Cleckheaton Folk Festival mourns the death of its guiding light, Geoff Pickles

Tributes have been paid to Geoff Pickles, the guiding light of Cleckheaton Folk Festival for many years, following his death at the age of 80

By Dave Minich, Director of Cleckheaton Folk Festival
Tuesday, 19th April 2022, 12:00 pm
Geoff Pickles was the guiding light of Cleckheaton Folk Festival for many years
Geoff Pickles was the guiding light of Cleckheaton Folk Festival for many years

Having lived in the Spen Valley all his life, Geoff was familiar to thousands of people from all over 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 School but as he put it “I found nothing to like at school”.

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

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Dancers at Cleckheaton Folk Festival

In his leisure time Geoff also started attending folk clubs and went regularly to 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 artistes at the 2008 Cleckheaton Folk Festival.

Geoff began to attend a variety of folk clubs and became a familiar face on the Yorkshire folk scene, which was very strong in those 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 running his own.

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

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

He would say: “Among performers there are people I like and people I don’t like but I always try not to let my own tastes show through. It is the audience’s taste that is important.”

To illustrate this, Geoff would recount the tale of MC-ing a concert one evening. After sitting through what he considered to be a monumentally boring performance by one of the biggest names in the business, at the end he went on to the stage to thank the performer for a fantastic session and to ask the audience to applaud a fine performance before introducing the next guest (a personal favourite of his) with exactly the same degree of enthusiasm.

He then went and sat back down where for the next half hour the new artist had him laughing so hard he cried.

“That’s what an MC is there for,” Geoff said. “To introduce each act and to smooth the transition from one to the next so that the audience enjoys themselves.”

In those early days Geoff also became an active member of Drighlington Community Social Group and found himself involved with organising 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 organising a concert here?”

Geoff agreed and went on to organise a successful evening of folk music for the regulars.

Soon Geoff was organising regular folk concerts and then clubs. First at The Spotted Cow and subsequently 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, in order to organise a folk festival in Cleckheaton. They included people such as Joe Brough, John Whickham and Dave Mallinson.

Knowing of Geoff’s experience and contacts he was soon persuaded to come along to lend a hand.

When the leading light dropped out two weeks before the event, Geoff was asked to take over and head-up the festival, so he did and on the first weekend of July 1987 Cleckheaton saw its first folk festival - and popular opinion was that it was excellent.

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

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

The biggest success he believes was singer-songwriter Eric Bogle and he also mentioned singer Francis Black and the group Cockersdale.

However, Geoff was very proud of the lesser known names who have grown to prominence since their appearances in Cleckheaton.

“Cleckheaton may not have been responsible for their success but we weren’t afraid to book them in their early days and a lot of artistes remember that,” he said.

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

Asked about his own favourite part of the festival, Geoff would become a little more serious. “I don’t have much time to sit back and watch during the festival,” he would say. “But there are aspects I do enjoy such as meeting the artistes.

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

Talking about the other, big name festivals, Geoff describes them as big, brash and far too loud. They are losing some of the things that folk music is about.

He would go on to talk about the sense of belonging most people feel at the smaller events such as Cleckheaton and the strength of local community involvement which is often missing at the big festivals.

He stresses the involvement of local singers and songwriters such as Keith Marsden, Michael Forsyth, Bruce Michael Bailey and Mary Foulds. Talented local people who have proved they are as good as the big names.

Geoff pointed out that the festival was a good way of making sure folk music (our own music as he called it) and traditions survive under the assault of pop and other mass market influences.

Some people may question the relevance of Morris dancing, pub sing-a-rounds and similar activities but they have been part of local tradition going back hundreds of years and it is important to preserve them.

After resigning as festival director and after retiring from work, Geoff proclaimed: “I am going to enjoy life whatever comes. I shall enjoy each day, each minute and I shall keep involved as much as I can.” Geoff did just that.

At first with the help of his wife Jan until her sad death, and then on his own, Geoff continued to play an active part in local matters in general and the festival in particular.

Until very recently he would still attend sessions at the Panther Folk Club at the Wickham Arms where, true to his principles, he let the club "run itself". He has played Father Christmas. He has switched on the Christmas lights.

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

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