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Session History

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Folk Music in the Public Houses of Totnes – A brief survey - Compiled by Mick Bramich © 2012 with input from Julia Thomas, Sam Richards and a prompt from Mick Green.

For a "Family Tree of Totnes sessions click here

The amateur performance of traditional music and song in the town’s public houses stretches back over many years and some semblance of a record may be of use to future research and analysis of the subject. It is difficult to start the task thirty years into the process with any degree of accuracy but the bare bones of the movement can be traced with reasonable confidence through the memories of the participants, many of whom still live in the town and the surrounding villages.
The elements of these evolving sessions have been continually altered by the strength of particular individuals and the pigeonholing of the music into various genres. For example, some sessions have changed from a simple formula of anything goes into serious, musically driven evenings where the players strive for excellence sometimes at the cost of ‘entertainment value’. This has of course seen some performers flourish as a result of the ethos of the ‘session’.

Other aspects, perhaps far less visible than the other reasons so far mentioned, have been socio-economic in character. Live music was not always a welcome addition to a pubs character and only with the shifting fortunes of the trade and brewing industry have we seen a more open approach to some kind of free, musical entertainment within licensed properties.
One of the chief obstacles to continuity has been the ever changing management of the public houses involved. Another most unwelcome effect has been the de-licensing of some establishments and the inevitable reduction of places which are suitable and indeed welcome the music. A part of this survey will be an attempt to construct a family tree of the sessions and their inter relationships. Minor conflicts, whether between pub landlords and musicians or musicians themselves, must be seen as a vital part of the growth and decline of the live music scene and the way that it has survived to the present day (and looks like surviving a lot longer).

The Nineteen Eighties

Probably the earliest regular venue was The Castle at the corner of High Street and Castle Street. This once a week, Sunday night gathering brought people together from all over the South Hams and Teignbridge. Because of the scarcity of such events, you had to be there early to guarantee a seat. The fare was mixed with a leaning towards traditional song. At this time, a purely music based session was almost unheard of in the immediate area. It was only as more and more established players moved into the area that the nature of the performances began to change and evolve into the more serious approach where respect for the material and integrity in its performance became paramount. The jokey, throw away style of presentation started to lose its grip on the session and rifts were inevitable under the circumstances.

The first move to another venue occurred in about 1985 when, possibly due to a change of management at the Castle, the session moved to The Kingsbridge Inn. Same day, Sunday, but an altered set of faces among the regulars. The first inklings of division started to make themselves felt. It was almost a coup situation; a small group of players broke away and established an alternative session at The Albert in Bridgetown probably in 1986 and thus began what was to become in time, a phenomenon which drew in not only local artists but international performers who, on a night off, would swell the throng of top class players and singers.

The Albert Inn, as can still be seen, was a small venue. It also attracted students from the music department of Dartington College and the room was often completely crammed from wall to wall with avid players and listeners. Something had to give and in time some of the regulars, who travelled considerable distances to attend, built the confidence to start their own sessions in their own towns. The college also provided some very talented performers of traditional music and before the end of the decade, other venues became established within Totnes to handle the growth in popularity of the genre.

The Globe Inn, Castle Street was the first to feel the full fervour of the blend of college and resident musicians. Friday night was the selected time of the week and 7.30 in the evening probably guaranteed one a seat but nothing was certain. The management of the Globe were always friendly and apt to forget to close at eleven o’clock. With curtains drawn and lights dimmed, the session often continued well into the small hours. It was here that visitors from Cornwall regularly showed up and Irish musicians who were in the area would also put in an appearance. Tony O’Sullivan (Sully) was one who brought his banjo skills to The Globe to everyone’s delight.

The venue became so popular that a singing based forum met here on Tuesdays. This ran into the ‘nineties whereas the Friday session fell away quite rapidly when many of the college performers graduated and moved on.

A new venue sprang up in the latter part of the decade at The Bull on Mondays. This drew on performers from further afield but was open to all comers. It was a strong singing session and it occupied the inn until it closed as a hotel and was reborn as a modern, town centre pub offering live music gigs by bands and soloists from outside the realms of traditional music and song. This type of venue loss was unexpected and left a gap which could not be filled.

Also during this period, Dartington Morris Men regularly held a weekly singing session following on from their dance practice. The Albert Inn was the chosen venue as it was only a few steps away from their rehearsal site in Bridgetown. With the demise of this practice facility there followed a string of moves to other public houses which will be discussed later.

The ‘Nineties
The Sunday session moved from The Albert across the river to The Dartmouth Inn. Despite spending a couple of years there, it was never a very satisfactory spot as the pub had been seriously redeveloped prior to the move. The management were good to work with and they were not the reason for the session moving on.

A string of events began to unfold that eventually created the second folk phenomenon in Totnes. Two of the regular musicians at the Tuesday Globe session turned up to find the pub boarded up and not a light to be seen anywhere. With the possibility of several others showing up, a decision had to be made on what to do. An approach was made to the manager of the Bay Horse in Cistern Street. He was a friendly north easterner and welcomed us to try it out in the quiet back bar of the pub. Whether a note was left on the closed door of the Globe or a runner remained behind to redirect potential players cannot be recalled with certainty but The Bay was quickly occupied by a mixture of locals and college musicians.
Thus began the longest residency at any pub in the town. It rapidly grew to Albert like proportions and an early start was the order of the day. It was at this time that regular visitors from Plymouth started to patronise the session. It was felt wise to move the Sunday singing session to the Bay and that followed a few weeks later. Other one off events quickly came along. If you wanted to organise a session, then the Bay Horse was the venue for it.

The management changed but remained within the same family and the session flourished. Un- fortunately, all good things seem to come to an end and after a series of events, a splinter group left the Bay Horse and moved back to The Kingsbridge Inn. A few of the originators of the Bay session tried to stick it out but the move was successful. The Sunday set followed the trend but it was only a brief move however when the Kingsbridge management decided they only wanted the music fortnightly and would fill the alternate dates with bluegrass music. Inevitably more decisions had to be made. Tuesday went back to the Bay for a few more years and Sunday made the Albert its home once more.





Regulars at the Bay Horse Session circa 1996

A brief but very good session was established at The Steam Packet on the riverside. This plugged a gap on Mondays and created a healthy number of venues throughout the week. It only lasted for a year or so as the landlord moved away and little interest was shown by the new owners to support live music.

The ‘nineties ended with two regular sessions; Tuesday at The Bay Horse and Sunday at The Albert. Dartington Morris had by now removed to Dartington Primary School for their practice night on Friday and subsequently had their sing at The Cott followed by a move to The Queens, both of which proved unsatisfactory as session pubs mainly due to their layout. As can be deduced, the health and perseverance of a session depends greatly upon the chosen venue and the cooperation of a friendly publican.

2000 and Beyond

The Bay Horse continued to provide a secure grounding on Tuesdays but had a brief return to The Kingsbridge Inn when the management of the Bay changed and the whole ethos of the pub became almost anti-drinker with an infusion of new ideas belonging more readily to a seaside wine bar. The Kingsbridge underwent a similar shift which left the session floundering. A brief and unsatisfactory move to the Queen’s at Dartington followed. It only lasted a matter of weeks and then decamped to the Seven Stars Hotel. It was the first time that the session had ventured in this establishment and despite the cooperation of the management, it proved to be unwieldy and not suited to traditional music in the bistro type surroundings. Thankfully, yet more willing landlords took on the Bay and the session was reunited with the pub but in a different room. Some considerable effort had gone into turning the inn back into a recognisable pub.

A dispute between musicians and management saw the group on the road again and the gap was readily filled by The Steam Packet, a cosy, riverside pub with a roaring winter fire. This is the natural successor to that early Globe/Bay Horse scene where the ethos had always been on the provision of quality music with an emphasis on stretching the players to achieve with their chosen instruments. It carries on today in the care of some top quality performers and still attracts many players and singers.

Sunday sessions had ceased at The Albert and there was no attempt made to re-establish Sunday night as a regular date. This was in 2003 or 4 but it was revived as a mainly English music gathering in 2009 and as a monthly get together. There arose a nasty disagreement between some of the pub regulars and the musicians and as a result it ceased in 2010. Not being disheartened by this turn of events, the organiser met with the new management of the Bay Horse and subsequently regular nights on the first and third Mondays started up. They have been welcomed and show that The Bay Horse is a magnet for our music. It also supports a healthy jazz scene and puts on occasional gigs promoting varying styles of music.

Once again, The Albert Inn saw a new flourish of activity with a song only gathering on each Wednesday. This commenced in 2011 and is gaining a regular following of young singers hoping to get to grips with traditional song and being supported by many of the long time adherents of  the music. This has subsequently taken up residence at the Bay Horse.

And so, to conclude this brief history with all its inaccuracies no doubt, the music is alive and well in Totnes and is currently under the guardianship of some very dedicated people and likewise, supportive management at The Steam Packet and The Bay Horse. As a result of the movement of people over a long period of time, other sessions have been established to fill local needs. From the earliest days of Dawlish getting its own set up to more recent developments in Rattery and South Brent, the search for suitable venues and cooperative landlords continues.

(The Steam Packet session ended in early 2013 and has since relocated to the Bay Horse on the fourth Monday of every month. Rattery has also ceased to function).

For details of current sessions in Devon go to flaxey green session page

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