John Shaw obituary

Other lives: Folk musician who co-founded the electric folk-rock group Elecampane

My husband, John Shaw, who has died suddenly aged 77 of a rare cancer, was a folk musician with a deep love of the British tradition.

Born in Birkenhead, to Harry Shaw, an ambulance driver, and Edna (nee Llewellyn), a teacher, John attended Calday grammar school in Cheshire.

A fan of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, he discovered folk music at Oxford University, where he gained a first in English in the 1960s. He and I met there, moving to Bristol, and marrying, in 1968. We quickly became active members of the Folk Tradition Club. John loved the British folk tradition, but was always open to other influences.

He co-founded the electric folk-rock group Elecampane, and they produced several LPs including When God’s on the Water. The group also presented several folk dramas, including The Further Adventures of Mr Punch. The gentlest of men, John enjoyed the transgressive exuberance of Punch and Judy, and in the Queen’s jubilee year of 1977 set himself up as Professor Shaw’s Jubilee Theatre, performing for several years at fetes and parties regionally.

John left Elecampane in 1980, and immediately started a three-person group, Bare Bones, returning to a simpler approach to folk music. He was a member of the Bristol Shantymen, a popular group that performed at the Krakow shanty festival to great acclaim.

In the 1980s, when our daughters were teenagers, we hosted about 40 young people from all round the world, and John began to pursue a deep interest in world, and especially mid-European, music. On one occasion we arrived at Heathrow with about 40 Hungarian LPs.

John Shaw, in purple jumper, with other members of the Hotwells Howlers, performing at Stourhead Gardens in Wiltshire
John Shaw, in purple jumper, with other members of the Hotwells Howlers, performing at Stourhead Gardens in Wiltshire Photograph: provided by family

John had heard Jean Ritchie, an American dulcimer player, at Oxford, and in the 80s developed a passion for this deceptively simple instrument. John’s musicality enabled him to create sophisticated, complex arrangements of tunes from all around the world. He became a key member of the national Nonsuch Dulcimer Club, and ran many workshops, as well as playing in the US on various trips. He was described after his death as a “mountain dulcimer giant”.

At the same time John and I were performing with the Hotwells Howlers, which has produced several CDs and four multimedia folk shows about local history, including the first world war. John was also playing bass guitar with a ceilidh band, and became musical director of a West Gallery choir. John sang and played in a duo with the singer-songwriter Alan Kirkpatrick and made several CDs with him.

Many friends have commented on John’s enthusiasm and musicality, his good humour, and his ability to encourage and inspire others.

He is survived by me, our daughters, Catharine and Rosalind, and our grandchildren, James and Holly.

  • This piece was amended on 4 October 2021. The previous version incorrectly gave Berkshire as John Shaw’s place of birth.

Angela Shaw

The GuardianTramp

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