Musical roots: Inside The Processed Pea - one of Britain’s oldest folk clubs

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The Processed Pea is one of the oldest folk clubs in Britain. Sharon Dale reports on the why the music plays on and sew-on patches are back.

The folk explosion of the 1960s and 70s revived interest in traditional songs and their contemporary, sometimes contentious, incarnations. 
Stuart Bell and his mates loved them all, from the Watersons’ version of John Barleycorn to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ and so it was that in 1969, to the strains of Ralph McTell singing Streets of London, they decided to start their own club.

Processed Pea Folk Club founder Stuart Bell. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Processed Pea Folk Club founder Stuart Bell. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

It was founded on youthful impulse but 48 years later, the Processed Pea Club is still going strong. It has survived disco, punk, metal, grunge, Madchester and hip-hop and is thought to be the oldest folk club in Britain still based at the same venue: the Light Dragoon in Etton, near Beverley.

“We were in our early 20s and used to go to the folk clubs in Hull, which were very traditional and wouldn’t allow guitar-playing singers to perform. We were listening to Donovan and Dylan, so we started our own club so we could listen to music like that as well as the old songs,” says Stuart, 74, who is still at the helm of the non-profit- making venture, although his three co- founders have long since moved on.

He admits that they were clueless about club management to begin with but their enthusiasm more than made up for it.

“We couldn’t sing and we couldn’t play an instrument but the big advantage was that we loved music and we saw it all from an audience point of view.”

The venue was chosen after they approached William Youngers Breweries and were invited to choose a pub. The Light Dragoon came out top for its beer and its character. Subsequent licensees have been happy to host the club, whose unlikely name was inspired by tinned veg.

“At the time we were trying to come up with a name we worked for a food wholesaler and it was our job to sell huge consignments of Foster Clark tinned peas, bought in at a ridiculously low price due to the factory’s imminent closure. I suggested the name as a joke but it turned out to be a good call because it’s still original. There’s not another one in the world, whereas there are quite a few clubs called the Holy Ground after the Irish sea shanty,” says Stuart.

Booking acts was a learning curve but Stuart excelled in marketing and artwork. He designed flyers, car stickers and a backcloth for the stage that is still in use.

A members’ club was formed to comply with the licensing laws of the time and subscribers got a Processed Pea Passport. Riding on the back of the 1970s trend, Stuart, an early exponent of “merchandise”, sold sew-on patches. He still has one embroidered with “Follow me to the Processed Pea” and it could be worth a bob or two given that patches are the “in-thing” for 2017.

At the pinnacle of the Pea’s popularity in the 1970s, came its “pea’esse” de resistance – its own record label.

It produced 10 records including the EP Etton Alive by Fourpenny Bridge from Selby and Hessle Road by Hull policeman and folk singer Pete Smith, who also wrote and recorded Yorkshire Born and Proud of It.

“He was brilliant but passed away quite young,” says Stuart, whose favourite acts include the Happy Cats fronted by Lindisfarne’s Marty Craggs, Vin Garbutt, Mungo Jerry, Henry Priestman and Flossie Malavialle.

Other well-known artists who have passed through the club include the Watersons, Martin Carthy, Jake Thackray, Ralph McTell, Richard Digance, Kate Rusby and Jasper Carrott, along with hundreds of local support acts.

Folk purists might balk at some of Stuart’s choices but he is broadminded when it comes to bookings.

“It’s almost impossible to define folk music but I see it as songs that tell a story like the ones medieval minstrels sang. Take the Beatles’ A Day in the Life and She’s Leaving Home. They are folk songs as far as I am concerned.”

Whatever it is, there is no doubt there has been a renaissance over the last decade with acts like Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling entering the charts, and festivals including Kate Rusby’s Underneath the Stars in Barnsley attracting new folk followers.

The Processed Pea’s audience comes from all over East Yorkshire and beyond and Stuart’s diaries and scrapbooks reveal how times have changed.

Cigarette smoke choked club nights in the 60s and 70s. The men had long hair and beards, along with pewter tankards hanging from their belts. The women weren’t big drinkers.

“Everyone was dragging on a fag and the men drank bitter. The women had soft drinks and the odd Martini, whereas now they mostly drink wine,” says Stuart.

The Processed Pea ran weekly for 30 years but finding 52 decent artists was a challenge. Now the club operates on the first Monday of every month and Stuart is confident that it will continue long term.

He lives just down the road from the Light Dragoon and has a great band of helpers, including Anne, Andy, Martin, Rob, Tony and Max.

“I thought it would last two years but we celebrate our 50th birthday in a couple of years. I might take more of a back seat then but I can’t see me giving up. I love the atmosphere. I love standing at the door at the end of the night and shaking everyone’s hand and saying, ‘thank you for coming’.”

You can find more pictures of the Processed Pea and listen to Pete Smith’s Yorkshire Born and Proud of It on The Yorkshire Post website’s, www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/lifestyle. For more details of the Processed Pea visit www.theprocessedpea.co.uk