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PETE COE: Never The Same Way Once

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Pete Coe - Article previously published in Living Tradition

It’s a few years now since Pete Coe celebrated 30 years on the road, and though not unique among many of the singers of his generation, he is distinctive. Nowhere do you find all the threads of song, dance, musician, caller and organiser woven together into such a rich tapestry. The tag of ‘one man folk festival’ is well earned!

“I’ve been fortunate to be in the right places at the right times singing playing or dancing and had the chance to learn. Mind you, I also like to make things happen.”

A founder of Ryburn 3 Step, Pete also started and ran the Halifax Traditions Festival. He’s his own agent and record producer with Backshift Music and tour organiser for Ira Bernstein & Riley Baugus. Combine this with extensive appearances at clubs and festivals up and down the country as singer, caller or musician, and you get an idea of the formidable range of talents at his disposal, and a sense of his restless drive and energy. On top of all this he’s involved in the preparation of a new CD ‘In Paper Houses’ to be released this spring. It follows the very successful ‘Long Company’, which remains one of my favourite CDs. On it Pete ‘demonstrates the power of the material with consummate musicianship, a maturity of singing born of raw experience, a deep affection for the songs and accompaniments of exquisite sensitivity’. That same maturity and authority is there on the new release, a work of striking contrasts delivered with the polished assurance of a master craftsman.

Pete’s early chorister training in his home town of Northwich served him well when he headed off to college in Cheltenham in 1964 with a guitar and a bunch of Dylan songs. There was already a folk club there with performers singing a mix of contemporary and traditional songs. But it was at the town folk club, run by the irrepressible Songwainers, that he first heard traditional singing. “The first night I went along, the guest was Louis Killen and he sang these wonderful songs and played this funny thing – a concertina. I’d never heard a Geordie at all – couldn’t understand a word but I thought these were wonderful tunes and from that night on I was hooked. Every week they had these amazing guests, visiting Irish singers like Tim Lyons and Al O’Donnell, who knocked me out with their songs and singing. The McPeakes came and good English singers like Frank Purslow and Fred Jordan.” Soon Pete was running the college folk club on his own with a minimal budget and booking people like the Young Tradition and the Incredible String Band.

Although he saw many great traditional singers, one of his regrets is that he never got to see one of his favourites when she was alive and that was Sarah Makem. “I met a guy in Ireland, that’d be the summer of ’65 or ’66, and he sang a lot of her songs and when I asked who this next door neighbour was, he said it was ’Mrs Makem’.” Pete made up for this by including two of her songs on his last CD; her signature tune from the BBC radio series in the fifties ‘As I Roved Out’ and a hauntingly sympathetic version of ‘I Loved a Wee Girl’.

Newly qualified, Pete moved to his first teaching post in Birmingham where he joined the burgeoning folk scene. It was there he teamed up with a young singer named Chris Richards, and as residents at the Black Diamond Folk Club they became part of the flourishing folk scene at the end of the ‘60s and early ‘70s playing floor spots and festivals. Roy Harris booked Pete and Chris Coe at his Nottingham club, and suggested they take up the business full time. Pete said ‘Why not? - if it doesn’t work I’ll go back to teaching.’ It was during that period that Pete began writing a number of songs, encouraged by Johnny Handle to find songs from his own area. Cheshire being thin on the ground in terms of collected folk songs, Pete sought to rectify the situation by re-writing the whole Cheshire folk canon starting with one of his best-known songs ’The Wizard of Alderley Edge’ based on local legend. They made two records for Bill Leader. ‘Open the Door and Let Us In’ in 1971 helped them to get established, but by the time ‘Out of Season, Out of Rhyme’ came out in 1976 they had expanded their abilities and were much happier with the result.

The early ‘70s was the golden age of folk clubs, and there was a whole network of people running clubs who were also performers: the Watersons in Hull; Tony Rose in Exeter and the High Level Ranters in the North East. “Then everybody got in on the act and although it’s not been said often, there were almost too many clubs. Not all of them were good and not all of them were well supported - it was still a minority interest. The audience got dispersed and obviously only the strongest clubs survived.”

Pete and Chris balanced their solo career with projects such as joining Magic Lantern in 1972 along with Taffy Thomas combining folk tales and puppets, and, most notably, founding the New Victory Band six years later. They went from harmony duo to multi-instrumentalists with Chris adding duet concertina and hammer dulcimer, whilst Pete was learning melodeon, bouzouki and Appalachian dulcimer. “When I first saw a dulcimer I thought, oh yes!” Pete traded up over the years to the Sobell dulcimer he plays now. “It’s loud enough and sweet enough in a reasonable size room and it balances with my voice.” He saw Peggy Seeger’s finger picking style on film and adapted it. That lightness works beautifully on songs like the achingly sweet ‘Across the Western Ocean’. Just listen to the poignancy on the track ‘I only spoke Portuguese’ on the new CD, which has to be one of the most exquisite and magical love songs ever.

Pete picked up the melodeon whilst at college and through his association with Green Man Morris, then Hugh Ripon recommended him to go and see Bob Cann. Which is how Pete ended up in Bob’s kitchen practising for hours on end learning how to put the lift and the raises into the left hand, working the bass on the melodeon. Good job he did as he had his work cut out as part of the line up for the New Victory Band. Named after the anonymous bands who recorded folk tunes on the B side of popular ‘78s in the twenties, the New Victory band with Chris Coe, Roger and Helen Watson and John and Suzie Adams, was at the forefront of the re-discovery and re-invention of English country-dance music. It was the Northern version of bands like Old Swan and Pump and Pluck and very influential. The choice to play northern tunes was deliberate as a “lot of northern tunes in currency were played until quite recently by traditional musicians like Willy Taylor, mostly fiddles and pipers rather than melodeons and concertinas as it was down south”. The band recorded one album for Topic in 1978, now re-released on Pete’s own Backshift label, and toured extensively in Britain and Europe.

New ideas about accompaniment were also emerging about folk song and they joined forces with other innovators Nic Jones and Tony Rose to form the short-lived Bandoggs, with Pete playing bouzouki and melodeon. It was all too much and by the early ‘80s with the shrinking number of venues, Bandoggs and the New Victory personnel all went their own ways.

After the New Victory Band, Pete continued his interest in northern tunes. “I was playing with fiddles and needed a sweeter melodeon sound.” He plays a Hohner Club Model 2, made approximately 1936 with bone buttons – “they didn’t have quite as much tremolo as the modern instruments but it makes them a lot quieter and they’re sweet. They’ve got old Swedish steel reeds. And they’re doctored to what I want.” Pete has adapted his instrument and had the thirds taken out on the bass, and he uses two boxes now, one in G/D for tunes and another in C/F for singing. “I learnt from Reg Hall you didn’t always need to play all the bass line – you could leave notes out. But of course you had to learn to put them all in first!” That skill is there in his lilting melodeon backing to Sophie Legg’s ‘Catch Me if You Can’ on the new CD, which Pete had collected from the old lady herself.

Pete and Chris had played Bodmin Folk Club several times and heard Vic Legg sing all these great versions of songs. Pete was naturally interested and asked where he got them from and found out it was a traveller’s tradition passed down from his mother, Sophie Legg, and aunts Charlotte and Betsy Rennals. Pete proposed recording them to a busy Bill Leader who suggested he do it, instructed him on the use of the tape machine and sent him off to Cornwall to tape the ladies. To this date Pete still considers that this work was among some of the most important things he has done. “I spent a week with the ladies, it would be March ’78, listening to them, recorded all those wonderful songs, which John Howson put out on Veteran and we recently put it out jointly on CD. They were great ladies.”

By his own admission he still prefers the nuances of live performances and considers that a lot of the best traditional singers were also great performers. “There’s something about being a few feet away and it’s still one of the strengths of small folk clubs. It’s great to work in that level of intimacy as well as be in it listening to someone else. I still think Fred Jordan was one of the best live performers you’re ever likely to see – he could work a place like Birmingham Town Hall and make it seem like somebody’s front room” and “of course Lizzie Higgins, who stayed with us when she was down on tour. She was great with stories, had the audience just there; you had a realisation that you’re seeing the real thing with a history of where the stuff’s coming from; and of course she was a great, great singer.”

In the early ‘80s with the folk scene declining, Pete returned to teaching before becoming ill. While recuperating he did a small solo tour and found he loved it and the creative freedom it brought. He went on the road and never looked back! Pete remains one of the finest of the revival singers from the ‘70s, bridging the gap between the expansion of acoustic music and the lessons learnt from the many traditional performers he’d seen; Walter Pardon, George Spicer, George Dunn, and of course Bob Cann and Willy Taylor. The strength of his chord work on the melodeon applies to the banjo dulcimer and bouzouki as well. “My first instrument was a guitar, so I thought about songs chordally so to make it more interesting I’d play a E minor instead of a G major, so I end up using quite a lot of chords.” The chord progressions and inversions that he uses to emphasize a song are part of his individual style. The steady downstroke on the bouzouki for ‘Poverty Knock’ elevates an old club favourite into a classic with a slow funereal string of chords. That same finality is echoed by the same style on the dulcimer behind ‘I Courted a Wee Girl’. Although Pete had been experimenting with possible tunings for the bouzouki it wasn’t until he got his second instrument from Stefan Sobell that he settled on GDAD as a standard. “I was playing in drones and having to retune, but this way you can get some lovely chords, but the tuning makes them more open, with lots of resonance. They are sort of suspended chords.”

When he returned as a solo performer he finally gave up the guitar and concentrated on the old-timey style on the banjo with its ripple frail across the strings. “It’s great for ballads. That style of playing means the accompaniment is twice the speed of the song so the pace and the drive for the ballad actually come from the banjo. Also it’s great to sing across the banjo phrasing.” Derroll Adams was a banjo player he really admired, and ‘Oregon’, written by Tucker Zimmerman, appears on the new recording. “Derroll had a great way of pushing and pulling across the strings, which I found easy to do. Nic Jones would do the same – learn the accompaniment till it was automatic and then sing the song almost through it. I‘m able to do that on the banjo and I suppose it transferred to the bouzouki and the dulcimer as well.”

It was never his intention to be a songwriter he just ’makes one up every now and then’. He stopped writing after the Cheshire stuff ran out and didn’t begin again until the early ‘80s, playing with Red Shift, and writing songs that were more political in tone reflecting the frame of mind of the country under Thatcher. But as well as Pete’s own songs, a typical set will include contemporary songs and humorous songs like Trevor Carter’s songs. “I like Trevor’s stuff because they have some social content and they’re very funny as well so put ‘Tower of Babel’ on the new CD.”

Traditional song has always been his main interest and he has a keen nose for a good version of a ballad. “I pick up songs from other singers as well. ‘The Farmer’s Cursed Wife’ I got from Sheila Adams, a great banjo player and singer but she never sang it with the banjo and it’s a great tune for the banjo. Some I’ve dug out of books and adapted like the version of the ballad ‘Outlandish Knight’ which was collected by Frank Kidson in Leeds. I just had to get it recorded as the tune’s amazing but he obviously didn’t think much of it because he put it in the appendix!”

Talking to Pete is like following the White Rabbit in Alice. Talk to him about songs and he’ll regale you with stories about Sophie Legg and Betsy Rennals, Willie Scott and Lizzie Higgins; ask him about dance and he’ll tell you about the Beresford family in the Dales and their waltzes; touch on northern tunes and he has anecdotes about Willy Taylor, and Sam Fawcett, concertina player and neighbour to Hannah Hauxwell. This ability to put the music in context comes into its own when talking to kids in schools.

He’d always used traditional material when he was teaching in the ‘60s. “I was throwing things in like the traditional version of ‘Holly and the Ivy’ at Christmas, ‘John Barleycorn’ at Harvest Festival, and I’d done some sword dancing with the juniors.” Then he went on the road and didn’t go back into school until the late ‘80s when an old college friend invited him to sing to the pupils at his school. “It was great, and the second time I found some of the songs developed into themes. I had a load of Victorian songs and The Victorians was on the National Curriculum. So I gave them ‘Jack of All Trades’, a collection of 19th Century agricultural and industrial songs.” He has an enormous repertoire of traditional songs and music suitable for all ages and he uses folk music as a vehicle for P.E., dance, social skills and confidence building.

Pete’s work in schools has expanded to offer a whole range of programmes from singing games to mumming plays. It also includes a dance workshop where the kids invent their own dances, some of which Pete takes back to the folk scene. One of his most popular dances, ‘The Zetland Circle Dance’ involving a playground hand-clapping sequence, first confused everybody at festivals up and down the country and then quickly picked up. “I was at this festival, taught the dance on the Friday and then I walked into the middle of it at a ceilidh on the Saturday. It was great, I finally got to dance the bloody thing!” For a number of years he’s combined his appearances with a variety of projects from tutor with the Workers Music Association to Summer schools with Folkworks in the North East. He’s ended up working with children in situations from the Beamish Museum in Northumberland to creating songs and dances with street kids in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

He combines this with his work for Ryburn3Step, a community folk arts group based in and around the Ryburn valley. Singers and musicians living around Ripponden had been getting together since the early ‘80s. “Essentially a whole load of us had ended up in the area because of Bill Leader’s recording studios in Elland. Out of that came sessions, then dances in the village and they went quite well. I drew the short straw and ended up as caller!” They did some specials like ‘How are you off for Coals’ with Benny Graham and Bob Fox and organised a visit and workshop with The Shepherds. This group formed the basis for Ryburn3Step, formed in 1992 with the intention of using everyone’s skills to promote a greater involvement of the local community in their own musical culture. They’ve worked in local schools, formed longsword teams (adult and junior) and run workshops on everything from singing to Appalachian stepping.

Recent years have seen him come full circle. Ryburn3Step’s activities take up a lot of his time, running the folk club and enjoying it. “I still think folk clubs are an essential place where you try out your songs, learn to talk to an audience and to programme and perform. It’s where lots of us play most and to be honest, best. It concerns me that many professional singers aren’t involved in organising or even supporting their local club these days, all this experience going to waste. I hope the younger generations coming through get more involved in running events too.”

He still works as a caller at festivals around the country and when at home, he’s calling for dances around the region. Schools work now takes up at least 50% of his time. The initial longsword classes arranged for local children have flourished, culminating in Ryburn’s Longsword Challenge. Organised by Sue Coe, children from Calderdale danced all over Halifax during the day, culminating in a massed attempt at the record on Southgate. There were 31 simultaneous sword dances involving 186 children from seven schools, and it has just been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the new record!

Consciously or unconsciously Pete’s life follows the seasonal year. Every Easter Saturday he’ll be over first to catch the Midgely Pace Eggers and then to Bacup to see the Britannia Coconut Dancers. September sees him following the rush cart with Ryburn Longsword team from Warley to Ripponden for the Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing. And each New Year he leads the Long Company of Mummers to venues around the Ryburn and Calder valleys. The Long Company is the latest addition to Ryburn’s annual schedule with Pete drawing on childhood memories of the Antrobus Soulers. The members of the troupe deliberately avoided the pantomime elements to allow the internal drama of the ritual to speak for itself, giving it a darker edge than other mumming plays. Pete has resisted invitations to take it to festivals and other parts of the country and maintained its integrity as a seasonal tradition tied to its locality. “I’ve said it before. There are probably enough specialist folk festivals. What I’m interested in seeing is town and village festivals where folk music and folk dance takes its place alongside classical music, literature, whatever.”

The new recording delivers all the promise of its predecessors, with the echoes of its local roots in the Wassailing Song, used for the Long Company and collected from George Dunn, a traditional singer from the Midlands. The CD opens with ‘The Seven Warnings’, a previously unreleased composition from Pete & Chris’s days with Red Shift, a real ‘tour de force’. The harmonies from Johnny Adams and Chris Coe are superb throughout (absolutely spine-chilling on ‘Judas’) and they also add fiddle, dulcimer and concertina to the mix. Destined to become a classic, it is a work of distinction, containing some superb performances and an elegant balance of material.

His music, ideas and projects remain “never the same way once”.
I hope so because he’s still got enough material for another fifty CDs and enough figures to call a month of dances. Here’s to the next thirty years!

David Herron

First published in Living Tradition, Issue 56, May/June 2004