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Alex Campbell


ALEX CAMPBELL, 1925 - 1987

Reminiscences of a great man

"Alex Campbell was the most important and influential folksinger of the folksong revival in Europe. Admired, respected and loved by his fellow performers and by his audiences throughout Europe, he epitomised the image of the travelling minstrel. His love of people, his joy of singing and his commitment to the ideals of the folksong movement placed him foremost amongst his contemporaries. He was especially loved in Denmark, so much so that when throat cancer put an end to his performing career his Danish friends gave him sanctuary and support and helped him through his few remaining years. Living firstly in Skagen and finally in Tonder, Alex died in January 1987.
Tonight's concert is a celebration of the man and his songs. His music and his friendship knew no boundaries and hence the performers and friends appearing tonight have come from many countries to play their part in the tribute to "The big Daddy of folk music". (Excerpt from the Skagen Festival program)

I know that I am one of many who was influenced and inspired by watching Alex Campbell perform. My generation came of age in the early sixties, which was a time of social revolution. For the first time it seemed that working class lads like me could become musicians, photographers, painters, or poets - we did not have to follow the path laid out by our predecessors who had come through the hard times of the thirties and the war years in the forties, and who strived for nothing more than the security of a steady job and a pension after fifty years of work. Like every new generation we wanted to make our own way and break with the old ways. Pop music in those days was bland and boring, but folk music ... this was the new music (though much of it was based on centuries old traditions) and it merged with the new philosophies of life to be eagerly embraced by our new generation. Folk clubs had started to open throughout Britain, and they were vibrant and exciting with the music of many different styles; Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the Blues, Calypso, traditional English songs, Scottish ballads, Irish republican songs, the new guitar heroes of bedsitter land in London ... all were made welcome in the folk clubs.

And standing tall in the middle of all this action was Alex Campbell.

Alex's strongest and most endearing characteristic was his total commitment to the songs he sang. Whether it was an ancient Scottish ballad or a protest song by Bob Dylan he sang each with equal commitment. He created the persona he became - the hard travelling, hard living folksinger, moving on from gig to gig, earning easy money and spending it fast on the good times. At that time in the British folk music scene (the late 60s) there was a great divide between those who favoured traditional music and those who favoured the new singer-songwriters, and it was this divide which helped to cause the decline in popularity of folk music in Britain. What those who stood for or against did not realise is that people will listen to any kind of music, whether it is traditional or contemporary just so long as it is performed well. What they don't want is to be told what to listen to. Alex stood above this bickering; he did not care where the song came from or how old it was, just as long as it was a good song. He brought the people in to folk music and showed them the richness of their culture, whether it was British, German, Danish or whatever. He firmly believed in the maxim, "music for the people by the people."

It was therefore a great honour when I found out that Alex was singing some of my songs. I vividly remember meeting up with him at the Norwich folk festival. We sat backstage talking about songs, and I mentioned a new song I had recently written while I was staying on the island of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. I suggested it would be good for him because of the lyrics - "It's good to see you, so good to see you, oh how I've missed you since I've been gone." He immediately asked me to teach him the song, and over the following years he made that song his own. When I first went to Denmark for a concert I sang the song and was politely told by quite a few people that I could not sing the song because it was Alex's. Even when I told them I had written the song they still said that it belonged to Alex. He sang the song right to the end of his career; as far as I know it was the last song he ever sang on stage, and I was there to sing it with him. He had no voice at this time because of the operation to remove cancer from his throat - he could just croak out the words, but he did it with all the panache of the veteran perfomer. It was an extremely emotional performance for me because I knew it was over and never to be again - the end had come.

The performance at Skagen Festival which led to the double CD was my chance to say in public how great a man was Alex. I worked for many months on the script, and the whole show (which lasted four hours) was my personal tribute to the man. And so it seemed this was the case for the other performers too. They gave the evening their total commitment - without their support it would have failed. I consider it to be the highlight of my career, and the double CD is perhaps for me more important even than my own CDs, as "The Alex Campbell Tribute Concert" CD was done not for any financial consideration but for the memory of a great man and friend.

At the time of writing this short piece for Folksblatt the CD has received great reviews, mostly so far from Denmark. It has been awarded the highest points possible in the national newspapers, and I've recently heard that I have been awarded the "Arets Folkmusikpris" - an award given for services to folk music by the Skagen Festival and to be presented by Danish Radio at the Skagen festival in June.

You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.




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