As Carole Pegg has put it, ‘Folk music has been defined in multiple ways by collectors, scholars and practitioners, within different geographical locations and in different historical periods. Folk music has been widely used in Britain and the Americas in the construction and negation of identities in relation to class, nation or ethnicity and continues to be the source of controversy and heated debate.’12 Folk music in Huddersfield not only reinforced local identities, but also, with the growth of dedicated clubs, represented an enthusiastic internationalism for the form.
Dave Laing has pointed out that ‘The backdrop to the contemporaneous Folk Music Revival in England and Scotland was the work of song collectors in Britain stemming from the period of the formation of the English Folk Song Society in 1898 and associated primarily with Cecil Sharp. The hundreds of songs collected and published at this period were initially used in schools and as inspiration for compositions by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Grainger and others. Half a century later, these songs, plus those codified by Francis James Child and those which continued to be performed by rural singers, provided much of the repertory for the British revivalists. The songwriter and singer Ewan MacColl [who played regularly at the Singing Jenny Folk Club] was a leading figure in the revival, providing an influential if controversial definition of what constituted the correct procedure for a revivalist singer.’13
From the 1960s in Huddersfield, singers and groups acting as folk revivalists began to perform in the same pubs that were also used by jazz bands and pop and rock bands. This is hardly surprising as the pub was still central as a meeting place for local social groups. The Singing Jenny Folk Club was formed by Brian Lawton, a significant figure in Huddersfield’s folk history, who also founded the Holmfirth Folk Festival and who had strong links with the key musicians involved in Britain’s folk scene in the 1960s. Lawton was an amateur photographer who always had his camera at the ready to photograph the performers who arrived at the Singing Jenny Club.14
The folk club was based at the Builders Club, in Revenue Chambers, Wood Street. The Singing Jenny Folk Club met on Thursday nights, and closed in 1969. There is a story that Paul Simon had heard that the club was the centre of the British folk scene, and was prepared to perform there for a fee of £25. It was said that he was turned away because nobody ever got paid that much.15
Judith Bracewell, nee Dyson, a former club regular remembered, ‘I first went to the Builders Club, Singing Jenny Folk Club, in 1964 when I worked at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) on Leeds Road. We had many auspicious guest singers. Regular singers were Sean Sloane (Yogi), Bob Schofield, John Smith (aka Gus Grenfell), Alan Dyson, Andy Speechley, Paul Burke, Dermot Dinan, The Seven Hills group from Leeds and others including myself when they were short of anyone. Travelling about with Brian meant you got to meet the big names, including Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, the Dubliners and the Ian Campbell Folk Group.’16
For its short history, then, the Singing Jenny Folk Club was central in Huddersfield’s musical landscape for the promotion of folk music. Not only did local musicians perform and socialise, but the club also attracted international performers, all due to the passion of a small group of local people for folk music.