The Hootenanny Blues Band


The Hootenanny House Blues Band being filmed at the Hootenanny.
From left - Richard Sutton (theatre director), Alastair Duncan (guitar),
Peter Smithson (vocals) and Mike Wall (sax)

In 1977 Richard Sutton, theatre director of the Carnegie Theatre in Workington, had just had his entertainment budget cut yet again. He decided that rather than booking cheap second rate acts he would try to encourage local artists. He had read an article about Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger forming a group called the "Hootenannies" in America in the 1940's when many folk singers, poets and other artists couldn't find work.

Richard thought a similar idea might work at the Carnegie if he could get the right mix of blues and folk music, jazz and poetry. He also thought that ideally the various acts should turn up spontaneously and the events should not be pre-arranged. Neil Conroy, entertainments assistant, suggested forming a Carnegie Hootenanny Band to be the regular house band to be the backbone of the events, also providing backing for artists if required.

The original Hootenanny band lineup was as above - Neil Conroy on guitar (later moving to bass guitar) Dave Murdoch on trombone (having played with various Cumbrian brass bands), Cathy Helland (from Glasgow in Montana !) Richard Smithson on vocals and guitar plus Alastair Duncan (formerly of The Defenders) on lead guitar (absent from the photo).

The first Hootenanny was held, in what is now Monroe's Bar at the Carnegie, on the 3rd of November 1977 and fortnightly thereafter. Richard Sutton acted as chairman (as in the music halls) introducing the acts and holding competitions such as playing fairly obscure records and asking members of the audience to name the artist.

Two local artists who used to turn up were Rob Stewart and Paul McCarthy (which if said quickly sounded like superstars!)

The Hootenanny nights were usually good and very popular, but because of the spontaneity, they could be very varied in content, from four poets and a folksinger turning up, to great nights with bands like Arkitex and Eight Hertz playing.

At different times the Hootenanny was featured on Border Television and Radio Carlisle.

Border TV filming at the Hootenanny

Arkitex at the filming

Eight Hertz at the filming

The band evolved into a blues band with a basic lineup of Richard Smithson on vocals and bass guitar, Mike Wall on sax and Alastair Duncan on lead guitar with various people sitting in. One night a brass section turned up from the Whitehaven Jazz Club and a fabulous Blues Brothers type session took place.

When the Hootenannies eventually finished Richard and Alastair played some gigs as a duo (Mike having emigrated to Canada). The most memorable gig was when they were invited to play at the Keswick Convention (an internationally famous religious gathering).

They went on stage to find themselves facing a vast audience of dog-collared clergymen from all over the world. Not knowing any suitable numbers they decided to play their usual set including "The Inflatable Rubber Woman Blues" (written by Richard) with the immortal line "Inflatable rubber woman, I'll never let you down". After the show they were congratulated on their performance by the Bishop of Wolverhampton (who probably hadn't understood a word!).

In 2006 the Hootenannies were revived by Buzz Elliott (of Eight Hertz and Hammerhead fame)