Neil Jones, who has been apart of the iconic Cambridge Folk Festival for the last 18 years, took some time to chat with us during this, the weekend of the festival, to discuss the origins of the festival, its ethos, creating the line up and why folk music is so dear to so many.
The Cambridge Folk Festival is a historic one, one that generations have been coming to and still are, why do you think that is?
Many reasons, I that it has a unique vibe. You know, I go to a lot of festivals across the year, and there is something very different about this one. The music that we put on is authentic, its real, people appreciate that. We are one of the biggest folk festivals in the UK, so we have got scale. And, also, we consider folk to be a really broad church. We don’t just get folk, although there is loads of traditional folk here, you’ll get Americana blues, Cajun, world music, so it covers so many diverse bases. So, we then appeal to a wide range of people. People have been coming to the festival for decades. I know people who are here today who have been to every festival since we started in 1965. We are very luck that we have such a faithful following that the come every year.
Tell me what the first few years of the festivals were like? How did it evolve into its present state?
It was put together by a local councillor who was a fireman, by the name of Ken Woollard, back in 1965. He had watched a documentary on the Newport Folk Festival and the irony now is that we are twinned with that festival! We have kinda come full circle really. But, he was inspired by what he saw and being councillor he dealt with the council and they created the event from there, starting in 1965. Paul Simon headlined. I have seen photos and it was just so basic, the stage was just crates, and people just sat on the ground watching, so it was lovely but just basic. And then, they did it again the next year, and just grown ever since. But, if you look back to 1965, it was a lot different to today, but the ethos of it is pretty much the same. The values, what it stands for, the social justices at the heart of folk music, the authenticity of it is still the same.
Tell me a bit about your guest curator, Rhiannon Giddens and why she was selected for this year?
You know we had John Boden last year, our first year curator last year, which was a new idea in and of itself, and we were kicking about names in the office, and somebody said Rhiannon Giddens, and we all said instantly she would be perfect, for a number of reasons. First, she is just brilliant anyway, Grammy award winning incredible musician. As we had a bloke last year, we thought it would be great to have a woman this year, we are very hot on gender balance. A lot of festivals now are focusing on gender balance very heavily, we have always had a 50/50 split at the festival. It was our preference to have a woman curator this year, we wouldn’t be slavish to it, be we preferred that. So, when her name came up were thought she would be perfect. We then approached her agent and she said yes straight away.
How do you go about the process of finding and choosing the acts that fill the festival so perfectly each year?
We have a lovely woman called Bev Burton and she works with the festival team and we start with a wish list. We have already booked some artists for next year. We actually have next year’s curator booked as well. And then, some of them are not available, some are not touring, but what we do for certain, is that we make sure we get the balance right. There has got to be enough English traditional, Irish traditional, blues, world music, some household names, something alternative. So, once you consider all those genres, it almost puts itself together. Then, its getting the flow right. So that you don’t have an Americana act on one stage while you have another on a different stage at the same time. The other thing about the folk festival, is we try not to, like other festivals that focus on the headliner, we try to deemphasize that. It’s a collection of musicians. Although for this year, Patti Smith is a headliner, but actually saying that is a disservice to the other acts. For example, are you aware of how Darlingside became such a name here in Cambridge (Darlingside is due to perform Saturday on Stage 1), about 3 or 4 years ago, Charles Bradley was due to perform on Stage 1, he has sadly passed away since then, amazing artist, and he was taken ill the day he was due to perform, so we had a gap. As it happened, we had Darlingside’s PR guy with us, and he said he would ask the band if they would step up, which was perfect. They played us out on the main stage and just won the day, they were everyone’s favourite artist. The band now look back at that moment as a turning point in their career they have said. And, of course, they are the band that are playing a double, they played Newport Folk Festival last weekend, and here this weekend.
Who would you like to add to line up as sort of your dream artists one that has maybe been elusive to you?
Do you know, we have been very lucky to have all the big names in what people broadly consider to be folk. There are some acts that are outside our budget; Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, we would love to have those guys! But, you know, maybe one day!! We are very lucky to have heritage on our side, we do get bands who want to play here which is lovely.
Are there any you’d like to have again?
We have acts that after three years or so, we have had them back. Someone like Joan Baez, she can headline us any year. You can’t go wrong with her at all. The one thing we pride ourselves on is talent development. So, one year, an artist will play The Den, then we will have them back another year, and they will play Stage 2 and then eventually they will headline. For example, Frank Turner and Passenger have done that. It’s great to see them progress like that.
What is it about folk and country music that is so unifying and levelling?
I think it goes back to some of the things we talked about earlier, its real music. Nothing at all is manufactured. It tells stories which always connects with people. Its just that sense of authenticity. Whatever stage you are looking at this weekend, you know that you are looking at someone who has crafted that art. They are a skilled performer and a skilled songwriter. Its not written by other people, it’s not performed with any backing tapes, it’s played by real musicians and by people who care what they do.
Do you think there will there always be an appetite for a folk festival? Is it something that will carry on indefinitely do you think?
We have been going since 1965 but we don’t take it for granted that we will carry on forever. You know, we always have to keep evolving but never changing the ethos behind it. We will continue to move it into the future. We see ourselves as the custodians of something quite special, and it’s our job to hand it over to the next people. We won’t be running this in 50 years, somebody else will, so we have to preserve it’s tradition to make sure it’s there for the future. Folk music will never, ever go away because of what I mentioned earlier, what it stands for and the fact that it is real. It’s timeless stuff, folk music.