John Howson obituary

Other Lives: Collector and publisher of English folk music, particularly from Suffolk

My friend John Howson, who has died aged 72, was a folk musician and singer, but also a fieldworker, collecting songs and music in Suffolk and releasing much of the music on his own record label, Veteran.

As a teenager John attended a variety of folk clubs in Liverpool, including the Spinners club and the Green Moose, run by the playwright Willie Russell. He soon started singing and became a resident singer and co-founder of Liverpool Folk Club in the city centre’s Mitre pub.

John was born in the city, the only child of Lilian (nee Hughes) and Arthur Howson, who owned a grocer’s shop in the Kensington area. After attending Newsham secondary modern school, he took an engineering apprenticeship but, when he was 21, his right hand was severely damaged in an industrial injury, and he retrained as a craft and design teacher.

In 1977 John met Katie Hayward at the Bothy folk club in Southport, and they moved to Suffolk the following year, marrying in 1979. He then worked at Stowmarket high school until 1987, when he left to concentrate full-time on his record label and other music projects.

The move to Suffolk was prompted by the county’s reputation for traditional music. Ralph Vaughan Williams collected songs there in the early 20th century, the BBC recorded songs in the 1950s and fieldworker Keith Summers documented the music in the 70s.

Inspired by Summers’s work, John sought out singers and instrumentalists in mid-Suffolk, where a Saturday night pub sing-song could include a mixture of traditional songs that Vaughan Williams might have recognised, as well as music-hall and sentimental songs, a few tunes on the accordion and perhaps some step dancing: vernacular, community music-making. John documented the social context of the music in a book, Many a Good Horseman (1985).

He started his Veteran record label to make the music available to the local community as well as to cater for the wider folk revival. He also arranged for the musicians to visit festivals, including the Sidmouth folk festival, under the name The Old Hat Concert Party, and some of the songs were published in his book Songs Sung in Suffolk (1992).

John’s recordings were featured on BBC Radio 2 and 4, and his digitised field recordings are now in the British Library’s National Sound Archive. He expanded the Veteran label to include recordings of traditional singers and instrumentalists from other parts of Britain, as well as from Ireland, reflecting his love of Irish music dating back to his time in Liverpool.

In 2000 John and Katie founded the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust and, as co-directors, promoted a variety of educational and community activities, including an annual Traditional Music Day in Stowmarket, publications and instrument-making workshops. In 1999 John choreographed the country dancing for a BBC drama, All the King’s Men, with David Jason.

All of John’s projects reflected his love of the music and his belief in its resilience, but also his respect for the singers and the instrumentalists: he collected friends as well as music.

He is survived by Katie.


Derek Schofield

The GuardianTramp

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