Behind every great festival is a great person – Glastonbury may have Michael Eavis, but Cambridge Folk Festival has Eddie Barcan. Now Manager and Artistic Director, his involvement began in 1990, since which time the festival has grown into the most famous folk festival in the world. “I started as an assistant, and I was working with the then artistic director, Ken Woollard,” he explains. “I think he wanted a secretary and he ended up with me!”
Willard, a local firefighter and political activist, founded CFF at the behest of the Cambridge County Council in 1964. For three years, he imparted almost thirty years of knowledge to Barcan, but sadly died in 1993, leaving Barcan – as the person with whom he had worked most closely – to programme the festival’s 30th anniversary.
Since then, Barcan has presided over acts as legendary as Elvis Costello and Loudon Wainwright, not to mention Joe Strummer’s last ever festival performance. However, the thing he’s most proud of is the team of people working on the festival. “The thing that always inspires me about the festival is what it means to people,” he says. “At the end of the day, it all revolves around the people involved.”
“There are certain performances that really stick in my mind as well,” he concedes, citing Nick Cave – “Half the audience loved it and half hated it!” – and “the late, great Martyn Bennett’. He chuckles as he says, “His music had got quite techno-ey, and I put him on Saturday night after Joan Baez, and the comperes gave out a bit of a safety announcement! I wasn’t quite sure how it would work but I knew it was a success when everyone in the disabled viewing section of the stage started bouncing up and down with the music – it was just amazing.”
Over the last decade, folk has hit the mainstream with a vengeance, and the boundaries governing the genre have widened dramatically. The festival has embraced these changes, prompting us to ask whether there have ever been any pistols at dawn between the old school folkies and nu folk youngsters. “We’ve never actually had folk wars at the festival!” Barcan laughs. “People make lots of jokes about the folk police, but I always try and ensure that there’s diversity and a choice, and I firmly believe that the vast majority of people don’t just listen to one form of music. You get younger artists and performers getting inspired by more traditional ones and vice versa.”
In fact, Barcan is at his most enthusiastic when discussing new artists and has an impressive track record when it comes to spotting new talent. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had many of those folk acts that have exploded, at just the right time,” he tells us. “Mumford and Sons played just as they were launching Sigh No More, and Noah and the Whale played around when ‘5 years’ time’ was a huge hit. It does become hard, once those artists have taken off, getting them back to the festival. That’s the greatest challenge.”
This year’s headliners, Bellowhead, at CFF in 2011
Ever keen to maintain this commitment to new artists, Barcan launched The Den in 2011, a stage dedicated to emerging talent and which was graced by the presence of the now ubiquitous Jake Bugg (we recently heard him in an airport in Bulgaria). Particularly exciting acts to rock The Den this year are Marika Hackman, Hudson Taylor and former Portico Quartet guitarist Nick Mulvey. Barcan assures us that “there will be names that, in a few months’ time, lots of people will be talking about,” adding, “Quite often it’s the lesser known artists that capture the mood of the festival.”
While we’re jumping with excitement at all the lovely new music on offer, there’s no getting away from the fact that there are some big hitters this year too, with The Staves, The Levellers, Bellowhead and Amadou & Mariam all appearing on the line-up.
Before signing off, we ask Eddie what’s next for Cambridge Folk Festival. He considers for a moment before replying, “Next year is the 50th anniversary – we aim to celebrate that in style!”
Watch out for extensive FFS coverage before and during the festival!
Thursday and Sunday tickets available here.