After Bert’s death in 1982 I was asked to write an obituary for the Folk Music Journal, and a bit later a Radio 4 documentary on his life. These projects required me to dash around the country interviewing a number of Bert’s old friends and acquaintances and looking through, and listening to, a lot of his literary and radio output from the 1930s to the 80s.
I ended with a sizeable archive of interviews, many of the interviewees, being older than Bert, died within a few years of my recordings. I felt that it was a shame to just leave them in boxes in my attic, and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher who would publish a Bert biography. I already had a biography of Gilbert Sargent, an old Sussex countryman, published by Barrie and Jenkins but they weren’t interested in Bert.
|Bert Lloyd on Trawler Photo – Bert Hardy|
So I dug out the boxes and set to re-reading all those old letters and files, listening to the voices of long-dead men and women and trying to get my head around it, and to remember names, dates, places, events, that had once been in the forefront of my mind. Anyway, I started reworking and soon realised that there was an enormous amount of research still to do, if I was going to do the job justice. Years rolled by, the manuscript grew and grew.
We had a book launch two or three years ago, when it was hoped that I would have finished. No such luck. Eventually I dumped a large manuscript of well over 260,000 words on Malcolm’s desk. At which point we both realised that it was too big a project for the EFDSS to publish. Eventually we succeeded in getting the left-wing academic Pluto Press interested in going in with a joint venture. And the rest is history.
(1) Folk singer and folk music collector, writer, painter, journalist, art critic, whalerman, sheep station roustabout, Marxist, and much more - this is the story of A. L. (Bert) Lloyd's extraordinary life.
A. L. Lloyd played a key part in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s, but that is only part of his story. Dave Arthur documents how Lloyd became a member of the Communist Party, forceful antifascist, trade unionist and an important part of left-wing culture from the early 1930s to his death in 1982. Following his return from Australia as a 21-year-old, self-educated agricultural labourer, he was at the heart of the most important left-wing movements and highly respected for his knowledge in various fields.
Dave Arthur recounts the life of a creative, passionate and life-loving Marxist, and in so doing provides a social history of a turbulent twentieth century.
(2) I met Bert Lloyd once. It was some time during the summer of 1980. I was a nineteen-year-old post-punk who’d recently decided that folk music was the true revolutionary sound of the people. Lloyd was a seventy-year-old communist who’d been one of the key architects of the folk revival. I had recently read his book, Folk Song in England, and liked it so much that I’d even stuck a quote from it on the cover of my band’s one and only single.
The occasion of our meeting was a gig by the Scottish folk singer and communist, Dick Gaughan, at the Half Moon pub in Putney. I’d recently written to Gaughan with some half-baked notions of a radical alliance between the revolutionary wings of folk song and post-punk. Much to my amazement he’d written back, apparently very pleased at the idea of such a connection, and expressing his frustration at the slide of the folk clubs into cosy irrelevance.
So I’d hitched up to London to see the show and said hello to the extremely convivial Gaughan, then in the last of his drinking years. He was pleased to see me and introduced me to various folk world luminaries, among them the fiddler Barry Dransfield, and then, much to my amazement, the great AL ‘Bert’ Lloyd himself. Bert turned out to be a grandfatherly looking feller with a round bald head and glasses, and a manner which managed to be simultaneously twinkly and rather stern.
I only had the briefest of conversations with him. At nineteen, I was tongue-tied and awkward with older people. Anyway, he was just about to go on stage, happy to be just another floor singer at the folk club. He sang two songs, I don’t remember which exactly, but they were both gently bawdy numbers from the folk tradition, sung in a deliberately quavery voice which made him sound older than he was. I remember wondering whether he was actually a traditional singer as opposed to a folk revivalist. This has always been a very live issue in the complex politics of folk music. A lot rides on the distinction between the ‘real thing’, the traditional singer – someone who had come by their repertoire organically, by growing up in a community in which traditional songs had been passed down through the generations – and the folk revivalist – typically someone who’d come upon the music as a student and learned their repertoire from recordings.
So which was Bert Lloyd...?
John L Williams New Welsh Review Issue 102
(3) When everyone else was listening to Cream, I was listening to A. L. Lloyd.
(4) I'm old enough and have been close enough to many of the events recounted in this thoroughly but sympathetically researched book to recognise the ring of truth when I hear it.
(Bill Leader, legendary record producer)
(5) As broadcaster, scholar, collector and singer, Bert Lloyd was one of the truly inspirational characters of Britain’s 20th century music history – without roving, curious minds like his we would have a much reduced view of folk traditions, global music or the political import of sound in daily life. Dave Arthur’s biography captures his complexity and energy with affection and unflinching honesty. (David Toop, author of Ocean of Sound (2001) and Sinister Resonance (2010).)
A. L. Lloyd was a catalyst, a man who made things happen, divided opinion, enthused, annoyed, embraced and attracted immense loyalty. He was a self-taught intellectual, a committed Marxist and a romantic, too. He might have exercised his propensity for genius in any number of areas but he did so most notably in the field of traditional music and song, becoming a touchstone for generations that followed him. This book will please and astonish those who read it.
Malcolm Taylor OBE, Library Director, English Folk Dance and Song Society
(7) About the Author
Dave Arthur has gained a considerable reputation as a researcher, collector, writer and broadcaster of English song, music and folklore. He edited English Dance and Song for twenty years, and in 2003 was awarded the EFDSS Gold Badge for services to folk music. His writing has appeared in The Times, the Independent, Melody Maker, Words International, the Folk Music Journal, English Dance and Song, the Stage, Encyclopaedia Britannica and New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
(8) From the publisher:
Folk singer and folk music collector, writer, painter, journalist, art critic, whalerman, sheep station roustabout, Marxist, and much more – this is the story of A. L. (Bert) Lloyd’s extraordinary life. A. L. Lloyd played a key part in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s, but that is only part of his story. Dave Arthur documents how Lloyd became a member of the Communist Party, forceful antifascist, trade unionist and an important part of left-wing culture from the early 1930s to his death in 1982. Following his return from Australia as a 21-year-old, self-educated agricultural labourer, he was at the heart of the most important left-wing movements and highly respected for his knowledge in various fields. Dave Arthur recounts the life of a creative, passionate and life-loving Marxist, and in so doing provides a social history of a turbulent twentieth century.
(9) Bert Lloyd died thirty years ago. A generation of young folk music enthusiasts will have grown up since then, none of them having seen him perform, and most unaware of his enormous influence on the English folk club scene, during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s.
(10) Many older folkies will first have come upon A L Lloyd as the co-compiler, with Ralph Vaughan Williams, of The Penguin Book Of Folk Songs, published in 1959, an important source in our quest for new material to perform at the weekly local folk club. Around the same time we came to know him as a charismatic performer, both through his recordings on the Topic label, and live, in the clubs themselves. The slightly wild, androgynous voice of this tubby, balding man, delivered with hand cupped behind ear and a rictus of a grin, took his performances into emotional territories of cool violence and insinuating eroticism that few other revival singers would have attempted to enter. He was also a captivating teller of stories.
(11) Over the next couple of decades, it became possible to put together a picture of Bert Lloyd, gleaned from hearsay, record sleeve notes, the odd interview, and the radio programmes he made for the Third Programme. As a young man he’d worked on Australian sheep farms, and later gone to sea on whaling boats. As a Communist, he had travelled behind the Iron Curtain, and brought back recordings of exotic music from places like Romania and Albania. This roving existence seemed to qualify him in particular to deliver the Outback ballads, the sea songs and shanties that were a potent part of his repertoire. Dave Arthur’s compendious and long-awaited biography fills in this picture, following its subject from birth in 1908 to death, after some years of illness, in 1982. It makes plain the great range of his abilities: self-taught scholar, linguist, translator, journalist, documentary film-maker, broadcaster, musicologist, and maker of folk songs. His ability to synthesise something rich and strange from mundane fragments and neglected ballad texts gave the folk world the enduring Jack Orion and Reynardine; and many of us had an early, heady whiff of the music of other cultures from his Topic anthologies, and radio programmes like The Voice Of The Gods and The Folk Music Virtuoso.
(12) One of Bert’s great virtues lies in its broad documenting of the widely varying social and cultural contexts through which Lloyd progressed: from humble beginnings in South London; through the time in Australia as an assisted migrant, then back to London to join the teeming world of the bohemian left; working for Picture Post and the BBC (though he was effectively blacklisted for most of the 1940s); and, after winning a singing competition at Cecil Sharp House in 1948, as an increasingly influential figure in the incipient folk music scene.
(13) Lloyd as an individual comes through most clearly in the earlier parts of the book, where his vivid correspondence and later retrospective memories concerning the 1920s Australian sojourn provide a glowing autobiographical patina. As the book progresses, the narrative is increasingly taken up by others, while Lloyd himself seems to become more fragmented, carefully partitioning his life and revealing only certain aspects of it, while keeping others hidden, depending on whom he is dealing with. The life, too, is shadowed with tragedy: the suicide of his first wife, the death from drugs of his beloved son, and, very early on, his immediate family – father, mother and siblings – wiped out by TB. There is also the question of how much of Lloyd’s own testimony is made up. He had a great penchant for fantasising, for example inventing diverse identities for his parents – in one instance, a complete fabrication, he became the illegitimate son of a Welsh cook and a Greek shipping millionaire.
But Bert Lloyd’s habit of reinventing himself is one of the intriguing things about his character, and an engaging aspect of this biography. He was a shape-shifter, trickster, and for every person who found him cold and remote, another, like Norma Waterson, remembers “a very loving man, a wonderful man.” And the richness of the worlds he inhabited, much of which is portrayed vividly in the words of those who shared them with him, is a reminder that we don’t yet have anything like a decent spoken historical account of the golden days of the British folk music scene, and that its witnesses are growing old, or have already been silenced for good. Dave Arthur’s Bert is a giant’s step on the way to setting down that account.