Colin Irwin obituary

Folk music journalist on Melody Maker, fRoots and Mojo whose books took him on explorations of Ireland and England

Though the music journalist Colin Irwin, who has died suddenly aged 71, specialised in folk music, his writing ranged across many genres, especially during the 1970s and 80s, when he worked on Melody Maker magazine. There his knowledge was renowned as encyclopedic.

Later, as a freelance, he was the most prolific features writer and reviewer for the specialist folk and roots magazine fRoots. His first contribution, when the magazine was called Southern Rag, came in 1982, and he continued writing in almost every issue until it ceased publication in 2019. The editor, Ian A Anderson, recalled: “He was a lovely man – his enthusiasm and vast knowledge continually inspired readers.”

He also wrote for the Guardian, the Observer, the Telegraph, the Independent, Mojo, Q and Time Out and was a Mercury music prize judge. His enthusiasm for folk music shone through his writing, and many performers were grateful for his support.

Born in Chertsey, Surrey, Colin was the son of Gwen (nee Hodges) and Bill, a printer, jazz fan and regular reader of Melody Maker. From Strode’s grammar school (now Strode’s college, Egham) Colin went to Guildford College, aiming to become a journalist, and his first job was on the Slough Evening Mail. Colin was drawn to folk by the music of Bob Dylan; as a regular at the Star folk club in Guildford, he heard all the well-known singers in the 60s and 70s heyday of the folk revival.

Colin Irwin, left, interviewing the US blues musician Seasick Steve at the Cambridge folk festival, 2010
Colin Irwin, left, interviewing the US blues musician Seasick Steve at the Cambridge folk festival, 2010. Photograph: Phil Carter

When Melody Maker’s folk columnist Andrew Means left, Colin started writing for them as a freelance, becoming a staff member in 1974. At the time, folk music had a couple of pages each week: an interview plus news and reviews, and Colin relished the opportunity to write about the performers he had seen on stage.

Other interview subjects included Dolly Parton, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. Staff changes at the magazine led to Colin becoming features editor and then assistant editor. In 1987 he moved to edit the weekly pop magazine Number One, and when it was bought by the BBC, Colin worked on various magazines covering music, sport and travel.

Turning freelance, Colin was sought after by the new wave of music magazines, such as Mojo and Q, which were keen to feature established and up-and-coming folk artists. An early Mojo interview was with the Irish singer Christy Moore, a particular favourite of Colin’s.

His first books were on Dire Straits (1994) and Abba (1996, with Tony Calder and the former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham). In the wake of books such as Round Ireland with a Fridge, Colin wrote a book on Irish music, In Search of the Craic (2003). Subtitled One Man’s Pub Crawl Through Irish Music, it was the anecdotal account of his journey around Ireland looking for the essence of its music.

Colin used a similar approach for In Search of Albion: From Cornwall to Cumbria, A Ride Through England’s Hidden Soul (2005). As before, the emphasis was on the characters he met along the way. He also wrote books on Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Dylan’s Highway 61 album.

A supporter of Woking football club, in 2006 Colin brought his two interests together with a book on football songs and chants, Sing When You’re Winning.

In 2017, Colin was the narrator of She Moved Through the Fair, a stage show about the Irish Traveller singer Margaret Barry. Co-written with the singer Mary McPartlan, it was premiered at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, but Mary’s illness and early death limited further performances.

For the BBC he presented the Radio 2 series Acoustic Roots and television programmes on the Cambridge folk festival, and acted as consultant for BBC Four’s Folk Britannia. One of his last reviews was of this year’s Cambridge festival for the Guardian. In recent years, he was active as a humanist funeral celebrant.

In 1975 Colin married Val Fagence. She survives him, along with their sons, Kevin and Christy, and his brother Donald.

• Colin Lester Irwin, folk music journalist and writer, born 19 May 1951; died 3 November 2022


Derek Schofield

The GuardianTramp

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