Article MT105 - from Musical Traditions No 7, Mid 1987

Billy Harrison

Yorkshire Wolds Fiddler


For the best part of this century Billy Harrison's music and singing have filled every available space in daily life in and around the East Yorkshire market town of Pocklington, particularly in the small villages of Nunburnholme and Millington that occupy adjacent dales in the western scarp of the Yorkshire Wolds.

Billy was born in Black Row Cottages, Nunburnholme on 15th July, 1898.  Now, at the beginning of 1986, he still plays fiddle and cello and occasionally mouth organ and, when his chest is behaving itself, still has a strong and true singing voice.

This account of his musical life, in his own words, comes from several conversations recorded in the past two-years.

Black Row Cottages - it was a row that had been tarred at some time.  They used to tar them to keep damp out.  I lived there until 1939.  I moved to Pocklington until 1942.  And then I came up here (Millington) in 1942.
Most of Billy's working life has been as a gardener, firstly at Warter Priory gardens from early teens to 1942, split by service in the first world war, then at a private house with various breaks for farm work, sometimes with his father who was a threshing machine proprietor.
But they wanted footballers at Warter Priory.  They were forming a football team and I had to leave because I wasn't a footballer.  It's true, yes.  Then in later years they asked me to go back.  They'd found out that footballers weren't gardeners.  There was no work.  you had to take anything.

I was with my father all the winters, feeding threshing machine.  For nowt.  No wages.  'Course, I was kept at home.  Mind you, I'd started dance playing, do you see.  We started after the first world war when I came out.  1919.  My brother Bob was a good violinist and he was with R D Gray's band.  R D Gray was a saddler, self-employed.  Making harness and repairing for horses.  Farm horses.  And making saddles for hunters and all that there.  I'd learnt myself to play violin before I joined army - songs and hymns and scales.  He said, "My brother Bill plays violin," and Dick Gray said, "Bring him along," and I played second violin to my brother for three or four years.

My first night of dance playing with a band was at Elvington, not far off York.  They were army huts in them days, were village dance halls.

I was reading music, playing second fiddle, do you see, to my brother Bob, playing parts.  There was foxtrots, quickstep, Lancers, old-fashioned waltz and modern waltz.  Oh, and polkas, quadrilles used to be on the go but they were dying out.  Quadrilles was similar t'Lancers - I can't explain it a lot ...  I didn't dance a lot.  Lancers did quadrilles out.  Tunes were similar to Lancers tunes.  It was a formation in partners.  Moving about.  Four together in twos.  Everybody got to know them.  Nobody tutored you or nowt.  You learnt them as you watched others.  There was a few that knew, but they weren't there official to show you.  You followed them - picked it up.  There was different tunes in different sections.  And then they used to follow off with a waltz to finish up with.

There was no evening dress at all, just ordinary.  You got dressed up and you went.  Charge would be about eighteen pence in those days to get in.  I got started, I'd ten bob for a night and wages were only about thirty-two shillings a week.

Well, my brother Bob, he joined Harry Hotham's orchestra - Pocklington orchestra, and I took lead of Dick Gray's Band.  I was capable of playing upstairs as they call it - positions - an octave higher.

We were booked at church hall at Sherburn-in-Elmet at winter four or five times in winter.  Once a month.  We used to stop at the Redby Hotel for the night and come back next morning with train.

But York, Malton, Driffield, Pocklington and villages, that was our round.  I've got home at 4 o'clock in the morning.  I've had half in hour in bed.  Half past four.  And I've been to steam my dad's traction, I've fed the machine all day, I've come home and I've gotten dressed up again and gone out!

My dad used to play for dances - and old tunes.  He could play the Highland Fling!  And that Old Time Waltz.  I haven't seen no music to it.  He used to play that.  Where he got it from I don't know.  Oh, he was a good hand in his way.

At Christmas time when my brother was at home, on Christmas Day at Nunburnholme, we used to play carols in street.  We were about the only three that used to go around.  We used to go around in a pony and trap.  Farms expected you going.  We were the only ones in the district.  Father had done it afore I started.

My dad used to be on violin.  Then there used to be a chap called Jim Brigham.  He was born at Nunburnholme.  He used to play concertina.  All Brighams and Harrisons were either singers or musicians.  All self-taught mind you.  Then t'old cronies had died.  Then we followed up.

Photo by Lyn Eldon
I got an old cello - I don't know where it came from now.  It might have been played but not that I know of.  I was the only one round about.  I don't know where it came from now, that old cello.  Oh, I had an iron bar down t'old neck and fingerboard atop of that and I'd three screws in its finger-board to hold neck together.  How that old cello kept together I don't know!  And I played it at York in R D Gray's band, that old cello.  It was Terry's Cafe Ballroom.  There was me and my brother Bob and R D Gray and I think Neville Todd had drums in them days, he started with us.  He was a tailor.  Ernie Shepperston, he was a Barmby Moor lad, he played banjolin and he'd a straw violin with a horn on and I was on cello.  I was at front.  Dick Gray would say "Skater's Waltz - and, Bill, take lead on cello."  Well, I knew it off by heart in them days.  Well, there was a gentleman stood in front.  "Well," he said, "The old instrument doesn't look much, young man," he said, "but, bye, it's first time I've heard 'Skater's Waltz' played on cello."  He says, "I'll call an interval," and he took us into an ante-room and he give us all a glass of whiskey and soda apiece!

But carols - For Unto us a Child is Born, I learnt that off my father.  I haven't seen music of that at all.  It was his carol that he used to know.  And While Shepherds, that was for our lot my dad's tune.  Not i' church nor nowt.  (Billy knows five different tunes to While Shepherds)

My father was violin and my brother violin and I was cello, and we had another friend, he came from York.  He played violin.  He used to go with us sometimes.  It made a quartet up.  We had a buggy, you know - a pony at home.  Hayton and Burnby, go all round there.  It was a well thought thing in them days - farmers waiting for you.  We didn't collect for no charities nor nothing.  If anybody give us anything it was all right.  You'd get a drink out of it.

We went up to Kilnwick Hall in Captain Whittle's time.  We weren't invited.  We used to go.  People, if nobody went, they used to grumble, "We've had no singers nor nowt."

Once we were playing at Kilnwick Hall, carols, me and my father and my brother.  We were in Butler's pantry having something to eat and drink and the butler said, "Ill go and see if they've had dinner."  And at Kilnwick Hall there were big curtains parted all the way.  So we struck up While Shepherds, father taking lead and my brother played parts and I played bass.  And he gave us two quid!  "Now then" - I said to my dad, "John Peel."  He was Master of Foxhounds, Captain Whittle.  And we started and he took his son with his sailor clothes, a school lad, and they were doing John Peel hopping gallop round the table and we got another couple of quid for it!  For playing John Peel.  I tell you, I knew what I was doing!  That's just what he wanted.  Course he'd had a fair drop.  Well, we'd had a fair drink like!

But we used to play at Nunburnholme at Christmas Day in street.  Just for joy of playing.  No gain.

Billy's repertoire:

Photo by Lyn EldonWhen we play together at Billy's house, all sorts crop up - every carol you might think of: Hark the Herald, How Beautiful upon-the Mountain, O Come all ye Faithful, Joy to the World.  Any popular tune of the first half of this century and earlier, Danny Boy, Who Will Buy my Pretty Flowers, Silver Threads Among the Gold, After the Ball and The Mistletoe Bough all get played often and Humoresque has been a party-piece at one time.  As well as his cello and fiddle, Billy has a home-made one-string fiddle and when that comes out he always plays Amazing Grace.  He built the one-string fiddle himself.
Oh, that was made fifty-five or sixty years ago.  It was a cigar box.  A niece had been to library and brought a book.  Mine was an improvement.  In this book the neck was through the bottom o' t'box inside.  Well I thought, That'll dull t'sound - neck straight through - so I improved on that.  And I've a bass bar in.  And soundpost.
Billy does not limit himself to his own choice of tunes.  Once he has an instrument in his hands he busks along with anything that is played, from ragtime favourites like Don't Bring Lulu and Yes Sir, That's my Baby that I sometimes choose, through to morris dance tunes when York Morris Men visit the village.



The parts of Bill's repertoire that are featured on the Musical Traditions cassette (see review) are his step-dance tunes, jigs, hornpipes and polkas and others that can be reckoned 'old time fiddle tunes' and his family carol tunes.

Here is a description of that side of his repertoire and the items on the cassette.

The family carolling trio carried on every Christmas 'til Billy's brother moved away to Huddersfield some time in the thirties, by which time their father was getting too old for playing.

From 1942 Billy used to go round with the Methodist carol singers from Millington.  Billy played fiddle and Mr Dykes was on the accordion.  "Oh, about twenty of us, bairns, kids as well.  It's still going on but I'm too old for that now.  Cold job, you know."

From 1919 to about 1923 Billy played euphonium and Eb bass in the Pocklington town band.  "We used to play in Pocklington streets on Christmas day.  I wouldn't call myself a big player, but I fitted in."

Dick Gray retired from playing and another piano player, Harold Flint, took over the dance band.  He moved away from Pocklington and the band broke up some time in the thirties.

Bill sang with the Pocklington and District Male Voice Choir from about 1942 to 1977 and with a vocal quartet, The New Mills Quartet, for about twenty years up to the seventies.

Around about the early '70s Billy played for a short time with a small combo visiting venues like Irish centres.

This here was later.  Why, it's only about five years since was that.  Mr Dykes on his organ.  He carried it about on a trailer, you know.  He got me to join playing Irish folk dancing.  Our own scores on music stands.  We played at York Irish Centre and at the interval he says, "Old Bill'll give us a solo on his violin." So I played Irish Eyes are Smiling, Phil the Fluter's Ball and all them Irish songs.  I browt spot down!  And then we played at Chesterfield once and then I packed up.  I was seventy-five.  Too old!
When Billy says he's too old it is always a mischievous prompt for his visitor to say, "Oh no you're not, Bill." Every time I have visited Billy we have ended up playing music.

In 1980 Bill was featured on Radio Humberside when I was presenting 'Home Made Music'.

Since then, several musicians have become occasional visitors to his home or his local pub.  Peter Halken, who first introduced us, Nigel Chippendale before his untimely death, 'Pikey' of York Morris, and myself have always been welcomed.

Always Billy wants to teach me more so that he can show me the parts - the second fiddle or the cello bass line.  When we have played in the village pub Billy has always been keen to draw the best possible music out of the musicians present.  Always he has an eye out for how it is going down with the rest of the people in the bar.  Billy loves music and loves to share it.

In 1985 Bill was the subject of my five part local radio piece 'Portrait of a Village Fiddler'.  Several of the recordings for that and for the MT tape are of us playing together.

Sadly Billy Harrison died in August 1986.  As with many older traditional musicians and singers the belated interest shown in them was a source of both pride and fascination and I trust that this article, and the cassette of Billy's playing will act as a fitting tribute to a remarkable musician.

Jim Eldon

Article MT105

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