Like most readers of The Living Tradition, I knew Bill through his songs, folk club and festival appearances and knew very little about the other aspects of his life and family. Attending Bill’s funeral, together with three or four hundred other people, was an uplifting, emotional and revealing occasion.
Bill was in love with words and instilled that love in his sons. Christy, Bill’s eldest son by his first marriage, led the tribute speaking eloquently about a life lived to the full and about the career path that Bill might have followed had music not intervened. Bill had studied Languages for Business at Manchester College of Technology. He spoke fluently in several languages and was heading for a career in business. But, running a folk club in Bilston he met Taffy Thomas and joined his Magic Lantern, a theatre group that illustrated folk songs with shadow puppets and which was at the forefront of street theatre in England. Life as a professional musician around the folk clubs followed, but theatre continued to feature in Bill's work. He was a member of the Albion Band and Home Service during both ensembles' glory years at the National Theatre. He was generous musically, never stinting on praise of other musicians, and he loved to collaborate.
I’m hardly qualified to go into the detail of Bill’s life and much has been written elsewhere, so I’ll take a more personal approach. I’ll also borrow words from someone who encountered Bill somewhere along the journey - Julie Henigan, a singer from America who got to know Bill during her time over here. “Wordplay, even in casual conversation, was the medium in which Bill swam; and whether the subject was serious or light, he generally - and, I think, unconsciously - used the most apt words to convey his meaning. I think that's a large part of what made him such a great wordsmith where song writing was concerned: he crafted his songs so carefully that each one encapsulated a little world of its own - always complemented perfectly by his gorgeous melodies, his evocative singing and his fabulous mastery of the twelve-string guitar.”
John O' Dreams, Bill's best-known song, was what drew me compellingly to his funeral, but quite how is a story for another time. Bill knew that he was ill and had mused at one point, “Who will sing John O’ Dreams at my funeral?” The answer was ‘we all did’. Bill had carefully chosen the music to be played at his funeral, giving everyone time to reflect on their own thoughts and memories. The whole assembly was then led in a rendition of John O’ Dreams by his friend John Richards, accompanied by Phil Beer. Rarely could the words of the song be so appropriate to the occasion.