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FOLK AGAINST FASCISM: Bert Lloyd's battle that the security services followed

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Published: 2 August, 2012

This September will be the 50th anniversary of Arnold Wesker’s arts project, Centre 42, which was financed by the TUC.

A series of weekly festivals were planned and each began with a folk concert on the Friday. At a reception after the opening concert at Wellingborough, Northants, I had cause to read John Clare’s Lines Written In Northampton Asylum. Bert Lloyd came over to me and invited me to visit him and his wife Charlotte at Greenwich.

He loved Clare’s poetry, talked to me about him, and when I left he gave me a copy of his poems. I went out and bought Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar, which I still have, and I am forever glad I read the poem and met Bert away from the folk world, which, though important for him, was only a part of his life.

In 1964 Charlotte and Bert’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s play, St Joan of the Stockyards, was performed in London’s West End. They sent me two tickets, and when Dave Arthur interviewed me about Bert, I gave him the programme that I’d kept.

Incidentally, Dave told me that during his research he found that Brecht had stayed at 24 Calthorpe Street, a few doors from where I had lived and where my family still live.

Bert also translated plays and poetry of the great Frederic Garcia Lorca, another powerful European artist that I admire.

So, though I worked with him at folk concerts, clubs and recording projects, I appreciated Bert for his wide knowledge and feeling on the world, and particularly the arts.

Edgell Rickword was a poet who knew and respected Siegfried Sassoon, and both of them thought that Britain should change after the carnage of the 1914-18 war. Sassoon joined the new Daily Herald.

In the 1930s, when Rickword saw that Europe was embracing the menace of fascism, he joined the Communist Party. Edgell was manager of Collet’s Bookshop in Haverstock Hill in the 1950s.

For the same reason as Rickword, Bert Lloyd also joined the Communist Party.

Many British men and women went out to support the Republican Revolution against Franco’s fascist Spain – and many of them died doing so. Of course, there were people in Britain (and one of our national newspapers) who supported Hitler and his ideology. One famous folk song collector used to invite Sir Oswald Mosley down to his country home in Wessex.

Then the Nazis came to power, followed by the 1939-45 war and their defeat.

At the end of the war Winston Churchill was sober enough to stand on his feet and deliver the “Iron Curtain” speech.

Immediately, the USSR, communists and “fellow travellers” became the enemy, though during the war British citizens used to attend football matches to raise money for Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund.

Bert often travelled in Eastern Europe and had a deep knowledge of the traditional music of Hungary and Romania, as well as being highly respected by folklorists and academics in those countries.

Each time he travelled abroad, the security services monitored him. As far back as 1940, when he wrote a brilliant programme for the BBC, for example, there were concerns about his communism, and soon Special Branch criticised the BBC for employing him.

In 1988, six years after Bert died, the Economic League, an organisation financed by industry to monitor “subversives’’, said that they sometimes passed information to the police and Special Branch.

The late Hamish Imlach, a Scottish folk singer, was listed by the League as a Communist Party supporter. Hamish said the description was untrue. Now, the government has black boxes which allow them to monitor all our emails and social networking.

As I sang to Bob Dylan, drawing on the lyrics of his own song, I Will Be Released: “Hear leaders speak or hear them praying/ You’ll hear the fear of those they lead/ They curse God when they see us happy/ They praise him when they see us bleed.”

If all “intercepts” fail there is always gossip. In the 1960s, at a party in Newcastle, a “professional Geordie” was inviting people to sing. As part of his patter he said that Bob Davenport must be on drugs to have such a powerful voice.

Ed Pickford and my half-sister Mary Helton, mentioned in Dave Arthur’s book, were there and, after Ed sang, the MC asked Mary to sing. She did, and after she had finished, the MC said: “A great song, where did you learn it?” “From my brother,” Mary said. “And who is your brother?” “Bob Davenport,” she replied.

In the index there is a very long list of song titles mentioned in the book: the only one missing is the O’Jays’ Back-Stabbers. Dave Arthur’s account of A.L. “Bert” Lloyd’s life, 1908-1982, will fascinate anyone who has ever stepped into a folk club, but, more than that, both socially and politically, it is of great interest. The Great Anarchist Ball at Fulham Town Hall is not mentioned, but I’ll let him off on that one.

As well as songs, Bert knew many traditional stories, learned from his travels all over the world, and his style of telling them would have the audience enthralled from the beginning to the end. Reading this book, rather than listening to it, you will find yourself equally enthralled.

• Bert: The Life and Times of A.L. Lloyd. By Dave Arthur. Pluto Press (in association with the EFDSS), £22.

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