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Hylda Sims - 1932 - 2020

Sad news has come to town, sad news is carried… An old friend from the early days of skiffle and the folk music revival has died. Hylda Sims, born in 1932, died in the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital on Monday 13 January after fighting a losing battle with cancer.

One of her last performances was just a few weeks earlier, in December, with her group the City Ramblers Revival at the final night of the Covent Garden Poetry Cafe's Fourth Friday monthly music and poetry mélange, a wonderful mix of spoken and sung word Hylda had hosted since 2005 and where I, and Rattle On The Stovepipe, had the pleasure of performing many times over the years.

In the mid-1950s Hylda and her, then, husband, Russell Quaye, ran what was, for me, as a very young teenager, the most interesting and exciting skiffle group/spasm band of the time, the City Ramblers. Never as well known to the general public as the Vipers or Chas McDevitt’s group, or, of course, Lonnie Donegan, but with a wider, more interesting repertoire of folk, blues, skiffle, jazz, ragtime and cockney songs, played with more skill and dash than most other skiffle groups. In 1957 Hylda and Russell also set up and ran the, again for me, most important and iconic Soho music venue of the time, the Skiffle Cellar at 49 Greek Street, down whose dark, steep stairs I trekked from the age of 14 until it closed a couple of years later. Hylda missed the opening night because, as she once told me, “I stayed at home to have a beautiful blue-eyed baby daughter.”

Everybody on the folk, skiffle, jazz and blues scene seems to have played the Cellar at some point. Especially exciting for us young Brits were the American artists passing through London, such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Derroll Adams and many more.

Following the end of the brief, but hugely influential, skiffle 'boom' (so many famous 'pop' and rhythm and blues performers of the 60s onwards cut their baby teeth in the musical nursery that was skiffle), Hylda and Russell split up and went their own musical and career ways. Russell, a fine artist, taught special needs children for many years until his retirement in 1980, four years before his death. Hylda undertook Russian studies at Hull University (where Philip Larkin was still librarian, and blaming parents for ‘fucking up’ their children). She got her BA from Hull, and later a Masters from the LSE.

At Hull, Hylda followed in the footsteps of another ex-skiffler, John Pilgrim, who, with Russell, had been a founder member of the Ramblers before joining Wally Whyton and others in the Vipers, whose skiffle version of Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O reached Number 10 in the pop charts. While conducting her Russian studies Hylda developed her writing skills and eventually became a respected published poet, and poetry proselytiser, organising many spoken word events and clubs and encouraging other poets, young and old. She also taught English as a foreign language and worked with children excluded from school.

A favourite theme for her writing was her life and experiences in South London. I had the pleasure many years ago of playing banjo with some of Hylda’s friends (including Liz Simcock, later Hylda’s partner in Fourth Friday events) in a performance of a musical narrative poem based around life and love in Peckham Rye. She also wrote fiction and autobiography. A particular favourite recounts her time at A. S. Neil's somewhat anarchic and, philosophically, way before it's time, famous (or infamous) ‘alternative’ Suffolk school, Summerhill. Here she came under the influence of such Marxist intellectuals as A. L. Morton, author of the groundbreaking Marxist A People's History Of England, also the then Summerhill teacher, Ivor Cutler, who gave Hylda her first guitar and taught her to play her first three-chord Skye Boat Song.

She fled Summerhill at 14 to train as a ballet-dancer in London where she soon gravitated to John Hasted’s CPGB inspired London Youth Choir, a breeding ground for several future well-known and successful folk singers and folk groups.

Ballet fell by the wayside when, in the Oasis swimming pool near Covent Garden, she met, fell in love with, and ran off with wild-man skiffler Russell, several years her senior. Pony-tailed, dirndl-skirted, black pinched-waist topped, slip-on shod young Hylda moved into the condemned terraced house near Waterloo that has gone down in folk music mythology (as has the nearby famous Yellow Door) as gathering place, crash pad and party house for many British and American folk, blues and jazz musicians, and the birthplace of the City Ramblers. Soon Hylda, Russell, Pilgrim and journalist Harold Jackson, were rambling the streets of London busking for their bread. A favourite pitch was under the arches at Waterloo Station where their music was greatly appreciated by the local hookers working the night shift.

After Hylda and Russell split up, she, along with several other folk singers through the 60s and later, kept the wolf from the door by dressing as a wench (only the girls!) and singing folksongs, including the inevitable Greensleeves, for tourists in London’s Elizabethan Room.

When with Russell, and subsequently as a single mum, Hylda was invariably surrounded by young people, who found a welcome, a bed (if needed) and a meal at her house in Croxted Road, Dulwich. It was renowned in musical and poetic circles as a house in which to play music, read and write poetry, discuss politics (Left Wing), eat communal meals, and get your head down for however long it took for you to get yourself sorted out.

Back in the 1970s she was jointly inspirational in setting up Lifespan, a Yorkshire commune; purchasing a row of empty semi-derelict workers’ cottages which were renovated by families and friends seeking an alternative lifestyle. Hylda's book detailing the history of the experiment, which still clings on, was in its final stages before her untimely death. She had never been in hospital before in all her 87 years!

Sad though her death is, it's not unexpected at that age, and the consolation, if consolation it is, is that Hylda drained the cup of life to the dregs and throughout a long life had consistently encouraged, befriended, inspired, promoted and performed with countless musicians, writers, poets, and others - writing and performing music on stage right up to the end. Her very, very, final gig was with Simon Prager at the co-operatively owned Ivy House pub in Nunhead, South London, on December 19th.

With a few others of her surviving generation (including John Pilgrim, Pete Maynard, Bill Leader, Jimmie McGregor, Chas McDevitt and Shirley Collins), she represents the end of an era. A time when young people, 'teenagers', emerged from the grim, grey days of post-war Britain, and found a voice and ways, through music, art, poetry, writing, drinking, love-making, fashion designing, photography, hell-raising and the occasional dope smoking, to open up a whole new world which exploded onto the cultural stage as the 'swinging sixties’, when anything seemed possible. Britain was a vibrant, exciting place to be, a social melting-pot where ability and inspiration began to mean more than being born into money and privilege. Hylda believed in that meritocracy. I hope her dreams aren't shattered by present day politics and some parts of society where self-aggrandizement, greed, lies and incipient xenophobia rules the day. All of which were anathema to her.

I, and many, many, more, most especially her family, will miss her chirpy voice down the phone, her enthusiasm for life, her friendship and, not least, her music, which ran through her like BRIGHTON through a stick of rock.

I was fortunate enough to see her in hospital a couple of days before she died (her old Ramblers Revival fellow musician Simon Prager had been up to see her a week earlier), and as her guitar was in the corner of her hospital room, we both played, without knowing of the other’s visit, Midnight Special and other favourite old songs. By the time I got there and joined her family around the bed, her strength had deteriorated dramatically. Her eyes were closed and she could barely speak, and needed regular sips of a damp sponge to moisten her dry lips. Lips that over nearly nine decades had kissed lovers and family loved ones, sung blues, skiffle and folksongs, and recited poetry and brought pleasure to so many people. She obviously listened to the songs because she finally, slowly half-opened her eyes and managed to whisper a request - for The Outlandish Knight.

I couldn't remember all the words, but her family sitting around the bed found recordings of the ballad on their cell phones and played Kate Rusby's version. Although it's maybe little consolation, her family were able to be with her and support her throughout her last days.

Love and thanks Hylda for the many fond, musical, poetic and literary memories.

Last year Hylda wrote me an essay on her memories of Soho in her youth, as a contribution to my book on the history of Soho in the 1950s and early 60s, This year, when I get the book finished, you'll be able to read her memoir of that exciting, colourful and, sadly, never to be repeated time. The world has moved on, as has Hylda.

To in some small way compensate for my inability to remember the lyrics of The Outlandish Knight for Hylda, here’s a final poem written in her memory.

The Outlandish Knight

For Hylda Sims

Sing me one of the old songs,
a ballad from years gone by.
Not a song from last year’s charts,
nor one my mother knew.
Not ‘Come Into the Garden Maude’
or ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’.
I want one of the old songs
polished over the years.
Sing me one of the old songs
the songs I love to hear.
Sing me one of the old songs
to ease my journey’s end.
Sing me one of the old songs
a dear and trusted friend
first heard in a smokey clubroom
above a Soho pub,
on a far off day when I was young,
with all my life to spend.
No inkling where the road would lead,
nor yet where it would end.
Sing to me the Outlandish Knight,
who from the northland came.
Whose silver tongue and winning way,
could lead a girl astray.
Tell me of the maids he took
down to the sea and drowned
and how he was outwitted
by a girl in a velvet gown.
I’d like to hear it one more time
if my guitar you’ll play.
Sing me one of the old songs
before I fade away.

Dave Arthur