Colin Irwin, Britain’s premier folk writer passed away on November 3rd, Simon Jones remembers the man his work, influence and achievements.
Every Thursday with regularity I’d go to the newsagent and pick up Melody Maker. Back then – I’m not telling how far – there were mainstream music weeklies which were padded with information and news about music and the musicians that made it. Sounds, NME and Melody Maker were the big three, I chose MM because their pages carried the widest interpretation of what current music was. To emphasise its diversity Melody Maker had specialist music sections, long enduring coverage and dedicated specialists for soul, jazz and more importantly to me, folk. They had several acknowledged roots journalists, chief among them was Colin Irwin. Colin had an open mind, he salted his love of folk with enthusiasm for other genres, pop and rock especially, his article on Kate Bush’s only tour ran to several pages and included discussion of the Irish tradition and the wild, gritty Englishness of Mr. Fox; it remains one of the most accurate and compelling pieces I have ever read.
Over time I found myself mostly agreeing with his opinions and whilst not exclusively siding with every one if Mr. Irwin liked a record chances were I would too. His recommendations boosted and broadened my vinyl collection. It would be fair to say along with Karl Dallas and Patrick Humphries, Colin was a writer I trusted. The years passed and Melody Maker controversially dropped specialist coverage but Colin stayed on becoming a senior figure at the magazine before leaving to become editor of a pop title. Meanwhile his rootsy writing and sympathies transferred to the then regional publication, Southern Rag, run by Ian A .Anderson, his friend/a blues guitarist with a wide musical appreciation and a background in writing himself. At the same time Ian also took a chance on a young enthusiastic northern writer called Jones – Colin and I began at Southern Rag within an issue of each other, through new formats, name changes, highs and lows, we were both still there in the final issue when the curtain came down in 2019. To have my name along side his was an honour. And I mean that.
Colin’s writing was of course of too high a standard to be confined to the folk press and concurrently his thoughtful, careful and well informed work filled new monthly music magazines like Mojo, the papers too gave him an outlet, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Sunday Times all saw his wit and wisdom, his chief home though became The Guardian where minority music was still championed. He also branched out becoming an author through writing entertaining travelogues of journeys around Britain and particularly Ireland, if you have never read in ‘Search Of The Craic’ or ‘In Search Of Albion,’ each is thoroughly recommended, stacked with invective, information and humour. You should seek them out.
Colin was also a judge for The Mercury Music Prize such was his depth of experience and knowledge, he was also to be found as a broadcaster on Radio 2. Perhaps surprisingly he later turned his hand to drama and wrote several theatre productions, the most recent of which was ‘She Moved Through The Fair,’ a life of Margaret Barry, which ran as part of The Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. A well presented and thoroughly researched piece which he narrated, it returned Colin to what he held dear all his life, the folk music of Ireland, Barry being a legendary figure key to understanding that scene and the music of travellers. Latterly he also began contributing to on line folk music sites like Spiral Earth and Folk Radio.
Like no doubt many, the last time I met and chatted with him was at the 2019 BBC Folk Awards in Manchester where he was in fine form and greeted everyone with a cheery smile and ready banter. We covered a lot of ground in a few minutes not least of which was our regret at fRoots demise. He readily agreed to a radio interview in which we’d celebrate his long tenure at Melody Maker and discuss his musical heroes, he scribbled down his contact details on a card that I’d taken out of my wallet and when it came time to part he shook my hand firmly and bade farewell with ” good to see you Simon, stay in touch.” It is much to my regret that the wall of Covid came down and disrupted lives and the best laid plans.
I don’t believe it is too much to say that Colin influenced many and that the folk scene is a much healthier, diverse and accepting because of his obvious enthusiasm for the music and his carefully thought out and constructed writing about it. From me, thank you Colin for the articles and essays which fascinated and have pointed me in the right direction down all the days. All of Spiral Earth send their deepest condolences to his family and friends, he left us far too soon. Colin Irwin was the sort who personified the motto of fRoots ; ” from inspiration to enthusiasm.” He will be greatly missed.