Veteran singer-songwriter John Cee Stannard talks about the British folk and blues movement of 60s

"The main philosophy is not to over philosophize, but just have fun and give yourself the freedom to wander, musically, down that road, but without the heavy load."

John Cee Stannard: Folky Albion Blues

John Cee Stannard is a fascinating fellow, although his name is probably not well known to many blues fans. A founding member of the English folk group, Tudor Lodge, he has been part of the folk music scene in the UK. He is also a radio presenter, novelist and actor in movies such as “Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire”, “The Da Vinci Code” or “Skyfall”. He is a singer-songwriter for more than fifty years and during that time he have been privileged to work with lots of talented musicians. Before releasing his first solo blues based album was a founder member of the folk group Tudor Lodge which was originally formed in 1968. Started playing at the White Horse in Reading, England and later made appearances at other clubs on the folk circuit. In 1970 Lyndon Green and John were joined by American singer and flautist, Ann Steuart. Tudor Lodge then toured the English folk circuit for over two years, teaming up with manager Karl Blore towards the end of 1970, and releasing our first album in 1971: “Tudor Lodge”.

Annie left Tudor Lodge in 1972 and was briefly replaced by Linda Peters, who became better known through her work with husband Richard Thompson. That year toured Holland where we featured on Dutch Radio and just after that Tudor Lodge disbanded as the members of the group wanted to pursue their various careers. Lyndon, Annie and John did get back together in 1980 but Annie left the group to live in New Hampshire and was replaced by Lynne Whiteland. In 1988 Lyndon retired from performing and is currently living and working in Japan. Since then Lynne and John have continued as a duo. Although he wrote the majority of the songs for first album back in 1971, he wrote very little in the intervening 40 years. Then in January of 2011, wrote half a dozen songs. One of them was a blues number; five of those songs fell by the way side, but the blues number had struck a chord. Over the next few months, a couple of dozen blues based songs had joined the growing list of songs which took him in a completely new direction. It was as if he had found his voice. By the summer he knew that these songs had to be the basis of a solo project. In May 2013, the John Cee Stannard Blues Orchestra CD, the “Doob Doo” album, was launched, named after the title track, “Doob Doo Be Doo Wah”.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

People used to say that you have to live the blues to be able to play the blues, as if to say, without this life qualification you have no business playing the blues. People don’t say that so much now; possibly because no-one expects today’s players to have lived through those kinds of hard times. I certainly haven’t. I’ve been very lucky. Had a good job all my working life, lovely family, friends, home, everything, so why play the blues? It’s very simple – it’s fun. If anything, playing and singing about hard times is a reminder of just how lucky most of us are.  And for those people who really do have tough times, and I believe this would have been so for the early singers, blues is not, and was not a self indulgent, woe is me depressing rant on life, it was a way of easing the pain, music is very cathartic. Most forms of music are uplifting and have the ability to make you feel happier than you were. This is true of the blues also, but when the songs are about your problems, even if not exactly first hand, then that makes them all the more personal. It’s also a way of sharing a problem, and you know what they say about problems shared. But now I’ve fallen into that trap of over philosophizing when the simple truth is, it’s fun, it’s rewarding, and musically, it’s one of those forms that gives you a lot of room for expression. It’s a very free music, even within pieces that have a fairly rigid structure, and it really does generate a feeling of connection between the player and the listener. I’ve played other kinds of music most of my life, and I think if the blues gives me anything that’s different, it’s that feeling of being a part of something, the family of blues players and listeners, a part of something that extends right back to the birth of modern blues some hundred years ago. It means a lot because it’s given me a new energy for life.

"We all know what we mean when we talk about the blues. I have not heard any blues and thought “that’s unreal” so I think it’s all just as real as ever. Having said all that – I refer to my own music as blues based rather than blues."

How do you describe John Cee’s sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I’d like to think that there is a kind of John Cee sound or style. It’s not straight forward blues – very few of the songs are 12-bar for example.  The writing only started in 2011, so it’s quite new, and it took a while to evolve. It’s still evolving. A huge influence on my blues playing is Mike Cooper. Other people have influenced other forms of music in my life, but he is the largest single individual influence on my blues form and style. But then that influence has moved into styles that are not typical of Mike’s blues playing at all. The most important aspect of my writing is the mind set at the time. I have to be in a relaxed frame of mind, and approach a new song from the point of view of doodling.  I doodle musically, and then if a phrase or riff feels nice, then follow it and see where it goes, and generally, try not to have a fixed framework in mind. There’s probably a slight jazz or swing feel to a lot of the songs because it reflects how I’m feeling about my music right now. The very first song I wrote when this all started in January 2011, was a slow blues, which actually was a 12-bar, but even then, the bridge verse went off in a totally untypical direction. That first song was one of 6 songs I wrote that January; the other five were more folky, I was actually trying to write folk material. They fell by the way side – just not good enough to use.

But that blues song, it struck a chord, something clicked, it felt very natural, and the song felt complete, like it had always been there and I just found it.  It was not a conscious decision to concentrate on writing blues, but as I doodled more, more and more blues based songs came through. At first I thought it was great fun, but only on a personal level, but by the summer, when I had more than enough material for an album, I began to realize that it really was going down quite well, and that maybe they were better songs than I had thought.  The philosophy remains “don’t try to write this type of song – or that type of song” and the result is that some quite unexpected things can come through.  Of my last two songs, one is a raspy, almost haunting, bluesy jazzy song about the “ferryman”, where as the other could almost be a Michael Buble kind of number – with a blue tinge.  But once again, the main philosophy is not to over philosophize, but just have fun and give yourself the freedom to wander, musically, down that road, but without the heavy load.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently? 

To be honest – most frequently the idea for the song comes from the first verse AFTER the first verse has been written. The first line – like the first riff, is a doodle. I then wander to the end of that verse – look back at it and look for a story line or thought I can take further. Only one song reflects bad luck events that I’ve experienced. 

"I have to be in a relaxed frame of mind, and approach a new song from the point of view of doodling."

(Photo: Tudor Lodge 1970)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Now is definitely the most interesting. Previously it would have to be the Tudor Lodge period from around 1969 to 1971.  I think the worst might have been when it was clear in 1972 that Tudor Lodge had folded. The dream was over. That was very upsetting. Luckily it came back to life in 1980, and is still very much alive.

Why did you think that the Folk and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Unfortunately, in the UK at least, the folk following is considerably less that in was in 1970 when every single town had at least one folk club, if not 2 or 3 or more. Or perhaps the nature of the support has changed. If anything, the blues following is growing. The biggest change is that whist folk clubs have diminished, the festival circuit has grown. So on balance, maybe the following is still there, it’s just changed its style.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I love watching musicians jam – I love the spontaneous creativity of it – I wish I could do it.  In my head I think I can, but truth is, I’m one of those musicians who has to learn the song – note for note.  Sure I can strum along in a jam, but as for big solo’s and stuff, my contribution is limited, so it’s not something I do. That might sound like a contradiction when I spoke before about the freedom of the music... But it is the case. Memorable gigs? Weeley Festival because it was in front of 150,000 people – but that didn’t make it fun. Cambridge Festival was memorable – just because it was Cambridge, but I was too nervous to really enjoy it.  Strangely, one of the most fun gigs was in a public school for a couple of hundred school children – I don’t know why – but they were just so responsive.

"When the 60’s folk boom happened, there was already a huge folk movement. The difference was that until that time, it was largely a traditional folk music movement." (Photo: John Cee with Tudor Lodge at Cambridge Festival 1971)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Best advice – gosh I don’t know – I remember talking with Tom Paxton at the Troubadour in Earls Court Road, London, probably around 1969, and he was talking about how you engage with every member of the audience during a performance. I was just starting out, and he gave me some useful tips. Also, although it was not given in a music context, someone I used to work for gave me some advice that works in any situation – how to deal with negative situations – never rush – and always know that in time you will be the other side of it.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Perhaps the most memorable moment from the recording of the Tudor Lodge album in February 1971, was one day when I was in the control room looking down into the studio where the orchestra was adding the orchestration to my song “It All Comes Back To Me”.  I honestly can’t find the right word to describe how I felt, but it was very emotional and moving.  A very special moment in time.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The folk scene around the time I was involved; 1968 to 1972 was incredibly alive and vibrant. So much going on, and such a feeling of being a part of something. People were developing their own original styles creating a sound that hadn’t been heard before.  So much harder to come up with something new these days. Of course, part of that is about being older. Having said that, I seem to be just as excited now about my music, as I was back then, it’s just a lot harder to get the word out, or maybe it’s just that the methods have changed – there was no virtual social networking then.

 

"I suspect that folk, blues and even pop music all benefitted from the established following of trad jazz bands in England. Those bands were amongst the first musicians to bring blues to the public attention." (Photo: Lyndon Green and John with Ann Steuart in Hyde Park 1970)

What were the reasons that made the UK to be the center of the Folk & Blues searches at the 60s?

When the 60’s folk boom happened, there was already a huge folk movement. The difference was that until that time, it was largely a traditional folk music movement. So when the contemporary folk music started developing, there was already an infrastructure in place. Many of the clubs were open to the more modern style of folk. Of course, a good many clubs remained staunchly traditional, but then people followed the pattern of organizing clubs to cater for the huge numbers of people picking up guitars and having a go. And there was a lot of cross over between the traditional and the contemporary, to the point that a whole genre came along to write new traditional style songs. I suspect that folk, blues and even pop music all benefitted from the established following of trad jazz bands in England. Those bands were amongst the first musicians to bring blues to the public attention. Then they brought skiffle in, which was acoustic, and accessible, and drew on blues and country and folk and delivered it in a pop environment which encouraged more musicians to get involved in those fields. I may be completely wrong, but I think they were an important part of the musical evolutionary process. That’s how it seems to me.

Which memory from Mike Cooper, Mungo Jerry, and John Martyn makes you smile?

I was trying to get some sleep in my tiny van, parked next to the Mungo Jerry bus in the artists’ enclosure at Weeley Festival. I didn’t get to see them tho’. Coincidentally, I’ve recently written a song that was, to some extent, inspired by the memory of their music, and it will be on the album we start to record at the end of February – It’s called “Not Until It’s Gone”. Mike Cooper lived in Reading, my home town, and I saw him a lot. I think he contributed enormously to the awareness of resonator country blues. As I mentioned before, he has been quite a large influence on the way I deliver some of my songs.  I probably learned quite a bit from him in 1969 that I am only now putting to good use. Apart from seeing Mike a lot in the Reading area, we also spent time at Cousins. In my mind I can still see people like John Martyn and Michael Chapman, hunched around the mic delivering their very individual styles.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Skiffle and Rock music?

Ah! I seem to have pre-empted this question – yes, because skiffle drew on various sources of music and mixed them up before sending them out again, they all passed through the pop world, and this must have had an effect – however, I also suspect that America probably had a larger influence.  Early pop was always emulating music from across the pond. Probably by the time you get to hard rock, the sources of influence are so widespread and disparate that it’s hard to trace the lines of development. Some forms of music remain fairly true to their origins, but I think rock, and pop generally has become quite generic. 

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes I know what you mean. People talk fondly of the old blues, almost reverently. I sometimes wonder if we don’t over glamorize that idea.  As early as the 1930’s there were blues men who were learning a lot from their record collections, much as people like Eric Clapton would have done, playing along with established musicians, and playing the tunes over and over to get them right. Admittedly those 30’s musicians were also learning directly from the musicians of the 20’s and earlier as well. Certainly times were hard for them, and they were singing about situations they could relate to. I could never make those claims, but we still suffer grief when loved ones die. We still get mad when a ‘mean woman done us wrong’. Most of us, in our younger days, have had a few years of having little money, sleeping on the floor.  Increasingly other people’s hard times are thrust upon us on the TV every day. I don’t know what Real Blues is. I guess one song from 1930 might be real blues; a song by a guy who suffered, and sings about the experience. Another song from 1930 may have been written because the guy was paid $50 to go into a studio and “come up with something catchy” – 80 years later we call them both real blues. 

We all know what we mean when we talk about the blues. I have not heard any blues and thought “that’s unreal” so I think it’s all just as real as ever. Having said all that – I refer to my own music as blues based rather than blues.

"To be honest – most frequently the idea for the song comes from the first verse AFTER the first verse has been written. The first line – like the first riff, is a doodle. I then wander to the end of that verse – look back at it and look for a story line or thought I can take further. Only one song reflects bad luck events that I’ve experienced."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Possibly Lansdowne studio in February 1971 for the shear wonder of seeing something I created come to life, and experience that special moment again.

Possibly 1990 to enjoy my wedding day again.

But I think I would take a chance, discover the unknown and travel to 31st December 2999 take a look at the dawn of another new millennium.

John Cee Stannard - official website

 

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Tags: British, Cee, Cooper, Folk, Interview, John, Limnios, Lodge, Mungo, Stannard, More…Tudor

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