John Howson obituary | Folk music


My friend John Howson, who died aged 72, was a folk musician and singer, but also a field worker, collecting songs and music in Suffolk and releasing much of the music on his own label , Veteran.

As a teenager, John frequented various folk clubs in Liverpool, including the Spinners club and the Green Moose, run by playwright Willie Russell. He soon took up singing and became a resident singer and co-founder of the Liverpool Folk Club in the city center pub Miter.

John was born in the town, the only child of Lilian (née Hughes) and Arthur Howson, who owned a grocery store in the Kensington area. After attending Newsham Modern Secondary School he took an apprenticeship as an engineer but, at the age of 21, his right hand was badly damaged in an accident at work and he retrained as a as a teacher of crafts and design.

In 1977 John met Katie Hayward at Bothy Folk Club in Southport, and they moved to Suffolk the following year, marrying in 1979. He then worked at Stowmarket High School until 1987 when he left to focus full-time on his label and other musical endeavors.

John Howson organized community music making nights in Suffolk pubs. Photography: Brian Shuel

The move to Suffolk was prompted by the county’s reputation for traditional music. Ralph Vaughan Williams collected songs there in the early 20th century, the BBC recorded songs in the 1950s and field worker Keith Summers documented music in the 70s.

Inspired by Summers’ work, John sought out singers and instrumentalists in the middle of Suffolk, where a Saturday night pub song could include a mix of traditional songs that Vaughan Williams might have recognized, as well as songs from music. -hall and sentimental, some of the accordion tunes and maybe step dancing: vernacular, community music. John documented the social context of music in a book, Many a Good Horseman (1985).

He launched his Veteran record label to make music available to the local community as well as to cater to the wider folk revival. He also arranged for musicians to visit festivals, including the Sidmouth Folk Festival, as The Old Hat Concert Party, and some of the songs were published in his book Songs Sung in Suffolk (1992).

John’s recordings have been featured on BBC Radio 2 and 4, and his digitized field recordings are now in the British Library’s National Sound Archive. He expanded the Veteran label to include recordings by singers and traditional instrumentalists from other parts of Britain, as well as Ireland, reflecting his love of Irish music dating back to his time in Liverpool.

In 2000, John and Katie founded the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust and, as co-directors, promoted a variety of educational and community activities, including an annual traditional music day in Stowmarket, publications and instrument-making workshops. In 1999 John choreographed country dancing for a BBC drama, All the King’s Men, starring David Jason.

All of John’s projects reflected his love of music and his belief in its resilience, but also his respect for singers and instrumentalists: he collected friends as well as music.

He is survived by Katie.


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