We have lost one of the most dedicated advocates and fiercest promulgators of the tradition in these islands. John Howson single-mindedly promoted song, music and dance in a wide variety of different ways.
We have lost one of the most dedicated advocates and fiercest promulgators of the tradition in these islands. John Howson single-mindedly promoted song, music and dance in a wide variety of different ways. This quotation from the website of his record company sounds like a mission statement: “Veteran eschews the scattergun approach of some labels who record just about anyone in the hope of hitting on a genuine talent. Instead they record only those artists whose music is instinctive, honest and earthy and whose music is crying out to be captured and made available. Nor will you find too many ‘star names’ in their catalogue (although there are a few totemic performers on their books, and more power to Veteran for securing them!) - the label is more concerned with the quality of the goods on offer than on the place of the artist in some artificial pecking order.”
Born and brought up in Liverpool, John started to go to folk clubs when he was still at school. Early on, he heard the likes of Packie Byrne and Christy Moore and this developed an affinity with Irish song and music. Soon, as well as clubs, he was visiting the likes of the Liverpool Irish Centre and he joined the Merseyside Folklore Research Association. He started performing in clubs in various duos and groups and before long he added dance caller to his growing list of involvements. In 1968 he was one of the three founders of Liverpool Folk Club and he started going to major festivals such as the ones at Whitby and Sidmouth as well as Fleadh Cheoils and other events in Ireland.
It was becoming apparent which area of the folk revival was exciting John, and he formed the Liverpool Traditional Folk Club in 1970. Earning his living as a teacher, John was also doing gigs in various combinations in the increasingly large number of folk clubs in the environs of Liverpool and the North West. A significant first around this time was a visit to see the fine singer, Emma Vickers, in her home in Burscough and making his first field recording.
By 1977 he was on a post-graduate education course and living in Southport and on a visit to the famed Bothy Folk Club towards the end of that year there was a meeting that changed the course of John’s life and makes the account of an individual much more difficult to tell -because from then on it largely becomes the John and Katie Howson story. Few couples can have achieved as much collectively or individually with strong partner support as this couple has.
Around this time, Keith Summers had been able to record a number of singers and musicians in East Anglia and this was one of the inspirations for the Howsons’ move to the Stowmarket area in 1978. From then on it becomes a tale of many significant achievements in a range of fields - too many to name in detail here so this will really be just the headlines. In Mid-Suffolk they soon encountered several players such as fiddler Fred Whiting and melodeon players Oscar Woods, Dolly Curtis and Font Whatling. These and several others played in village pubs, often for step-dancers. The polkas and step-dance tunes learned there were to become the core of the local repertoire that Katie was learning on her melodeon, and with a long-term musical partner, Reg Reader, playing hammer dulcimer they formed the Old Hat Band to play for dances in 1980. This idea was extended to become the Old Hat Concert Party a couple of years later and they made memorable appearances at Sidmouth that year; the significance of Mid-Suffolk music was starting to be realised locally and nationally. A number of older musicians from that area would make occasional appearances in this company. From then on, John and Katie’s activities started to multiply and diversify.
An unexpected bonus of being in East Anglia was the proximity (about 20 miles) of the final home of Julia Clifford, the great fiddle player from the Sliabh Luachra area, and this also proved to be a fruitful meeting.
The first release on what was, at first, Veteran Tapes came in 1987, and these cassettes and subsequent CDs, I predict, will become John’s most important and lasting legacy. His keen ear for the authentic and meticulous attention to detail means that there is something to admire in each one of them – and there are very many! The cassettes are no longer available, but I daresay there are quite a few households (including this one) where they are still to be found and treasured. Thirty cassettes are listed on the Musical Traditions website’s ‘Trad Disco’ pages. These are partly made up of John’s Suffolk recordings, but also those from elsewhere – particularly Sussex, but also the work of other collectors, notably Mike Yates.
John was early in the move to CDs which, as well as offering a better sound quality, also enabled more space for booklet notes, photos and for attractive designs. The website lists 60 releases on CD with many gems amongst them. It would be invidious to single out any, but worthy of a mention would be the four compilation albums of English traditional folk singers (VTC4CD to VTC7CD) which to my ears sound like an augmentation of the great Topic Songs Of The People series. A personal favourite would be An Audience With The Shepherds; John had searched out and restored live recordings of the three great Northumbrians, Atkinson, Taylor and Hutton. An early release on CD was When The May Was All In Bloom - his recordings of six great singers from Sussex - and I was honoured to have been asked to provide biographies of each of the singers as well as the story of the two great song collecting phases in that county.
Another important legacy will be the foundation by Katie and John of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust in 2000. They were joint Artistic Directors and Katie was General Manager from then up until 2017. So much was achieved in those years – workshops, community projects, conferences, school programmes on song, music and dance, themed social evenings in village communities and the lovely Stowmarket Traditional Music Days at the Museum of East Anglian Life. These became unmissable gatherings of step dancers, musicians and singers.
John took a central role in organising and programming the traditional content – a festival within a festival – at Sidmouth, and this included the famed ‘gathering of the clans’ for the lunchtime sessions at the Volunteer hosted by John in partnership with Dan Quinn.
There are so many other things that could be mentioned: their contributions to and their hosting of English Country Music Weekends; John’s excellent programmes for BBC Radios 2 and 4; his great array of nearly 300 tapes of field recordings that are now stored and available in the British Library’s National Sound Archive.
On a personal note, many meetings with John and Katie all over the country have always been a pleasure; such a friendly, open, welcoming couple who always seemed to have time for their many friends. Highlights would include some of their visits to us in Lewes: one where John recorded (and passed on) recordings of Bob Copper’s 80th birthday at our folk club in Lewes; another of a great session around our kitchen table where Tina and I welcomed a few local musicians, John and Katie, and Con 'Fada' Ó Drisceoil and his mates from the Four Star Trio who were in town for a workshop and a concert. More surprising was the day when we were walking up Dykegate Street in Dingle, Co. Kerry, and there were John and Katie walking down the pavement on the other side! A long chat was followed by my suggestion of a drink. For John, the pub had to be O'Flaherty's Bar, the Wren Boys’ pub. We also arranged to meet in Knocknagree at one of Johnny O’Leary’s weekly sessions – great memories!