A passion for folk
PUBLISHED: 14:05 23 April 2013 | UPDATED: 14:05 23 April 2013
For three days in summer a Suffolk mansion will host an eclectic mix of musicians, artists and performers, not to mention the thousands of people who will travel to see them. FolkEast takes some organising, as Sheena Grant found out when she met the couple behind this extraordinary home-grown festival
I PLANNED to interview John Marshall-Potter, producer of Suffolk’s newest music festival, during a sumptuous press launch at Glemham Hall, home to Major Philip Hope-Cobbold and his wife, Raewyn.
But as the conversation flowed over canapes and drinks in what is usually the Hope-Cobbolds’ sitting room, and a group of musicians entertained us, time just seemed to run out.
There were scores of local craftspeople who will be taking part in the festival to talk to, along with many of the country’s leading folk musicians, including Eliza Carthy (who had travelled all the way from her home in Yorkshire for the day), Jim Moray, Sam Lee and dhol drummer Johnny Kalsi, who performed at last year’s Olympics closing ceremony.
So a few days later I headed to Halesworth to finally chat to John and wife Becky, who between them came up with the idea for FolkEast and – with a little help from others – bring this gargantuan event to fruition.
There are many surprising things about the Marshall-Potters, including their home, which stands, almost as if it were hiding, behind a row of houses off a one-way street in the heart of the town.
“John built it,” Becky informs me as we head towards the front door. “But it did take him seven years, during which time we were living in a pigsty in the garden.”
Seven years or not, it’s still pretty impressive (and the pigsty is more like a miniature barn really). The man himself is in the kitchen, making a cup of tea and soon showing me the nerve-centre of FolkEast – an office off the hallway, where Holly Shaw, a university student helping with publicity, is working.
It may run for only three days in the summer but FolkEast is a whole year in the making, its very being a testament to John’s energy and vision.
On a noticeboard beside the kitchen table, as if to prove just how all-consuming is the staging of this mammoth event, hangs a map of the county with various colour-coded pins stuck into it and pieces of paper tacked around the edges, carrying crucial pieces of planning information.
In another room, says John, they have built a plan of the site at Glemham and little models of the various stages and marquees so they can “discuss” more easily where things would be best placed.
“It’s a bit like one of those wartime things where operations are tracked by pushing things around on a giant board,” laughs Becky.
John has been involved in event management all his working life – one of his first jobs was site electrician at Knebworth in the 1970s. In the decades that followed he got involved in the now defunct Albion fairs locally, along with a whole host of other projects and commercial work organising conferences and awards shows in London. Most recently, he produced Halesworth’s Gig in the Park, which ran for 13 years. Early on in his career he also worked “briefly” in touring theatre as a company stage manager in Devon, which is where he and Becky, then an actor, met.
“We ended up back in Suffolk, where I had a base,” he says. “Children followed quite soon and I found myself organising fundraising events for the village school and hall, and then getting involved in the Gig in the Park – not thinking I would end up doing it for 13 years.”
Becky went on to work as a primary school class teacher when their children were older, something she gave up only when her help was needed on a more full time basis with the festival.
“I still do supply teaching,” she says. “So often I’m a teacher by day and a festival organiser by night.”
Despite his huge experience in the business, John admits it’s a bit of a leap of faith to start a whole new event from scratch, putting your own money and just about everything else on the line to make it work.
But he felt the time was right for a folk festival on the east coast.
“It is scary in one way but on other hand it is really quite nice that Becky and I are working on this as a team,” he says.
“We were sitting down two or three years ago and talking, and I think it might even have been Becky who suggested the idea for the festival. I thought I had given up promoting big events, but the more we talked about it the more it made complete sense. I thought ‘Let’s give it a go. It will work if you do it sensibly and build slowly.’
“Becky took on the publicity side of things. Sometimes we have disagreements about things but it is actually quite good having someone on board who comes to it from a different background and looks at things maybe more like a punter would. It works well.”
“We’re a typical husband and wife team,” says Becky. “There are amimated discussions at times but it has been fantastic and I’m loving every minute of it.”
That’s not the only way FolkEast is a family affair. One of the couple’s sons, Barney, also works in the event management business and will be site manager for the weekend.
“He did a lot last year and really shone through,” says John.
Last year’s inaugural event was held at Somerleyton Hall and attracted several thousand people.
John and Becky want to build on the success of that with a move to Glemham Hall, further down the A12, where they hope the event will be for some years to come.
“I’ve always been passionate about folk,” says John. “I’ve loved it since I was at art school, when I first discovered people like Martin Carthy. Just recently I’ve been thinking more and more that there is a legacy and heritage in Suffolk that dates back to the Barsham and Albion fairs of decades past. I thought it would be right to draw on the creativity that was around them with this event. We’re not trying to recreate what was going on then but just drawing on some of the stuff associated with those events.”
Just as in the 1970s, when a folk revival led by commerically-successful folk-rock bands Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention raised the profile of the genre, there has been a resurgence of popular interest more recently with the success of groups such as Mumford and Sons and Bellowhead.
“What I like about the folk genre is not just the music but the artists themselves,” says John. “They are all really nice, approachable people who seem to be devoid of ego.”
To prove the point he relates a tale about Martin Carthy, one of the best-known and most influential figures in English traditional music.
“I saw him perform in the ’70s and afterwards went up to him and had a chat and a pint of beer. Despite his success, I know he still goes off on the train with his guitar to perform at some remote little folk club because that’s what he has always done. It seems to be part of the tradition.”
Tradition is a word that crops up a lot when you talk about folk music, for obvious reasons, but John is keen that FolkEast draws not just on musical traditions but also incorporates local history, arts, crafts and other things that make Suffolk special.
Heritage informs much of what he is trying to achieve with FolkEast. He is also proud of the fact that the event celebrates so much of what is good about Suffolk and aims to be truly local in the way it does business.
“I felt the time was right to do a festival that was mainly music but encompassses and incorporates every other form of art you could think of,” he says. “We’re trying to combine this with the idea that Suffolk is not just a unique place musically – it is full of fascinating people and history.”
With that in mind, the festival will have a host of “fringe” events, drawing on the county’s folk heritage in many of the surrounding pubs – including the Blaxhall Ship – along with the history of the Glemham estate and wider area.
“We’ve delved into Glemham’s past and found someone whose grandfather worked on the estate all his life,” says John. “We’ve also got a local historian doing a talk about witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins and some local women accused of witchcraft.
“Then there are the superb arts in this part of the world, with people doing so many unique things from sculpture to painting. One of the things we always put on at the old Albion fairs was woodcraft, pottery and other arts and crafts. We thought it would be good to combine all of these things into one all-encompassing event with history, tradition, storytelling, dance and the skills and crafts around now.”
John’s contacts in the business helped secure a line-up of top-quality acts last year and the same is true for 2013.
“The bank holiday weekend in August when we are staging this event is traditionally a big weekend on the folk calendar, so many of the artists are out on the road,” he says.
“We’ve got a three-year business plan and our aim for this year is to hit break-even point. If we do that we’re doing extremely well for just two years. If you’re going to do something of this nature, people are quite brave to give it a go the first year. If you have good reports, they are more likely to go to the second year. Once you get a momentum building, and an event gets known, there is no reason why you won’t get the numbers you need.
“We’re not trying to create a huge commercial event. We’re licensed for 10,000 in total and it will probably take five years to get it to that. We have a long-term deal with Glemham and we can build from there. We know it will work out. The artists are really rooting for it – one of them last year said it was the best event he had ever done technically. That’s important to us.
“There are quite a lot of unique things about what we’re doing. Nobody else is doing an event at the moment that celebrates the setting and sells the area as well.”
To that end, John is also working with the county’s tourism organisations to try to make sure attractions outside the festival site benefit from the event as well.
“There will be quite a few ‘folk tourists’ on the road for the summer and they will go to an area as well as the festival, so we’re trying to get over the fact that this whole area is attractive for people to come and visit,” he says.
“We are trying hard to source things from within the region and hoping we can create somewhere not just that people will travel a long way for but that local people can go to for a bit of atmosphere over the weekend, with good beer from micro-breweries and good food that they won’t get ripped off buying. The most important people at the end of the day are those who are buying the tickets, because they are financing the event.”
FolkEast takes place at Glemham Hall from Friday, August 23, to Sunday, August 25. For tickets and more information visit www.folkeast.co.uk