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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

The Folk Club

John removed his guitar from its case and propped the instrument against his table. He looked around the room where others were unpacking and tuning their instruments in preparation for that evening’s folk club.

John had been playing guitar for a year and had finally summoned all his courage to perform in public. He had thus come along to his first folk club singaround night.

When most people had settled, Sally, the MC, turned to the performer on her left. ‘Do you want to start us off, Eric?’ she said.

Eric began the evening with what seemed to John a virtuoso guitar performance with outstanding vocals. John was particularly impressed by Eric’s ability to simultaneously play an accordion with his toes.

I hope they’re not all that brilliant, thought John, mentally comparing the performance to his intended version of Streets of London, feeling his anxiety increase and making a mental note of the fastest route to the exit.

‘Eric’s pretty good,’ said the person sitting next to John, as Eric finished. ‘I’m George, by the way. You’re new, aren’t you?’

‘First time,’ John replied. ‘My name’s John. I only started playing last year.’

‘George next,’ said Sally.

John's companion picked up a guitar and commenced a rendition of Blowing in the Wind. This, by contrast to the previous turn, was some way less than perfect. It seemed to John that George's guitar was not totally in tune, and his singing did not appear to fully conform to any western musical scale.

A polite round of applause followed. George consulted an electronic device on the table in front of him. At first John had taken this to be a tuner, but on closer inspection it simply and enigmatically displayed the number 1.

‘John,’ said Sally, ‘welcome to the club. Could you go next?’

John was greatly relieved. Not only did this give him the chance to perform early, and hence get his first song out of the way, but he was also following a performance that was less than virtuoso. George’s doubtful rendering of Bob Dylan indicated that anything was acceptable at the club, and he could hardly follow with something worse. John’s anxiety faded away as he got into his song.

After he had played, John reflected that his rendition of Ralph Mctell’s classic was probably the best he had ever done of it. He even got the bum note in the right place that Ralph had fluffed on Spiral Staircase. Had the great man, himself, been present, thought John, he could probably have been coaxed from the brink of suicide.

Following the round of applause, George consulted the electronic gadget, which now displayed the number 7.

‘What is that thing?’ John enquired.

‘It’s a digital clapometer,’ George replied. ‘You seldom get any feedback on your performance at folk clubs,’ he continued. ‘Everyone’s too kind. Research has shown, however, that there are certain characteristics in the applause which indicate appreciation, or otherwise. Factors like volume, duration, how soon applause starts after the end of the song, and so on. This machine takes all those factors into account and gives a score out of 10. Sometimes, someone shouts “Yes” after a good performance. It gives extra points for that.’ George held the display screen in front of John. ‘You got 7. That’s pretty good.’

‘What score do you usually get?’ John asked tactfully, aware of the 1 displayed following George's earlier song.

‘Between 5 and 9,’ George replied.

John looked puzzled, wondering how to politely phrase the question of how George got such high scores if his performances were typically as unrehearsed as this evening’s Dylan.

‘You’re wondering about my song tonight,’ said George, as if reading his thoughts. ‘If someone new is here, Sally gets me to do a rubbish performance before they play, just to give them confidence.’ He winked.

‘Janet, please,’ interrupted Sally, cuing the next song.

‘I’m afraid it’s a depressing, traditional song,’ Janet apologised, before beautifully singing, a cappella, a tale of a poor nineteen century family.

In the first verse the father and his brothers were killed in a mining disaster. In the second verse everyone else except the wife starved to death in the Irish potato famine, and in the final verse she was drowned when the prison ship transporting her to Australia for stealing a loaf, sank with the loss of all on board while rounding "the wild Cape Horn O".

‘We’ve got to do something about the lyrics of those songs,’ said George to John, after the applause had faded. ‘They’ve got such beautiful tunes that people keep singing them, but even the performers now feel they have to apologise for the unremitting carnage and misery they’re relating.’

‘What can be done?’ John enquired.

‘Traditionalists are resisting any change,’ replied George, ‘but others are tweaking or rewriting the songs to keep the mortality rates down. Some progressive clubs even ban songs in which ships sink.’

The evening continued with a variety of songs executed with varying degrees of competence, from amazing to less amazing.

‘Did Henry and Mary sing like that to help me feel confident?’ John asked George after one duet to rival George’s earlier contribution.

‘Sadly not,’ he replied. ‘I’m afraid they always sound rather like that. But,' he concluded, 'this is an English folk club. Everyone’s welcome here.'