The Doc Rowe interview: “I’ve gone to places and missed the ceremony by 19 years because they only do it every 20 years and I’d got the date wrong”

When we met Doc Rowe earlier this year, we turned up with a list of questions and an hour set aside. We’d have been better advised to burn the notepad and clear our diary for the next month.

Boy, that man can talk. But, then, when you have so much to say, it’s hardly surprising. The wealth of knowledge and experience Doc has amassed over the best part of 60 years documenting folk culture and heritage is staggering, and his stories as varied, engaging and downright daft as the events he has so diligently attended over so many years. Make no mistake, if Doc Rowe talked the hind legs off a donkey, it would sit transfixed while he talked its front ones off as well.

And so did we. Although the interview was ostensibly arranged to discuss a new art project inspired by Doc – for which three young artists, Bryony Bainbridge, Natalie Reid and Anna FC Smith, have been commissioned to create new interpretations and responses to his folk archive – the conversation took more turns than a game of Monopoly. The tales tripped out, from becoming an honorary Boggin at the Haxey Hood to being mistaken for a Turkish troubadour at a Birmingham folk club, but so many of Doc’s reminiscences seem to come back to his beloved Padstow May Day.

Make no mistake, if Doc Rowe talked the hind legs off a donkey, it would sit transfixed while he talked its front ones off as well.

An event he has only missed once in the last 54 years, it was a trip to May Day in the early 60s that inspired Doc’s passion for calendar custom. And after that initial burst of excitement, he immersed himself in our folk heritage, attending dozens of traditional rites and rituals every year. To each event he attended he would take a camera and a recorder to film the festivities, interview participants and steadily build a colossal collection of documentary material and artefacts.

The resulting archive now includes more than 3,500 hours of open reel recordings and upwards of 4,000 cassettes. There are field recordings, oral history and material related to documentaries and broadcasts Doc has worked on. There are countless hours of video tapes depicting custom, song, dance and interviews that Doc has personally shot. There are 20,000 books and pamphlets, plus posters, broadsheets, song collections and manuscripts. There’s even space for costumes and accoutrements from the rituals themselves.

The collection is immense and unique, and of such importance it has been recognised by institutions as venerable as the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

So, fair play, it’s no surprise that the man can spin a yarn. Or possibly a whole blanket. But when the spinner is as fascinating and generous as this one, who are we not to take note? Heck, he was even helpful enough to drop in a little tip on sound recording…

Hunting the Earl of Rone, Combe Martin. Image courtesy of Doc Rowe

Thanks for talking to us – I’m just getting this mic sorted…

Bring it in a bit closer. If you’re going to transcribe this, it’s better to have close perspective – I should know!

I’m grateful for the benefit of your experience! Speaking of which, with your background, I’m sure we could sit here for a week and discuss the genre…

Trouble is, I could talk for a week as well! The national sound archive have been recording a life history of me for the past three years, and we’ve recorded 38 hours so far and we haven’t even touched on me going round recording these events. It’s quite extraordinary when you start recalling – I mean, that’s one of the exciting things about why I got interested in oral testimony and recording people – it’s fascinating that when they start talking, the things people just conjure up and create in their minds… They’re reflecting the whole time and although it’s quite exhausting it’s also quite exhilarating and meaningful. So I’ve been on the other side of the microphone for the first time.

And that’s the first time you’ve been the subject of an oral history project?

Well, Radio 4 did an archive hour on me some years ago but that was using lots of archival material, so in a sense it was me saying meaningful things to accompany the excerpts. But we ended up doing an interesting thing because the director, Julian May, said to me, ‘What do people at these events think of you when you come back year after year after year?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really know, perhaps you should ask them?’ So he got really excited and we went off to Haxey in Lincolnshire for the Haxey Hood Game.

We arranged to meet in this pub and I think in the end he quite regretted it because the beer was flowing freely and we ended up digging into our own pockets, and we didn’t even have enough money to get back to Doncaster on the bus. But we got some extraordinary things. The touchstone for me is always the people that are doing the event, or the singers, and they tell me what it’s all about. It’s the participants, really. I think I’m dedicated to demonstrating how wonderful these events are.

“There’s something absolutely staggering about seeing someone in their late 80s singing about, say, a sexual encounter, because the story is written on their face, in the twinkle in the eye” – Doc Rowe

I’ve got, in a sense, a responsibility because I have all this wonderful footage of the older singers who were in their 80s and 90s about 20 years ago and a lot of the younger performers have never seen them. They may have heard the tracks on CDs or whatever – so they’re learning – but they haven’t seen the performance, the expression on the face. There’s something absolutely staggering about seeing someone in their late 80s singing about, say, a sexual encounter, because the story is written on their face, in the twinkle in the eye. That stuff exists but, sadly, it doesn’t exist anywhere else because the media didn’t treat it seriously or respectfully. What they would do is come in and film a folk club performance and you’d have the singer on the stage and then they’d cut to, you know, a blonde girl drinking a shandy or something and they’d focus on her hair and then her legs and then they’d cut back to the performer. And then there’d be a voiceover that cuts across the singing. So it was totally disrespectful. And of course so much of it was binned, so we don’t have it.

So where did your interest in folk heritage come from, what sparked the obsession for you?

It’s only in recent years that I’ve started thinking about it, thinking about this lad down in Devon, in Torquay, where I grew up. I was born at the end of the war so my father was away fighting when I was born. But when he came out of the navy he got a job in charge of the dispatch unit of a very large furnishing company. They had an auction room sale every Wednesday and Dad had to clear these. If you can imagine, he’d had nothing throughout his life so to actually see items of furniture being thrown away because nobody wanted them upset him. So we had a constant change of furniture at home, but I also acquired something like 1,800 78s and 11 gramophones – one of which is just over there. I had the wonderful Frank Crumit singing what we now know as folk songs, trad jazz, all those things. It was a fantastic self-education in music, really. I just loved it, and sang along.

So that was where it began. I’d also been listening to ‘As I Roved Out’ on the radio in the mid-50s and I loved that. It was the kind of music associated with what I’d grown up with on my wind-up gramophone, but the fact that it was music from around England – and in some cases from Devon – was really exciting. Around that time I’d bumped into Bob Cann, the melodeon player and step dancer from Dartmoor, and this was the kind of thing we talked about. I don’t think I even identified it as folk music, it was just music and dance, you know?

And then in 1961 I left school and went to work as a sign writer at a poster company. But I was very dissatisfied with the output there and I thought I could do better so, finally, I went to art college, which really opens up your brain. You get into all sorts of things and you take risks. And that coincided with the early folk song revival, and the club scene. Cyril Tawney always said that the Devonshire folk scene really developed from Newton Abbott art college, where I was. There was somebody called Pat Keane, who was a six-foot tall left-handed guitar player, and Neil White, and the two of them shaped the face of folk music in that area – and wider, according to Cyril, which is quite nice. Not that they sang traditional songs, necessarily – Pat actually used to wear a cowboy hat and played Country and Western – but it was home-made music and I thought that was great.

In 1963, or thereabouts, I met Charles Parker the radio producer, and that year was also the first time I went to Padstow Mayday. I’ve always said I only went back the following year because I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. It was just absolutely extraordinary seeing these people getting up off their backsides and, you know, celebrating themselves. That was wonderful, that they were doing something so exciting and different. And, of course, I’ve been there every year since, bar one. So 54 years – it’s like a second home, really.

I met Charles because I was also singing, for my sins, performing predominantly West Country songs. I was in Birmingham at, I think, the Partisan Club, run by a guy called Eamonn. It was really funny because we’d had a conversation on the phone when he’d booked me to play but when I arrived he looked a bit astonished and confused and I didn’t know why. Then, when I got up on stage and he introduced me he quite irritably, he said something like, ‘He says he comes from Turkey… he says!’, and then left the stage. And he’d obviously heard ‘Torquay’ as ‘Turkey’ and thought he was hiring a Turkish musician and I didn’t look like it at all! But I remember at the end of the evening this guy came up and said he liked what I’d done and was particularly interested in the accompaniment to one of the songs I’d done that was from the Radio Ballads show. And he asked if I’d listened to the Radio Ballads and he gave me a card. And my friend Fred, who I was staying with, came rushing over asking, ‘What did he say? What did he say?’ And I told him he’d said to come to his house. At this point, I had no idea who Charles Parker was.

A corner of Doc Rowe’s archive, as seen on his Twitter account

So the next morning we went to see him and the first thing he asked was if I had any tape. I always carried a small four-inch spool in my guitar case just in case we picked up a new song – because a lot of people back then had open-reel tape decks – but he looked at it and said, ‘That’s not enough!’ So I said, ‘Well, I could tape bits?’ And I always remember Charles was horrified, and said something like, ‘Bits!? That’s like taking a corner of a Rembrandt and saying it’s a painting!’ So he dashed out and came back with two tape decks on wheels, and I noticed when he came back he was wearing an overcoat. And I thought, ‘Hang on’. And the next time he came back in he was wearing a hat, and the next time he was wearing a scarf, and I realised that he was going off to work in London. So he left Fred and I with box full of tapes, and said, ‘Just leave me some money or send them back when you’ve finished,’ and then he pulled back this curtain – about the size of a doorway – and behind it was all these tapes. I’d never seen so many tapes!

A fortnight later he was in contact and he was doing some filming with Philip Donaldon, the documentary producer, in Torquay and he came down and stayed with the family. And we became very close friends. And he developed a kind of a credo, a belief in the technology and how important it was to capture this stuff and do it in the right way – you know, get the machine in close – and I, for my sins, turned him on to photography and cassettes and we did quite a few things together. I was very interested in mixed media and presenting slides and images alongside song and text and we did a few things like that. Sadly he died in 1981 and that was… it was a great loss, actually. But for 18 years I did lots of stuff with Charles and he was a great mentor and touchstone. I could spend hours talking about shenanigans with Charles Parker because he was an awkward bugger to work with at times, but really an extraordinary person.

And a legend of the genre. Did working with Charles open other doors?

Well, of course, through that I met Ewan (MacColl) and Peggy (Seeger), and I did quite a lot of work with their LPs and their artwork and used to go down and see them regularly. In fact, I spoke to Ewan three or four days before he died. You see, the devil in me used to phone them up from time to time just to see how they were. I remember one time I did that and spoke to Peggy and she was quite touched that someone would phone just to see how they were. Normally it’s a transactional thing – can you do this, can we have that – and she said, ‘Oh that’s so sweet, Doc, nobody ever does that’.

So I used to phone them quite regularly and I usually got the housekeeper but this one day it was a man’s voice on the end. I said, ‘Ewan?’ and he said, ‘Yep.’ And I said, ‘It’s Doc,’ and he said, ‘Hello, mate!’ And I was kind of speechless, you know? ‘Mate’? It’s not a word that I’d ever really heard Ewan MacColl use. And we chatted for about 20 minutes and he said I should come down and have a bite with them, and I said I’d really like to talk to him about Soho in the 50s before the folk scene started. And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but give me a fortnight because I’m going into hospital this weekend to have the bypass redone’. I said, ‘Oh God!’ but he said, ‘No, no, it’s fine – it’s like going to the dentist. And I’ll be so much better.’ So he said it would be great after the operation, but give him 10 days, a fortnight, and he’d be recovered. And, of course, on the following Monday morning Derek Schofield phoned up to say that Ewan had died in the hospital that weekend. It was quite extraordinary. I remember putting the phone down after speaking to Ewan that time and my colleagues in the office said, ‘Are you all right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah’. And they asked, ‘Who was that?’ and I said, ‘Ewan MacColl’, and they all went, ‘Oooh!’ And I said, ‘Yeah. He called me mate!’ It was really funny.

So, yes – I’ve been around! But I never consciously set out to do this, you see. It wasn’t until about 1979 that I realised I’d got this wealth of stuff and I should do something with it.

So the ‘beginning’ of the archive spans a period from the mid-50s to the late 70s! That touches on an interesting idea: did you ever have a plan to assemble a collection or did it happen by accident?

Actually, I’ve found myself embarrassed sometimes when people talk about what I’ve done and say, “Oh, Doc is doing X, Y and Z’”and I’m thinking, “I never set out to do that”. I’ve been excited by these things and I’ve been – very accidentally at times – in a position to record things because I suppose I’ve always had some kind of recorder with me, or a camera with me. Nowadays on a mobile phone, of course, you’ve got all these facilities. If I’d had that 30 or 40 years ago it would have been fantastic. Currently the sheer bulk of stuff in the archive is one of the problems. There’s three bookcases full of open reel tapes. And then there’s nearly 7,000 cassettes. I’ve got DATs as well, which I’m desperate to get copied because the drop-outs on DATs are phenomenal, as it is on some of the mini DVs, the film stuff. It’s all the digital stuff that’s dropping out. I’m actually going through a lot of my recent digital recordings and copying them on to cassette, because we know the longevity of cassettes. I was using cassettes in the late 60s and the stuff’s fine, no problem at all. And the open reels are fine too.

The open reel tapes I’ve got are great. I mean, years ago I used to think what a shame it was that you could hear the birds singing outside the guy’s house when you’re recording him singing and then, suddenly – maybe it’s old age or something, or nostalgia – but suddenly it’s part of it and you realise that’s absolutely what it’s all about.

Capturing a moment in time?

And the reality as well. It’s not a studio recording, it’s in somebody’s front room. And, playing it back, I can actually remember, for example, the smells. One old chap, down in Devon, he was on his own, he had cataracts, his table cloth was the News of the World newspaper, which had been there for months, so it had all the evidence of food, you know, day after day, so there was a smell from that. And all the way through the recording you hear, ‘Got you, you bugger!’ because he’s swatting flies! He’s got these glazed eyes, these cataracts, and there he is, every so often, going, ‘Got you, you bugger!’ So it’s great. And we’re talking early 70s, so it’s a long time ago. But playing that, I can smell that tablecloth. Realising the horror of drinking a cup of tea with him because you didn’t know how long it had been there!

Image taken by IMHILL on Flickr

But that’s all part of the joy, really. It’s interesting because I can see all that now, I can visualise it, and in my mind I would think, ‘What a shame I don’t have film of that.’ Then again I wonder whether that would be like poking it? It’s rather like the media looking at these people without teeth and singing songs and things and they tend to do it in a way that holds these people up in tweezers and says, ‘Look at these silly buggers’. So I wonder. And I think that’s why you always endeavour to have a trusting relationship with these people, so they know you’re trustworthy and that you’re not going to do anything untoward with the material.

Would you say you’re instinctively a collector?

I don’t know, I wonder about that. I mean, I said about my father bringing all sorts of things home and I wonder if I’ve acquired that. I mean, my flat has got loads of cameras and things that I don’t use anymore, but I wouldn’t throw them out.

So you find it hard to throw things away?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s folders, there’s box files in the archive – there’s art paper and boards. I’m probably not ever going to use them but to throw them out is against my… religion, or whatever it is! And what’s exciting about this new project is that I’ve got these young artists coming round and some of them are using pencil and paint and board and I’m able to say, look, over in the corner, there’s a stash of it. And I’ve already got rid of a whole darkroom full of stuff to Bryony Bainbridge, the photographer.

Which brings us neatly on. Can you tell us more about the archive art project? How did it come about?

Stephanie West, who works for the Arts Council and is a dancer on the folk scene, approached me at the Whitby festival and said she was pretty certain she could get some Arts Council money. So I said, ‘Great’ – just as I’ve said ‘great’ to, probably, five projects in the last as many years, where people have come and promised funding and we’ve heard nothing more from them. So I was being realistic and thinking, ‘It might happen, it might not’, but within five weeks she came back and said we’d got an Arts Council grant, and three artists – Bryony Bainbridge, Natalie Reid and Anna FC Smith – to work with me as well. And so we’ve had our first meeting and that was very reassuring. And to see what they’ve written in the blog is doubly reassuring because it makes the archive sound really wonderful.

An image by Michal Orrell of a research trip to Whitby, as seen on the Doc Rowe archive blog

What kind of involvement will you have in the work? Will you oversee the artists or just leave them to their own devices?

Well, I was delighted with the first meeting. They’re all lovely lasses and their enthusiasm was incredible. They were also picking up on certain aspects and making the right kinds of statements and asking the right kinds of questions. The importance of the show is to celebrate this fantastic vernacular culture we’ve got. At the moment we’re seeing it that I’d have a section which would be retrospective with video and artwork and theirs would be another section which would be drawing from or influenced or inspired by material in the archive. But, you know, we haven’t really got a format yet because we don’t know what their artwork is going to be. I’ve met them all together, which was great, and now I’m going to see them all individually. So they’re each going to come down and we’re going to sit down and discover what they do. And the exhibition is going to be in March next year.

You must be very excited to see the results. Do you feel protective of the archive at the same time?

Yeah, I’ll be very interested. And obviously, because of our relationship already, if there were things I thought questionable, I would question it. But, again, it’s their artwork so I wouldn’t interfere with that.

You mention the enthusiasm of the artists, who are all relatively young. Do you get a sense that we’re experiencing a revival of interest in folk culture?

It rises and falls. About 10 years ago my generation was reaching retirement age and I was constantly being approached by people at events. I had a queue of people at Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance one year all thanking me for what I do – whatever it is – and saying recording this and documenting that is very important. And I’m thinking, “Let me get on with it, then!” But there has been a rise and fall. In the early 70s there was an interest, and I was actually quite conscious of not getting involved in that. I was approached quite regularly by people asking if they could publish photographs and I wasn’t interested, I didn’t want to be part of the industry. I did a film in 1984-85 with Elizabeth Wood and Channel 4 called The Future of Things Past. We covered 19 events, and we deliberately didn’t say what date they were because I thought if people were really interested they’d find out. And we approached all of the events we featured and explained that if this went out on TV there might be 150 more people turn up the next year, and asked if that would be OK, if they could accommodate that.

So it’s important to be sensitive?

When we were filming for The Future of Things Past at Padstow Mayday – and it happened at other places, too – we were going up to the manor house about 11 o’clock in the morning and someone came up and said, “Doc, when are you starting filming?” And I thought, “Brilliant, that’s how it should be. Remember this”. Because we’d been filming since about 9 o’clock that morning and no one had noticed. And that’s what should be happening, so I was really pleased with that. I wasn’t actually doing the filming but I’d told everyone where to go to get the shots. Actually, the only filming I did for the documentary was the cheese rolling – I did a high speed of the people dropping off the cliff – and a bit of Ottery St Mary, the tar barrel rolling, because it was dangerous.

That’s the one where they carry blazing tar barrels on their backs?

Yeah. That’s where all the scars on my hands come from – they’re all burns. And that’s just from filming it! There was a wonderful moment one year when the secretary of the tar barrel rolling committee said to me, “Of course, Doc, we don’t mind you running with us because we know if you got killed you wouldn’t complain!” Work that one out! That’s a great honour. I must get down there this year.

Would it be fair to say there’s a tension between the documentation of the events and the participants’ resistance to being over-exposed, to too much publicity?

It’s interesting, when I first started doing these things in the mid-late 60s, especially at Padstow, I must have been so naïve. I said to [folk musician and historian] Reg Hall one day, “I’ve got a recording of Bluey England” [a Padstow legend and maker of May Day Obby Osses]. He said, “Ooh, no, you wouldn’t have Bluey – he wouldn’t have talked to you”. And I said, “Yeah, I went and knocked on his door and recorded this thing on the doorstep”. And Bluey’s saying all this stuff about, “‘T’int Britain, ’Tis Cornwall. I told ’em at the Albert Hall – we’re not representing Britain, we’re representing Cornwall!”

But it’s interesting how attitudes change as well. It’s only in the last 10-15 years that I walk into Padstow and it feels like going home, whereas I used to have butterflies, almost like stage fright, just entering the place. And talking to Reg as well, he said the same, even after years and years of going down there – longer than me. But when I first went round it was exciting. And to the explorer in me finding these things was heartwarming and influential. But I was the only one there. That’s the weird thing. I’ve got footage of Abbotts Bromley where there’s just the farmer and his little boy on a bike with a dog and that’s it. And now you go there and there’s 150 people all having plum cake and booze provided by the farmer. So now I feel like a tourist.

And I suppose that’s the point – do you think there would have been more resistance had it not been just you in those early days?

Well, most people thought it was astonishing. I’d have travelled 200 miles to go to this thing and they’d say, “Why?” And I’d say, “Well, because I was interested to see”. Because, you see, what I haven’t said, is that I got very angry with the BBC because they were making shows telling people all this stuff had died out. And then I went to Padstow and all these things were happening. And then I started reading books about Padstow and getting angry with the writers because they’re making up this nonsense about fertility rites and pre-Christianity and all the rest of it, and there was no evidence. So I was saying, “What about the people? What about today?” Whatever happened in 1752 on the streets of Padstow, if it did happen, or what happens in 2095, it’s today that’s important.

I mean, I gave the master of ceremonies, Peter Roberts, Cobbler Roberts, as he was known – who sadly died a few years ago – copies of the video tapes. And I went round to see him one day and there on the shelf were these tapes. And I said to him, “Are they all right?” And he said, “Yeah, lovely, boy”. So I said, “But what I’m filming, is it OK? Am I intruding, am I shooting the right stuff?” And he said, “Oh, I never look at them.” And I said, “You never look at them?” And he said, “No. Padstow to me, Mayday, happens on the streets of Padstow on May 1st. So I don’t need to see it.” But it’s a fascinating place. It’s taught me everything I know about filming and forming relationships.

So do you have fun recording or is it hard work?

We’ve had great fun. And the stories are quite extraordinary as well. I mean, I’ve gone to places and missed the ceremony by 19 years, in one case, because they only do it every 20 years and I’d got the date wrong. But, because I’ve never wanted to be a celebrity or anything, I just find out about these things and I go to them and within an hour or two people are talking to you and you become friends. And that’s another thing – the social element is great. I feel if they’ve offered me that space and accommodation, sometimes I want to go back and join them next year. I always want to give back. But that’s very difficult sometimes. You know, when it’s a micro-community that are doing it you can deal with half-a dozen people, but when it’s a whole community it becomes very difficult.

But they must appreciate your approach – that it’s all about the people and the festival rather than about you or your interpretation?

Yes. Also, I’ve always been there before, and after. I mean, there are lots of people who just pop in for 10 minutes, take their pictures and go, and say they’ve been there. But they haven’t done the 21-mile hike, which is the equivalent of what the Abbots Bromley dancers do. I also do the Burryman [a tradition in South Queensferry in which a man is dressed from head to toe in burrs and paraded through the town]. I’m now the official dresser of the Burryman, because I’ve outlived the guys that did it, and it’s suddenly become traditional that Doc puts the first patch on. It’s interesting, I don’t know if it’s age or something, but a few years ago I would have been distressed to think that I was seen as somebody part of the event. But now, even at Haxey Hood, someone said to me one year, “We’ve got the 12 Boggins [ceremonial officials of the Haxey Hood game] going around, but in another century they’ll have 13 Boggins going around and one of them will be a person who’s called ‘Doc’, with a camera. He might not do anything, but he’s got to be that person wandering around. And I thought, “Wow! What an honour!”

So your presence over the years has been recognised to the point where its actually changing the ritual?

Yeah, and there have been places where a new guard have come in to continue an event and they haven’t known exactly what they’re supposed to do – they’ve no idea where they’re meant to be at 4 o’clock, let’s say, or what door they’re supposed to enter the pub by – and someone’s said, “Oh, Doc will know”, so I’ve taken them in.

You’ve become a custodian, in a way?

Well, yeah. But again, I’ve got a lot of material in my head that I wouldn’t – rather like historians and folklorists have done in the past – use to influence the events. I’m happy that the stuff’s in the archive and can be drawn on later but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for actively influencing the ritual. But what intrigued me about a lot of these events was how – sometimes subtly – they change.

Yes, to me that’s a big part of what’s so exciting about folk culture, the fact that it does change and evolve.

Yes, and it’s creative. The great thing about folk music, folk song, the folk tradition, vernacular art, is that there’s this constant change and adaptation. That’s really exciting. You can hear a song from Shetland and then pick up a version in Somerset that may have the same words but a different tune, and it’s wondrous. How has that travelled?

Again, so much of it comes down to the performers and participants.

We went to Haxey for the Radio 4 Archive Hour programme about me and we’d got in touch with the Boggins and said we wanted to talk to them about me and the Hood. And when we got there – it’s one of the extraordinary things, and it’ll probably bring me to tears – there was this one chap who I kind of recognised but I didn’t know him, and he went up to the producer, Julian, and said, “I want to talk about Doc”. And he was quite assertive about it, quite agitated. So he goes into this little cubby hole to talk and I’m watching and kind of expecting anger but I’m seeing Julian sniffing and dabbing his eyes and I thought, “God, what’s going on?” Anyway, he’d gone in and said, “The thing about Doc is that he’s concerned about real people,” you know? And he said his father had died a few years ago, and he’d had very little – he was a celery grower – he’d had very little in his life but the one thing he’d always talked abut was that he’d been interviewed at his door post by this bloke called Doc. And that was about 15 years before he died, and it was the thing that he remembered that somebody was actually interested in him. And the son said, “That’s why this bloke’s important”. And, of course, we’re great friends now. It’s things like that. It’s social. You meet these people and you want to go back and see them again. I’m very privileged.

You’re also very dedicated. What’s the future of the archive?

Well, the name ‘archive’ for the collection has been dropped on me, really. Again, I never set out with a plan. But it’s a responsibility – if you’ve got all this stuff, it doesn’t matter whether you did it or not, you’ve got to archive it properly, look after things responsibly. It is accessible, but it’s not like a lending library, and it’s not like a learning resource. I would love it to be, because the point of the archive stuff is that it’s kept properly and then you draw from it. That’s what I would dream of and it may happen some day. I hope it does. But I wake up in the night with cold sweats sometimes, just thinking about the enormity of the task. I mean, sometimes I’ll wake up and think, “Oh, I’ll go and get that book,” and then I’ll realise I haven’t got it because it’s all boxed up and I don’t have space to unpack my books. There’s 20,000 books and pamphlets and they’re all in one stack in the corner!

So would you consider putting it on public display, in the context of a museum?

Oh, yes.

Is it an ambition?

Not so much an ambition, but, I mean, it ought to be, because everything interrelates. So if a student wanted to look something up, you’ve got all the historical evidence – it might be photocopies or printed books – and then you’ve got audio recordings of the participants, and you’ve got film footage of the event, and photographs, and it’s all in one place. And it makes sense.

Somebody once said I’m a ‘serial collector’. I don’t know when that came about – probably around the time of the Hannibal Lecter movie, although I think I leave people intact – but I thought, “Yes, that’s probably what I’m doing”. I used to think that what you need to do is every second of every hour of every day, you need to document. But then you realise you don’t need to do that, you need to establish a body of material which describes and sets a model of what goes on, and then all you need to do is to document the changes. So if there’s, all of a sudden, only nine people instead of 25, you need to make sure you’ve got that documented. If the costumes change, make sure it’s documented. So I’ll always make sure I’ve got photographs outside the Golden Lion in Padstow at 11 o’clock, let’s say, and the Institute at 10, and, at the end of the day, record the farewell song and things like that, you know, because it does change. Sometimes it’s brilliant, sometimes it’s pretty ragged, sometimes it’s almost indescribable. But the energy’s there.

Image courtesy of Doc Rowe

The only thing I wish is that I’d had the technology in the past. The equipment I use now is incredible – the video recorder I’ve been using looks like a toy! It’s so unintrusive. There was an exhibition in Suffolk some years ago that had a representation of me. So there was this mannequin in the corner with headphones on and a big super VHS camera. It had a battery pack, it had a recorder, and it had another bag with spare tapes in. And I looked at it and I was horrified. And I remember I went to Padstow a few weeks later and I was saying to a friend that I’d got this exhibition and how in the corner there was this mannequin and he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah”. And I said, “But, how did you tolerate me?” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, I always thought I was inconspicuous, but that mannequin was outrageous. It was like a Christmas tree!” And he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” And I said, “Was it really like that?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” So I said again, “How did you tolerate me?” And he said, “Well, we just thought, ‘It’s Doc, he’s a bit odd'”. So I thought, “Oh, great, that’s all right, then!”

Are younger generations still interested in folk customs? Does the new technology help to engage them?

Yeah, they’re probably more interested now, because youngsters have got so much freedom and flexibility. And the fact that you’ve got social media as well is interesting in the way it attracts attention. I got a clip of the Blue Ribbon Oss at Padstow one year, I just followed the Oss through the town and filmed the whole sequence, about seven minutes, and it’s just perfect. And, I’d never done it before, but I put it on YouTube that evening and by the end of the evening we’d had 700 people watch it, which is crazy. And I thought I’d have a look the next morning to see if we’d got 1,000, because that’d be really something. We had 2,000! Then, by the end of the week – six or seven days – 27,000 people had looked at it.

That’s interesting because there is this persistent idea that these kinds of rituals and traditions are endangered. Is that just incorrect?

Well, to some extent they always have been – there’s been pressure from organisations, the Church, and all the rest of it. But it’s a human attitude: if you start to attack something, the defence mechanism comes in.

So the rituals are alive and well, but are there other people recording and documenting? Or is your collection unique?

It is unique. That’s the upsetting thing, really. I mean, people keep saying, “Oh, we think we’ve found someone to take over from you,” but they’re not really interested in the collection. They’re interested in a bit of glamour. They want an exhibition and the rest of it – they’re not really interested in what goes on behind this. It’s strange. I mean, it’s an odd thing to have done, probably, if it stops with me. Maybe in 25 years somebody will say, “Oh, that was interesting”, and then start it up again. They could come in 25 years after I’ve popped off – because I’m determined to keep going – and it’d be fascinating to see how it looks then.

Do you think we’re bad at that in this country? Do we neglect our folk heritage?

Oh, yeah. We don’t celebrate our customs and rituals. We see them as trivial and inconsequential.

Yes, we do seem to consider such things either a bit silly – I’m thinking of Morris or Maypoles – or a bit sinister in a pagan, Wicker Man kind of way.

Yep, but people want that. That’s the thing – people want these things to be pre-Christian, pagan and mysterious, or some other elemental thing. But that’s irrelevant. It’s not about that. It’s about human performance and human celebration, and the energy and people coming back together year after year. It’s fantastic.

Click on the links to find out mode about Doc Rowe, and the archive and art project. Main image, Whitby Research Trip, Michael Orrell Photography. Ottery St Mary Flaming Tar Barrels, 2009, by IMHILL

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