John Howson – A Tribute

22 September 1949-13 June 2022

Co Founder and previous Director of EATMT (2000-2017)

John Howson – courtesy EADT

“We have lost one of the most dedicated advocates…of the tradition in these islands”.

The Living tradition magazine

The announcement of John Howson’s death in June 2022 shocked the local traditional musical community for whom John was a champion, as well as the national and international Traditional Music scene.

Born in Liverpool in 1949, John was drawn to the folk music scene as a teenager and was instrumental in forming the Liverpool Folk Club, where he booked guests, compered and regularly performed as a singer. From these early days, a love of Irish music and singing was instilled in him, which continued throughout his life.

After school John trained as an engineer, but an industrial accident curtailed that career and he retrained as a teacher in Craft and Design. He met Katie (née Hayward) in 1977 in a folk club in Southport, and a year later they moved to Suffolk – inspired by the traditional singers and musicians of the county, whom they knew about mainly through recordings at that time, particularly those made by Peter Kennedy and Keith Summers. They married in 1979, and until 1987 John taught at Stowmarket High School. In this period John started recording and collecting songs, memories and music in Mid Suffolk, which he published on cassette tapes on his own label, which was then called Vintage Tapes, and in the book “Many A Good Horseman” in 1984.

He left teaching to focus on this work, and the first releases on his new record label Veteran were a set of six “Songs Sung in Suffolk” cassettes followed by a book of the song texts. By the early 1990s, John had moved to the CD format, and produced over 50 more albums, ranging across the British Isles and encompassing archive recordings from other people as well as his own recordings, the last one in early 2022. As Derek Schofield points out in his obituary for the 2023 Folk Music Journal, “Most of these recordings would not be regarded as ‘fieldwork’ but rather as specific projects for the purposed of showcasing singers’ repertoires – singers who would otherwise not have had their own commercial recordings.” John’s original field recordings have been digitised and catalogued by the British Library and are housed in their Sound Archive.  The Veteran website contains a specific section on recordings from East Anglia, including many from John’s recordings.

One of John’s longstanding passions was for the dulcimer, as found in the eastern counties. This was ignited by long friendships with two masters of the instrument – Billy Bennington from Norfolk and Reg Reader from Suffolk, both of whom he met in the late 1970s. Although John did not often play the instrument himself, he began collecting instruments, information and photographs about the instrument, and this research eventually resulted in an entire website about the instrument and its players: East Anglian Dulcimers.

John was involved with organising the “In the Tradition” programme at Sidmouth Folk Festival for many years, was artistic programmer at Whitby Folk Week for a short while, as well as hosting the English Country Music Weekend in 1981, 1984 and 2001. It was the success of the latter weekend, held at the Museum of East Anglian Life, and John’s extensive contacts within the traditional folk music world, together with his reputation and experience in programming such events, which led to EATMT’s Traditional Music Day being established. John and Katie’s significant and varied work was recognised by the English Folk Dance & Song Society, which bestowed them both with 75th Anniversary awards (2007) and Gold Badges (2010).

In 2000, the Howsons set up the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, a registered charity with the aim of promoting and preserving the local East Anglian musical traditions by running events, workshops, projects and schools work. They retired in 2017 leaving a wonderful legacy to the region.

A Celebration of John’s Life was held in July 2022 at the John Peel Centre and the venue was packed to the rafters with family, friends and his wider musical family who joined together to raise a glass.

Below are three various to obituaries written following John’s death:

We are extremely grateful to the editor of the Folk Music Journal 2023 for allowing us to provide the full obituary as mentioned above written by Derek Schofield.

The Folk Music Journal is the annual publication of the Vaughan Williams’ Memorial Library published by the English Folk Song and Dance Society

Also written by friend Derek Schofield for The Guardian:

Written by friend Vic Smith for the final Living Tradition magazine:

Reported by the local East Anglian Daily Times newspaper

John’s musician profile is in the process of being written and will appear on the Musicians’ Profiles page in due course.