John Howson: Tributes to the pillar of Suffolk folk music

19:00 16 October 2022

Tributes were paid to the famous stalwart of Suffolk folk music, John Howson.

Mr Howson, who died aged 72, was a folk musician and singer and field worker collecting songs and music from across the region and releasing them on his record label, Veteran.

His wife, Katie Howson, said John was “an entertaining company” with “a story for every occasion and a passion for food and drink as well as good music” and “a great sense of humour”.

John playing banjo and Katie playing melodeon at a festival in Essex, 2012.
– Credit: Susan Bell

Katie said her husband was well known in the pubs around Stowmarket – while many folk artists remember the encouragement given by John early in their careers.

As a teenager Mr Howson frequented folk clubs in Liverpool before taking up singing and became a resident singer and co-founder of the Liverpool Folk Club in the Miter pub.

Mr Howson was born in Liverpool, the only child of Lilian and Arthur Howson – who owned a grocery store in the Kensington area.

He attended Newsham Secondary School and began an apprenticeship as an engineer, but at age 21 suffered a badly damaged right hand in an accident at work.

John & Katie performing the veteran CD stall at the Dartmoor Folk Festival, Devon, 2011

John & Katie performing the Veterans CD stand at the Dartmoor Folk Festival, Devon, 2011.
– Credit: Alan Quick

He retrained as a teacher of crafts and design, and in 1977 met Katie Hayward at the Bothy folk club in Southport. They moved to Suffolk in 1978, later marrying in 1979.

Mr Howson worked at Stowmarket High School until 1987 – leaving to concentrate on his record label and other projects.

John collected Suffolk folksongs and founded the Veteran music label to release recordings – and wrote Songs Sung in Suffolk (1992) and Many Good Riders (1985) on local traditional singers and musicians.

Reg Reader, John Howson, Katie Howson, Jeannie Harris, Adrian Turner outside the Blaxhall ship, 1980.

left to right: Reg Reader (with dulcimer), John Howson, Katie Howson, Jeannie Harris (with melodeon), Adrian Turner outside the Blaxhall Ship, 1980.
– Credit: Katie Howson

John’s original field recordings are held by the British Library Sound Archive in their World and Traditional Music Collection. The label and website will be maintained by Katie.

He’s also helped get musicians to visit festivals, including the Sidmouth Folk Festival – while performing at community events, concerts and festivals across the UK alongside Katie.

Locally, John took part in several schemes including Old Hat Music Nights – free, informal evenings of traditional folk songs, music and step dancing – which took place in pubs in central and upper Suffolk.

Carole Pegg, Jeannie Harris, Fred Whiting, Katie Howson, Adrian Turner, John Howson, Reg Reader, Font Whatling.

From left: Carole Pegg, Jeannie Harris, Fred Whiting, Katie Howson, Adrian Turner, John Howson, Reg Reader (with his great-grandfather’s dulcimer on the table), Font Whatling in the Brundish Crown, 1981.
– Credit: EADT

A Suffolk outing at the National Folk Festival near Loughborough in the mid 1980s.

Back row, left to right: Reg Reader, Tony Harvey, John Howson (with cap), Katie Howson. Front row: Ted Chaplin, Clem Pearson, Charlie Stringer, Cyril Barber. A Suffolk outing at the National Folk Festival near Loughborough in the mid 1980s.
– Credit: Derek Schofield

Mr Howson also founded the Old Hat Concert Party, which was an informal group of multi-generational Suffolk and Norfolk singers, musicians and dancers who performed across the region and as far afield as Devon, Gateshead and the South Shore of London.

John also played banjo and guitar and with his wife Katie (melodeon and mouth organ) they were well known locally in ceilidh bands such as the Suffolk Bell & Horseshoe Band, Old Hat Band, Katie’s Quartet and the Valiant Dance Band.

They were also in demand nationally as an Old Hat Dance Band in the 1980s and 90s.

Mr. Howson has also had a lifelong passion for the iconic traditional instrument of the East Anglian region, the dulcimer.

He built a website devoted to the history of the instrument, photographing and analyzing about 100 ancient instruments while Katie worked on historical research.

John playing the banjo at Traditional Music Day 2006, held at the Museum of East Anglian Life.

John playing the banjo at Traditional Music Day 2006, held at the Museum of East Anglian Life.
– Credit: Katie Howson

In 2001 the couple founded the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, spreading knowledge of local traditions through community events and projects and educational work – including an annual traditional music day in Stowmarket.

After 16 years at the helm, they retired in 2017, during which time thousands of people attended, participated and learned to jig, play instruments, sing along to local songs.

Millions more had discovered it through TV and radio coverage, including reports on ‘Escape to the Country’ and BBC Radio 1,2,3 and 4, as well as BBC Radio Suffolk, with Lesley Dolphin and Mark Murphy among EATMT patrons.

Both Katie and John received folk music’s highest honour, the Gold Badge Award from the English Folk Dance & Song Society, in 2010.

In The Living Tradition’s obituary, writer Vic Smith said, “Few couples can have achieved as much collectively or individually with strong support from their partner as this couple.”