Ask anyone who's been to the Festival before, and they'll tell you that the Club Tent provides some of its best moments. Smaller and more intimate than the main stages, it has an atmosphere all of its own, inspiring artists to ferociously intense performances and allowing audiences to make endless new musical discoveries. But how did it come into being, and why is it called the Club Tent?
The first Cambridge Folk Festival was held in 1965, at the height of the 'folk revival'. Revival leaders such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd placed great emphasis on the idea that folk music was the music of the people. It was seen as a democratic, universal activity that could unite and inspire local communities - and the revival soon spawned communities of its own. By the mid-Sixties, virtually every town and city in Britain had a folk club, and Cambridge was no exception.
The Club Tent brings the welcoming, participatory ethos of the folk club to the great outdoors. Though some performers are programmed by the Festival organisers, five of the biggest clubs from Cambridge and nearby also get the opportunity to showcase some of their favourite local acts. And, in true folk-club spirit, festivalgoers can also sign up to play open spots. "Amongst the festivalgoers who sign up for short spots there are always several real gems!” says Ely Folk Club's Andy Wall, while Roger and Patti Pitt of St Neots Folk Club recalls the time when Joan Baez got up on stage to accompany a local singer.
Asked what's special about the Club Tent, Marion Treby of Cambridge Folk Club replies: "At the Club Tent, the Folk Festival audience, who may have been attracted by the ‘big name’ artists, get a chance to hear local talent, and experience a range of styles and a wealth of talent that they may not have been expecting. In the more intimate surroundings of the Club Tent, artists may feel that they can share their more intricate, complex or unusual musical arrangements or instrumentation. In return, local artists have a chance to be ‘spotted’ by agents, or even by professional acts who may be ’talentspotting’ or looking for support acts."
Because they're hearing new artists week in, week out, folk club organisers often discover rising stars before they make it onto the radar of professional agents and promoters. A booking for the Club Tent can sometimes be the making of these new acts, as Maureen Jones of Hitchin Folk Club recalls. "Over the past few years we have invited many young acts to play for us at Cambridge, such as Luke Jackson, Blair Dunlop, Kelly Oliver and Zoe Wren.
"Twenty-one years ago we put on five ladies called Daphne’s Flight. They went down a storm and toured mostly large venues the following year. They have reformed recently and I am so pleased to see that they are booked at Cambridge this year. We are hoping that they can repeat the experience of their performance years ago in the Club Tent."
If you want the full experience of the Cambridge Folk Festival, some time in the Club Tent is a must. You're sure to encounter something that's weird and plenty that's wonderful. And once the Festival is over, why not seek out the folk clubs in your area?