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An image of Gas Street Basin in Birmingham, capturing the historic charm of red brick buildings lining the calm canal waters. The scene includes a bridge arching over the canal, with reflections of the buildings shimmering on the surface. People are visible strolling and conversing along the canal path, with the iconic clock tower rising in the background against a blue sky with soft clouds.
Birmingham's Gas Street Basin. Photo credit: Bas van der Horst/ Unsplash

A Folkie’s Guide to Birmingham

In the first of what we are calling our Folk Cities series, Tradfolk takes a look at the folk life of Birmingham - the history, the songs, the live scene, the sessions, and so much more.

Think you know the Birmingham folk music scene? Think it all started with Ian Campbell and Jasper Carrott? We think we’ve found otherwise. As we begin our monthly Folk Cities series, we dive into a Brummie history that winds its way back to the late 18th century.

In this article, you’ll find…

A brief guide to Birmingham’s folk history

A watercolor painting by George Warren Blackham, owned by the Birmingham Museums Trust, depicts a bustling street scene from a bygone era. The view down the street shows pedestrians in period attire, some conversing, others going about their business, and children herding cows. The architecture of the buildings, traditional signage, and a prominent church spire in the background suggest a town center in the 19th century. The painting has a soft, warm palette, conveying a lively yet serene urban day.
Victorian Digbeth, painted by George Warren Blackham. Image credit: Unsplash/ Birmingham Museums Trust

Birmingham is the original melting pot. Just look at the numbers. In 1700, the conurbation had a population of 15,032. By 1800, that had grown to 74,000, and by 1900, that had grown to 522,000 (to give you some perspective, that’s only fractionally smaller than Leeds today). That’s a 3,373% population increase over 200 years. The Industrial Revolution had a lot to answer for.

As the huddled masses tend to, they brought with them their traditions, their tales, their songs, and their skills. It was the latter that powered the explosion in industry – a broadside ballad, popular in the early 19th century, talks about the city as “the toy shop of the nation”1, such was its willingness to manufacture seemingly anything – but it was their culture that kept them buoyant amidst the grim realities of life in overcrowded slums.

The Fox, a pub on Castle Street, was home to ‘hawkers and ballad singers – sworn foes to dull sobriety and care’

Tradfolk editor and singer of Birmingham folk songs, Jon Wilks, has looked into the city’s folk history. In the sleevenotes to his album, Up the Cut, he writes, “The Fox, a pub on Castle Street (a fraction of which still exists near the new Primark), was home to ‘hawkers and ballad singers – sworn foes to dull sobriety and care’ [George Davis, 1790]. Indeed, so many of them haunted the streets of Brummagem that the authorities decided to act. In 1794, ‘beggars, ballad singers and other vagrants’ were outlawed, and license was given to apprehend any caught “strolling… within the parish’.”

By 1800, the first ballad printers set up shop in the city. The folk scholar, Roy Palmer, noted that 40 Birmingham song publishing houses came and went in the first half of the 19th century and, by his estimation, millions of ballad sheets were printed and sold. Writing and singing songs became a vast Brummie industry2 – not merely the toy shop of the nation, but the jukebox of the nation, also.

The folk revival of the 1950s and 60s drew from that wealth of folk culture. By the mid-60s, the Ian Campbell Folk Group had established one of the biggest folk clubs in England, The Jug O’Punch, hosted at Digbeth Civic Hall (at the heart of what was sometimes known as the Irish Quarter3). Drawing in crowds of over 400 people every week, Campbell and his group (which featured a young Dave Swarbrick) hosted everyone from Joni Mitchell to Jasper Carrott.

A Bell & Pump audience notice asking for quiet during performances. c. 1980s

Elsewhere, the Bell & Pump on Waterworks Road is remembered fondly (it closed in the early 90s), and the Grey Cock Folk Club popped up in Horsefair in 1967, run by an indefatigable group of folkies that included Charles Parker, Roy Palmer and Pam Bishop (Pam continues to run the Trad Arts Team in the city to this day). Indeed, it was this band of folk disciples, gathered as the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, that continued to seek out formidable source singers such as Cecilia Costello. Her repertoire has gone on to influence modern folk singers from all over the country, not least Eliza Carthy and Emily Portman.

Plenty of books on Birmingham’s folk music history have been published over the last 50 years or so. The Urban and Industrial Songs of the Black Country and Birmingham, by Jon Raven, is a thorough and hefty tome, and Roy Palmer’s Songs of the Midlands is indispensable. For absolute completists, Street Literature in Birmingham, by Trevor Jones, is an exhaustive catalogue of the Birmingham ballad printers and their songs.

For anyone interested in the industrial history and heritage of the city, we recommend paying a visit to the excellent Industrial Tour website.

Songs about the city

The ballad printing industry means that there are hundreds of songs that make reference to Birmingham, and plenty of revival singers (and beyond) have gone on to record them.

A great starting point is The Wide Midlands, released on Topic Records in 1971. This album gathers together some of the most well-known Birmingham songs, recorded by Pete Coe, Pam Bishop, the Singing Tradition, Graham and Tom Langley, and many more. You’ll also find John Kirkpatrick, Sue Harris, Jon Raven and friends banging out Brummie classics (amongst others) on The Bold Navigators (Traditional Sound Recordings, 1975).

A great example of a Birmingham folk song is ‘The Birmingham Jack of All Trades’ [Roud V1583]. Published in the early 19th century, it demonstrates the sheer amount of industry the city undertook and where you might find those that plied them. It’s almost like a guided tour in song, although many of the streets and roads no longer exist. The Mises Daily website has gone through which exist and which do not in some depth.

I’m a roving Jack of all trades,
Of every trade and all trades,
And if you want to know my name,
They call me Jack of all trades…
In Swallow Street made bellows-pipes,
In Wharf Street was a blacksmith;
In Beak Street there I did sell tripe,
In Freeman Street a locksmith.
In Cherry Street I was a quack,
In Summer Lane sold pancakes;
On then at last I got a knack
To manufacture worm cakes.

More recently, The Rotundas have recorded many of these songs on Simple Songs from Simple Men, and Jon Wilks has recorded two albums of traditional songs from in and around the city: Midlife, and Up the Cut. Both of these artists have had a go at the time-honoured folk anthem of the city, ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ [Roud V34542] – The Rotundas’ version is true to the original broadside ballads, while Wilks’ version updates the song to include memories of The Ship Ashore (a pub to the side of Moor Street Station, demolished in the late 90s) and Snobs nightclub.

Elsewhere, local band, Bonfire Radicals, have recorded a clutch of Birmingham traditionals, including the haunting ballad, ‘Mary Ashford’, and Cecilia Costello’s version of ‘I Wish’. Their multicultural style brings to bear the melting-pot influences for which the city is so well-known.

Folk music venues

Alan and Pam Bishop, Grey Cock Folk Club, 1969. Photo courtesy of Pam Bishop

Black Diamond Folk Club

Since its inception in June 1964 as “The Macdonalds Folk Song Club,” the Black Diamond has become a staple in the Birmingham folk music scene. Founded by Stan Burgess, Chris Scott-Warwick, and Ron Wheeler, joined soon after by Erick Gooding, the club has fostered a tradition of strong audience participation, particularly in chorus singing – a practice rooted in the club’s early focus on sea songs. As of its last website update in 2018, the organisers estimated that they’d hosted 1,350 guest acts and ceilidh bands, welcoming approximately 94,000 attendees. The club celebrates its 60th birthday on May 10th, 2024. A veritable institution. The Lamp Tavern, Barford Street, B5 6AH

Red Lion Folk Club

While the Jug O’Punch and the Grey Cock Folk Club are now long gone, the Red Lion Folk Club in Kings Heath has been running for over half a century (much of that in the same venue), flying the banner for the folk club tradition in the city. Wednesdays, 7:45pm. Red Lion, Vicarage Road, King’s Heath, B14 7LY.

Kitchen Garden Cafe

More a concert venue than a folk club, Kitchen Garden Cafe is a lovely folk oasis just off Kings Heath High Street. An intimate setting with a mega events list, you’ll catch everyone from folk’s young upstarts to venerable old-timers here. Martin Carthy is a regular. The owner, Brett Rehling, is one of the UK folk scene’s good guys. He also runs the Garden stage at the Moseley Folk Festival. 17 York Rd, King’s Heath, B14 7SA.

The Hare & Hounds

Another Kings Heath stalwart, the Hare & Hounds is where bands and musicians play when they’ve outgrown the Kitchen Garden Cafe – which is only three minutes’ walk away. Not predominantly known for folk music, the Hare & Hounds is a legendary venue in its own right, hosting music of all genres in a classic “pub gig” venue. Recent folk gigs here have included the aforementioned Bonfire Radicals and Sam Sweeney. 106 High St, King’s Heath, B14 7JZ.


Nortons Bar, located in the heart of Birmingham’s Irish Quarter, is a great venue for folk music boasting “fierce craic”. This independent bar and music venue boasts a spacious live area with a capacity of 500. It frequently hosts a diverse range of international acts and music festivals, making it a vibrant spot for folk music performances each weekend. Particularly popular with Irish folk artists. Recent appearances include Pádraig Rynne, Tara Breen and Jim Murray, as well as The Haar. 43-45 Meriden Street, Digbeth, B5 5LS.

Grand Union Folk Club

New in 2024, the Grand Union Folk Club meshes listening and dancing – a vibrant combination of musicians and DJs take to the stage once a month, hosted by the Midland Metro Alliance. They’ve recently welcomed Burd Ellen and Jacken Elswyth to perform at Centralia, an impressive multi-purpose industrial art space in Digbeth, where the River Rea crosses the Grand Union Canal, giving the club its name. Unit 4 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street, B5 5RT.

Sessions and Singarounds

Black Diamond Folk Club Singers’ and Musicians’ Night

Black Diamond Folk Club hosts its Singers’ and Musicians’ Night, inviting hidden folk talents to step into the spotlight. Whether you can sing, play an instrument, or spin a tale, the stage is open for you to showcase your skills. Those who prefer to appreciate the arts as spectators are equally welcome. This is a night where every participant, performer, and listener alike, can revel in the vibrant spirit of folk tradition. For up-to-date information, see the club’s website. The Lamp Tavern, Barford Street, B5 6AH

DH Folk Music and Song Sessions

Run by Dave Hackney, DH Folk Music and Songs Sessions usually run on Tuesday nights in and around Birmingham. The sessions move from pub to pub each week – you might find them in The Wellington (Bennetts Hill), The Good Intent (Great Western Arcade), The Bull (Price Street), or sometimes as far out as Solihull. Best to keep an eye on the Facebook page for more info.

Prince of Wales

Fortnightly on Tuesdays from 8:30pm, mostly focusing on Irish tunes. Prince of Wales, 118 Alcester Road, B13 8EE

Global Trad Session

The Old Moseley Arms hosts its Global Trad Session every first Sunday of the month from 6pm to 9pm. This session is free and open to musicians of all levels. The venue welcomes under 18s upstairs and offers ample parking and easy access to bus routes. Participants can enjoy a diverse selection of folk tunes from various countries, with the first hour dedicated to learning new tunes at a steady tempo. The evening progresses into a lively free-for-all, where anyone can lead with tunes, familiar or new. 53 Tindal St, Balsall Heath, B12 9QU

Grand Union Folk Club

A brand new folk night for 2024, the Grand Union Folk Club, run by the Midland Metro Alliance, meets at Centrala at the Minerva Works. The event promises a night of listening and dancing (to DJs playing folk music, amongst other things), as well as workshops. The organisers are currently aiming to run this as a quarterly event. Folk their Facebook page (linked above) for updates. Centrala, Unit 4 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley St, B5 5RT

Folk studies

While Birmingham doesn’t have an official folk course of the kind you’ll find in Newcastle, Sheffield or Leeds, the Birmingham Conservatoire is home to Joe Broughton’s Folk Ensemble, a 50-strong touring band that has acted as nursery to alumni including Jim Moray, members of Bonfire Radicals, Thorpe & Morrison and Filkins Ensemble.

The Charles Parker Archive

Charles Parker interviewing Cecilia Costello in Digbeth in the mid 1960s

Anyone keen to study the history of Birmingham’s folk traditions in greater depth can visit the Charles Parker Archive at Birmingham Library.

The Charles Parker Archive is a nationally important but little-known treasure. It encapsulates the diverse endeavors of Charles Parker, a prominent cultural activist and radio producer, through the 1950s to the 1970s, offering a panoramic view into his extensive work.

It’s a goldmine for researchers, encompassing a vast range of subject matters from the experiences of various ethnic communities – Black, Asian, Irish, Chinese, and Jewish – and their encounters with discrimination and racism, to the intimate narratives surrounding disability, including visual impairment and polio. Additionally, the archive provides an in-depth look into the realms of folk and pop music, drama, vernacular speech, and the Folk Revival movement, enriched with interviews and performances by celebrated artists, and an extensive collection of material on working life across various industries.

Within its repository, the archive contains an impressive assortment of reel-to-reel tapes, working and personal papers of Charles Parker, documenting around 5000 hours of sound recordings, scripts, production books, and correspondences, alongside a library of over 1000 books covering a broad spectrum of international culture, politics, and history, making it an indispensable resource for understanding Britain’s recent past.

For more information on Charles Parker, head to the Charles Parker Trust website.

Morris sides and traditional dance

A screenshot of the Morris Teams of the World Map, focusing on Birmingham. Click here to inspect the map itself.

Depending on where you place the Birmingham border, there are a handful of Morris sides between Perry Barr and Kings Norton, and between Bearwood and Yardley. These are…

Beorma Morris

Beorma Border Morris, a mixed border Morris side located in Birmingham, gathers for practice on Wednesday evenings at The Bear in Bearwood, Birmingham, B66 4BX. Open to both new dancers and musicians, the side offers free practice sessions and warmly invites individuals of all skill levels to join, emphasizing that no prior experience is necessary to participate. beormamorris.co.uk

Birmingham Rapper

At the heart of the city, this mixed rapper dance side makes its home at The Ruin pub in Digbeth, offering an authentic experience of sword dancing. For enthusiasts and newcomers alike, The Ruin is the place to be on Tuesday evenings at 8:45pm, where you can delve into the Brummie version of rapper sword dancing. facebook.com

Black Adder Morris

Black Adder Morris, nestled in Selly Oak, Birmingham, is a welcoming, all-ages and genders side known for its lively North West Morris dancing tradition, complete with clogs reminiscent of Lancashire’s mill workers. This group’s interpretation of the tradition adds a unique flair, especially noticeable when they perform in the community wearing clogs and rag jackets, though practice sessions invite attire of personal choice. With a band of delightful musicians and an open invitation for more, Black Adder Morris is the perfect place for anyone looking to dive into dancing, no experience necessary. However, musicians interested in joining should have a good level of competency on their instrument. Practices are held on Thursday evenings from 8 p.m. at the Selly Oak Quaker Meeting House, 930 Bristol Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham, B29. blackaddermorris.co.uk

Glorishears of Brummagem

The Glorishears of Brummagem, Birmingham’s premier women’s morris side, perform traditional Cotswold Morris dances and as Brummie Gems Molly Dancers. They grace a variety of events, including festivals and cultural venues. Welcoming new members, they also embody Brummagem Mummers, offering a unique twist on traditional Mummers Plays and organizing community Wassails. Based in Perry Barr, they practice on Sunday nights at St John the Evangelist’s Church. glorishears.wordpress.com

Jockey Morris

Since its inception in 1949 by Gwen Johnson, Jockey Morris Club has been a vibrant part of Birmingham’s cultural landscape, committed to showcasing Morris Dancing both locally and internationally. Their kit features rosettes reflecting the Sutton Rose motif and Blue Baldricks symbolizing Birmingham’s colors. A men’s side specialising in Cotswold Morris, practices are held at Highgate Baptist Church every Friday from 8:00pm to 10:30pm, followed by relaxation at the Craven Arms on Upper Gough Street. Jockey Morris Club, deeply rooted in tradition, actively encourages new members who are curious about Morris Dancing to reach out through their contacts page for more information, fostering a community with strong connections to other Morris sides. jockeymorris.org.uk

Moseley Morris

Moseley Morris, a mixed side that dances North West Morris, welcomes you to their Thursday evening sessions at 8pm at St Columba’s URC Church Hall, located at the corner of Chantry Road and Alcester Road in Birmingham. Whether to observe or dive in, they encourage newcomers to experience the vibrant tradition of North West Morris dancing firsthand. Attendance costs only £3, with a concession rate of £1.50. For further information, don’t hesitate to contact Moseley Morris. moseleymorris.wordpress.com

Birmingham wassails

Every January, Birmingham comes alive with traditional wassails, a festive ritual to awaken the orchards and ensure a bountiful harvest. In Perry Barr, revelers enjoy Molly dancing and a lively procession, while Stirchley’s festivities involve a community gathering with noise-making to ward off spirits. Castle Bromwich offers music, stories, and a torchlit parade. To dive deeper into these vibrant traditions, would-be wassailers can visit the Tradfolk Wassails Directory for details on Birmingham’s annual events.

Folk arts in Birmingham

Trad Arts Team

Run by the indefatigable Pam Bishop and Graham Langley, the Trad Arts Team runs activities in the Midlands relating to traditional song, music, storytelling and dance. Their heaving calendar of events boasts everything from storytelling workshops and sessions to a French dance and music in exotic Alvechurch. Pam and Graham do so much for Birmingham folk traditions, we believe more people should know of their work. Get involved at tradartsteam.co.uk.

Kings Heath Art Market

The Kings Heath Arts Market, presented monthly by the Trad Arts Team and the United Artists of South Birmingham, transforms the New Life Baptist Church Hall into a vibrant hub of creativity and community. On the third Saturday of every month, this event features local artists showcasing a diverse array of works from paintings to textiles. Accompanied by live folk music from the band Mad Moll, the market celebrates Kings Heath’s rich cultural tapestry, inviting all to explore, connect, and purchase unique art. New Life Baptist Church, 80 High St, King’s Heath, B14 7JZ

Local folk celebs

Katherine Priddy stands in front of a green door with verdant leaves around her. She is staring straight into the camera, wearing a white blouse with her hair hanging around her shoulders.
Katherine Priddy, Birmingham’s very own chart-bothering folk wonder

We’ve already mentioned Cecilia Costello (who deserves more recognition, if you ask us), and we’ve touched on Jasper Carrott (who started his own folk club in nearby Solihull in 1969, known as The Boggery). Dave Swarbrick was actually born in Surrey, but grew up in Birmingham where he made his name with the Ian Campbell Folk Group. Campbell himself was a Scotsman who moved to Brum as a teenager, formed his band, and went on to father three members of UB40 (Ali, Robin and Duncan).

In more recent years, Birmingham has been the home of Jim Moray, Katherine Priddy, Angeline Morrison, Ellie Gowers, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Bonfire Radicals, Filkins Drift/Ensemble, Chris Cleverly, George Boomsma, Katy Rose Bennett, Amit Dattani, Jon Wilks, Debs Newbold, Boat to Row, Aayushi and many more.

Here’s a Birmingham folk music playlist to keep your inner Brummie happy.

Local folk landmarks

The Green Man at The Custard Factory

The 40-foot high Green Man statue (created by Tawny Gray), a striking emblem of regeneration, was unveiled at Birmingham’s Custard Factory during the 2002 Summer Solstice Ritual, led by local druids. This living sculpture is not only an artistic marvel but also an ecological one, featuring a dynamic blend of fossils, a waterfall, and live flames. Designed to evolve with the seasons, its appearance changes as organic materials decompose and plants flourish over its surface. Although the ritual has waned in recent years, the Green Man continues to symbolize the area’s creative and natural renewal. Custard Factory, Gibb St, Deritend, B9 4AA

Nick Drake’s Tanworth-in-Arden

Although not exactly Birmingham, many folkie Brummies count Nick Drake, the influential English singer-songwriter, as one of their own. Drake spent his formative and final years in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, about 15 miles South of the city. This quaint, peaceful setting deeply influenced his introspective and melancholic music. Known for his gentle guitar playing and poetic lyrics, Drake’s connection to Tanworth-in-Arden is celebrated by fans who visit his gravesite in the village cemetery, as well as the gates to his house, Far Leys. You can also find an organ stop in St Mary Magdalene Church dedicated to his memory. Tanworth in Arden, Solihull, B94 5AJ

Nearest folk festivals

Moseley Folk & Arts Festival

The Moseley Folk & Arts Festival is an annual celebration held towards the end of summer in the leafy suburb of Moseley, attracting music enthusiasts with its eclectic mix of folk, world, indie music and comedy. Set in the idyllic Moseley Park, by the side of a lake, the festival features both renowned international artists and emerging talent, offering a weekend of engaging performances amidst a vibrant community atmosphere, complete with artisan (lip-smackingly good) food and craft stalls. Two main stages, the Garden Stage and a comedy tent make this one of the best festivals in the region, folk or otherwise.

The Trip to Birmingham Tradfest

The Trip to Birmingham TradFest, now in its ninth year, revitalizes the once-thriving Irish music scene in Birmingham’s Digbeth area. This festival, celebrated annually, showcases the city’s historical significance as a hotspot for traditional Irish music in Britain. Usually taking place annually in November, the event features concerts, sessions, workshops, a youth award, and a lively late-night festival club, capturing the raw energy and excitement of traditional Irish music.


The Supersonic Festival in Birmingham, renowned for its avant-garde approach, has notably embraced experimental folk music in recent years. Artists like Brìghde Chaimbeul, John Francis Flynn, One Leg One Eye, and ØXN have brought refreshing diversity with their innovative sounds, blending traditional folk elements with experimental twists, enriching the festival’s eclectic and forward-thinking lineup.

Bromsgrove Folk Festival

The Bromsgrove Folk Festival is an annual celebration held in Worcestershire, England, showcasing a vibrant mix of folk music and dance. Usually taking place in July, attendees enjoy performances from both local and national artists, workshops, and a friendly, communal atmosphere, making it a cherished event for folk enthusiasts and families alike.

Ragged Bear Festival

The Ragged Bear Festival in Nuneaton is a small but perfectly-fitting annual celebration of folk music and dance. This weekend event, usually taking place in late October, brings together musicians, dancers, and artists from across the country to showcase traditional and contemporary folk performances. The festival is named after the legendary Ragged Bear, a symbol of the town’s rich heritage, creating a unique atmosphere of community and cultural pride.

Warwick Folk Festival

Warwick Folk Festival, set under the ramparts of Warwick Castle, marks the start of summer, aligning with the beginning of the school holidays. This festival offers a community-focused atmosphere where generations gather to celebrate folk traditions. Events and performances spill over into the town, with Morris dancers roaming untethered among the streets. Parents relax on the campsite, children explore freely, and music fills the air, creating a blend of entertainment and cherished memories right in the heart of Warwick.

Is there something you think we’ve missed? Let us known in the comments below and we’ll look into adding it later.

  1. ‘Birmingham Jack of All Trades’ [Roud V1581] ↩︎
  2. Sleevenotes to ‘Up the Cut‘ by Jon Wilks ↩︎
  3. William Dargue: A History of Birmingham Places & Placenames from A to Y ↩︎