John and Angela met at Oxford University in the 1960s. John discovered a passion for folk music in Oxford and he quickly introduced Angela. After their marriage in1968 they moved to Bristol, and there, they involved themselves in the local folk movement, particularly in the Folk Tradition Club, then meeting at the Old Duke. John was already developing a large, varied repertoire of British and American traditional song, interpreting them in his own style.
A collaboration with Bristol Museum and a group of friends from the club led to a recording of sea songs and shanties with the great shanty singer, Stan Hugill, entitled ‘Men and the Sea’ in 1972. John also began researching into Bristol’s musical heritage which was to result some years later in the production of a book, recording and stage show, ‘Alongside Bristol Quay’.
This was a time when the ‘electric folk’ movement was taking off and John, with his rock ‘n roll background, was keen to be part of it. He, Angela and others from the area formed the group ‘Elecampane’. Initially the band began by arranging traditional songs with electric and acoustic instruments (John played bass guitar) but soon they moved into what became known as ‘folk theatre’ with the musical setting of an East Midlands Plough play, entitled ‘The Amazing Death and Resurrection of Tommy the Ploughboy’ which incorporated Morris dance and theatrical effects. In 1975 the group also recorded an LP, ‘When God’s on the Water’, secondhand copies of which still fetch high prices on the internet. It was during the recording of this album, that John purchased his first mountain dulcimer (an electric one). This instrument was to become a passion for the rest of his life.
About this time, John became interested in researching the life and repertoire of an ex-fisherman from Todber in Dorset who was collected by the Hammond Brothers and he recorded a number of his songs on an album, ‘Joseph Elliot .of Todber’.
Always a man of varied interests, John decided in the year of the Queen's Jubilee to become a Punch and Judy man and established ‘Professor Shaw’s Jubilee Theatre’, performing at events and children’s parties across the region. He and Angela made the puppets from papier mache, and the fine booth was made by Chris Lyons, who went on the work with Aardman Animation. The show established a niche audience in the Forest of Dean!
With others in Elecampane, he co-wrote a second show, ‘The Further Adventures of Mr Punch’ which the group also released as a LP. One further show, Dr Elektron’s Travelling Fair’ followed before John left the band, in 1980.
Never a man to stand still, John quickly formed a close harmony group ‘Bare Bones’ with Katrina McMahon and Derek Taylor and began gigging with them as well as performing solo with his dulcimer.
In the mid 1980s, Tony Davis of ‘The Spinners’ contacted members the Folk Tradition Folk Club to ask them to set up a shanty group for a dock-side festival he was organising in Bristol. As a result ‘The Bristol Shantymen’ was born with John an integral member. He continued to sing with the group, who recorded two CDs, until close to his death. The group made two visits to Krakow in Poland, where they were well received, and for John this was the start of a deep love for Poland, where he and Angela has many friends.
In 1989,he joined a ceilidh band (then called “Rumpus”, now called “Jig Mad Wolf”). Initially, John played guitar, but later switched to playing bass guitar, and played with them until Covid made gigs impossible.
A man of boundless energy, he and Angela were persuaded to join a local group of friends singing seasonal songs. They became known as ‘The Hotwells Howlers’ as this was the location of the ‘Nova Scotia’ pub they rehearsed in.. As a man who had firm views on how songs should be sung, he quickly became the unacknowledged leader. Building on their previous interests, the group began to research local traditional material releasing two albums, ‘Love and Liberty’ and ‘Kiss Me Now Or Never’ as well as a Christmas recording, ‘Angels A-Shouting’. It is hoped that a fourth album, which the group was in the process of recording at the time of his death, will be released soon. The group also moved into folk drama, resulting in multi-media productions: “Cecil Sharp’s Big Night Out”, “The Pleasures of Travelling by Steam “ “Isambard’s Kingdom“ and “Stony Broke in No-Man’s Land”.
A committed Methodist, John began to take an interest in old church music and became deeply involved in what had became known as West Gallery music, a revival of the church singing of the 18th Century (app). He and Angela were founder members, of the choir and band, ‘Called to Be Saints’. and latterly, he became its musical director. He is well known regionally in this circle. Many of the extant pieces from this repertoire are incomplete, and John spent a great deal of time seeking out appropriate verses, and creating 4-part arrangements A project particularly dear to his heart was the transcribing and arranging of material from “The Dunster Psalter”, a handwritten manuscript containing 400 pieces from the repertoire of the church in Dunster, Somerset. He also researched the backgrounds of many of the composers, who were generally local musicians and choirmasters.
However, it is probably in his playing of the mountain dulcimer and use of the instrument for the accompaniment of his singing that John is best known. His wide and varied repertoire, best illustrated in his own personal recordings, ‘Hourglass’, ‘Regional Curiosity’ and ‘Says Plato’ and on more recent collaborations with the singer/ songwriter, Alan Kirkpatrick, was unique. Geoff Reeve-Black in a tribute to John wrote ‘I'm sad to report the sudden death of John Shaw, a fabulous Mountain Dulcimer player with many friends on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a mentor to so many of us in the UK when we started playing, and his superb dulcimer arrangements of such a wide range of fascinating music will constitute a major legacy for the international dulcimer community. John taught at many workshops, and played at festivals and theatres in the Appalachians. In America the dulcimer was regarded by many folk musicians as primitive, but John showed that it could be an instrument of great subtlety and beauty. He was on a personal mission up to his death to persuade players to break free from the DAD tuning which had become the default, especially in the USA.
John loved most forms of popular music, including early rock, country, blues and soul, and the Beatles. He also enjoyed classical music, though he could never take to opera. He enjoyed the challenges of recording, and produced lovely CDs of the folk group Thornbridge, and the female acapella group Boy.
After John's death it became clear that he put such energy, commitment and passion into each of his musical interests that very few people understood the wide range of them. It also became clear that he had left a legacy not only of arrangements and recordings, but of widening musical horizons for those who met him and learned from his enthusiastic and generous spirit.
Go play with the angels, John.