York’s folk giant bows out – after one last musical extravaganza

Bella Gaffney and Polly Bolton are at this year's festival
31 May 2018 @ 5.19 pm
| Entertainment

With the green sheen of the summer months comes the welcome sound of York’s fantastic folk music scene.

Bringing together excellent musicians and folk music lovers alike, the City of York Folk Weekend rolls into York once again, from the 1st of June to the 3rd.

Hosted by the Black Swan Inn across Peasholme Green, this musical extravaganza is a storied community affair, celebrating all that is great about York’s folk heritage with performances, workshops and jam sessions for all ages.

Beginning back in 2003, this is the festivals 16th iteration and it’s bigger and better than ever with over 45 singers and bands performing over the course of the weekend.

City of York Folk Weekend

Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green

Fri Jun 1-Sun Jun 3


More details

But for the organisers and fans alike, this year holds special and poignant meaning.

This will be the final folk weekend organised by original founder Roland Walls, who is stepping down for health reasons.

Roland is well-loved around these parts, a pillar in York’s folk scene and an encyclopaedia for the genre.

As a long-standing key member of the Black Swan’s Folk Club for over three decades, Roland has played an integral role in the formation and success of the City of York Folk Weekend, placing his own indelible stamp on York’s impressive folk legacy.

We sit down for a chat with the man himself.

‘There’s a very lively folk scene’

A big moment on the musical calendar – City of York Folk Weekend
Where does your connection with folk music start?
Like many people my age, as a teenager in the late sixties, I got interested in folk music and other sorts of music of that time. It was a time when the folk music scene was very lively and there were pioneering groups, mixing folk music and rock music like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

I got interested as a school boy and once I was old enough, I started going to folk music clubs near where I grew up. I just became a big fan and though I should say I was never a musician myself, I’ve always been an enthusiastic listener rather than a performer.

What’s the story behind you and the Black Swan Folk Club?
I came to live in York in ’82, it was the first time for a few years I had lived in a city with an active folk club. I started going to the weekly folk club at the Black Swan and really enjoyed it, I made a lot of friends there and began to be involved in organising the club.

I gradually took on more and more responsibility as people pulled out and nobody volunteered, and so from 1987, and for about 31 years, I’ve been the main organiser.

We just celebrated our 40th year and the whole thing was started by students in 1978. Since then, it’s always been a highly thought of club and ten years ago we were voted Folk Club of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

How did the folk fest start?
The festival, I’m not quite sure, to be honest, how it started. It may have been a suggestion by the then pub landlord in 2003. It began as a one-day event and for the first three years it was a one-day event on the Saturday. I think this is the 11th or 12th one which has lasted the whole weekend.

What do you think makes the festival so successful?
There’s a very lively folk and acoustic music scene in York and there’s lots of interesting singers and bands in the city. Right from the start the idea was to have an event which brought as many of those people together as possible so that’s really what we do.

Everyone on the bill is either from York or the immediate area, or they have some strong connection with York. It was very much designed to bring the different elements of the York folks scene together for the weekend and showcase them to the wider community.

It was decided from the outset, it would be a free event and we wanted to welcome in as many people in as possible. The bands are happy performing, and they don’t want any payment. We obviously have some expenses. Because it’s free, people can just wander in for three hours or three days, it’s up to them.

The folk club goes from strength to strength, and it’s the same for the Folk Weekend. The pub management has been very supportive, and obviously we couldn’t do it without them.

The man and his music – Roland Walls (inset) and people enjoying a previous York folk fest
What next? Will the weekend will just get bigger?
It’s reached a successful level, I wouldn’t want to do it more than once a year or to try and make it into a whole week of events. I think that’d be too much. We do other things, for example, we run a winter folk day as part of the York Residents festival at the end of January.

We had about seven hours of live music on the last Sunday at the Black Swan, and we’ve done that every year for the last eight or nine years.

The club is very active, we promote concerts at the National Centre for Early Music for the bigger bands, and we occasionally co-promote other venues. We’re doing something at the Crescent soon with an Irish band who were named folk band of the year at this year’s BBC Folk Awards. They’re called Lankum.

Do you have any fave folk fest acts?
They can’t be with us this year, but York’s most successful folk band is Blackbeard’s Tea Party who have given us some great performances over the years.

It’s not just about named artists though, we always have opportunities through the weekend for people to sing and play together informally. For example, we have a rolling folk club where people can put their name on the door and sing a couple of songs when their turn comes. We also have another room made available for musicians who want to just jam together. So, it’s a participation thing as well.

We try to have one or two workshops each year, and we always try to do something that’s geared toward children. We also have a spoken word session as well, people reading poetry or doing story-telling.

There was a very famous York poet called Don Walls who passed away this year, and he was a frequent attender at the Black Swan. It was him who probably inspired us to have a spoken word session at the festival.

Who should we see this year?
Have a look at the programme and see what takes your fancy! Because its free, you can just wander in and out – if the weathers lovely you can sit outside and have a beer and enjoy the music from the marquee.

If you are interested in singing yourself, then I would recommend Soundsphere’s Singing Workshop on Sunday morning. They’ve run that for us for about five years now, it’s always very popular.

If you’re interested in American old-time music, Bella Gaffney and Polly Bolton are doing a little workshop on Sunday.

They are two phenomenally gifted musicians who will hopefully inspire you on your chosen instrument.

The 2018 City of York’s Folk Weekend promises to be a grand few days, and a veritable cornucopia of rambunctious performances, roaring ceilidhs and rolling jam sessions, and after nearly 16 years of service to the weekend and over 30 years’ service to the Black Swan Inn’s folk club, Roland Walls has been there every step of the way.