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.