Email from an old folkie

Big Theo

We recently received an email from one of the great folkies of the 1960’s, E. Van Johnson. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

Many of the people you mention on your site I knew personally. My Brother Theo ran one of the first Folk Clubs in the cellar of Bunjies Leicester Square. I played there from 1958 and became resident there from 1959 till 63. I also played many of the London clubs and coffee bars of which there were over 200.

Some of the people I met and knew quite well were, Tom Paxton, Paul Simon, Jackson C Frank, Darrel Adams, Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Sonny Boy Williams. We had a large flat in Twickenham, and many a night after a gig in town, many players would turn up and we would jam late into the next morning.

I have many personal anecdotes of those days and a lot of old recordings from clubs and bars.

Theo ran his own record label and was a great influence and help to a lot of struggling musicians including Jackson C Frank. I have a copy of his record with a personal dedication hand written on the back. He wanted to include on the sleeve not, but Pau Simon talked him out of it.

As far as Paul goes, he was broke and Theo got him a gig at the Labour club in Richmond. There were 11 people there and only 8 of them paid to get in.
I guess we all had to start somewhere.

Darrel Adams had been traveling with Alex Campbell, a great Scottish singer who I worked with for about 6 months. One day After my gig at Bunjies we all piled into my old one ton truck. If I had crashed I would have put folk music back ten years. I had myself, Theo, Sandy Denny, Diz Disley, Jonny Silvo, Alex Campbell and Darrel Adams, The Countrymen Dave Shelly and Roger Evans plus a couple of girls. We were on our way to see Donnavan who was appearing at the Roundhouse.

When we played on the Barge we had many well known musicians booked or just dropping in to hear the booked act which included just about anybody who was anybody on the music scene at the time.

My eldest brother Theo Johnson Big Theo as he was known in those days ran the folk cellar in Bunjies coffee shop in Litchfield street off Leicester Square. He sang with a small group comprising of Dave Waite(Banjo & guitar) Roger Evans (Guitar) who later went on the form the highly successful folk group 'The Countrymen'

Roger broke off and formed the his own trio with Dave Shelly on bass and Little Les on drums.

When I came ashore in 1959, I took over as resident in the Cellar and played at many of the London Folk clubs including the Overseas Visitors Club, The Troubadour, Hammersmith FC.The crown Twickenham, and many of the Folk clubs in Essex such as Romford, Stratfiord Broadway, Greys and many others and played with most of the folkies of the day. Including Terry Masterson who is now in Lewes, Tony Macarthy who moved to the midlands and worked for Granada TV. Alex Campbell who taught me all I know about how to entertain and audience.

Dis Dizley the great jazz guitarist who remained a friend until his death a couple of years ago. Steve Benbow who I worked with again in the 199o's in London.
and Johny Silvo who I shared a flat with for a while and remained a close friend for the rest of his life. Also Sandy Denny, Dave Cousins of the strawbs, Cliff Aungier, Royd Rivers.
There were many others and if you want any specific info let me know. Theo also ran the Folk Barge in Kingstone and again the residents were Theo's Group
Variously called The Whalers, The Barge Crew and a few others can't recall. Many of the early folk artists either started or were helped along the way by Theo including, Jackson C Frank, Paul Simon, John Martyn, Maddy Prior, Al Stewart just to name a few.

They were great days and I am happy to have some great memories of those times when Skiffle and Folk was the pop music of the day.

Regards to all old folkies,

E Van Johnson


Kingston Folk Barge. Copyright © Unknown.

Les Cousins 1967

Les Cousins Crowd,1967. 49 Greek Street. London W1. © Repphoto.
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