Barn Dance 23: Jim Swan reflects on being 'Voice of the Barn Dance'
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Barn Dance Campout and Jamboree in Blyth simply wouldn’t be what it is without “The Voice of the Barn Dance” Jim Swan, who has emceed all but one of the events over its 25-year history in the village.
When the event began in Blyth, Eric Coates, the former artistic director of the Blyth Festival who had acted in Barndance Live!, which set the table for the return of the Barn Dance, took the reins for the first event and then Swan was handed the microphone and he’s never looked back.
At the second Barn Dance in Blyth, emcee Johnny Brent made an appearance and officially turned the microphone over to Swan and he has been doing it ever since.
Swan had been working in the radio industry in Woodstock, near his home town, and was familiar with the classic country music that has been so celebrated by the Barn Dance program over the years. Then, for a large reunion show, Brent served as the emcee, but asked Swan to be the announcer, which served as his introduction to the world of a live broadcast, which he says was exhilarating. He still gets that feeling of excitement every time he counts a Barn Dance event in, replicating the famous starting point for the television program that ran through the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
He would work with CKNX throughout his career and eventually find his way to becoming involved with the Barn Dance Historical Society, based in Wingham, which helped lead to his time at the event’s emcee.
Thanks to the success of Barndance Live!, the Campout in Blyth soon became an annual event and a point on the calendar for fans of classic country music.
Swan has been part of many memorable Barn Dance shows over the years, he said in an interview with The Citizen, many of which involved original cast and band members from the production of the show. The Heywoods, the Otterbeins, Al Cherny, George Hamilton IV and more always gave him a thrill when he was able to share the stage with them.
In recent years, however, being on stage to award Tommy Hunter with a Pioneer Award alongside Ruth Baxter is a memory that is fresh in Swan’s mind.
Hunter was in his 80s at the time and said he hadn’t sung since his final concert, which was held in London on his 75th birthday. However, he temporarily came out of retirement that night, asking the band to give him a “G”, to sing “Happy Birthday” to Swan, who was celebrating his own 75th birthday that night. That moment, Swan said, was pretty special.
Looking back at years of the show in Blyth, which hold a special place in his heart and in the heart of the Barn Dance, Swan says the word that comes to mind for him is “connection” between the performers and the audience, all of whom felt like one big, happy family together.
Being part of a family for so long, however, means there are inevitable losses, and Swan says that he expects to look out into the crowd later this month and see - in his mind - empty seats, vacated by family members of the Barn Dance who have passed away over the years. That’s all part of the connection of the event, he said.
That friendship and the feeling of family that comes with the Barn Dance, he said, is different from other venues and festivals that have less of a connection between the performers and the audience members. That difference, he says, is what has set the Barn Dance apart.