I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the beloved English folk singer, Roy Harris. Roy died February 9 at the age of 82. Roy was one of the great voices and influences of the English folk revival, and I am honored to have known him. He was one of the most cheerful and full of life individuals I’ve known making it difficult to realize I won’t be receiving any more of his delightful messages. He was 82, but he had the spirit of a teenager.
Roy had a magnificent voice and he sang unaccompanied, the way traditional English folk songs were originally sung. You do not need instruments if you have a good song, a good voice and a deep understanding of the songs significance in order to deliver them. He regaled audiences with wonderful gems of folk song as well as a few contemporary songs. He loved to make audiences laugh with his stories and tall tales, and that twinkle in his eye was a warm invitation to sit down and enjoy a nice visit.
Born into a working class family in Nottingham, England in 1933, Roy developed a love for music at an early age. He was influenced by jazz, blues, country and pop music that he heard on the radio of the day. On a visit to my radio show, he told me of his love for Burl Ives who was very popular in the UK. Roy also shared a wonderful Al Jolson imitation. He loved music of all types, but while serving in the army he heard the traditional song “McCafferty” and his interest in folk song grew deeper.
He began publicly singing in the late 1950s while doing skiffle songs and floor spots in the various folk music clubs that were taking shape in England. He moved to Cardiff, Wales in 1960. While working a day job, Roy was deeply exploring the music and opened the first folk club in South Wales. The club became popular and would host many of the now well known names in the folk scene. By 1964, he became a full time folk singer after he was sacked from his job.
In addition to singing and recording as a folk singer, Roy became involved in radio, hosting his own folk music series on BBC Radio Nottingham for 10 years. Roy also became an actor, appearing in small parts in television and in theater. In addition, Roy wrote a column a column for the Nottingham Evening Post. During his career, he was also the director of the the Loughbourgh Folk Festival from 1976 to 1980, compèred The Folk Prom at Royal Albert Hall and in his prime he toured throughout Europe and North America. Roy also performed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. He visited the U.S. nearly 2 dozen times.
Although he officially retired from touring in 1999, he did continue to perform and to celebrate his 80th birthday he performed a small tour in Britain. He continued to visit our shores periodically, and in 2009, he was awarded the Eisteddfod Award at the Folk Music Society of New York’s annual gathering.
Roy recorded five albums for Topic Records and three albums for Wild Goose. The CD “Live at the Lion” captures Roy in his element – performing in front of an appreciative audience at The White Lion folk club in Wherwell. Roy’s spirited singing that night featured great sing-alongs including “Doodle Let Me Go“, “The Cambric Shirt” and “Blow the Man Down.”
I first met Roy back in the 1980s when he was visiting the United States on a short tour. Roy graciously came to the studios of WFDU and we shared a wonderful afternoon on the air. We kept in contact over the years and he appeared on my show again, via telephone. The last time I saw Roy was in 2009 at the Eisteddfod Festival where I had the pleasure of interviewing him for an oral history workshop. Our conversations over the past few years were usually via Facebook posts and. The last message I received from Roy was last fall when we discussed our love for soccer – he was a huge supporter of his beloved Nottingham Forest.
My one regret is that I never got a chance to book Roy to appear at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club. I would have loved to experienced Roy singing these classic songs for our audience, I know they would have loved him as much as I did. Roy told me that he had a love of American diners, and being in New Jersey I told him about some of our classic establishments. I had promised I would take him to one if he came, but sadly his health prevented him from visiting us. I will miss Roy, as will every lover of folk song. I know how much he cherished his wife, children and grandchildren and I would like to express my condolences to his wife Elaine and their family. While we will miss Roy, we can take comfort in the fact that the music he left us will carry on to be discovered by new generations of folk music fans.