As we went to press, last week, I learned of the first ‘casualty’ of 2019, the sad news that the presenter of BBC Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene for 47 years, Geoff Speed, had passed away at the age of 76.

Geoff’s history in the broadcasting and folk music scene is both a fascinating and an interesting one as it covered virtually the whole of the period, from the beginnings of the folk revival, to date. Born in Widnes in 1942 his understanding and knowledge of folk music and its often specialist audiences were second to none. That is why his programme, jointly co-presented and produced with another Merseyside icon, Stan Ambrose, who died in 2016, was such a success over so many years.

He was forced to retire in 2014 through the debilitating disease, multiple sclerosis, that he bore with great fortitude over the last 16 years of his life. However, by that time, he and Stan had achieved the remarkable record of presenting the longest running folk programme in the world, an achievement of which they were both justly proud. In the 1960s Geoff ran a very successful folk club in his own town, The Howff Folk Club, Widnes and, in the early days of the Radio Station he recorded live music in and around clubs when such recordings were practically non-existent. It became a familiar sight to club goers to see Geoff, tape recorder slung over his shoulder and mike in hand, recording sessions and interviewing artistes to be edited later for inclusion on the show.

Despite the many hundreds of programmes that he co-presented over the years Geoff had a particular claim to fame that had stuck with him and been passed down to subsequent generations as part of folk history. It was the week in the mid 1960s when he put up a young American singer and songwriter who was touring the northern folk clubs of the UK. That young man was the then unknown Paul Simon, but I will let Geoff tell you the story in his own words...

“In the early days of the folk club (The Howff) we had a guy from London play for us. His name was Terry Gould. He wrote to me and said that he had heard a young American singer named Paul Simon and was trying to organise a tour in the North of England. So, I said yes straight away. We were only asked to pay £12. To think that this guy was only 18 or 19 and was writing such wonderful songs. He stayed with me for a week.”

Legend has it that, when Geoff ran his guest to Widnes Station to catch the train back to London following the end of his ‘tour’ at The Howff that Sunday, Simon wrote the now classic song, Homeward Bound. In fact, the station erected a plaque some years ago testifying to this fact, although it is disputed in some circles and remains one of those myths, or mysteries, that we may never know for certain. Geoff had a theory that Simon had maybe started the song in his front room and embellished, or added to it in his head whilst waiting on that cold, lonely platform. Whatever, it makes a great story!

Back to Geoff’s major contribution to the promotion of folk music, in all its many and varied forms, a task that he carried out with enthusiasm and dedication all his life after growing up, “a lonely boy with a radio set I loved” that had sparked his initial love of traditional music.

A gentle man, a friend and never-ending fund of folk knowledge, he will be sorely missed, not only by wife Pat and their two children, but by the folk world in general and our own patch here in North Wales and the North West of England in particular. In his memory, the least we can do is to listen to BBC Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene show (FM95.8/MW1485) that still goes out at 4pm-5pm every Sunday. Thank you, my friend, for your time (always given generously), your dedication, your words and, most of all, your music.

As a footnote, I too had reason to remember that night, on a personal basis, Myself and my cousin, Ken, having seen Paul Simon at The Black Diamond Folk Club, Chester on the previous Friday, travelled to The Howff Folk Club, Widnes to see him again, so impressed were we by his performance and his songs. As young folk enthusiasts and budding performers ourselves, albeit many rungs down the ladder, we were thrilled when his strings broke, and he borrowed my cousin’s Martin D18 guitar for a few songs. My cousin sadly passed away in 2001 and that same guitar now resides in my house. She is an old lady now, with 55 years of plucking and strumming behind her, and rarely gets an outing but, whenever I lift her gently from her case and stroke those strings, I remember that night long ago and still wonder if, perhaps, several hours after the great man also played that same guitar he really had written his eulogy to the lonely traveller, Homeward Bound. I still like to think so.

Back to this week’s gigs and, at the Mucky Duck Folk Club, The Ewloe Social Club, Old Chester Road, Ewloe on Monday (February 11) at 8pm, their latest, Big Spot, will be filled by John Warburton (sometimes known as Gypsy John). John has also run the Llanfynydd Folk Club for many years from The Cross Keys pub, Mold. However, due to a fire a while ago they moved to Treuddyn Village Hall, near Mold on a temporary basis, before making this move permanent in January when they restyled themselves, The Dragon’s Breath.

This brings me neatly to our next gig, on Tuesday (February 12) at 8pm, at the above club. The guest duo is Dewi & Eileen Thomas and admission is on the door.

On Wednesday (February 13) the Liverpool Philharmonic continues its series of excellent acoustic music events, in their Music Room, with Rob Heron & the Tea Pad Orchestra at 8pm with their mixture of North Eastern Swing, blues and country. It sounds interesting but you will have to phone the box office on 0151 709 3789 and book your tickets, at £12.50 each, to find out.

Finally, the Parish Notices this week concern the Soundbox presentation at The Lock Keeper, Cow Lane Bridge, Chester next Friday (February 15) when Dave Ellis & Boo Howard are their repeat guests at 8pm and West Kirby Arts Centre where Miranda Sykes will be in concert on Saturday (February 16) at 7.30pm. Tickets are available through the usual agencies on the web. Also, next weekend, the annual Love Folk Festival takes place at The Atkinson Theatre, Southport (February 15-16). All star struck lovers should check out the website for details!

Meanwhile, whatever you do and wherever you go, enjoy your music.