Cambridge Folk Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, is one of the premier music events in Europe and one of the longest running and most famous folk festivals in the world. Held each year since 1965 in the beautiful setting of Cherry Hinton Hall, it attracts around ten thousand people, many of whom return year after year.
The Festival is renowned for its unique atmosphere and an eclectic mix of music and a wide definition of what might be considered folk. The best traditional folk artists from the UK and Ireland rub shoulders with cutting edge contemporary acts, the finest American country, blues and roots artists, acclaimed singer songwriters and world famous names. Bluegrass, gospel, cajun, zydeco, jazz, world, klezmer and ceilidhs are also regular features. The line-up has reflected the many changes in the music scene from the 60s to the present and is always a hotbed mix of the old and the new. The list of performers who have appeared reads like a who’s who and the Festival continues to be a launching pad for many well known artists.
The story began in autumn 1964 when Cambridge City Council decided to hold a music festival the next summer. They approached local firefighter and political activist Ken Woollard who was a regular attender at the newly formed Cambridge Folk Club. Ken had been inspired by a documentary, Jazz On A Summer’s Day, about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. He wanted a festival that preserved the values of the fast evolving folk club movement and expressed his socialist ideals, one which covered a wide spectrum of music, and most importantly had a friendly family atmosphere. The first Festival sold one thousand four hundred tickets and almost broke even. Squeezed in as a late addition to the bill was a young Paul Simon who had just released I Am A Rock.
Cambridge City Council decided to stick with the Festival and their confidence was rewarded as its popularity quickly grew. Ken continued as Festival organiser and artistic director up until his death in 1993. This was a great blow, but the team of staff and friends which he had built up over the years, backed by the commitment and resources of the City Council, pulled together to carry on the great tradition he fostered.
For the last 22 years, the Festival has been programmed by Eddie Barcan, who worked as Ken’s assistant for three years prior to his death. To this day the Festival shares much of the same philosophy from the early days, though it has never stopped moving forward and developing, incorporating new ideas and features. The last two decades have seen a huge growth in awareness and popularity of the festival, in part due to great reviews and many years of national television and radio coverage, but most often due to word of mouth and recommendations. It still run by Cambridge City Council, though with a new generation of staff, including over two hundred who come together just for the weekend and who like their predecessors and its audience, share a passion for the Festival.
Most artists still perform more than once over the weekend on the different stages: Stage 1, housed within a giant marquee in front of the main Festival arena, the Stage 2, a more intimate venue, and the Club Tent, hosted on the Festival’s behalf by five local folk clubs. There, in addition to invited artists, members of the audience including some well-known names get up and perform. Indeed very often the real stars are not the booked acts but the audience themselves, who create their own music in sessions in the bars and long into the evenings in the campsite.
In 2011, The Den was launched, as a stage dedicated to emerging talent. It is located just another area for young people called The Hub, away from the bustle of the main stages, and set within a beautiful Indian marquee, decorated to create a quirky, welcoming and intimate space. In addition to booked artists, 15 minute slots are set aside daily for musicians attending the Festival and there are sessions at night. Both areas have helped Cambridge become popular who a whole new generation of young festival goers.
Throughout its history the Festival has applied the simple ideal of providing the best for artists and audience alike, and its site facilities are amongst the best to be found. Clean toilets, marquees to keep the audience covered in the event of rain, extensive provision for disabled people, award winning stage production, food from around the world, beautiful site art, the Folknet Cafe with phone recharging and free internet access, craft, music and instrument stalls, friendly staff, campsite entertainment, a dedicated youth area, a creche, a “Silent Ceilidh” and children’s concert and a variety of workshops are all part of the picture.
In 2014 the Festival proudly celebrated 50 years. The same year it was presented with the prestigious Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. This was for its contribution to the preservation, dissemination and continuance/progression of traditional music over a number of years. It was also named as “Outstanding” in the A Greener Festival Awards.
Cambridge Folk Festival continues to move forward and develop, and welcomes both old and new faces in 2015.