John Barrow has made an enormous contribution to the Scottish folk music scene, despite hailing from over the border, spending much of his adult life as a physics teacher and being a relatively late starter in his appreciation of the music.
Born in the mining village of Percy Main, near North Shields, on February 26, 1945, John grew up singing in the church choir. His father was a choral singer and classical music enthusiast and his mother, who had been an early member of the English Folk Dance Society, taught folk dancing in schools, something that, although John paid no attention to it at the time, may have planted a seed of interest.
In his teens, John became a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly Buddy Holly, and hankered after a guitar. His father wouldn’t let him buy one, insisting that his school work and a university place were more important, although a guitar borrowed from a friend was stashed secretly under John’s bed while he taught himself to play.
In 1964, John began studying physics at Edinburgh University. He bought a guitar on his second day in town and discovered the singing sessions that followed the University Agricultural Society meetings, learning folk songs that he subsequently played at parties and concerts. He later put his own tune to the ballad Rare Willie Drooned in Yarrow, which he sang at Kinross Folk Festival to some acclaim.
An experience more central to his career, however, came in 1965 when John became involved in the student charities appeal, helping to organise a concert at the Usher Hall in his first year and staging a concert himself the following year featuring the Furey Brothers, Paddie Bell and the Islanders.
He ran a proto Edinburgh Folk Festival at the Fringe in 1968, including concerts by Archie Fisher, Watt Nicoll and Hamish Imlach, and in 1973, with Ian Green and Kenny Thompson, he founded Edinburgh Folk Club. Being regulars at the folk sessions in Sandy Bell’s, he, Green and Thompson then started the Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet, carrying folk news and famously robust reviews of recordings and events.
From 1979 to 1985, John was director of Edinburgh Folk Festival, overseeing memorable – for all sorts of reasons – concerts and sessions by Alan Stivell, Silly Wizard, Richard Thompson, Stockton’s Wing and Ossian, a Planxty concert that coincided with a Scotland vs Ireland international at Murrayfield, a pub session series where staff couldn’t pull pints fast enough, and a late-night club so popular it ran out of Guinness.
The hugely successful Acoustic Music Centre in Chambers Street joined the Barrow portfolio during the Edinburgh Fringe in 1983, running until 1995 and introducing the Danny Kyle Open Stage concept to the folk world. After a further three years in the Reid Hall, it has been established at St Bride’s since 2005, providing a Fringe platform for musicians from Scotland and traditions worldwide.
On top of this, there have been many concert promotions under the Aegis banner and since 1982 the John Barrow agency, which became Stoneyport in 1987 and continues to serve the interests of top Scottish attractions including Dick Gaughan, Eric Bogle, Michael Marra, The Wrigley Sisters and Deaf Shepherd on the international stage.