Obituary: Ken Woollard
Thursday 21 October 1993
KEN WOOLLARD was the unlikeliest visionary imaginable. A small, cheery, rotund man with ruddy complexion and an earthy demeanour, he was disarmingly modest and unassuming, avoiding public attention with astonishing zeal across three decades. Yet while he professed no specific musical talent of his own, and with a perverse relish often insisted that he wasn't even especially fond of music, he played a profound role in its promotion in Britain.
Woollard was a Cambridge fireman and proud of it when Cambridge City Council decided to fund a small folk festival in 1964. Active in local politics, with a particular interest in the left-wing values being espoused by the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement in the United States, he was enlisted on the organising committee and was then persuaded to take over the entire event.
The festival duly went ahead and was deemed successful enough to persuade the council to invest more money in it the following year. Woollard ran the festival from then on as it steadily became not only the flagship of international folk music, but a crucial catalyst in the crossbreeding of styles that has gradually become accepted as the norm. It has survived all the musical and fashion trends of 30 years to remain the leading event of its type - the 29th Cambridge Festival attracted thousands of people from all over the world at the end of July - and this is due in main to the tenacious individuality with which Woollard organised things, manifesting itself in the grouchy charm that has traditionally characterised the event.
That first year Woollard had a budget of pounds 1,500 and needed an audience of 1,500 people to make a profit. In fact, he only got 1,400, making a pounds 100 loss, but he put together a bill that included the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Hedy West and the Watersons and grudgingly allowed a young, unknown but pushy singer- songwriter an unscheduled spot. His name? Paul Simon.
Cambridge subsequently built its reputation on such impromptu appearances. Many leading American singer-songwriters like Loudon Wainwright, Arlo Guthrie, Steve Goodman and Jim Croce all found their careers rocketing in Britain after surprise spots at the festival, while the list of superstars who have appeared there is not only a catalogue of the best folk musicians, but areas way beyond . . . the Chieftains, the Rev Gary Davis, Joan Baez, Lonnie Donegan, Bo Diddley and Nanci Griffith have all headlined, while reggae groups, steel bands, fire-eaters and jazz musicians have been among the peripheral attractions.
He continued as a fireman for several steadfastly unimpressed by celebrity or the supposed glamour of the circles in which he now moved. If he wanted an artist he offered them a fee, take it or leave it. If they started haggling he put the phone down. Such is the prestige of the Cambridge festival that more often than not they took it.
The event threatened to be destroyed by its own success as it nearly burst at the seams in the Seventies, and there were calls for it to be moved to a larger site. Woollard fiercely resisted them, determined to retain the character he had captured within the limited but picturesque grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, a couple of miles out of the city. He eventually won, and the festival remains at Cherry Hinton to this day.
Woollard could be doggedly determined if not downright stubborn, but remained an intensely private and shy man. When BBC2 filmed a series from the festival in the Eighties, he sternly resisted attempts to persuade him on camera for an interview; and even when the artists wanted to make a presentation to him at the 20th year of the festival, he almost had to be manhandled on stage to receive it.
Yet, while often threatening to resign as festival director, particularly after his first heart attack a few years ago, he remained fiercely proud of the spirit he had created at Cambridge. He became close friends with many of the artists he had regularly booked like the Dubliners, Ralph McTell and Loudon Wainwright and - one of this year's headliners - Christy Moore, and they in turn revered him for the integrity he displayed in an industry barely noted for it.
Cambridge Folk Festival will doubtless continue into a 30th year without him, but it will never be quite the same.
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