Deleted folk vinyl – Argo records

I started out with some grand idea of writing about all those thousands of folk recordings that are lying around decomposing in the vaults of record companies or lost and unlistened to on the archive racks of learned institutions.

But it somehow morphed into this ramshackle look at the British record label Argo. That’s why it’s called Folk Catalogue. But isn’t really.

It’s mostly a look at the folk records Argo issued – a sort of annotated discography that reads a bit like Bermondsey Bob’s contributions to From the Message Boards in Private Eye.

(If you find you’re into it, you can sign up for the Facebook page and you’ll be kept informed about updates and new posts)

Except that I keep getting distracted…

So, in the column on the right are

– some random bits of the label’s music to listen to (they open in a new window so you can carry on reading)

– the beginnings of a complete discography of the Argo label (a major distraction)

– a potted history of the label that I’ve started working on

– a catalogue of the folk music Argo issued decade by decade

– links to posts on the folk albums that i’ve got round to doing the track list (and, in some cases, notes) for

– and in between miscellaneous things that have cropped up, like the Bloody Decca entry…and Olga Lehmann and Arthur Wragg’s fantastic Argo album covers.

It’s still got more holes than substance. Hey, it’s not easy doing a catalogue of 30-60 year old records that only exist in charity shops and auction houses (stuck between The World of Charlie Kunz Vol 5 and Richard Clayderman Plays Abba) and on eBay.

I’ve been getting loads of help from people I bump into on the internet. So if you’ve got any Argo music or information you can pass on, I’d be very grateful.

A bit of history
Argo was a quirky one-off – a very British label that went its own sweet way from 1951…till it was so caught up in the machinations of the industry that it couldn’t go its own sweet way any more. Forget the latter-day claims of resurrection, it effectively died in 1980. At the hands of the suits at Polygram.

When the label was founded (on a shoestring), long-playing records had only been on the market in the UK for just over a year. Founder Harley Usill said the label would specialise in ‘British music played by British artists’ – and so it did – but from the earliest days Argo also explored loads of off-beat new ways of filling the whopping 23-minutes-per-side of vinyl that the new technology made available.

The complete works of Shakespeare, contemporary poets reading their own work, steam locomotives, music hall, jazz, contributions to ground-breaking, progressive English learning aids, plus outsanding recordings of choral, chamber and new classical music…They even recorded and released the birth of Usill’s first son, pre-natal heartbeats and all.

And they also released folk. All sorts of British stuff – from senior Marxist-Leninist trad scholarship to loving experiments with Kipling, to young pop folksters in ironed flairs.

And pioneering field recordings of what in those days was known as ‘ethnic’ music.

In 1953, 34 years before they started sneaking "world music" dividers into the racks in records shops, Usill was helping musicologist Deben Bhattacharya to buy a tape recorder so he could go off to India and record.

The Living Tradition series of field recording LPs that Bhattacharya went on to make for Argo were a remarkable achievement – a low-profile version of what Colombia and Alan Lomax were doing around the same time with their rather grander World Library of Folk and Primitive Music.

By 1957 Argo was making decent profits, but had cash flow problems. Decca, who had been pressing the Argo releases, made Usill an offer and in November that year Argo became a division of the Decca Record Company. Usill stayed on and was given a pretty free hand to develop the Argo division along his own lines.

By 1979, Argo had a turnover of ₤1 million, with a return on investment of 34 per cent. But then Decca got taken over by Polygram, and Polygram caught a nasty cold with the sudden death of disco. Rationalisation was the order of the day, and Argo got the chop.

"I had hoped they would let it go on, not snuff it out as they did. We were not told very much. The whole episode was a nightmare to everyone involved," Usill said.

So where is the Argo back catalogue now?
Well, in 1999 Phillips sold Polygram to Seagram and it was merged into the Universal Music Group, currently owned by the Paris-based media conglomerate Vivendi.

A couple of the albums in the Argo folk catalogue have been released on CD in Japan and some artists have reissued a handful of their own recordings (The Yetties and Dave Goulder, for example).

The Dutton Vocalion label released a couple of albums (Bonnie Dobson and The Critics Group’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly), but in June 2009 they told me they had no plans to reissue any more of the Argo folk.

Since 2007, 50 LPs from the long-deleted Argo classical catalogue have been re-released by Decca in digital form under a new Argo imprint. But there’s no sign of the folk music.


~ by folkcatalogue on April 24, 2009.

14 Responses to “Deleted folk vinyl – Argo records”

  1. Enjoyed reading this, thanks

  2. Your site is fantastic – real TREASURE, I spend lot of time to view and I really enjoyed! Big thanks!
    Pozdrav from Belgrade, graaf24

  3. Hello Folkcatalogue. Great blog. A real labour of love! I wonder if you would mind getting in touch with me via my email below or via There are a couple of Bellamy/Argo related questions I’d like to pick your brains about, if that’s ok. Cheers, Nigel

  4. Hi
    Came across your site while seaching for details of Cyril Tawney’s recordings. I’m very impressed with the work you’ve put in. I’ve got 13 Argo LPs, including several you don’t list.
    The Crtics Group – A Merry Progress To London (ZDA46 1966); Sweet Thames Flow Softly(ZDA47 1966); The Female Frolic (ZDA82 1968); Waterloo – Peterloo )ZDA86 1968)
    Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger – The Amorous Muse (ZDA84 1968); The Wanton Muse (ZDA85 1968)
    New Deal String Band – Down In The Willow (ZDA104 1969)
    Peter Bellamy – Oak, Ash and Thorn (ZFB11 1970)
    The Druids – Burnt Offering (ZFB22 1970)
    Dave Goulder and Liz Dyer – The Raven And The Crow (ZFB30 1971)
    The Songwainers – The Songwainers (ZFB31 1971)
    Martyn Wyndham-Read – Songs and music of the Redcoats (ZDA147 1971)
    Cyril Tawney – In Port (ZFB28 1972)
    Happy to scan, send in WAV format, etc.
    Dick Mathews

  5. Just a quick thank you for such a brilliant website – I’ve recently bought quite a lot of Argo folk including the Druids’ “Pastime with…” it’s a real treat to have such a good source of information. A real labour of love – thanx again.

    • Cheers for that. It’s such a shame that none of them will ever get reissued again. If you ever come across the Gaelic Folk Songs of 1951, let me know please.

  6. Hi there, Nice site.
    Anyone interested in the Critics group and their recordings, then I have copies. Perhaps I can help.
    Terry Yarnell

  7. Great to stumble across this Argo history – thanks – but it’s rather cursory in its treatment of the 22 years from 1957! As the disc list clearly shows, my late father Kevin Daly (who died tragically young in 1989) produced much of the folk output of the 1970s) and I think he deserves special mntion (though I’m biased!).

  8. HiCame across your site while seaching for details of Cyril Tawney’s recordings. I’m very impressed with the work you’ve put in. I’ve got 13 Argo LPs, including several you don’t list.The Crtics Group – A Merry Progress To London (ZDA46 1966); Sweet Thames Flow Softly(ZDA47 1966); The Female Frolic (ZDA82 1968); Waterloo – Peterloo )ZDA86 1968)Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger – The Amorous Muse (ZDA84 1968); The Wanton Muse (ZDA85 1968)New Deal String Band – Down In The Willow (ZDA104 1969)Peter Bellamy – Oak, Ash and Thorn (ZFB11 1970)The Druids – Burnt Offering (ZFB22 1970)Dave Goulder and Liz Dyer – The Raven And The Crow (ZFB30 1971)The Songwainers – The Songwainers (ZFB31 1971)Martyn Wyndham-Read – Songs and music of the Redcoats (ZDA147 1971)Cyril Tawney – In Port (ZFB28 1972)Happy to scan, send in WAV format, etc.RegardsDick Mathews

  9. Hello there

    Was wondering, do you want me to send you the track-listing for the album “The World Of The Very Young”? The tracks on there are taken off of other Argo records such as The Anthology of Poems and Songs For Children. I have it on cassette but I’m guessing that there must be a vinyl release also.

  10. Hi Folkcatalogue,

    I have spent several hours on several different occasions now skimming through your splendid blog. What a beautiful work you have done and how well it is presented! Amazing work and a fantastic resource to have! I will refrain fro going in to much detail as I have my own blog to run and just wanted to tell you that I have been posting a few Argo’s there over the last couple of days. I also did see that you were asking for a copy of the “[Argo ZFB 40] Music from the Himalayas – P.1967” that I have just ripped and will post in the coming days. There are already five or six more in line and two that have already been posted, all are from “The Living Traditions” and I have posted four or five more of Deben Bhattachariyas fieldrecordings on other labels and will continue to post some more after my Argo’s run out. If you have the time I would be delighted if you would take a stroll over and take a peek at my efforts. Name of the blog is “Anthems for the Nation of Luobaniya • 罗巴尼亚国歌”
    here is the url:

    Best greetings and thank you for a wonderful blog of wonderful record industy historical value and a great discographic resource, so rich in content and brilliant and interesting posts. The one on DB in Rumania I found especially illuminating as I am preparing some of his Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Bulgarian and Rumanian recordings for coming posts!


    • hey, cheers for your kind comments. just been over to have a look at your blog. What a treat! I will be back! I’ve made a start on putting together a discography of deben bhattacharya’s vinyl recordings, so maybe we could collaborate. In the meantime thanks for getting in touch.

      • Sure I’ll help with whatever I can. I have some DB LP’s and over the coming month or so I guess most of what I have will be posted on my blog. I just noticed that you had a reference to Paul Vernon’s article on the early history of the gramophone industry that is on my other cluster of webpages. Frightfully neglected the last couple of years I’m sorry to say, but undergoing some sort of facelift that I hopefully will get ready before summer. I guess you may have taken a peek at the discographic info there as well, If not there is some stuff (albeit a bit messy) that is still useful at:
        Looking forward to your future communication, help and cooperation!

  11. Wow! Great stuff. Will put a link in my Places To Go bit.

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