Feb 2022 - April 2022 folktas.org
One of the things I like best about writing this column is telling the stories that haven't been told much — isn't that what folk’s all about? A chance comment in an email from a renewing FFT member sent me off on a little internet hunt and I discovered that composer and arranger, musician and general eclectic music aficionado Peter Billam was one of the FFT's members. I invited Peter to be the subject of my scrutiny, whereupon he threatened me severely with the possibility that he might “reminisce uncontrollably" (which I took as a yes).
We conducted a Covid-safe phone interview with a brief meeting for photos. Peter played me some of his compositions while I photographed him; it would’ve been so nice to have conducted an in-person interview peppered with musical as well as verbal anccdotes. Lucky for me, Peter made some “‘cheat-sheet” notes for himself which has become the bulk of this write-up, along with a nice phone chat and a bit of Peter's own bio lifted from the internet. So let's take a musical tour through London in the 60s and Switzerland in the 70's ...
Peter Billam, first studied piano then later took up the guitar He grew up in post-war London in a devastated England where a lot of culture had been usurped by the US - films, music and cartoons. He says that music at the time was almost non-existent; he occasionally heard some classical music which he was “really curious about” and he found some wonderful recordings on Saga Records, and sometimes there was some jazz.
“There was really no music that came from England until rock and roll happened. I heard “Rock Around the Clock playing from a car radio outside my bedroom window and I thought “What is this? This is really, really good!" It was an eye-opening experience, Keith Richards recounts having the same expenence the first time he heard the song too. After that came all the American, and then the British, rock & roll artists. There was some American-derived music like skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan would play (UK ), which could be played on folk instruments - ukulele, washboard, tea-chest bass and so on. The Beatles began life as a skiffle group,” [Skiffle is a genre of folk music originating in the US and popular in the UK in the 19508, characterised by its mix of manufactured and improvised instruments]
“I discovered the guitar after my sister got one because she wanted to learn, so she could impress Paul McCartney should they meet. That didn't really work out, but I played that guitar a lot. In Richmond [UK ], not far from where I went to school, there was a blues records shop where I discovered [delta blues singer] Son House's music and apparently a lot of very influential people hung out at that shop - Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds - if only I'd known !
"School was in Kingston and that’s where I bought the early albums of Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne [both in UK 'folk-jazz' band Pentangle] and Davey Graham [all 3 very influential in the 1960s British folk revival] and I'd never heard anything like that! In England there was no tradition of fingerpicking the metal-strung guitar, so these guys bought their guitars, and they had to work out "well, what can I do with this, then?" So they were forced to be creative. A little like when African Americans walked into old American Civil War battlefields and discovered abandoned clarinets, and cornets, and snare drums and so on, and wondered "what can I do with this, then?", so they played church tunes, and popular tunes, but to rhythms with a much more African feel, and within that, improvised, because none of them could read music, and thus was born Jazz - a huge cultural explosion in New Orleans, which still reverberates.
"So in the mid-60s these finger-picking guitarists, they were playing the folk clubs. For instance, John Renbourne played regularly at The Barge, on the river at Kingston, right where I went to school, though I never heard him there. They were playing in the folk clubs because, well, acoustically it fits, and they were totally tied into the English folk song tradition. Davey Graham had recorded a beautiful album with Shirley Collins [a megastar of the traditional music scene who began recording again in 2016 after a break of 38 years!], and Bert Jansch partnered with Annie Briggs; they were all borrowing tunes from each other. John Renbourne and Bert Jansch shared a flat in Somali Road with the Young Tradition [another British 60s folk group], who sang the Copper family repertoire [a family of singers who have passed down their own folk songs over hundreds of years, were 'discovered' in 1898 and received further attention in the 1960s]. Davey Graham was a regular visitor to that flat."
Meanwhile, Peter was trying to develop a guitar repertoire by various means including from a songbook by LeadBelly, inspiration from his Renbourne and Jansch albums, and flirting with classical guitar: "I learnt a few of the easy bits [in Andrés Segovia’s scores] - the different ways you can use your fingers, different ways to play chords and melodies, and to get them at the same time without running out of fingers."
“In 1966 1 went to university at Imperial College, London to study Physics, which was in itself wonderful, an exhilarating experience, and also there I was, in London in 1966 in the most extraordinary cultural outpouring - that was the year of Sergeant Pepper [The Beatles], Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Pink Floyd], and S.F. Sorrow [The Pretty Things], and Jimi Hendrix. Also, there was the blues scene, which often crossed over into the rock scene, and the jazz scene, like at Ronnie Scott's in Frith Street in Soho.
“In the folk clubs you could just turn up and ask to play, and you'd be allowed three songs.
"Plus of course, there was the Imperial College folk club which I was part of. So I started playing in the folk clubs. I think I was pretty terrible at the time, but in time I became professional. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of folk clubs in London at the time, and I got to go out and research folk acts [no Google reviews in those days]. I saw some great performers: John Martyn; Fred Jordan who was untutored, straight out of the country, singing his inherited farming songs in the traditional style and I loved his singing. There wasn’t anything I could liken his voice to, but it was beautiful. The Young Tradition [see above] put on a great show, with gusto and drama, but sadly didn’t last long. That’s one of the things I loved, and still do, about folk singing, is that you can hear the words — not like in classical and choral singing. Also there were bands like The Incredible String Band, who were electrifying to hear, and Dando Shaft. There was so much to explore! Then there were the song writers like Al Stewart and Roy Harper, they didn't take their repertoire from the folk tradition so much, by the time they were getting recording gigs they were writing their own stuff. So I was playing in these clubs, I had about a couple of dozen of solo gigs with a repertoire of about 12-15 pieces; so I was on edge of the fringe, but I was good enough to make friends with the 'real' people.
"For me the most important folk club in London was Les Cousins in Greek Street, Soho which ran all-nighters on Friday and Saturday from 10 pm to about 6am. During those years I heard, and met, the Watersons, Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, and the songwriters like Al Stewart, who became a good friend, and Ralph McTell, John Martyn, and that great creative force Roy Harper. At Les Cousins, stars used to call in on each other's gigs and play. I remember Roy Harper one night turning up in bright red top hat with a label saying "In this style 10'6" and a fluorescent pink and green chequered shirt, and a yellow tie and day-glo blue jacket, and singing "Life is such monotony without a good lobotomy!" with such a ferocious howling energy - the club wasn't big, I was probably three metres away from him - you know - you don't forget these things. [Wikipedia claims the club was favoured by 'innovative musicians who were less welcome in more...traditional folk clubs'.] Every time Simon and Garfunkel flew to London to play the Albert Hall, Al Stewart - who had shared a flat with Paul Simon - would arrange to play an all-nighter at Les Cousins to which everyone in the know would turn up, because around 3 am Paul Simon would drop in and play a couple of his new songs. Davey Graham played some magnificent all-nighters too! He'd play jazz standards, ragtime, old English ballads, Indian Ragas, lots of blues, lots of tunes he'd written himself, a tune he'd picked up from a bagpipe player in Bulgaria, tunes he'd learned in Morocco. It seemed he could do anything with those six strings ... He was at his very best when he'd just got back from one of those journeys, everyone in the know would turn up to his first all-nighter at Les Cousins knowing it would be historic. The other most important folk club for me was the Troubadour in Old Brompton Road, also in a basement, just a few steps away from where I was living. The narrow staircase was covered with anti-Vietnam-war posters, and there was a broken payphone on the staircase wall with a little poster above it saying "This phone only works for patient people". Incidentally, one year ahead of me in Physics at Imperial College was Brian May - another really likeable guy, and also a great guitarist who soon became very famous."
Following graduation in 1969, Peter concentrated on playing the electric guitar professionally. Between 1970 and 1973 he toured England and Holland with the band Continuum, issued an LP on RCA Records and played in numerous recording sessions. In London he was involved in the avant-garde music scene with a number of classical composers. His interests also extended to the free-jazz scene, playing with several ensembles and recording an LP with Bob Downes and Harry Miller.
1974 saw Peter move to Bienne, Switzerland to work as an engineer where he also studied classical guitar. He began to compose, including compositions for guitar, and guitar and flute; and two compositions for guitar and voice that he's very proud of: "I Must Leave You Now" and "I Remember Quite Well", both in the folk style and available for listening to on his website.
"I was introduced to the Carnival of Basel [Basler Fasnacht: since 2017 included in UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage] and its music. The whole town of Basel just stops for three days while this carnival is on. It starts with the Morgestraich [trans: 'Morning Prank'] when all the town’s lights are switched off. The carnival features costumed, masked marching bands, Cliques, who play a tune that is not allowed to be played at any other time of year. Our group was small, so was one of the Schyssdräggzügli which roughly translates as small group. I did that for 4 or 5 years. The Swiss folk music is completely different - lots of songs, and there's lots of dance, for which they use a particular type of button accordion, a clarinet, a percussion instrument and a string bass. Then of course there’s the alphorns which they sometimes get together and play arrangements for several and it’s an amazing sound. The repertoire for the accordion consists of mazurkas, waltzes, foxtrots, polonaises and schottisches, so it has the same folk roots, borrowed from everywhere, as Chopin's playing, his polonaises and his mazurkas for example, and it's the basis of the folk music which underlies Schubert."
In 1983 Peter moved to Hobart, Tasmania after a very brief stint in Sydney. He lectured in composition and electronic music at the Conservatorium of Hobart and later taught in Nubeena, while also giving private tuition and becoming involved with a number of local ensembles. A large body of compositions and numerous arrangements of folk tunes date from this time. In 1988 he began work at the State Library of Tasmania, and whilst still composing, was also active as a performer and as Musical Director of the Hobart Society of Recorder Players. In 1994 Peter founded PJB Computing and in 1996 developed muscript, a free music typesetting software application, which he continues to maintain and enhance ..... which is where I came in, after Peter mentioned in his email that he was playing his own transcriptions which can be found at https://pjb.com.au/mus/arr.html#folk_gtr_solos
"It's all linked, they're all interconnected. I'm well aware that I had found myself in the epicentre of an explosion of creativity with very few equals in all human history. But it faded away soon, and London nowadays is, as Dr John sings in a different context, "Right Place, Wrong Time". By about 1971 I'd gone electric, but that's a whole other story. Also the jazz is a whole other story, as is the classical, as indeed is the Theoretical Physics ...
"Just recently, I have finally been able to work out exactly what my heroes John Renbourne, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Stefan Grossman were playing! This is now possible because I have the recordings in digitised form, so I can play, then halt, write down what I think I heard, back ten seconds then play again to check it. These tunes are what I mostly play for myself at home, which I could never do before. So now I'm all dressed up and nowhere to go, as they say. Ah, well.
"The scores and tab are available on pjb.com.au for everyone. I occasionally get a thank-you email from some guitar player, and it's good to hear from them. I love the advice of Christa Ludwig who says 'First and foremost, you must sing for yourself' meaning that if you please yourself first then others will also enjoy it - there's no point playing as well as you can only to please the audience, if you're doing it to please yourself you're more motivated to make it sound good." [There's something for us all in that!]
Even though Peter reminisces about an England before I was born, in some ways it's been a walk down memory lane for me too. I've been researching (mostly via Wikipedia) many of the names that Peter has thrown up and so often I've seen names of performers that I listened to in my youth - and still do - (mostly thanks to my Dad) or that my Dad listened to - all those old blues, rock/folk-rock artists. Sometimes the best education happened outside of school! I encourage you to research some of the names in this article that you don't recognise and you'll see that as Peter says, it really is all interconnected.