Unknown Folk Singer (circa 1973)


The announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death last week reminded me of a tape I acquired a couple of years ago as part of an eBay job lot. A fascinating selection of 5″ reels recorded between 1968 and 1973 in and around Hull (mostly at the university), this happened to be the first one of the batch I laced up and played on the tape machine.

It’s a very well recorded and beautifully performed selection of mostly traditional folk songs by an unidentified female singer, which at first I thought must be an album by someone like Julie Felix. But on closer listening, I could detect the occasional rumble of passing traffic, plus the tape being stopped and restarted between each song – clear giveaway signs that this is some sort of demo recording, probably one microphone and judging by the natural reverb, in some kind of hall, but definitely recorded by someone who knew what they were doing.

The tape box doesn’t reveal much, listing only ‘Folk Concert/Catholic Chaplaincy’, faintly written in pencil. It’s definitely not a concert as there’s no audience in attendance, but the venue is more than likely correct, as many of the other reels are also listed as being recorded at the same place. It’s presumably Hull University’s Catholic Chaplaincy, still in use today as the university’s Catholic Society HQ.


5″ BASF reel, recorded in mono at 334 ips.

The majority of the tape’s sixteen songs are traditional folk songs, most of which had appeared on Joan Baez’s albums in the 1960s. A couple are possibly originals as there are no traces of them on the internet. The others are by the likes of Ewan MacColl, Tom Lehrer and Joni Mitchell (no doubt via Judy Collins).

The reel begins with a partial test recording then a full performance of ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, a song from Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut album, an essential addition to any self-respecting student’s record collection back in the late 60s/early 70s.

It’s a delicate and intimate take on the song, the unknown performer gently picking the strings of her nylon-strung acoustic guitar; her voice clear and precise, gracefully conveying the emotion of the lyrics.

The same singer appears on another reel as part of a revolving cast of performers, taking it turns to sing songs to an audience in support of Liverpool folk duo Jacqui and Bridie. It’s the between-song chat that on this tape that’s lead me to think both the solo and concert tapes were recorded in 1973. We’ll save that one for another time.

Test Recording (1985)/An introduction

Welcome to Inches Per Second. It being the first post proper, I thought I’d set out my stall a little bit, where I’m coming from, why I’m doing this and what to expect.

When I was a kid, going back to being 4 or 5 years old (late 1970s), my favourite ‘toys’ were an old Dansette record player and a battered reel-to-reel machine, both hand-me-downs that had been used and abused by my elder siblings and became mine by default when they’d moved on. I used to lug both around the house, and both were eventually replaced by the latest technology (my own cassette recorder and stereo record player). However, the dual obsessions of music and record buttons was firmly in place.

Right from getting my first cassette recorder for Christmas in 1978, I could usually be found making tapes of my favourite records or recording songs from the radio, finger hovering over the pause button trying to catch the music but not the DJ. Sometimes I’d sneak the tape recorder into the living or dining room, secretly recording whatever was happening through the built-in mic (and getting told off for doing so when I was rumbled, and I was always rumbled). Since then I’ve owned or used a plethora of sound recording devices (minidisc, DAT, dictaphone, HD recorders… you get the idea) and these days rarely leave the house without my Zoom recorder, but there’s always been a special allure about the open reel system.

Over the years I’ve unintentionally accumulated quite a stack of reel-to-reel tapes, starting with my own from childhood and also from college and university projects, and in more recent years (after being reunited with a working reel-to-reel machine) vintage tapes procured from a variety of sources – charity shops, eBay, Gumtree, Freecycle or given to me by friends.


I initially obtained these more recent tapes with the intention of carrying out experiments (recording, cutting up, making loops etc). And while I have done that with some, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that to the majority of them. Looking at the boxes and playing them back, I’ve discovered that many are precious time capsules; fascinating insights into the lives of the unknown previous owners – not just music taped from radio or disc, but recordings they’d made themselves of conversations with family and friends, of local concerts, lectures and meetings or just pressing record to see what happens.

It’s from this hotchpotch collection of mostly unlabelled tapes that the audio material for Inches Per Second is sourced. Call it an ‘archive’, if you will. Which therefore makes me The Curator. I’m hoping you’ll find these recordings as fascinating as I do, and maybe you can even help shed more light on those snippets which lack detailed information.

So to our first featured tape. And to show willing, it features me, aged 11.


6″ Philips reel with various brands spliced together. No box. Recorded at 334 ips.

Back in the spring of 1985 (probably around Easter), my folks became aware of a new phenomenon sweeping the land – car boot sales. The nearest one turned out to be just a mile or so down the road in Killamarsh. So one soggy Sunday morning I tagged along with my parents and older brother to see what it was all about. I returned home very pleased with the armfuls of records I’d found for a few pence each, but didn’t have enough money to buy an old red BSR reel-to-reel machine that someone was selling (complete with a couple of tapes), so my brother very kindly bought it for me. I think it was around £3. A fiver at the most.


What we hear on the tape is what happened when we got the machine home. We set it up in the living room, plugged it in, threaded up one of the tapes that came with it and put it into record, wiping what was already on there.

Who we hear is me, aged 11, with cameo appearances from said brother  (the voice heard berating me), my dad, some snuffling from Sally the Jack Russel terrier and very faintly from the kitchen, my mum. I was using a cheap microphone that I’d got for Christmas the year before, and from listening to the tape I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t going to let anyone else use it. It sounds like I put the mic right in my mouth at one point! I break into song several times including a few lines from Space Oddity (anyone who knows me won’t be surprised by that) and a rewording of the jingle from an Alton Towers TV ad, to tell the story of how my sister lost her watch during a trip there.

It’s also worth pointing out that even though the BSR only had one speed – 334 ips – it must have been running slightly slow as playback on a machine playing at the correct speed renders the voices at a rather high pitch. Take a listen.

The rest of the reel (i.e. what was originally on it) is a selection of 1960s hits recorded from the radio, the tape having been cut and spliced back together between each song. There’s a couple of minutes of Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, the first time I’d ever encountered the song. Even from that snippet I could tell it was a special thing, which was confirmed a few months later when I picked up the original 7″ at the indoor market in Haverfordwest whilst on our annual family holiday in Pembrokeshire.

The tape machine itself didn’t work too well and didn’t get much use until a couple of years later when, armed with my first electric guitar, I found it made a great amp, cranking up the record level to full to achieve a creamy valve-driven distortion, pushing the built-in speaker to its limit (and beyond). When I finally got a proper guitar amp I lent the BSR to my schoolfriend Shaun for him to use with his guitar. He then lent it to some other kid from school. And that was the last I ever saw of it.

Tape transferred using an Akai 4000DS MkII.

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