For those in the know, the best night to hit the town isn’t on the weekend. It’s Wednesdays.
Since it began in 1976, Folk Night has been a staple in the city’s traditional music scene. Originally run by the early incarnations of what is now the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society, Folk Night — or Folk Club, as it’s called by longtime attendees — began as it’s held now: a roaring, weekly night at The Ship Pub. These days, you'll find it on Wednesday nights.
“I started getting into folk music in 1981, with a group called Barkin’ Kettle,” says singer, guitarist and music teacher Jean Hewson, who has been involved with folk night in various capacities for 30 years. “When I started playing music is when I started going to Folk Night.”
Back then, it was the best place in town for a young musician like Hewson to hear the province’s best traditional musicians.
“If Emile Benoit came to town, for example, he’d come out to Folk Night,” she said.
But it was more than just a formal concert. The night was usually a spontaneous eruption of music, with musicians of all season jumping in to contribute. It was a real session.
“Back in the early days, there were a lot of impromptu performances where people would just get up with someone like Rufus Guinchard, and they would play a whole bunch of tunes,” she said. “So you would have these instant, spontaneous collaborations with people happening. That, to me, was really the hallmark of Folk Club.”
The spontaneity of Folk Club was carried to every venue it ever inhabited: the King’s Bridge Hotel, the Duke of Duckworth, Bridget’s, Humphrey’s and the Blarney Stone on George Street.
“Quite often, someone would just blow in from out of town and show up at folk night to play the open mike,” said Hewson. “That was actually how I saw Bernard Felix, when Folk Night was at Bridget’s. He was a wonderful accordion player from the Port-au-Port Peninsula. I happened to be the co-ordinator of Folk Night and the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, and mostly because we had all seen him there at Folk Night, and he had blown us all away, he got a gig at the folk festival the next year. So it was a great way to find new talent.”
John Clarke, a guitarist and dobroist, now runs folk night for the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Council. He’s been with the Folk Arts Council for three years, but he’s been going to Folk Night since it moved back to The Ship more than a decade ago. He’s been doing his best to navigate Folk Night through the city’s changing music scene while keeping its original spirit intact.
“The music in St. John’s has changed a lot in the last 10 years and so has the music scene; you won’t have Frank Maher packing The Ship these days,” he said. “So, Folk Night has gone through changes. Two years ago, for example, it wasn’t doing so well. But in the last couple of years, the singer-songwriter profile in this city has gone completely off the charts. I don’t have enough fingers to start rhyming off the number of young singer-songwriters that have just come out of nowhere and are completely world class and most definitely will be world class. So we started having these singer-songwriters, like Amelia Curran, Katie Baggs, and Andrew James O’Brien, perform at Folk Night.”
The nights are more structured, with a clear headlining act. And while the focus has broadened, the emphasis on collaboration still reigns.
“If we program someone like Katie Baggs, who brings out a younger crowd, there’s still the open mike component,” said Clarke. “And the traditional musicians who appreciate good music and sit and listen to Katie, and the younger folks who have never heard people like Frank Maher can hear what an accordion sounds like at a million miles an hour, played with grace and force.”
Clarke has also tried to maintain Folk Night’s essential role and a proving ground for up-and-coming musicians.
One Wednesday night in May, four young musicians, all around the age of 20, took to The Ship’s stage for their first gig. Calling themselves The Freels, they belted out a tight set of traditional tunes which held the audience — a mix of younger people, friends of the band, and the older crowd that typically heads out to Folk Night — completely rapt.
“That was the first thing we’d done where someone had noticed us and given us a call and asked us to come and play,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, who sings and plays the fiddle and bodhran with The Freels. “It felt really cool.”
“The other venues want you to be established,” said Danny Mills, who plays the flute, bouzouki and sings with the band. “We don’t have an album or anything like that, but Folk Night is pretty easygoing. Well, it was an intimidating audience, be-cause it was so full of great musicians, but that’s also cool because these people are out to see you. “
Clarke can relate to their excitement.
“The first time I was offered a gig at Folk Night, I realized that something had changed, that something had stepped up a level,” he aid. “And I can see that in these young performers now that I book them.”
Clarke said he feels Folk Night attendance is on its way up again, thanks, in part, to the popularity of bands such as The Dardanelles, and to the efforts of organizations such as the Folk Arts Society, which is constantly trying to bring traditional and folk music to younger and wider audiences. But even if audiences wane again — even if there are just 20 people listening — Folk Night would still earn its keep.
“This is about people getting together and playing music together,” he said.
“There are many types of music and performances and they enrich us all, from singer-songwriters to full-on rock shows. But this is a special thing in that these people sit around, get to know each other, and have a couple beers together. They trade some tunes, they trade phone numbers, take lessons from each other, meet at each other’s homes, and we all become a better community and better musicians because of it. And that’s the goal.”