Ian Campbell: Musician whose politically charged band led the British folk revival of the 1960s


To say that Fate seemingly conspired to make Ian Campbell appear famous only by association would do him a disservice. Both Simon and Garfunkel and the Dubliners covered his nuclear protest song "The Sun Is Shining'. He appeared on four BBC Radio Ballads – a breakthrough in radio drama deploying music, spoken word and actuality recordings. The Ian Campbell Folk Group became arguably the leading band on the British folk scene of the 1960s – only the Spinners rivalled them – and definitely the first UK-based folk group with a mainland European following.

Ian Campbell was the eldest of four children born to Betty and Dave Campbell. In his sleevenotes to The Singing Campbells– Traditions of an Aberdeen family (Topic Records), Peter A Hall described them as "Aberdonian born and bred". As well as both parents and Ian and his sisters Lorna and Winnie, The Singing Campbells also included Bob Cooney, their Aberdonian lodger who came for a week and became, as Hall wrote, "a member of the family by adoption".

In 1946 they moved to Birmingham. There the apprentice jewellery engraver discovered the local branch of the Workers' Music Association (WMA) and joined its Clarion Youth Choir. When skiffle boomed in 1957-58, a splinter Clarion Skiffle Group coalesced. Sagely avoiding the standard repertoire, they incorporated, as Campbell told me, "a political element in our approach", with Scottish farming material, Fenian and Jacobite songs and industrial and mining songs.

Campbell's socially engaged songs guaranteed bookings, but Clarion already had a Clarion Folk Group. "I wanted to call us the Cornkisters," Campbell told me, "because that's a name of a type of Aberdeen folk song. Everyone said it was a silly name. Temporarily, because they had asked to book Ian Campbell and his group, we called ourselves the Ian Campbell Folk Group and we never got around to changing it."

He identified two great inspirations: Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd ("both Marxists and socialists") and a pamphlet called The American Threat to British Culture which included writings by the Marxist scholar George Thomson, whose wife Katherine helmed the Birmingham WMA Choir.With Lorna's full-voiced lead vocals complementing her brother's, her husband Brian Clark on guitar and vocals, John Dunkerley's instrumental prowess and Dave Swarbrick's revelatory fiddle playing, they soldiered on as a semi-professional outfit.

In 1962 Topic, a label that had begun life as a WMA offshoot, put out a live recording from The Crown on Birmingham's Station Street. The result was the Ian Campbell Folk Group's EP Ceilidh At The Crown – probably the country's first live folk club recording. In 1963 they signed to Transatlantic, immediately releasing their debut LP, This Is The Ian Campbell Folk Group (1963).

Birmingham-based, they played the Midlands during the week, gigging further afield in those pre-motorway days at weekends. "By '63 we were working so hard as a group that I was the only one who managed to retain my job," Campbell said. "All the rest of the group were constantly losing their jobs because they were leaving on Friday lunchtime and not coming back until Monday or Tuesday."

With a secure folk club base, the Jug of Punch, as a residency, and a record contract, they went full-time in 1963. That same year Walther Klæbel, a young Copenhagen-based jazz promoter, saw them in London. Exultant, he organised their first Danish tour. "We never looked back because twice a year we would go to Denmark and do a national tour [...] for about 12 years."

While living in Britain, Paul Simon would pick up on "The Sun Is Burning", covering it on Simon and Garfunkel's 1964 debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3AM. More recently Roy Bailey covered Campbell's "Old Man's Tale" on Below The Radar (2009); Campbell's song reflects on wartime and the never-ending interbellum starting with the Boer War. It builds to the line "a life seem[ing] like one long bloody war" and ends with a rallying cry.

Campbell's claim that they were the folk group was well founded, though they were fiercely competitive when it came to the Spinners. Swarbrick used one episode as an excuse to leave, when they arrived at the Sunderland Empire only to see their rivals' name up there. (On closer inspection the contract was for the previous year.) Things fell apart after Dunkerley's death in 1977 and the break-up of Lorna and Brian Clark's marriage in 1978. Ian and Lorna continued performing on and off but he became a mature student and a local government adviser.

He is survived by his sisters Lorna and Winnie, his ex-wife Pat and their four musician sons – David, Robin, Duncan and Ali Campbell, the last three of whom played most famously in the reggae-inspired band UB40. His brother David predeceased him.

Ian Campbell, folk singer and songwriter: born Aberdeen 10 June 1933; married Patricia Weaver (four sons); died Birmingham 24 November 2012.

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