we’d not see one another for years at a time, still lasted right up until his untimely passing in November 2014.
Later in the same year I moved into a winter let cottage in Trispen near Truro with my partner Joy and began writing my own songs. When I lost my job as a part time cleaner I did some labouring work on a farm and was teaching guitar at night school in Further Education classes held at Helston School.
I was invited to set up and run a Folk Club in the Telstar Café near to Goonhilly Downs. (See photos below) I was paid £4.00 for each weekly session but ‘proper’ folk singers were rather thin on the ground. One chap, a naval rating called George Wilson was keen and eager to attain a repertoire so he and I would meet at his house in Helston where we’d thrash out songs for us both and for him as a solo performer. This became a social relationship too and happily George and I are still in contact. I invited many of my folk friends to come and contribute and this little club grew and did quite well for a time before the owners decided they couldn’t afford it anymore and it closed. They let me know by letter because Joy and I had no telephone and were still kind enough to soften the blow by paying me the £4.00 for the short notice of the closing!
L-R. George Wilson, Mic, ? and Malcolm
I began touring in 1973/74 where I appeared in folk clubs ranging from Falmouth to Fort William and Loughborough to London and around this time began to experiment with arranging music and songs, in particular using modal tunings and unusual chordings to enhance and empathise with the story contained in the song lyrics. Taking standard folk songs and tweaking and bending them into, or so I claimed, more compelling and interesting textural creations.
In 1974/5 I joined with Sue Bushnell and John Visik to form Creepin’ Jane, a light acoustic/electric folk rock trio influenced by Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. In this group I learned to play some more instruments taking on bass guitar, mandolin and banjo. After around a year of gigging with the band in pubs and clubs, I left the group to return to solo performing.
In 1976 or so I met with Larry Law and we quickly became firm friends and formed a relaxed, and very informal collaboration with each of us performing solo when required as well as together.
Larry and I performed mostly traditional folk based music but also included some more modern contemporary songs too. We were soon invited to perform at many of the Cornish annual summer Festivals and appeared together at the 1979 Polgooth Country Fayre, which eventually grew to become The Elephant Fayre held then at Port Eliot, St Germans. We were regularly seen at The St. Ives September Festivals and were delighted to be invited to perform on the Main Stage at the world renowned Cambridge Folk Festival in 1980. When Clive Palmer moved to Camborne Larry and I began to perform with him as well as doing our own thing. Clive was incredible, but that’s another story, for another time. We were in and out of each other’s houses and at week ends we’d all cram into a car and drive down to Penzance to sing and play in the folk clubs there. Great times!
Soon after this I was touring in the UK and Europe as a Folk Singer with a side line in humorous stories and gags. My first publishing deal for an L.P. Folk Recording was commissioned by Willy Schwenken of Onsabruck and subsequently recording of the tracks for release as: ‘I Know My Love.’ was begun in 1981. It was recorded on a TEAC 4 Track Tape Machine at MacTrax, my first home-based personal recording studio. I had some invaluable musical assistance from John Visick, Larry Law and Niall Timmins. Contractual problems in Germany however meant the LP was not released there and it was eventually shelved. However the work of recording this album allowed me to develop my skills further to include acoustic bouzouki and I also acquired one of the newer digital M.I.D.I. keyboards which gave me access to a huge range of ethnic instrument sounds.
As activity on the Cornish Folk Scene gradually but progressively diminished I found fewer and fewer outlets for my folk music and more demand for me as a pub and club entertainer. Larry’s work had taken him to live in Plymouth and though he continued to come down and join me in gigs, he was not as readily available as before. Also he had joined with Chris Maskell, Pete Condor and Fiddler Jennings to form: ‘Slip Knot’, a Bluegrass and Traditional Folk music group. So, with bills to pay, I branched out into the more commercial pub trade. I also began to seek collaborations with sympathetic like-minded acoustic musicians and to experiment with musical arrangement predominantly contemporary folk and other similar genres.
This led to several collaborations with yet more musicians …