Cleckheaton Folk Festival mourns the death of its flagship, Geoff Pickles

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Geoff Pickles was the beacon of the Cleckheaton Folk Festival for many years

Having lived his entire life in the Spen Valley, Geoff was known to thousands around the world as the face of the festival.

Born in Birstall on April 24, 1941, Geoff was proud of his roots. He attended local schools, including Birstall C of E, but as he said, “I couldn’t find anything to like about school.”

Not a natural scholar, Geoff dropped out of school as soon as he could and always found steady work thanks to his positive “If there’s a job to do, then go and do it” attitude. .

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Dancers at the Cleckheaton Folk Festival

In his spare time, Geoff also began to frequent folk clubs and regularly visited the Grass Roots Folk Club in Halifax with a friend, Richard Backhouse.

A connection that was rekindled when Richard’s wife Miriam was one of the featured performers at the Cleckheaton Folk Festival in 2008.

Geoff began frequenting various folk clubs and became a familiar face in the Yorkshire folk scene, which was very strong in the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although he occasionally played his harmonica, Geoff became better known as a good and reliable MC, first at other people’s clubs and then at the head of his own.

His MC-ing began at the Adelphi in Leeds, which was one of several clubs run by local impresario Johnny Wall and had a large regular following, sometimes reaching as many as 250 happy souls. A far cry from the 50 or so that counts as a good night in most clubs these days.

In his role as an MC he got to know many of the big name artists of the time and it was there that he developed a policy which he adhered to for the rest of his life.

He said: “Among the performers, there are people I like and people I don’t like, but I always try not to show my own tastes. It is the public’s taste that is important.

To illustrate this, Geoff would tell the story of MC-ing a gig one night. After watching what he considered a monumentally boring performance by one of the biggest names in the industry, at the end he took the stage to thank the performer for a fantastic session and ask the audience to applause a great performance before introducing the next guest (a personal favorite) with exactly the same degree of enthusiasm.

He then went back to his seat where, for the next half hour, the new artist made him laugh so hard he cried.

“That’s what an MC is there for,” Geoff said. “Introducing each act and making it easy to transition from one to the next to keep the audience entertained.”

During these early days, Geoff also became an active member of the Drighlington Community Social Group and found himself involved in organizing musical evenings, dances, concerts and other events in the village hall.

At one point, another member said, “Here Geoff. You know something about folk music. How about hosting a concert here?

Geoff agreed and threw a successful folk music night for the regulars.

Soon Geoff regularly organizes folk concerts and then clubs. First at The Spotted Cow and later at the Albion in Morley (with Johnny Wall again), then the Brunswick, the Smith Arms in Leeds, the Valley Inn, Angel, Pack Horse, White Horse, George, Commercial and then the Wickham Arms, where there is still a regular folk club on a Tuesday evening.

In 1986 a few people attended a meeting at the Black Bull on Westgate, Cleckheaton, to organize a folk festival in Cleckheaton. They included people such as Joe Brough, John Whickham and Dave Mallinson.

Knowing Geoff’s experience and contacts, he was quickly persuaded to come and lend a hand.

When the frontman dropped out two weeks before the event Geoff was asked to take over and run the festival which he did and on the first weekend of July 1987 Cleckheaton saw its first festival folkloric – and the popular opinion was that it was excellent.

There followed 20 more such festivals with Geoff as festival director before he “retired” and another dozen since with him still actively involved.

When asked who his personal festival favorites have been over the years, it took a bit of persuasion before he named “a few of many”.

According to him, the biggest hit was singer-songwriter Eric Bogle and he also mentioned singer Francis Black and the band Cockersdale.

However, Geoff was very proud of the lesser-known names that have risen to prominence since their appearances at Cleckheaton.

“Cleckheaton may not have been responsible for their success, but we weren’t afraid to book them when they first started and a lot of artists remember that,” he said.

What is clear though, is that most performers who have appeared at Cleckheaton have enjoyed the experience, as can be judged by the number of those who have agreed to return over the years. including folk stars such as Cockersdale, Artisan, Roy Bailey, Jon Harvison and John Prentice.

Asked about his own favorite part of the festival, Geoff would get a little more serious. “I don’t have much time to sit and watch during the festival,” he said. “But there are aspects that I enjoy, like meeting the artists.

“They’re usually such nice human beings when you talk to them,” he says. “I also get a buzz from compering the final concert. But the best part is the positive feedback when people leave, still singing or chatting happily.

Speaking of other big festivals, Geoff describes them as big, brash and way too loud. They lose some of the things that folk music is.

He went on to talk about the sense of community that most people feel at small events like Cleckheaton and the strength of local community involvement that is often lacking at larger festivals.

He emphasizes the involvement of local singers and songwriters such as Keith Marsden, Michael Forsyth, Bruce Michael Bailey and Mary Foulds. Talented locals who have proven to be as good as the big names.

Geoff pointed to the festival as a good way to ensure that folk music (our own music as he called it) and traditions survive under the onslaught of pop and other mass market influences.

Some people may question the relevance of Morris dancing, pub gigs and other similar activities, but they have been part of the local tradition for hundreds of years and it is important to preserve them.

After stepping down as festival director and retiring from work, Geoff proclaimed, “I’m going to enjoy life no matter what. I will enjoy every day, every minute and I will stay involved as much as possible. Geoff did just that.

First with the help of his wife Jan until her sad demise, then alone, Geoff continues to play an active role in local affairs in general and the festival in particular.

Until very recently, he still attended sessions at the Panther Folk Club at the Wickham Arms where, true to his principles, he let the club “manage itself”. He played Santa Claus. He turned on the Christmas lights.

Geoff was once asked his opinion on his role as a ‘Yorkshire icon’. He said it was a compliment but with a smile he went on to say, “You know, I always wanted to be seen as a character.”

In the best possible way, he was and always will be known as “a character”.


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