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Elusive Van Morrison headlines 50th Cambridge Folk Festival

By Claire Milhench

CAMBRIDGE (Reuters) - When Cambridge City Council decided to hold a music festival in the historic English university town back in 1964, few expected it to be going strong 50 years later.

But this year the Cambridge Folk Festival is celebrating its golden anniversary in style with headliner Van Morrison - who had to be courted for years before he agreed to attend - as well as Roseanne Cash and Sinead O'Connor.

There also will be time for folksy pursuits like rapper dancing, which is a dance using a short sword, and yarnbombing - the graffiti version of knitting.

It's this eclectic approach that keeps people coming back year after year to the festival, which runs from July 31 to Aug 3. And although it has evolved and expanded since the 1960s, it is still held at the compact Cherry Hinton Hall site just outside town.

"We have withstood the pressure to expand the festival or move it to a larger site because we appreciate the intimacy of the performance is what people really like – the site and the size of the marquees have been integral to our success," said Eddie Barcan, who has run the festival since 1993.

This year Barcan is particularly pleased to have booked the 68-year-old Morrison, who has never played the festival before, despite repeated invitations. "I've tried many times in the past," Barcan said. "You just keep chipping away."

Barcan took up the baton after the death of local firefighter Ken Woollard, who would organise the early festivals from a public phone box outside Cambridge Fire Station. In his first year he booked The Watersons, Peggy Seeger and a young Paul Simon, who was a late addition to the bill.

The festival quickly developed a reputation for offering everything from traditional British, Irish and American folk music to cajun, zydeco, klezmer, roots and blues.

In later years it has attracted more popular artists, while maintaining a good track record for spotting talent early.

Folk stalwarts Richard Thompson, plus Eliza and Martin Carthy, who are part of the Waterson clan, will also be performing. The Newcastle Kingsmen Sword Dancers will entertain the crowd with some old school rapper dancing.

To celebrate the golden anniversary, 70-year-old John Holder, who has sketched artists from the side of the stage down the years, has created a special limited edition poster.

A compilation album featuring 50 of the best live tracks recorded at the event is also planned and festival-goers have been encouraged to knit a granny square for a giant woolly banner to be assembled on site.

GOOD TRADITION

In February the festival's contribution to folk music was recognised with a BBC Radio 2 Good Tradition Award, collected by Barcan and Joan Woollard, Ken's widow, at a ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall.

"There was a lovely, warm reaction on the night," Barcan said. "I didn't expect it to be so well-received by the audience – it was a very proud moment."

Still run by the council, the festival is regarded fondly because it strives to provide the best amenities and biggest names without gouging fans.

But this could be the last year the festival appears in its current guise. The council is looking to establish a charitable trust to run it.

Reflecting on his long tenure at the helm, Barcan says some of his fondest memories date from 2002, despite heavy rain. "The year Joe Strummer played we had terrible weather, probably the worst mud I've ever seen at the site," he said.

Barcan recalls the ex-Clash vocalist creating an "amicable chaos" around him: "He spent a lot of the day hanging out with the site crew, misdirecting delivery drivers".

Rain or shine, organisers are determined this year will be one to remember, with some surprise performances planned before Morrison closes out the festival on Sunday night.

(This refiled version of the story removes extraneous word to identifying slug, not text change).

(Reporting by Claire Milhench; Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)

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