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Joe Stead - 17 June 1941 – 28 March 2017

Joe Stead passed away at the age of 75, after a brief spell in hospital close to his home in Sowerby Bridge. He was blessed with a life full of coincidences and opportunities grasped with both hands.

Joe was born in 1941 in Paddock Wood near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. His father was a strict disciplinarian who Joe recalled scared the living daylights out of him until he reached the age of about 15. That might go some way to explaining why at an early age Joe’s speech suffered, leaving him with a stutter. He could talk to his parents and other close relations ok, but struggled with strangers.

Like most lads of his age, Joe was a fan of Bill Haley and his Comets but in the spring of 1958 he discovered Pete Seeger and The Weavers. This was a result of his school friend Roy Duffin, who had discovered the pleasures of the folk clubs and coffee bars of 1958 Soho, with their heady mixture of left wing idealisms, jazz, poetry, blues and folk music. Roy introduced Joe to the music of Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Ewan MacColl, Dominic Behan, Bert Lloyd and countless other folk luminaries. Two LPs by the Weavers were available in Britain at that time and by the end of the year Joe was playing them in his bedroom constantly. He dreamed that one day he would sing and perform folk songs like Pete Seeger. At the time it seemed like an outrageous dream; how would somebody with a stutter ever get up on stage?

Then, within a month of leaving school Joe had not only met Paul Robeson, he had sung with him! This was the result of one of many coincidences in his life where doors were opened by friends. Peggy Middleton (Paul Robeson's world-wide secretary) was throwing a garden party. Peggy’s daughter Hannah was dating Joe’s friend Roy Duffin and both Roy and Joe were invited to her home in 1958. Joe was jiving with Peggy at the time when she suddenly summoned him to come and meet Joe. Paul Robeson sauntered over and after introducing them to each other Peggy hurried off and left the two of them talking. Joe recalled discussing Seeger, the McCarthy trials and the witch hunts throughout America that were probably still ongoing as they spoke.

Another ‘coincidence’ was Joe inheriting his grandfather’s banjo – a five-string – after he died in 1961. Joe tells the tale. “I remember popping down to see him a couple of days before the end. To my astonishment, he handed me his banjo. What a legacy to receive! Here was I, a Pete Seeger nutcase, being given a five-string banjo. But more importantly, I was being handed a family heirloom.” Joe was the first to admit that he wasn't the best banjo player in the world, but he could certainly communicate. Joe related to me the story of the fortune teller who had just seen him perform and receive an enthusiastic encore. After reading his hand, the teller announced that he had no talent whatsoever and told Joe that he would die in Yorkshire! Some people don't understand music. They think that it is all about virtuosity when really it is more about soul.

Joe was a gentle giant. He was a larger than life character who must have been an awesome sight - six feet plus, dressed in a ballerina outfit and silencing noisy crisp eaters in his audience by taking the bag off them, adding some beer and giving them a shake before handing them back declaring, “That’ll keep the noise down a bit!” He was a storyteller in many forms. He gave lectures on various subjects including the two which were particularly close to his heart - the lives of Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Later in his life when he embraced shanty singing, he produced a remarkable CD, Valparaiso Round The Horn, which put the shanties into the context of an imaginary voyage on a sailing ship. It was both entertaining and educational.

Like most comedians, Joe was a shrewd observer of what was going on around him. Ally that to a good memory for detail and a tendency to keep jottings, letters, press cuttings and photographs, and it is little wonder that in his later years he was able to compile such a detailed account of his life and times.

Joe was an enabler and nowadays would be described as a folk entrepreneur. He could spot talent and he wasn’t afraid to take risks. He started his own record label, Sweet Folk All, and later added Sweet Folk & Country, and he also ran an agency. He did this at a time when putting out an LP wasn't easy and to have published around 150 recordings from that era is an astonishing achievement.

Touring in America was probably the thing that he liked best. Having been initially inspired by American visitors to the UK, including Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and Odetta, he was able to fill the role of the troubadour with a social message.

I only got to know Joe late in his life, firstly as a recipient of his monthly email newsletter, The Ramblings, and latterly when we met to discuss how he might publish his life story in a credible form. When Joe decided to pull his life story together over a year of Ramblings, I know that I was not alone in thinking that this was going to be something special. Most of us mean to get our life story written down at some point but few of us ever do. To his credit, Joe wrote his story. When talking to Joe about his book, I asked him what he thought his legacy would be. My observation was that he was gifting us memories, often shared memories. It is a story that many of us can resonate with and Joe's story is, in part, our story.

People came from far and wide to his funeral and there were heartfelt tributes from friends and fellow musicians. Joe made friends easily and would strike up a conversation with anyone. He was well known and well liked in his local community, one example being the additional catering provided after the funeral, free of charge, by the local Indian restaurant. Throughout his illness he remained cheerful and positive, always with one eye on any opportunity to promote his beloved book, even to the medical staff around his hospital bed.

This brief tribute to Joe barely scratches the surface of his life; he wrote songs; he was active in politics; he held strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to speak out – which he did regularly in his Ramblings; his friendship with Pete Seeger; his birthday celebrations which were a big part of Joe’s life; but to tell even a fraction of Joe’s life story you would need a book!

I can't finish this tribute with any better words than those which Joe signed off with in every issue of his Ramblings. Keep singing; Keep smiling. Joe wouldn’t want it any other way.

Pete Heywood