This was written for the programme for the 50th year and final night of Jacqui and Bridie’s folk club at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 23 January 2011.
Who knows? In another world, Jacqueline McDonald, a Geordie raised in Yorkshire, might have been playing on this stage with the Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1957, when she was 20, she wanted to learn the oboe. She discovered that oboes were around £70 whereas she could buy a cheap guitar for £4. “I started practising the guitar on the bus back from Harrogate to Ilkley,” recalls Jacqui today, “I had a chord book and by the time I got back to Ilkley, I could play a G chord.” Having learnt some chords, what was Jacqui to sing?
The noted American singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie commented that all music was folk music because he’d never heard a horse sing. Very true, but the so-called folk music revival in Britain and America in the 1950s concentrated on songs which linked the countries back to their heritage. The songs tended to be of working class origin and had often been handed down orally, which explains why there are often several versions of the same song.
There hadn’t been mass popularity for folk music until the American group the Weavers made million selling records in the early 1950s. They had success with an African chant ‘Wimoweh’ as well as ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ and ‘Goodnight Irene’. In September 1959, they toured the UK Moss Empire circuit but probably because the group’s popularity had peaked, few people had bought tickets.
When Jacqui was in Leeds, she noticed that the Weavers were performing and rather than wait for a bus in the rain, she attended their matinee. “The place was full of schoolchildren,” says Jacqui “because they hadn’t sold many tickets and wanted an audience. It changed my life. There were three men including Pete Seeger and a woman, Ronnie Gilbert. I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing something like that. I liked the fact that they were singing about the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee Dam: it was real music as opposed to the pop songs of the day which I didn’t particularly like.”
Jacqui’s opportunity came quicker than expected. She was training to be a gym teacher at the I M Marsh College in Liverpool and as the Weavers played the Liverpool Empire on 27 September, she saw them again. Backstage, she met the very tall Tony Davis, who told of the Friday folk nights which had started in the basement of Sampson and Barlow’s Restaurant, opposite the Odeon Cinema on London Road. Jacqui went the next Friday and sang the only suitable songs she knew, the calypso ‘Hold ’Em Joe’ and a yodeling song.
Tony Davis’ sister, Joan, remembered: “If you were singing a quiet, unaccompanied ballad, you could be sure that a great big bus would lumber over the grating and spoil it for you, but it was good fun.”
At the time, Joan was singing with the fledgling Spinners. “I remember Jacqui getting up for a guest spot, and she was very good. I said to Tony, ‘Look, I’m going to university and I’ve got other things to do now. You should ask Jacqui to replace me.”
The following week the Spinners – that is, Tony Davis, Cliff Hall, Mick Groves and Hughie Jones – asked Jacqui to join them. They all had daytime jobs but they were soon in demand to appear at other folk clubs and on radio and TV including the popular programme, Barn Dance, hosted by Brian Redhead.
On their own initiative, the Spinners released Songs Spun In Liverpool, a live album recorded in 1962. Their repertoire included ‘Whip Jamboree’, ‘John Peel’ and ‘Johnny Todd’ (sung by Jacqui and now known as the theme from Z-Cars). A club member, Mollie Armstrong, came up with ‘Liverpool Barrow Boy’s Song’ and when Jacqui’s grandmother remembered ‘The Sovereign Of The Seas’ from South Shields, Hughie refashioned it as ‘Champion Of The Seas’ about a Liverpool sailing ship that broken the record on the run to Australia in 1860. ‘Adam In The Garden’, was developed from something Jacqui remembered from a girl guide camp and indeed, there was a camp fire mentality about the way folk club audiences would join in the choruses.
Bridget Mary O’Donnell, better known as Bridie, was of Irish background but had been raised in Wrexham and was teaching in Tuebrook. Bridie told me of her first visit to the Spinners’ club in 1960. “I went with a young man, another teacher, to the Spinners’ folk club. I thought we were going to have a lovely night out but suddenly he got up and sang as a floor singer. I got to know them all and I was soon selling raffle tickets and became an avid club member.” Bridie sometimes drove the Spinners to their bookings. Everybody recalls Bridie’s driving with some horror and it became a constant source of amusement in Jacqui and Bridie’s stage act.
Jacqui and Bridie and a third teacher, Marnie Spencer, bought an old coach house in St Michael’s Road in Aigburth. They decorated it brightly and distinctly, even having wallpaper on the ceiling.
On Monday nights, Jacqui would rehearse with the Spinners and Bridie thought of opening her own folk club in the Coach House itself. Early in 1961, an ad was placed in the Liverpool Echo and the first person to knock on the door was Stan Mason. He had no idea what folk music was but those who were coming might enjoy his collection of stamps. Eventually, some singers turned up and the club did well, growing from 20 to over 100. There was no Health and Safety legislation back then.
Meanwhile, Jacqui was becoming frustrated with the Spinners. All five Spinners sang lead vocals and so she would only sing lead a couple of times in a set. In January 1963, Jacqui left but, despite a solo appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, she didn’t care for driving around on her own. It was inevitable that she would team up with Bridie and she became part of the weekly Coach House sessions.
Jacqui and Bridie would dress similarly but not identically and this summarised their approach to music. Although they could harmonise sweetly, it was the contrast in their voices that made them distinctive. Jacqui had a delicate voice, well suited to poignant ballads, while Bridie’s forceful, up-and-at-’em voice demanded to be heard. Similarly, Jacqui played guitar and mandolin delicately while Bridie’s banjo could be heard across Liverpool. Both had comic timing and again it was the combination of their humour and their repartee which made them so memorable. Bridie possessed enormous verve and energy and could respond to any heckle. After singing ‘Kilgarry Mountain’ one night, she had a very funny rant about what Captain Farrell could do with his rapier. She might have done it every night for all I know, but it sounded spontaneous and was very funny.
In June 1964, Jacqui and Bridie turned professional thus becoming Britain’s first female professional folk duo and they decided to tour North America for six weeks. Club members came to the Pier Head to wave them goodbye when they sailed direct (those were the days) from Liverpool to Quebec. They found work on university campuses and secured spots on radio and TV. They visited the American folk singer Jean Ritchie, whom they had met on a UK tour. She showed them some dancing dolls from her childhood. They were entranced and an idea took shape.
Marnie Spencer, a good organiser, continued with the Coach House folk club in their absence. A girl called Anthea developed a love for folk music and married Peter Bellamy, who was to perform with his group, the Young Tradition, for Jacqui and Bridie.