Friday, October 26, 2012

The History of Coventry Folk Clubs - Part 4 The Grange

This is the final and fourth part of Pete Willow's articles of the History of Coventry Folk Clubs from the early 60's to 1978 from his Coventry Folk magazine 'Folks'. This part takes a look at the Grange Folk & Workshop at the GEC Stoke Works, Coventry.

Part 4 - The Former Glory of the Grange by Pete Willow 1979

The Grange Folk Club, GEC Stoke Coventry
As in many towns and cities in Britain, although the main purpose of most of Coventry's folk clubs over the last 15 years has been to entertain the general public, some have become meeting places for local musicians to try out new ideas or to make departures from the type of music they generally play. The development of such workshops plays an important part in the bringing together of the local folk music scene: new faces emerge, solo musicians start jamming together and become duos or bands, new songs are written or old ones rediscovered and non musicians themselves being less detached from the performers.

The longest running venue for such get togethers in Coventry is the Old Dyers Arms in Spon end. I stated in an earlier article that this began in 1966, as the Coventry Folk Workshop, organised by John Lake and involving folk singing, guitar workshops, the production of a magazine etc. (I've since heard reports that folk singing has been a tradition at the Dyers since the 1950's, although no details are available as to who was involved or whether it was the result of organisation or spontaneity brought about by a few bevvies!).

The Grange after it was set on fire in 2011
Other clubs currently in operation that are run on a  similar basis include Folk at the Pitts (although guests are booked and a nominal admission is charged), the Malt Shovel and the Grange, reopened since the last issue of this magazine. It's the Grange, that is the GEC apprentice's club, that I shall write about in more detail here.

This club has had a long succession of hosts and organisers and has recently been the subject of such a discussion over a possible return to its former glory among certain members of the folk fraternity. hence its reopening, although at present it lacks the kind of enthusiasm that lifelong supporters of the club may recall from the past. Some may feel that the constant, seemingly uphill struggle to keep the club going at all is a waste of time and effort, a fruitless attempt to relive the days of past successes, an exercise in unadulterated nostalgia. Others may argue that as long as the venue is available it should be used, as the club provides an essential part of the development of 'Workshop folk' in the city. To a certain extent I agree with the latter argument although, putting things in perspective  a 'good night' will be a variety of artists (residents of the grange or otherwise), a 'bad' night will be a get together and a chat for a few friends. It's the sort of place (I think) where it doesn't matter too much if its not packed every week - as long as residents open the doors, its a place to go and if live music is going to be played there, so much the better. The potential for a good atmosphere is enormous; a basement room with subdued lighting, a reasonably well stocked bar, free admission and , all in all, reminiscent to the more romantically minded of what the 1930's jazz clubs of Paris could have been like, tres elite and why not?
Arial view of the Grange

So much for potential. actually, since reopening in early April, the club has been regularly supported by only a handful of singers: Mick Stuart,, Dave Coburn and Pete Willow, with visits from from Rod Felton and Tim Crowe plus floor spots from a couple of the residents. Nobody really hosts it, no guests are booked but the few residents who attend every week (along with familiar faces from certain other clubs provide an attentive and generally appreciative audience. Once or twice the place has been quite crowded as ex-residents pay an occasional visit to the club, to relive, presumably, a little of the nostalgia shared by some of the singers.

So what were 'the good old days' of the Grange? Well, as with all things we look back on, it seems in retrospect to have been a more glorious club than was probably appreciated at the time; there have been the traumatic experiences and bad vibes, but these paled beside the really excellent nights of music that used to occur. The club was officially formed in 1969, hosted then by Dave Sampson, who later hosted the Wurzel Bush Folk Club at the Fletch. Dave tells me that even before then, there were private guitar sessions in that room. regular singers who frequented the Grange during its early years included Barry Skinner, Sean Cannon, Rob Armstrong, Magic Rantabout, Rod Felton and Billy Davoren and Dave Sampson himself who remained a regular supporter of the club for many years.

In 1974 the host was John Drittler. By the beginning of 1975 he had a thriving club on his hands with the informality of a workshop but with an impressive line up of guests, some local  some professionally famous. These included Jamie Lord (30th Jan) Dave Cooper (13th March), Dave Hardy (27th March), Steve Knightly (17th April) Pete and Sheila Rigg (1st May), Martin Jenkins (8th may) and Mick Stuart (19th June). On the 22nd May, John was rash enough to give Den Clarke and myself (Pete Willow) our first appearance as a duo called Freshwater - one of the early appearances of Bull's Head Folk organiser Jayne Smith, accompanied by Lesley, another fine singer from Rugby.

John paid guests by organising a weekly collection from the audience which generally large enough to keep funds stable. In June, he asked me to take over the role of host for a short while and I kept the club running on the same basis, booking Pete Smale as guest on July 3rd and John Shanahan on the 10th. The club then closed for the summer holidays, after which re-negotiations took place (as they did every year) between the supporters of the club and the new set of residents in order to keep going for another year.

I'd better explain here that one of the difficulties arising from the perpetuation of the Grange Folk Club is that it is run at the discretion of the residents of the Grange itself, and that arguments for and against the club's existence could come respectively from the GEC apprentices' bar committee and other residents who may be concerned that any misconduct of non-residents could jeopardise a peaceful existence for everyone living there. It is a private club and up until last year (1978) any non-resident whether he be host, singer, guest artist or member of the audience, had to be signed in by a member. Although the practice has been dropped for the time being, it is still not possible for the club to be advertised, say, in the Coventry Evening Telegraph and the amazing thing about the club's heyday was that everyone who came (and many did!) had only heard of the place by word of mouth.

The Grange reopened in October 1975 as a singers club and in 1976 more guests and featured artists appeared. Although up until this time the club had, for its regular supporters, become compulsive visiting, with excellent music and very few duff nights, 1976 was probably the club's finest year, with music provided by some of the best of local acts, including the Grunt band, Dave Bennett, Pete and Sheila Rigg, Martin Jenkins, Dave Cooper, and newcomers for those who hadn't been in Coventry when Dando Shaft were going strong, Kevin Dempsey and Polly Boulton. Kev made his first appearance at the Grange with Dave Cooper and Martin Jenkins, May that year and returned in June with Polly to provide a memorable evening of first class music. Details of these sessions are given in a Magic Lamp Folk Club Handout, reprinted in Folks magazine.

From the end of 1976 to early 1977, the club was hosted by Neil Carpenter, new social secretary at one of the halls of Nottingham University. His successor the following year was Dave Bottom. Both kept the club going as a popular singers' venue; Neil providing a variety of numerous songs and Idi Amin impersonations and Dave demonstrating his experience on the Newcastle Brown bottle which he banged loudly on the table whenever order was required. By summer of 1978 however the club was showing signs of decline as support dropped. Dave wasn't always able to attend the club as he had other commitments and for a short period of time the venue was closed anyway for rewiring. Once re-opened it was difficult for the word to get round and consequently audiences got smaller.

Apart from the obvious advantages of a folk workshop, enabling musicians to get together and try out new material or arrangements, many singers also found themselves booked to appear at,or support,special concerts organised by residents or ex-residents, as a result of their appearing regularly at the club. It's probably fair to say that many of the apprentices over the years developed a new interest in folk music from visiting the club regularly.many singers would test new songs against the reaction of the Grange audience before singing them in other places. In all, the club fulfilled its purpose (unspecified as it was) as a workshop and friendly gathering of folkies. Whether it will regain the old 'Paris Jazz Club' atmosphere remains to be seen although it would have to become a regular haunt of more local musicians for this to happen. So if any ghosts of the Grange's past are reading this, come and haunt the place again and bring a good few spirits with you.

Shortly before this went to print, there was a real danger that the Grange Folk Club would have to close again due to people (not regular club supporters) turning up late under the impression they would be able to obtain late drinks. As with any folk club held mid-week in a pub, the bar closes at 10.30pm prompt. The club does have the support of a large number of apprentices, who are anxious that it doesn't close down. Any musicians who want to attend, please arrive by 8.30pm so that a decent night's entertainment can take place.

Pete Willow May 1979.

Here is some additional information on the Grange from Orange Brown via a comment on here -

"The Grange Folk Club was certainly operating in 1967 in the Cellar Bar of the GEC Apprentices' residence - the atmosphere is clearly shown in the excellent black & white heading photo (taken a couple of years later I think). The apprentices were accommodated in the first and second floors of The Grange, and the ground floor was the GEC Executive Dining Room. The Cellar Bar was run by and for the apprentices as a place where newcomers to the delights of alcohol could safely sample a pint of Tartan at one shilling and tenpence a go. This was under the benevolent and largely distant eye of Mr Smith (aka Turgid) who was employed by GEC as a trainer and resided at the Lodge at the entrance gateway.
In 1967 the folk nights were impromptu affairs with no bookings or organisation - I think one of the residents had a guitar and brought it down. Folk songs featured in the Charts at that time so we joined in the choruses. Other apprentices with 'attachments' in Coventry would bring girlfriends to the bar in the evenings. So the word spread and a few more singers and players would turn up - some were 'family' others as guests. Rod Felton was a memorable feature of some of these earlier evenings. I also recall the stunning voice of Barbara Gibbs (later Payne - aka Marie Duboch). Dave Sampson arrived as a new apprentice a year or two later, performing covers of 'Ave You Got A Loite, Boy?' and others from the Singing Postman, accompanied by his guitar with 'the extra sound hole'. We were all much impressed by his subsequent career running folk clubs outside the City.
For some reason I think the Grange folk nights were on Tuesdays, but maybe not. Resident apprentices would arrive down the internal staircase, others via the steps by the front door. I seem to recall a small entrance fee for guests who would sign the guest book held by the duty barman - apprentice Chris Mitchell was one of the willing volunteers.
These evenings encouraged outings to other venues - the City Arms in Earlsdon, the Admiral Codrington's Irish nights and the Kenilworth Folk Club to name just a few."
Brief History of The Grange.
Originally the home of wealthy ribbon manufacturer James Hart, the property, along with its parkland, was bought by GEC (the English Electric Company) in 1921 as part of its huge telephone works factory in Coventry.

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