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STEVE TURNER
Whirligig of Time
by Pete Heywood

Steve Turner is one of those artists who have been the backbone of the British folk scene, a confident performer, setting the definitive standard for several songs and introducing them with an appropriate line of patter and yet is somebody who has not been given the recognition he himself now feels he deserves. Steve has been out of circulation on the folk scene for around eleven years, tempted back recently, in part by Mick Peat. ‘Braiding’, Steve’s fourth LP released on Fellside, was hailed as a great album but in 40 years Steve has never had a major article in a magazine. Sitting in a railway station in Newcastle, he said that this was the first interview that he had ever done.

Steve's musical story starts in the Manchester folk scene in the late 60s. His route to music was via the Beatles and then Dylan. “I stood in front of the mirror with a tennis racket, harmonica holder and a hat. I finally got a guitar for seven pounds.”

Steve was singing songs like the ‘Zoological Gardens’ and was told to go to John Rylands Library in Manchester to look for songs. His choice of songs and quality and sensitivity of accompaniment have marked him out as somebody special.

I first met him at the Bury Folk Club when Heather and I were visiting relatives in Manchester on a fairly regular basis.

Steve was playing a floor spot in 1971 where Canny Fettle were the main act and Bob Diehl, their fiddler, asked if he wanted to join the band. Steve was in the group for seven years during which time they made two albums, ‘Varry Canny” and an LP of tunes from the Joshua Jackson collection – both groundbreaking albums for their time. The band members were all part-time; Steve wanted to turn professional but they didn't. “I pretended I was a Geordie for seven years, nobody seemed to notice!” Steve must be good at accents as in 1972 he came equal third with Alison McMorland at a Scots singing competition at the Kinross Festival. Stanley Robertson came first.

After Canny Fettle, Steve spent three years working for Hobgoblin then went fully professional as a musician from 1980 until 1991. He made four solo albums, all with Fellside and set the standard for a number of songs. Mary Black credits Steve as a source of her version of the ‘Isle of St Helena’; others credit Steve for ‘Hard Times’ and the ‘Glendy Burke’.

There was no specific reason why he stopped playing although one interesting story gives a hint at some of the issues. “Braiding, my last LP for Fellside got the top write-up in an issue of Folk Roots, ahead of a new release by Bob Dylan, and a writer in Sandy Bell's Broadsheet said that it was the best album he had ever heard. An Italian agent heard about this and came on the phone wanting to book ‘The Steve Turner Band. I explained that there was no band, there were five people on the album but they were never all together in one place. The Italian agent insisted and myself and the musicians from the album decided to do a one-off gig in Italy. There were three acts playing that night in a 2000 seater marquee. We were to be on between 11 and 12 o'clock. The first two acts overran and we finally went on at five minutes to midnight. After two minutes on stage, the sound and lights were switched off on the instructions of the Police and the band were stopped in the middle of the first song. Apparently there was a local bylaw stating there was to be no music after midnight. I had to go back onto the stage to explain to the audience. We were paid £5,000 for the two minutes performance but something told me we were not supposed to be doing this!”

This was reinforced two weeks later at Tonder Festival when a pad fell off his concertina just before going on-stage. Any concertina player will know that the effect of this is to leave a note sounding constantly, making the instrument unplayable. Steve was playing with George Faux at the time and they winged a complete set without the concertina. “We were proud of ourselves but I still felt somebody up there was trying to tell me something.”

Coming from a self-taught background on concertina means that Steve has no particular role models for his style of playing. He plays concertina in a percussive style more influenced by guitar players such as Carthy, Nic Jones and Ri Cooder and transferred that to concertina.

Although Steve is generally modest with his talent, the Steve Turner this time around is more self-confident, although still understated. “It is not perhaps that I am great, there just aren't many other people around! All that I can do is what comes within my remit, but I would like people to be able to say – ‘If you want a concertina accompanist, Steve Turner is your man!’”

“That is all I have tried to do but it would be good to get some recognition after 40 years. There are more players around now. At a recent workshop at Whitby over fifty people turned up. That surprised me - people came with questions and with instruments!”

Steve respects virtuosity and lists Frankie Gavin and Alistair Anderson as people he admires. Turner Violins has given him an insight into other spheres of music where he found standards of stage performance to be generally higher than those found in the folk scene.

Steve is now able to be more choosy in the gigs that he does because he now has a ‘day job’ in the form of his business Turner Violins. “I suppose you could say that I am coming back to my music now that I'm semi-retired. I am not retired at all, but the business is well-established and I can take time away from it.”

“I was known as a folk club performer and it is has been easy to me to return there. The lead time for festival bookings is longer these days and soloists seem scarce on festival bills, so I have yet to experience the change at that level. Next year I am planning a trip to the USA and Australia and my diary is now filling up to a point where it is close to being as much as I can cope with, although I would like to do more festivals.”

Steve's principal instrument is still the concertina but this time around he is comfortable adding cittern, mandolin and tenor banjo to the mix. Steve sees himself as a concertina song accompanist rather than a tune player and gives accompaniment workshops. He once did a Grateful Dead song, ‘Me and My Uncle’, in what he now describes as his avant-garde period. Perhaps this is as far as he has pushed the concertina so far.

Steve is currently tracing his family tree. He is half Scots, his mother came from Cluny near Blairgowrie and his old aunt, now 92, lives next door to Dougie MacLean and is a big fan. Steve is from Manchester and his grandfather was a barber for the Manchester City players. His father's birth certificate lists his father, Steve's grandfather, as a journeyman hairdresser. “My grandfather was a sailor, played concertina and was a silver tenor – whatever that is! He gave my grandmother eight children and left her ashore as a charlady.”

Steve's grandfather was playing the concertina and singing as late as 1890s and Steve inherited his grandfather's concertina. “The concertina lay in a box in the shed for over ten years. I popped in occasionally and opened the box but when I eventually took it out it came out of the box in two halves.” He still has that concertina.

Towards the end of our conversation we strayed back to the topic of recognition and to the subject of awards. “It is interesting to see this change. When I and my fellow professionals were making a living in the folk clubs, we never expected to receive the kind of public recognition that can come with awards. I suppose I have come to realise that this kind of opportunity for most of the people of my vintage has passed. But one can always hope!”

Cricket is Steve's other passion. His commitment is mirrored in the hard work he puts into his music to reach the technical standards that he has set himself. In both of these are areas of his life there is unfinished business and whilst cricket is his hobby, music will surely be his legacy. His cricketing achievements are clearly important to him, but with a target of only fifty, he does realise that he will never feature in any world rankings. His music however has taken him to a different level. As far as concertina accompaniment goes, Steve has reached peaks that few can share. And he can go on achieving. He has just finished recording an album that has been on the go for some time. It has been largely self-produced although with the recording controls in the capable hands of Ollie Knight, who’s help in arrangements has brought Steve into the 21st century.

Steve thinks that it is his best work to date, which is saying something as he sets his own standards very high. The recording recently reached a stage where it needed to be finished or he might have been re-recording forever. Steve thought that it might have been of interest to a major label but he has now realised that things have changed during his period away. The music business has its fashions and middle-aged men playing concertina, fall somewhat short in the visual stakes. Conversations during the research for this article led to it finding its niche on the Tradition Bearers label. It wasn't planned that way but it could be that it has found a fitting home.

Thanks to Pete Heywood of The Living Tradition for allowing this reprint of his article
www.folkmusic.net and www.thetraditionbearers.com