How things began . . .

The story of Oxford Folk Festival so far!

Oxford has for decades had a vibrant folk scene, and the idea of a festival was often mooted among those of us involved in the music. The catalyst was Siobhan McAndrew, a young postgraduate at Nuffield, who phoned one day to suggest that we get things moving. That was in 2002, and we met over pints at the Half Moon on St Clements Ė a key venue for folk sessions in the city.

Siobhan had tremendous flair as well as administrative ability.  She foresaw the problems we were likely to face, and had a reckless instinct not to be fazed by them. I think she wanted me to be director but I felt immediately that she was better suited to the job. Anyway, I was too busy. (I am still too busy). So I suggested that she be overall director, while I would programme the concerts.

Though Siobhanís heart was always in Irish music we both sensed that something was brewing in the English tradition and wanted to celebrate it. And we both knew we had to think big. Something calling itself the Oxford Folk Festival should not be a backstreet affair. Letís book the Town Hall! Letís put Steeleye Span on at the New Theatre!

Two mutual friends, the up-and-coming duo of John Spiers and John Boden, were strongly behind the idea. John and Jon were at the time considering creating a big band capable of filling a festival main stage. If we got the Oxford event going, would we give the Saturday night headline slot?  That big band became the multi-award-winning Bellowhead, now barnstorming venues nationwide.

It is among our boasts that in 2004, the first Oxford Folk Festival gave Bellowhead its concert debut - and a transcendent experience it was, seeing the Town Hall choked with ecstatic fans and young English folk dancers streaming in couples down the aisles. The progress of the festival has mirrored the rise of Spiers/Boden and the astonishing Bellowhead. We try to make sure that one or the other appears every year.

That first festival was a white-knuckle ride, with a tiny team run ragged by our responsibilities and the spectre of financial disaster looming throughout. But we winged it then and are winging it still. Though Siobhan left Oxford after the first year, the team has grown from strength to strength. My co-directors Sandra Evans and Fi Cooper have been both tireless in commitment, as well as endlessly creative in coming up with new ideas for the festival.

Our growing reputation for innovation in folk won us early financial support from PRSF -  invaluable in our expansion. In 2006 we had the additional bonus of an Arts Council award. That year was also important, because it was then that we established a relationship with the new developers at Oxford Castle. The site furnishes a fantastic focus for free outdoor entertainments. We had started with indoor concerts; now we would flood Oxford with music and dance throughout the festival weekend.

With each successive festival we have explored new venues and new opportunities to reach a wider public. In 2010 we received 3-year core funding from PRSF, and a real sense of security from which to plan for the years ahead. But of course, we are still winging it really Ė and tremendously reliant on the enthusiasm of our volunteer staff, as well as the goodwill of the festival-goers who have shown such faith in us.

Tim Healey