JOHN CONOLLY is an internationally-respected songwriter, who has based his style firmly in the
British folk tradition. His most popular song, “FIDDLERS’ GREEN” – a fisherman’s vision of Paradise – is
performed and loved all over the world.
John’s childhood was spent not far from the docks in the English fishing port of Grimsby, where the River Humber joins the North Sea, and where his grandfather and great-grandfather learned their trade as shipwrights in the riverside dockyards. As the fishing industry declined, following the “Cod Wars” with Iceland, John watched the local fishing fleet limp into oblivion, and began to chronicle the lives and labours of the men who worked on the trawlers and along the waterside. “FIDDLERS’ GREEN”, written in the 1960’s, was popularised by folk artistes like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, and has become firmly embedded in the canon of maritime music.
John’s first contact with folk music was in Primary School, where he recalls being marched into Morning Assembly to the tune of Percy Grainger’s “COUNTRY GARDENS” – although he didn’t know it was folk music at the time! His interest in creative writing, however, was sparked off at Clee Grammar School, where he was encouraged to write poetry by an enthusiastic English teacher (affectionately known as “Killer” Sleigh), and his first published work (inspired by a Spike Milligan joke) appeared in the School Magazine – here is a mercifully-short extract from John’s “ODE TO A DOOR -KNOCKER”. . .
“O Door-knocker, fixed on the door with nails
And often battered, when it rains or hails –
Tell me, I pray, what secret thoughts you think
While contemplating gutter, drain or sink. . . “
OK, so it’s not Great Literature, but at the age of 13, the rhyming and scansion were already there!
John was exposed to “Show-Biz” at an early age – his father, Bill Conolly, was the manager of the local ABC Cinema, while his Mum, Violet Conolly (immortalised as “ MY VI ” in one of John’s songs)
always loved to sing and dance, and had a particular fondness for the old Music-Hall songs, the saucier the better – which perhaps explains the racier areas of John’s repertoire. . .
John’s journey into folk music followed the well-travelled “Jazz/Blues/Skiffle” route, leading to the establishment, in the early 1960’s, of Lincolnshire’s first Folk Song Club, at the Duke of Wellington pub in Grimsby. Together with local schoolteacher Bill Meek, and the well-respected Scots ballad-singer Bob Blair and his wife Helen, John fronted the Club’s first resident band, “The Meggies”, later to become “The Broadside”. This led in turn to the long-running song-writing partnership of John Conolly and Bill Meek, which has produced many classic Sea Songs, like “THE GRIMSBY LADS”, “ MEN OF THE SEA”,
“SAILORTOWN” and “THE TRAWLING TRADE”. As Dr Fred Woods said in his book “FOLK REVIVAL”. . .
“The Folk Grapevine has scattered their songs far and wide and the quality is equally widely-recognised”
Conolly and Meek’s early song-writing efforts were mostly humorous ditties covering such topics as the rejuvenating (and allegedly stain-removing) properties of the Grimsby brew Hewitt’s Ale (known to the locals as “Spewitt’s” !), or the historical activities of the “Meggies” (inhabitants of the fishing village of Cleethorpes), some of whom were notorious shipwreckers –
“Long years ago on Humber’s shore a stranded vessel lay;
In cruel raging North Sea gales she had been wrecked that day -
Her boards were burst asunder, just a mass of splintered wood -
Down came the Jolly Meggies, to pinch anything they could. . . “
John and Bill’s songwriting took a more serious turn, however, when they attended a workshop
at Loughborough Folk Festival, led by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and were encouraged to write about the fishing industry which had been the life-blood of their home-town. The first “proper” song John and Bill wrote together was “The Grimsby Lads” –
“Here’s to the Grimsby Lads, out at the trawling –
Here’s to the lads on the billowing deep –
Shooting their nets and a-heaving and hauling –
All the night long, and the landsmen asleep. . .”
Peggy Seeger later helped John and Bill to get a couple of their fishing songs published in one of the leading folk magazines. At about the same time, an up-and-coming young folk duo called Tim Hart and Maddy Prior heard John singing “Fiddlers’ Green” and asked if they could record it – and John and Bill’s songs were launched on their long voyage around the world-wide Folk Scene. . .
Nowadays, John continues to write thought-provoking, tuneful, singable and often outrageously funny songs. Over the years, he has become an experienced performer in all kinds of venues, from the concert-hall to the local pub, and he has toured throughout Britain, in the Netherlands, the USA and Germany. His songs have won awards in many major song-writing contests, and two of them (Fiddlers’ Green and Punch & Judy Man) have achieved the ultimate accolade of being hilariously parodied by the British folk scene’s ”Poet Laureate”, the great Les Barker. . .
Although Sea Songs are the bedrock of John’s repertoire, a typical Conolly performance will cast its net more widely. . . there might be anti-war outbursts like “Old Men Sing Love Songs” and “The Last Ploughshare”, tender love songs like “Out of Season” and “Keep on Trying”, or political squibs like “Two Little Chaps” or “Big Bucks for Bull-shit”. . . There will always be humour, represented perhaps by one of John’s “saucy postcard songs” like “Send us a Postcard”, ”Bucket and Shovel Brigade” or “The Bionic Fisherman”.
About himself, John says - “ I don’t claim to write ‘traditional’ songs, because you can’t do that – a song has to earn its place in the tradition by being loved and performed by many singers over the years. However, I do try to write in the traditional folk style, because I love the economy and elegance of the Language of Folksong. Likewise, I am inspired by the work of some of my favourite poets, like John Betjeman or Charles Causley, and by songwriters like Ewan MacColl, Cyril Tawney, Leon Rosselson, Alex Glasgow, Jake Thackray, Richard Thompson and (from across the pond) Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Utah Phillips and Stan Rogers—whose art lies in the putting together of everyday words in an extraordinary way. . . “
And what does the Folk World say about John . . . ?
“John Conolly – a ray of sunshine on a rainy day. . one cannot help being cheered and lifted by this man and his songs . . Fabulous!”
(John Corteen : Ingleton Folk Weekend)
“What wouldn’t people give for John’s easy stage presence? He has a warm, sincere style that makes you feel among friends. This has been honed by long service as a writer and performer whose songs have entered the fabric of Folk Culture, to be sung by the “Great and the Good” – but, to my mind, John is the best interpreter of his own songs – so come along and be well-entertained!”
(Black Diamond Folk Club, Birmingham)
“ This is the poetry of the working man”
( Cyril Tawney)
“A sense of humour that would make the Devil himself drop his toasting-fork and collapse in fits of laughter – pure, unadulterated fun!”
(Gerry Milne : “Folk London” magazine)
“If there were ever a “Campaign for Real Folksingers”, John Conolly would be the sort of act it would promote – his well-crafted songs sit easily with his natural charm and sense of humour, making him a firm favourite with both audiences and fellow-musicians. ."
( Topic Folk Club, Bradford – established for over 60 years – so, they’ve seen ‘em all!)
“From the Yankee perspective, finally getting to hear in person the man whose song ‘Fiddlers’ Green’ inspired so many waterfront pubs in the States to change their names , was beyond thrilling. . . this guy is a solid performer, as soulful as the low notes on a cello – entertaining and captivating from start to finish. . .“
(Janie Meneely : Folklore Society of Greater Washington, and former host of 333 Coffeehouse)
“If there were ever a Campaign for Real Folk-Singers, John Conolly is the sort of act it would promote – his hand-crafted songs sit well with his easy-going charm and sense of humour, making him a firm favourite with both audiences and fellow-musicians. . .”
(Bradford Topic Folk Club - established over 60 years, so they’ve seen ‘em all!)