In the Summer of 1966… JP Bean on Alex Campbell
February 4, 2014 | by Faber Social
Some nights stick in my memory. A Saturday evening in the summer of 1966, walking into the Three Cranes pub in Sheffield. I turned and saw a taxi draw up and, as the back door opened, a huge guitar case swung out, followed by a man I instantly recognised as Alex Campbell. He paid the driver and followed me into the tap room, nodded a greeting to everyone and anyone, put the guitar case down and, coming to stand next to me at the bar, ordered a half of bitter and a large Scotch.
He was about forty, tall with dark wavy hair and a goatee beard. He wore a blue Levi denim jacket and blue jeans, an outfit like I’d never seen before. I was sixteen in my tweed jacket and here was this heroic figure, this famous, rip-roaring folk singer who I had read about in the Melody Maker and he was standing next to me at the bar. “Good to see you again Alex,” someone greeted him. “Hell, yeah!” he bellowed and disappeared up the stairs to the folk club. I was mesmerised and the night hadn’t even begun.
In 1966 Alex Campbell was probably the most popular singer on the British folk club circuit. He came from Glasgow and he epitomised the hard-drinking, hard-travelling troubadour. He was loud and raucous and he worked an audience with a deftness honed while busking on the streets of Paris. At the same time he could sing a song with a tenderness that brought tears to your eyes. That night he did Tom Paxton’s Last Thing on My Mind, slowly, almost laboured, the guitar accompaniment at its most basic. If anyone else had performed the song in that way they would have died the death; Alex had the whole club hanging on every word of each verse and joining in on the chorus.
What else do I recall of that evening? His guitar – a big sunburst Gibson J200 that he announced had cost four hundred pounds. The detail of the songs he sang has faded as the years have passed but I remember the Mingulay Boat Song and Woody Guthrie’s Deportees and him speaking of Guthrie and how he was dying in an American hospital. He connected with the audience as though he knew everybody in the room, chatting between songs, funny tales that made you laugh and at the same time enhanced his troubadour image: “Last year I worked three hundred and fifty seven nights and the other day a guy comes up me and says, ‘Mr Campbell, what’s your job, what do you do for a living?’” Then he sang a song that, whenever I’ve heard it since, I always think back to that magical summer evening in 1966, I’ve Been On The Road, So Long.
When I got home my dad asked me where I’d been. I said the Barley Mow folk club at the Three Cranes and I’d seen Alex Campbell. “Who’s he?” he said. I said, “He’s a legend.” I believed it all those years ago. I still believe it today.
— JP Bean, author of Singing From The Floor
For your listening pleasure, JP Bean has curated a folk-themed spotify playlist. Take a listen in the link below.