History of Cambridge Folk Festival

A sub-Committe of Cambridge City Council decided at a meeting in 1964 to hold three arts festivals. But because they only had a budget of £1,500 they started with a folk festival. Chair of the committee was Philip Abrams, a Labour Party councillor and sociologist at the University, who suggested his friend and fellow Labour activist Ken Woollard  be opted in to help organise it.

Clancy Brothers - Cambridge Folk Festival History Clancy Brothers – first headliners

Ken was a local firefighter and keen member of the Cambridge Folk Club and he has seen the film about the Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz On A Summer’s Day. The site at Cherry Hinton Hall was chosen because it had a fence around it and looked nice and Ken thought from day one that the best insurance against bad weather was to have the stage under canvas.

The artistic budget for the first “Cambridge Folk Music Festival”, held on July 31 and August 1st, 1965, was £1,000 – twho-thirds of the entire budget. After speaking to a couple of agents,Ken Woollard went to see Roy Guest at the English Folk dance Society who helped him book The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, which took up almost half the total budget. Other performers included The Strawberry Hill Boys, The Watersons and Peggy Seeger.

Ken booked performers like Bill Clifton, Hedy West and Cyril Tawney because they were all, in his words, “wonderful characters, not left-wing necessarily but socially aware. Their music was about something.”

Paul Simon was added late for the first Cambridge Folk Festival and never made the poster. Because the budget had all been spent, Simon’s fee was paid by his record company advertising in the festival programme. He played for 30 minutes at the start of  the Saturday evening session.

The Sunday morning featured a fundamentalist “folk service” conducted in Country & Western style by a preacher from the US Air Force called “Tech Sergeant Fred Mooney”. This was not repeated in later years.

The first festival attracted 1,400 people and almost broke even, making a small loss of £200. But it was not all plain sailing. The mayor of Cambridge took Ken to one side and asked him what he thought he was doing, “bringing all these hippies into Cambridge!”

For the second year, the event was called just “Cambridge Folk Festival” and was held over the weekend of July 9-10, 1966. It was established in year one that all artists names would appear on publicity in the same size type and this has continued to this day. The poster, designed by John Holder, featured a young woman carrying a guitar and announced Doc Watson and son Merle, The Dubliners, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Alex Campbell, and the return of several names, including Cyril Tawney, Isla Cameron and Bill Clifton.

Doc Watson had to  pull out because of a disagreement with his son, Merle, and Roy Guest booked the Reverend Gary Davis at short notice. The attendance in 1966 was 1,250 and – despite a hike of £200 in the expenses  - the festival made a small profit.

In 1967, the 3rd Cambridge Folk Festival became a three day event, led by Tom Paxton, Alex Campbell, Tom Rush, Nigel Denver, and A.L. Lloyd. The Friday night consisted of folk club sessions organised by two local folk clubs: the Cambridge Folk Club and the Crofters Folk Club.

Cambridge Folk Festival was gaining an international reputation and by 1968, attendance had risen to 5,000, seeing names such as Odetta, Tom Rush, The Pentangle, Sweeney’s Men and Roy Harper. By 1969, the Council’s original dream of having three festivals – folk, jazz and drama – came into fruition.

As well as organising the folk festival, Ken was asked to put on a jazz event. The three festivals took place over a ten day period: jazz first, then drama, culminating in the folk festival. Playing the jazz festival were Maynard Ferguson, Chris Barber and Johnny Dankworth and the 1969 folk festival featured Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, The Johnstons and Joe Locker (not to be confused with Joe Cocker). The folk festival attendance fell to 4,000 and the jazz festival lost money : the experiment ended there.

Cambridge Folk Festival Tickets Cambridge Folk Festival

The 6th Festival in 1970 (31 July-2 August), saw the debut of folk supergroup Steeleye Span, plus The Chieftans, The Pentangle and avant-garde rock group, The Third Ear Band. Cambridge Folk Festival had arrived.

Most of Ken’s organising of Cambridge Folk Festival took place from a public telephone box outside Cambridge Fire Station, where he worked. When he retired in 1971, his co-workers put up a sign outside the box that read “office to let”. With more time to put into the festival, Ken Woollard started to receive a small stipend for his services.

By the time the 10th festival arrived in 1974, attendance had grown to over 10,000. The site had become overcrowded and so car parking was moved to Coldhams Common and a bus put on to ferry festival-goers. In that same year, the Amenities and Recreations department was expanded under a new department head, who replaced Cambridge Folk Festival supporter, David Constant.

Thinking he was getting “too big for his boots”, the new boss decided to relieve Ken Woollard of his job as festival organiser, an action that brought immediate protest from within the folk movement. But there was no one to replace him. All of Ken’s loyal team were approached to take over but they all refused, saying that Ken should still have the job.

Eventually, after a few months, Ken returned, becoming an employee of the council, with an expanded budget. For 1975 he added “name” artists to the Friday night (previously it had been singalongs) and put in a second stage. Actually it was a third stage, to augment the main and folk club stages.

By 1977 overcrowding had become a problem, with 17.000 crowding in to see a festival headlined by Don McLean and Ralph McTell. For the 14th festival in 1978, radical steps were taken. Rather than find a larger site, the organisers decided to restrict attendance t0 10,000. This meant that demand for Cambridge Folk Festival tickets became intense. But a new audience was found for Cambridge Folk Festival.

The 15th festival in 1979 was filmed by the BBC. In 1982 Newcastle Brown became official sponsors  and then from 1985-1993 the name changed to the Abbot Ale Cambridge Folk Festival. In 1994 it became the Charles Wells Cambridge Folk Festival, followed by BBC Radio 2, and (since 2008) The Co-operative Group.

Despite suffering a heart attack in the late 1980s, Ken Woollard remained organiser and artistic director of Cambridge Folk Festival until his death in October 1993. Since then, Ken’s assistant, Eddie Barcan has fulfilled that role.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Cambridge Folk Festival Goer March 31, 2011 at 6:25 am

This is the best online history of Cambridge Folk Festival I have ever seen. Well done.

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Chris Boland May 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Very good account. I went to the Festival most years between 1973 and 1994. In 1973 the ‘ticket’ was a ceramic medallion that you wore round your neck. It turned up a few years ago but then I lost it again, unfortunately. I remember a weekend ticket was £2.20. In those days, of course, tents were tents and not miniature semi-detached bungalows transported on the roof of an SUV. What you couldn’t carry on the train got left at home. Haven’t been for ages – I suspect that now it would be rather like visiting a house you used to live in after someone else had bought it and spent a lot of money doing it up. Seems to be more like an acoustic festival for Radio 2 listeners now. How do you get booked? Have a hit single and wait 20 years….

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Ralph Wilson June 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm

What a great history write up! I found this page while looking for an article in the “Cambridge Evening News”(?). In 1970 I had hitched it down from Lancashire-North-of-the-Sands (Barrow-in-Furness) with my R.A.F. holdall. My mates at home said “No chance – no one will recognise your holdall”. I beat them down there by a handsome margin! We camped in a small crowded tent for the whole time. One of the highlights for us was when Stuart Lawrence was brought up on stage. He was the English Folk Dance and Song Society Rep for our neck of the woods (possibly for the northwest). One of the performers claimed to have “discovered” him! He had been in the folk scene since the year dot and had tought folk music in the local school (Dowdales)! A memorable spot was when the whole tent was split down the middle (possibly into three) and we sang Clemantime to the tune of Cym Rhonnda (I think that’s the spelling). If you’ve never heard it, try it out with a few friends, it’s absolutley fantastic! We discovered Tolley Cobold in its unusual shaped bottle and really should have brought them home with us. The reason I was searching the newspaper was that they wanted a photo of the “folkies” camping out. So I was pushed forward to pose – would you believe? having a wet shave with a guitar slung over my shoulder and a shaving mirror attached to the far end of the neck. Some said that it appeared on the front page! My wife thinks I’m makeing it all up. Does anyone remember this and if so can you send me a copy of the photo (either hard copy or e-mail).
Cheers,

Ralph.

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William Moore November 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Nice piece. I’m pretty sure I caught the good Reverend Gary Davis at the festival, but it is most unlikely that it would have been in 1966, as I’d have been only 13 at the time. Did he come back again, shortly before his death, in 1970 or 1971? I have a nagging memory of seeing Davis in duets with Stefan Grossman, who was practically part of the furniture there both sides of 1970. Grossman seemed always to be on the bill and was always good value.

Do you have full lists of artists appearing going back that far?

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Chris Kedge November 21, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I was at the 1966 festival (aged 16 so drink laws were not obviously imposed) and I definitly remember Gary Davies

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Vicki Moody Whitfield May 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I was just reading this article and wanted to let you know a correction. Our family sang in this festival as my dad was the “Top Sergeant Fred Mooney” from the Sunday morning service. He was actually “Tech-Sergeant Fred Moody”. His name is spelled correctly in the bios of the artists who sang there. Thank you for having this information on the internet.

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linda July 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm

my mum ran main stage 1 for many many years so it was real good to read this on the history and ken, what a lovely man he was, a memorial was held at the albert hall, amazing night amazing memories

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ken jamme October 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm

I went to the 1982 festival and saw Joan Baez

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Seamus Denver March 24, 2013 at 9:06 pm

My father Nigel Denver headlined one of the nights at the 1967 festival, as he’s in poor health at present I feel it would be fitting to include his name in the text, apparently it was ‘His year’.

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Steve June 30, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I went to the 7th (1971) and 11th (1975). The fencing was 4ft high chestnut paling. The main tents were all canvas with wooden poles in the centre. I remember Yehudi Menuhin & Stephane Grapelli taking turns to try to out-fiddle each other, and being introduced to Breton music by Alan Stivell. And a wonderful friendly atmosphere.

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David Stringer July 8, 2013 at 5:32 am

Nice, if short, history. Ken Woollard was a giant of a man in many respects – heart, intellect, creativity. Partly through Ken, the Annual Slough Arts Festival Folk Competition (3 days in its own right, during the early-mid 70′s) became a huge success because the solo and group winners were promised a coveted and potentially valuable spot at ‘Cambridge’, where if you did well you could fill your diary with club bookings. This was also the case when I took an unbooked, unpaid Jonathan Kelly to Cambridge Folk Fest in 1971 and he had to do 3 encores on the Saturday night main stage.

What the history doesn’t say, is that a large part of the early appeal to international artists was the legendary hospitality of Ken and Joan Woollard, who offered open house and floor-space to loads of visiting artists year after year. Ken’s creative risk-taking always seemed to pay off, to the delight of the many thousands who looked forward to a few surprises.

The festival’s reputation was soon global, and in the 1970′s was THE place to play, even if you weren’t booked. These unannounced surprises included the likes of hitmakers Arlo Guthrie (brought along by Steve Goodman, who loved the atmosphere) and Jim Croce, who was N0 2 in the UK charts at the time.

I could go on, but will close in saying “Ah, happy days…”.

Dave Stringer

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