Interview with Myra and Red Abbott, 9 February 2000
Level: Category
Sound Archive
Level: Fonds
Level: Series
Essex Folk Movement Oral History Project
Level: Sub-Series
Scope and Content:
Myra Abbott [MA] and Red Abbott [RA] interviewed by Sue Cubbin [SC] in Westcliff on 9 February 2000. MA and RA talk about their involvement in the Southend folk scene, Southend and Hoy Folk Clubs, and MA's jazz career and folk singing.

Tape 1 Side A

[00:00:00] SC explains the oral history project. MA talks about her family; origins in the East End of London, poverty; her mother's belief in being 'cultural', Shakespeare and classical music; swing and pop music, before jazz and folk; taking turns on piano with her aunt, Sadie Wolf; her first experience on stage; conducting a percussion band at school; conducting three schools at Guildhall, aged six; her grandmother singing Polish folk tunes. Sings her grandmother's version of 'Barbrou Ellen', and the version she learned at school.
[00:06:33] Recalls her first experience of jazz; joining the Young Communist League (YCL); the Marxist politics of her parents; her trade unionism and role as secretary of the youth advisory branch of Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), aged 17.
[00:08:44] Music and singing at school; inspiration from school songs; no dancing at school, Jewish school; Jewish Sunday School, Jewish hymns; grandmother's religious songs; being evacuated to Sussex aged seven, unhappy; singing Schubert at a school concert; choirs; learning to play piano and read music at the time of interview; folk requiring the ability to read music; returning from Sussex; failing matriculation, becoming a hairdresser aged 14.
[00:15:33] Joining the YCL early; singing campfire songs, 'struggle songs'. SC comments that her father sang similar songs in the Woodcraft Folk. MA describes singing pop songs and musical comedy on the way home from the West End to East End. RA recalls meeting MA at a YCL party on Christmas Eve in 1950; married in 1952.
[00:18:27] RA talks about being a jazz enthusiast; training as an apprentice drawing instrument maker; the origin of his name; the Americanness of jazz; his jazz record collection; buying a trombone aged 17; being conscripted, unable to practice; a clairvoyant predicting his musical relationship.
[00:24:49] MA and RA talk about their involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) around 1956; moving to Southend; meeting Clive Sheridan from the Young CND, being invited to a folk concert; MA being a semi-professional blues singer; live music at home, skiffle; their relationship with the guitarist Jack Cooper and learning instruments; winning a YCL competition with a skiffle group and MA's song.

Tape 1 Side B

[00:01:05] Use of term regarded as derogatory.

[00:00:00] MA talks about joining Steve Benbow and his Folk Four, touring in the US, and being replaced; choosing her family over her career; joining a jazz band, singing blues; the commercial hierarchy of bands in London; urban country blues and black vaudeville in the late 1950s; playing London clubs, 100 Club; not fitting into the 'trad jazz boom', Kenny Ball; having a nervous breakdown and stopping singing in 1961.
[00:06:39] Moving to Southend to a larger house; house prices in east London and south Essex in the early 1960s; preparing for a CND concert with young musicians, their 'folk family'; planning for a jazz club, jazz club etiquette.
[00:10:07] Attending the Ballads and Blues Club in the mid-1950s; joining a folk based dance club, London Dancers; not joining the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS); the difficulty of motherhood; Irish and Scottish traditional dance; travelling to Warsaw in 1955 for the World Youth Festival; Ewan MacColl's folk opera; their dance costumes; Ballads and Blues acts, Bert Lloyd.
[00:14:58] RA talks about Alan Lomax's work on folk radio shows in the 1950s; discovering Shirley Collins; and the origin of the English folk revival in popular consciousness. MA and RA discuss their awareness of English folk, but lack of direct involvement; performing country and western music with their skiffle group; Sven Weston's repertoire, knowing Martin Carthy [MC] and Alex Campbell [AC].
[00:18:54] MA talks about jazz band discipline and standards; becoming the band leader, using her YCL leadership experience; the philosophy of discipline; sexism in jazz bands; and the philosophy of 'service'. RA talks about his involvement in the organisation of Southend Folk Club; leaving the Communist League; and moving away from trade union activities to set up a Southend Folk Club. MA comments on bringing folk back to the people and shifting from American to British traditional music.

Tape 2 Side A

[00:00:00] MA talks about playing coffee bars to avoid alcohol and drugs scene; newspaper coverage; initially being uncomfortable around the skiffle group, who later became their club members and friends; American folk repertoire, and lack of knowledge of English songs. MA and RA comment on avoiding commercial music and encouraging original music.
[00:05:50] Discuss the opening night of Southend Folk Club; its popularity with young people; the room at the Railway Hotel being too small and having to find a bigger venue, the Station Club coffee bar; membership; MA's nerves at being MC; booking AC as the first paid guest; booking Peter Bellamy around 1966; booking Cyril Tawney [CT], being challenged on club genre format; club workshops; uniqueness of 'policy' change at folk club, emphasis on members finding their own repertoire; some residents switching to English traditional; new singers appearing, resistance.
[00:18:32] Moving to the Blue Boar, large audience; the influence of CT, MC, and others over the club regulars' repertoires; MA's repertoire; Isobel Sutherland splitting the audience by singing Scottish ballads; a club committee meeting, switching to English folk; people having lost touch with folk. RA comments on the split within the club and the failure of the rival 'blues' group.
[00:27:55] Describes the rebuilding of the traditional group, and encouraging people through workshops. MA and RA talk about the quality of the singers they helped produce. MA describes the nature of the workshops; repertoires; encouraging Bob Parkin to sing; and the importance of presentation.

Tape 2 Side B

[00:00:00] MA and RA discuss their relationship with club singers, a 'family', way of life; being strict about their traditional policy; retaining the same club schedule.
[00:02:53] Learning from folk musicians; developing a personal style; the imposition of a 'gentile' voice on women; advice from Louis Killen; the clairvoyant Jeanie Robertson; MA and RA's daughter's illness.
[00:09:32] MA describes meeting Southend Mayor Ken McKinnon [KM], a member of the folk club. RA tells anecdote about KM wanting a fish and chip reception at the Mayor's lodge with the McPeakes.
[00:12:52] MA and RA discuss the size of audiences at the folk club in the late 1960s; the acts they booked; the audience wanting more variety; the atmosphere of the club.
[00:15:10] Dropping out of the club; their daughter Pauline's illness in 1966-1967 and her singing; moving to Benfleet; starting a sister club at the Hoy; Southend Folk Club becoming a ceilidh club, the feeling of being immersed in folk; Cockleshell Clog and Thameside Mummers coming from their club; MA's worry about the club being overtaken by dancers; the relationship between singers and dancers in folk clubs; the Benfleet club as a singers' club; illnesses in the family; giving up the Benfleet club and its decline.
[00:24:48] Givng up the Benfleet club committee after series of bad nights; taking up the organisation again and saving the club in 1971; creating a new committee; the club still running at the time of interview; the involvement of their neighbours, Shirley and Ernie Robertson, introducing them to MC; the organisation of the club after it was restarted; wanting to uphold the policy of traditional music.

Tape 3 Side A

[00:00:00] Leaving the Benfleet club committee after a residency was given to a non-traditional act; the failure of the new committee to uphold traditional music; the club continuing to use the constitution; MA performing in a Benfleet jazz band with Digby Fairweather in the 1970s; living in Sheffield in 1980; RA's work for Sheffield City Council, running a folk workshop; starting a folk club in Sheffield; playing a gig at Leadmill Complex and different jazz gigs in Sheffield; forming a jazz band, Dr. Jazz, for Radio Hallam; returning to Southend in 1987.
[00:12:08] MA describes singing again after a break of 15 years; the Hoy folk club at the time of the interview, shifting to a listening audience; contemporary projects; jazz as her first love; the difficulty of singing as she gets older; her contribution to the folk movement; the changing nature of the movement.
[00:18:55] RA talks about folk as a living subculture; the decline of folk in Southend and England more generally; and Niall MacKinnon's book ‘The British Folk Scene: Musical Performance and Social Identity’.
Dates of Creation:
9 February 2000
2 hours 25 minutes 20 seconds
Creator Name:
Sue Cubbin
Admin History:
Myra Abbott (b.1932, Stepney) and Red Abbott met during their involvement in the Young Communist League in east London in the late 1940s. Their early political activities and relationships led them to found a folk club where a group of skiffle misfits made their home in 1956. Soon after, Myra used her jazz experience to help discipline the young musicians into folk musicians, and with Red's organisational skills, they built Southend Folk Club around them. After serving on the committee for a decade and a family illness, they moved to Benfleet and founded a sister club, the Hoy Folk Club, which became the primary folk singers' club in Southend.
Archivist Note:
Copyright transferred to ESVA
Physical Characteristics:
5 MP3 files [digital copies of original cassettes]
Related Unit of Description:
For a handwritten transcript of this recording, see SA 30/7/1/20/3
Dates of Description:
May 2022
Not Available:
Digital item(s). For access please email ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk