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Mail: An affectionate look back by Pete O'Connor, reflecting on the life of  the founder of  Bromsgrove Folk Club & Festival

Many of us in the world of folk music throughout the West Midlands, and Worcestershire, will have different memories of Ralph Barton. Whether top artists of the day, event organisers, or punters out for a good gig, all will have a special reason to remember this man.

  He could be abrasive. He was certainly dogmatic. He was an un-moveable object once he had made up his mind about any given subject. And all of this, could be forgiven when balanced against his driving none stop enthusiasm, his own talented contribution, and the legacy that he left behind, especially in the town of Bromsgrove.  I first met Ralph in 1970 (in a pub would you believe) whereupon, once he realised I played guitar "a bit" he immediately set about introducing me to Folk Music. I led a reasonably popular dance band at the time, and had no idea what Folk Music was about! However, his forceful enthusiasm, constant nagging, and the promise of more real ale, led me to agree to doing one of the first bookings he had set up called Fairfield Folk (after the name of the village just outside Bromsgrove where he was born). I was staggered to discover how many there were in the group!

  There was his wife Yvonne, A friend from his other love of playing football, Mac Rawlins. Mac’s friend Graham Skitt. Mac’s wife Marj Rawlins. Graham’s wife Vivien. Ralph himself of course, and now ME!

And here we were, me in the dark as usual.....

The boundless energy that propelled Ralph every day was a constant source of envy for many. He was difficult to keep up with and frequently had a number of projects on the go at the same time.

  The Folk Club was started on a foggy night in 1973 at the Ewe & Lamb, Stoke Heath, Bromsgrove and to this day, has never closed. It is now at Catshill Club and this successful club which opens twice a month, still averages approximately 50 members each night, some of them, original members from all those years ago. Many of these, now play and perform in public, something they admit, would never have happened had they not known Ralph. But this is all part of that legacy, and I would like to say a bit about the man that I knew.

  Ralph was born on Friday 13th September 1947. At the age of 13, he discovered he was a diabetic, something that would be a constant enemy to his dynamic energy for the rest of his life. From about that age, (in fact, for as long back as he could remember,) he was a devout Christian. His occasional abrasive manner usually meant that someone was trying to argue against the grain of a particular conviction of his faith., or was not behaving in a way that was decent. Only since his passing, have I come to realise how right he was about many things. The depth and dedication for his love of Jesus was not immediately obvious to me and for many years I was left somewhat bewildered by his stubborn refusal to budge on certain issues such as what charity we should play for. Should we charge them? Once accepted, a booking will be done even if the Albert Hall does want us in concert on the same night! (That never happened by the way!)

  He did not make a habit of revealing his faith to anyone and so it was a slow realisation of it that began to arouse my interest and force me to look at my own conscience, a technique that I am sure he deliberately adopted with everyone in the hope that somewhere along the path of life, he would make a convert.  He once confided to me that one of his greatest regrets was that he had never brought anyone to Christ. For once, he was wrong. He was a major influence in my introduction to church life.

  Ralph led Sunday school for years at his church in Dodford and was a server for communion. His knowledge of The Bible made it evident that he read it and analysed it at some length.

As well as a Christian...

* He taught special needs children

* He renovated furniture

* He loved photography                                       

* He was a railway buff

* He played football, and squash

* He was a strict but loving father

* He was a multi-intrumentalist

* He wrote songs

* He loved rambling and other outdoor pursuits

* He loved life!

Some 15 years ago, Ralph had an idea for an album about the history of Bromsgrove and as he wrote the songs and strummed them through with his guitar, I recorded them on a 4 track machine so we would not forget how the times went when we revisited them. We never did complete the project because, as with so many aspects of Ralph’s packed lifestyle, time was not in abundance and the priority always seemed to be for something else.

When asked by his widow, Yvonne, if I could put some tracks together off previous albums and make a tribute album in aid of local charities, I suggested sorting out these old tapes, transferring them to digital equipment and adding backing tracks. After all, these were songs never heard before by anyone except myself and surely, he would have wanted them to be.  And so, the album "TRIBUTE TO RALPH" came about.

"A Tribute to Ralph" The Album

  Two songs (the first and the last tracks) were lifted off existing albums, but the rest are songs about Bromsgrove’s Fair, the nail makers, the Lickey Incline railway disaster etc. There are mistakes, laughter and recitations all revealing a side of Ralph and his music that I was privileged to witness. Anyone who knew him, met him, or were just briefly touched by a small encounter with him, would not forget him. Ralph was an enigma.

  It was HE who forced the pace and gave Bromsgrove its Folk Club, its Annual Folk Festival, started an Appalachian Step dance team (Cast Off, now led by Yvonne) , encouraged and cajoled people of all ages to have a go for themselves so that many are now, not just "audience", but performers in their own right.

  He dragged me by the scruff of the neck to a church the first Sunday of each month to play the guitar for Prayer and Praise. It was a bit like when he got me into Folk Music. Now I’m a church warden! Nuff said!

  If you would like a copy of our founder’s album, call Yvonne Barton on 01527 831577. The CD is £10.00 or you can have a cassette for £7.00 and all monies go to the Ralph Barton fund for local charities.

Thank you for your visit.  

 Cheers and God bless

Pete O’Connor

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