60th Anniversary Stories

Simon Trevelyan

Where did I sing my first folk song? I would have liked it to have been in a rustic English pub, in front of a roaring wood fire, holding a pint of Old Peculiar in one hand and stroking Patch, my Labrador, with my other hand. But alas, it was not so romantic.

As I remember, it was in the pouring rain on a cold October day at Taunton School, on the touchline of the rugby field. It was mandatory for pupils to watch the 1st XV play on Saturday’s and there was about 500 of us (aged 11 to 17) getting soaked to the skin. The pupils stood on one side of the pitch (in the open), whilst the masters, prefects and parents (with umbrellas) sat on bleachers on the other side.

Two masters were assigned to our side of the pitch. Their sole purpose was to ensure we cheered at the right times (when the school team made a good play or scored a try) and, if things were going really well for our team, or really badly, to sing. There I was, shivering like a leaf (a new boy, a ‘sprog’ just 11 years-old), when a master came up to me and shouted “Sing!”. Oh Christ, sing, sing what? Will he report me? Will I get flogged? Then, from around me the sound swelled and the song soared up above us: “In Dublin’s fair city where the girls are so pretty …”. By the end, I was belting out the chorus with 500 others: “Alive, Alive O! Alive, Alive O…” The master smiled and moved on.

Helen Shilladay

I was a late starter to Folk.  I sang my first Folk song in about 2004 in just such a pub as Simon Trevelyan describes, but without the Labrador.

It was “The Boat” in Cromford, a village in the heart of Derbyshire’s industrial revolution hub, close to the historic site of Cromford Mill and the canal that brought the cotton from ships at Liverpool docks to feed the looms.  The Boat is a pub with roaring fires in winter, low beams for tall people like me to beware of, and a properly kept cellar. 

I happened upon the Folk night by accident, seeing a poster while having an excellent pie one Sunday lunchtime, decent pies being the staple of the walkers, CAMRA members and local ‘characters’ that made up the varied clientele.  I decided to give it a try one Tuesday evening.

Huddled by the fire, keeping a low profile, I was awed by the singing and musicianship. The people were funny, friendly, genuine. Their songs were beautiful, sad, boisterous, bawdy, silly, serious, intricate or simple.  I was hooked.  After a few times, they asked if I wanted to contribute, but, lacking confidence, I declined.

Every time after that, I prepared a song in advance, then bottled it when they turned to ask me.

For at least a year I declined, always feeling disappointed with myself afterwards of my inability to be brave enough to sing in front of them, fearing I wouldn’t be good enough.  In the car on the way home, asking myself why I hadn’t tried after preparing so hard.

Eventually, one night I plucked up enough courage to say yes, which came as a shock to us all!   I sang, “Two Sisters”.

I was buoyed up and encouraged by that group of people from The Boat – specifically our glorious leader, Morrisman and all round lovely person Roger, Helen and Chris, and others who have passed away – Tufty and Phyllis.  They helped me to find my voice.   From their support came my first proper Festival gig, many friendships in Folk Music, and to me turning up at VFSS and being able to give you a song.  It was “Summon Up The Sun”, a modern folk song I learned from Craig, Morgan, Robson.  I forgot some words through nerves, but the members encouraged me in the same way my Boat friends had, and I realised right then – VFSS is like Cromford – just without the beer and pies.   

There are the same welcoming, encouraging people; the same enormous talents, coupled with enormous modesty; the same continuation of the Tradition.  Being taken into the bosom of VFSS by people like Mary Armitage and Marian was like a home from home.   From that first evening at VFSS has flowed so much joy for me!  Now the Retreat, Princeton TMF, and associated events are highlights of my year
The 60th anniversary celebrations will be a celebration of all the fantastic people, the super music, the friendship, but also all the hard work and dedication that keeping something like this going every single month takes.

As a newbie, I benefit from all that has come before.  Thank you all for what you have built. 


Jim Edmondson

What was my first experience of singing at the VFSS?  Well, here’s the thing, unfortunately my usual response to a new challenge is not the obvious and smart one which would be to Keep It Simple.  Do something short that you know well. Be satisfied with a successful first experience that will encourage you to keep going and do it again.

That would have been a good way to start singing at the VFSS around 1982 at the Anza Club.  Instead I took on Robbie Burns Westlin’ Winds.  It has 5 verses of 8 lines each.  It names 8 different kinds of bird, their behaviour and their habitat.  It has a bunch of Gaelic words.  And the open-tuning guitar accompaniment was new to me.

A ridiculous amount of practice went into what I hoped would be a great debut. Not to be.

There’s a line in the second verse which goes:

Through lofty groves the cushart roves,
he path of man to shun it

This became:

Through lofty groves the pushcart roves
The path of man to shun it

There were several restarts, but it was hard to remain serious and focused. Then, with my hopes for glory falling away, I launched into the fourth verse. The song transitions from a song about nature, birds and Burn’s protest against blood sports to a love song:

But Peggy dear, the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming yellow
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow

This became:

But Peggy dear, the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming yellow
The sky is blue, the fields and you
All fading green and yellow

I don’t remember if I just gave up at this point or soldiered on to the bitter end. But the experience has stayed with me and gives me great empathy for first time performers at the VFSS.

Peggy Stortz

It was 1988. I was recently single and looking for some musical adventures. I tried out a few open mics around town and even did some back-up vocals and percussion with an experimental rock band. Then one day I spotted a small ad in the Georgia Straight for the Vancouver Folk Song Society. 

On my first night, there was a song circle. How very orderly and democratic I thought, after many frustrating attempts to fight my way into aggressive jam sessions or sing over the wails of electric guitars. I loved it for its fairness and gentleness. In time, the evenings switched to more of a performance format. I missed the circles but enjoyed the thrill of singing in front of an audience. My confidence and my skills both improved. But one night something occurred that convinced me that the VFSS was where I wanted to be.

A young woman got up to sing. She was maybe 21 or so. In other times we might have called her simple, mentally challenged or cognitively impaired. She began to sing Scarborough Fair – the Simon and Garfunkel version. A few lines in she forgot the lyrics and stood staring out at the audience. Within seconds, someone picked up where she had left off and sang in a soft voice, just above a whisper. More of us joined in. Then, in her loud and imperfect voice she sang the rest of the song, sometimes stumbling over the words or melody but always finding her way back with the help of the gentle choir singing just below her. When she finished, she stood proudly glowing in the warmth of our applause. At that moment, I decided that I wanted to always be a part of this kind and loving community of musical people known as the Vancouver Folk Song Society. Thirty years years later, the VFSS is still a big part of my life. I am so very grateful for all the kindness, support, community spirit and just plain old fun I have experienced. Long may we run!