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From the National Theater to the Oxford Folk Club, Meeting Bill Caddick 32 Years Later

July 10, 2010

In the late 1970s I worked in the Green Room of the National Theater in London as a bartender to the actors. This was a job that lifted me out of the streets where I had spent four months earning my living as a busker – and living in a place I called the Repulsive Hotel in Notting Hill Gate (it was actually called the Rapallo) – because I had sworn never to earn money through any other method than my show business talents – such as they were.

I fell so low that I finally changed my mind as the tourism season died out and I no longer earned enough to live off. So I worked in the center of English theater and saw what the actor’s life was really like, and I decided I’d devote the rest of my life to writing….

At the National, however, I was thrilled not only to serve and/or meet the star actors and directors of the day – people like Albert Finney, Kate Nelligan, Ralph Richardson, Diana Rigg, John Gielgud, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and even a glimpse of the ailing Laurence Olivier – but I was also astounded one day to discover myself serving one of my musical heroes. That was Martin Carthy, who had played in the band Steeleye Span and had done some great solo albums and albums with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. He had even inspired Bob Dylan, Paul Simon (he took Carthy’s arrangement for “Scarborough Fair”) and Richard Thompson.

He was at the National playing in the Albion Band, which was playing in a production – I think it was Lark Rise To Candleford in 1978 – and when he came up to the bar to order a drink I recognized him immediately, and especially his distinctive voice.

Another member of the Albion Band was Bill Caddick, a singer and guitar player, who had a long history in the English folk movement as well. Caddick would end up spending nearly a decade at the National.

I have only vague memories of my time there, as it was so long ago and I was so young. But I remember the thrill and excitement of meeting such musical heroes, as I had since I was 15 years old listened to and sung the music of the English and American folk revival.

Last year when I came to the British Grand Prix I had discovered the Oxford Folk Club and I had played some of those songs at the open singer’s night, on the Friday. This weekend I was at first upset to discover that it was not an open night, that there was a guest performer doing a feature show instead.

But when I saw it was Bill Caddick, I got very excited and thought about how extraordinary it is that this musical adventure around the world with the Formula One races has led me into such unusual situations. Here I was about to go to a small English folk club in Oxford to listen to and meet a guy I used to serve at the bar of the National Theater more than 30 years before.

And things got even better when I emailed Pam Cooper, one of the organizers of the club, and she told me that there were a few people who would play in an open evening before Caddick played. She said I could do a couple of songs.

So I found myself in the Folly Inn Pub playing and singing in front of this enthusiastic audience – where a featured guest last year a week after I played, was Dave Swarbrick – and I was singing in front of a former member of the Albion Band, Bill Caddick.

Of course I jumped at the opportunity to tell the audience – and Caddick was there, of course – about how I had worked as a bartender so many years before at the National, and served the featured guest of the evening.

It was a blast. Last year I played “High Germany” and “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” and this year I played “Raggle Taggle Gypsies,” and I was thinking of doing “The Unquiet Grave.” But something possessed me to ask the audience if I should do another traditional song, or one of my own. Someone, or perhaps a couple of people, suggested I do one of my own. So I did “Since You Left Me,” which is much more of a pop song. And afterwards I said to the audience that in fact it was my own “Unquiet Grave.”

Caddick was fabulous. He played his distinctive 12-string fingerpicking on his Framus guitar, which he said he has owned for more than 40 years, and he sang in his distinctive deep and sharp voice with a good touch of emotion. In fact, he played two sets of something close to an hour each, and his voice was as fresh at the end as at the beginning.

He also played a 17th century French version of a guitar, on which he played slide, and it was really very cool and effective. His songs ranged from his own compositions to traditional English and even a song by Lead Belly.

I was thrilled when he came up to me directly after the first set and said jokingly, “So you’re the one who poisoned me at the National.”

Yes, I did notice at my time at the National that there was a great tendency for the actors and singers to drink to their fill – and, of course, times have not changed. Well, no, Caddick only drank a couple of bitter shandies last night, and I suppose that’s why he looked as fresh at the end as at the beginning of his sets.

I know about what he was drinking because I decided the best way for this story to come full circle after 32 years was for me to serve Caddick a drink again, so I offered him whatever it was he was drinking, and he went for the shandy.

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