A popular folk club has overcome trials and tribulations to celebrate its 35th anniversary. John Dean explains how the Darlington group has become such a success

FOR more than three decades, some of the world’s best-known folk musicians have made the journey to Darlington to perform in front of appreciative audiences.

Now, the club that has arranged those appearances, as well as encouraging a host of talented new performers from the area, is celebrating its 35th anniversary with audience numbers increasing year on year.

Darlington Folk Club has had to overcome its fair share of trials and tribulations since being formed in 1982, including the death in late 2011 of its main organiser and MC, Tom Hughes, followed within a matter of months by the loss of its long-standing home.

The club has gathered every Thursday at 8pm in the Copper Beech pub on Neasham Road, since July 2012 following the closure of Darlington Arts Centre, its original home.

Following Tom Hughes’ death, the club has been run by a steering group comprising Jennie Hughes, Bobb Wootten, George Armstrong, Helen Armstrong, Bob Tuddenham, Tony Martin and Paul Davison.

They organise singarounds where anyone can sing, open mics where performers are allocated fifteen minute slots, and guest nights, which have seen appearances by a range of big names including Vin Garbutt, Jez Lowe, Kieran Halpin and Bernard Wrigley.

The move to the Copper Beech five years ago has seen audience numbers steadily rise.

Committee member Bob Tuddenham, who also performs, says: “It was a difficult time in 2011-12 because we sadly lost Tom and it had also become clear at the same time that the Arts Centre was going to close and we had been based there right from the beginnings of the club. The Arts Centre had been our home since the club was formed and they had been excellent.

“We had a big decision to make. We needed to find a new venue that people would go to and we did not know if our audience would follow us.

“Since moving to the Copper Beech, we have built on our existing audience and attracted new people as well.”

Club chairman George Armstrong, also a performer, adds: “We were really impressed by the Copper Beech. Everything we asked for we were given and we have seen audiences steadily increasing since making the move.”

A lot of those people have been keen to perform. In addition to the professionals who appear at guest nights, the club welcomes performers of all calibres and, for the organisers, it has always been important to support new talent.

Bob says: “There is a real progression involved. We have seen people turn up to our singarounds and sit quietly in a corner then start to sing and, once they have gathered some confidence, we have given them the opportunity to have a slot at one of our open mic nights.

“We have seen some of them progress to such a standard that they have gone on to act as support acts on guest nights.’ George Armstrong explains: “We do like to bring some big names to perform at our club but it is also important that we support new talent as well.

“For folk music to continue to thrive, it needs to continually attract new talent and we have seen a number of performers progress through the opportunities that the club has given them.”

An example of a performer who has thrived is club regular Fiona Limb, who now plays as the support on some guest nights.

Fiona says: “I grew up with Scottish Folk Music, and, having recently moved to Darlington, I discovered the Folk Club whilst it was still at the Arts Centre.

“Turning up that first time, singing unaccompanied, was certainly nerve-wracking, particularly as I hadn’t sung in public for years, but they welcomed me in and encouraged me as I learned the guitar.

“The singarounds are very low-key, playing as much or as little as you want, but I teamed up with a friend and we were asked to be the support act which increased my confidence and technique. Now I’ve performed on my own three times as the support artist on guest nights, which gives a huge buzz.

“The club’s really friendly and open to newcomers, and it would be good to see more new people like me.”

Darlington Folk Club has also supported community activities in the town, including staging events as part of the Darlington Arts Festival in May since the annual festival’s beginnings five years ago.

Overall, the future looks rosy for the club and Bob Tuddenham says: “One of the big things that we offer people is a welcome.

“Not so long ago, we carried out a survey of people coming to our nights and that welcoming atmosphere was what came through strongly.

“Folk music is so broad with so many different styles and people know that when they come to one of our club nights they will be guaranteed a good atmosphere and an entertaining evening with some great live music.”

For more information on the club see www.darlingtonfolkclub.com