Where can you find Folk Dancing (traditional, ceilidh, rapper, morris, American, Playford, Appalachian clog, English clog), and Folk Singing except at Festivals? There are six week-long Folk Camps happening this year (2017) and nine weekend camps, but I bet a lot of you don't know anything about them. Folk Camps are wonderful !!
Like the Hobby Horse Club and Sidmouth Festival, Folk Camps were started by the legendary Bill Rutter. They were intended as inexpensive holidays for Folk singers and dancers with families, though I've been going for over thirty-five years and still not acquired a family (I have a wife, but she doesn't camp). They've attracted staff such as John Kirkpatrick, Taffy Thomas, Hugh Rippon, Ken Alexander, Wild Thyme, Dampiers Round, Fiona Maurice-Smith, and many more. The magic is certainly there, and you won't win any friends if you think of it as a cheap imitation of a Festival.
My first experience of Folk Camps was a Youth Camp when I was 27. I phoned up Tony Millington, who was then the organiser, and said, “I'm 27 — am I too old for a Youth Camp?” and he replied “I'm 28 and I'm the warden”. I loved the experience and have been going ever since.
In those days planning legislation allowed only three caravans on the site — presumably they were afraid we were really gipsies — so almost everybody was in tents. Folk Camps Society now holds an exemption certificate regarding planning laws so there are caravans and camper vans as well, but the teenagers often camp together in a circle of miniature tents known as “Mushroom City”.
I had booked to go on a Folk Camp near Portsmouth one year, and at the last moment the venue had to be changed. A farmer had agreed that we could hire one of his fields for two weeks, but the locals found out about it and threatened to boycott his produce unless he cancelled the booking — which he did. A friend of mine happened to live in the area, and she sent me a copy of an article from the local paper, headlined “14 Nights of Barn Dances”. This gave the impression that we were going to be disrupting the calm of the countryside with loud music late at night, taking over their village and so on. It was totally misinformed, but I could see their point of view. Probably the only thing they could imagine was a Pop Festival, and would you want one of those in your village?! I'm pleased to report that we found a much better venue a few miles away.
The staff are Leader, Warden, Musician and Caterer — these days some of the posts are shared by two people and sometimes a third as a trainee. They will supervise, but don't expect them to run everything. One camp may have people who want to run morris and sword workshops; another may have Playford and clog, or singing rounds, playing the bones, making corn dollies, making lanterns… Everyone has a set job; often two or three families will be preparing lunch and cooking the evening meal for a day, others will be on breakfast duty for half a week, and so on. Cooking for a hundred people is hard work, but it can be a very sociable activity. And Folk Camps are great for families. The kids will go off and do their own thing together some of the time, and adults who see them doing something foolhardy will stop them whether it's their own kids or not. So the adults can get together and not be worrying about their kids all the time; sometimes I don't find out who's with who until they're packing up to go home. Each day after breakfast there is a dance music workshop for musicians of all capabilities and for all instruments. Other workshops could cover morris, sword, regional, singing, choral, crafts etc. etc. If you're an accomplished musician already, you might play with other equally-talented folk for the evening dance. During the day most people go off-site — often to the seaside in families or larger groups. After the evening meal there are singing games for the younger children, then fairly easy dances, getting a bit more complicated as children go to bed. A break for a drink and perhaps the Folk Camps bread pudding, during which there's a singaround when all sorts of surprising people will do a turn. And then more dancing, and possibly the die-hards carrying on (without amplification) till the small hours.
I've led marquee weeks, a Halsway Manor Week and several Dancers' Weekends. The rest of the time I'm a paying customer, but that doesn't mean I sit around and wait to be entertained. I remember one year when Dave Brown was the musician. We had a band session with everyone playing together, and then Dave (very sensibly) wanted to split us into two groups with himself taking the advanced group. The beginners went round the back of the marquee. “You'll come with us, won't you?” asked one woman, so I joined them. People were milling about uncertainly. “So what are we doing then?” I asked innocently. Suddenly I was running the beginners' band — which is unusual for a guitarist! On another occasion there wasn't a beginners' band, but a few people came up to me and said they were finding the main session too fast, so I ran a session each day where we took simple tunes and played them at the right speed for the musicians attending. I've also been asked at several camps to run a Playford workshop, and on one occasion a Callers workshop. If you have skills, it's up to you to let people know; speak to the Leader if you're not sure and you'll find him or her very keen to encourage you.
Folk Camps can really bring people out. I remember a very shy man who didn't make friends easily, probably at his first Folk Camp. He set up a live Pac-man game, with walls marked out with tape, items to be picked up by the Pac-man, and ghosts who were slowed down by having to wear one frogman's flipper. The kdis loved it, and he was the hit of the camp.
Of course, it's not for everyone. My background is Scout camps and school journeys, and to me it seemed perfectly natural from the start, but I once took a girl-friend whose idea of a holiday was to go away with one person and just do things with them. I leapt in and started joining in with everything, while she retreated and thought “What am I doing here?” — it took a lot of adjustment for both of us. If camping means “roughing it” to you, or you like to keep yourself to yourself, or you don't like children, you'd probably hate it. But many people love the friendliness, the sense of belonging to a community, the chance to join in, ignore or run activities as you wish. On the last night there's a party, often with a fancy dress theme, and these can be amazing! You have to experience it; I just can't convey the atmosphere. I remember one on the theme of The French Revolution where there was a guillotine, so after I had called a dance there was a cry of “To the guillotine with him”, where I was dragged, the blade came down and the executioner held up a (dummy) head to general applause and rejoicing.
Naturally Folk Camps have moved with the times. At the marquee sites there are now flush toilets rather than Elsans, and a generator for electric lights rather than paraffin lanterns — even sockets where you can recharge your mobile phone. The twin gods of Health and Safety hold sway, so no more pots of jam and tubs of butter — it's all individual portions. I find there's a much lower standard of dancing than there used to be in “the good old days”, though I suspect that's true in the Dance Clubs too. Folk Camps went through a bit of a dip a few years ago, but now (2009) many weeks are sold out before the beginning of the year and things are looking very good. It's great to see people year after year, watch the kids grow up, get married (sometimes to other Folk Campers), have kids and then bring them along to a Camp. And several of those kids I used to play with are now Leaders themselves. It really is a multi-generation experience, which seems a rare thing these days. And it can be a very intense experience. If I was doing two weeks it felt very odd when most of the people left on change-over day and lots of strangers arrived. “What are they doing in the Joneses' spot?” I used to think. And then driving home, stopping at the motorway services for a cup of tea, and being surrounded by complete strangers, was most unsettling.
There is also a German Folk Camps organisation at www.folkcamp.de
The photos are taken from The Unofficial Folk Camps Photo Archive: www.folk-camps-archive.org.uk
Click here to see a video on Facebook of the Folk Camps Party Band at Chippenham Folk Festival in 2018 — and you don't have to sign up to FaceBook to watch it!