Percy Brown, who lived in several different villages throughout his life near the Norfolk town of Aylsham, is rightly regarded as having been one of England's finest traditional melodeon 1 players. Through a series of recordings made towards the end of his life, his musical influence is still extensive today and he is very fondly remembered by a great many people throughout north Norfolk.
He was born in Felmingham in 1903, in a house next to the church. His father, Martin, died in 1914, at the age of fifty one, and, as an only child, he was very close to his mother Sarah Jane (d.1940). It was she who taught him to play the melodeon from an early age, as recalled by his daughter Janet Devo: “There were two little houses in the churchyard there, where the car park is now. He was born in one of them and the next door one was used as the local reading room, and his mum used to play the accordion in there for the men to dance to; y'know, they used to step dance. And she taught him from when he was four. He was only ten when his dad died and there was only him and his mother, and it was quite a thing, the music between them.”
As a young man Percy moved to Antingham and lived with his wife Kate in a house close to The Barge Inn. They had three daughters, Joyce, Margaret and Janet. Antingham Barge was a lively place for music, as recalled by ex landlord Ray Bird, who used to accompany Percy's playing on the bones: “Them down Cromer, the fishermen, they used to come. As I say, they used to come to that little old plantation; that's where they used to cut hazelnut out for crab pots. They'd just call up the road for Percy: “Come on, we're going down for a drink.” I can see him coming over that field.”
The Barge had two large public rooms, one of which was used for music, and flagstone floors which were ideal for step dancing. Although Percy Brown was a regular player, he was far from the only musician who would frequent the pub: “No, this one (room) they used to play darts and cards, that sort of thing. The other room would be all for the music. No bar, just a cellar. Saturdays and Sundays. Especially during the war, because we had the searchlight camp up here. That was every night then. Saturday and Sunday was the night (for regular music). Old Bill Thridgett, he come from Roughton. Well, there was old George Sandle, he was older than Percy, but he was a good old music player. Then there was Dudley, he used to have a go, Dudley Harbrer. Nearly everybody what come to the pub would have a step. Oulton used to play his accordion, and old Dan Bright. He was my uncle, he lived here. Well, he went with the pub; if we didn't see anybody else, we'd see old Dan Bright.”
“You imagine on that old brick floor. I never did know 'em put a wooden board down here. He (step dancer Dick Hewitt) 2 used to come in here… 'Nott' Gray, he used to play the accordion, Herbert Gray. 'Nott' has been here playing the accordion. I think there was five or six of them used to come, Sunday nights. They'd catch a bus at Southrepps at half past six Sunday night, so they got here at seven o'clock, just to walk down the road, and they'd got to get back up the top of the road just after nine to catch the bus home. You know what happened one night, they missed it and had to walk home. There used to be dancing out on the road there, after turning out time, (by the light of) a hurricane lamp. Percy sit on the rails. Oh yes, we had some good old dos in here. This old pub was known all over Norfolk, you see, for music, the Antingham Barge.”
As well as being part of the lively music making in Antingham Barge, Percy played in a great variety of pubs and other venues across north Norfolk. Janet Devo again: “He used to go out and he would play at weddings and dinners. People would, ages in advance, come and ask him to play for them. It was like people hiring a DJ or whatever for a function. So months in advance people would ask for him. He was never officially paid. They would put the hat round for him and he used to get fairly pie-eyed, and he would get quite a bit in the hat.”
“There were people always asking him if he could come and play at my wedding, play at this, play at that. Always he had an offer, any Saturday night he always had somewhere to go. And every Saturday night he'd moan like mad cos he'd got to go out. He couldn't bear getting ready, as we didn't have a bathroom. You had to have a tin bath in front of the fire, and us girls would be sent out and we'd say, “Why on earth is he going our for, if he really doesn't want to go?” But once he was out playing he became a very different man. People would say to us, “Oh, your dad the other night”; y'know, they'd tell us these stories about my father and like I didn't know who they were talking about.”
Percy was often accompanied by mouth organ player Billy Gowan, who also acted as driver: “Well, he used to come to see dad. Him and dad used to go to all sorts of places. If dad was going out to a pub, he'd go with dad and take his mouth organ.” He often played with bones player and local character Bill Thridgett 3 and step dancer Dick Hewitt, as remembered by Margaret Hudson, another of Percy's daughters: “Well often, Dick would come to the house sometimes, y'know, and they'd have a bit of a session. But there was another man he was very friendly with, Bill Thridgett; used to play the bones. And, I mean, the three of them used to: dad used to play the accordion, Bill used to play the bones and Dick used to dance.”
Percy regularly played in Aldborough, particularly on the occasion of the annual June fair. Now a funfair, this was once a lively stock fair and the big holiday of the year for locals; an occasion of much merriment: “Pubs all around were crammed with folk drinking and dancing to the banjo, fiddle and concertina. There were games of skittles and ninepins in the pubs and quoits outside. On the way to Aldborough, at Bessingham, a drinking tent was set up to help the traveller on his way; but sometimes a traveller found its refreshments too tempting and never reached the fair. In the entertainment enclosure there were ballad and glee singers, conjurers, step dancers in clogs and fiddlers from Norwich; there were boxing booths, men dancing on hot irons, sword swallowers and Wild West shows. As if that were not enough variety there were often free fights and a good deal of rough play.”4
In Aldborough, Percy often played in The Black Boys, in an upstairs function room, often accompanied by blind drummer Jimmy Martins. Jimmy was from Sustead and was known as 'Coconut'. He had a horse and trap before he totally lost his sight, but used to walk everywhere once he became totally blind, seemingly managing to find his way around without problems. As well as regularly playing with Percy Brown, he also formed a band with Sustead melodeon players Frank Ward and George Craske.
Although in great demand as a musician, Percy Brown never made a living out of it. For much of his working life he was a woodman, a physically demanding job felling trees without the aid of modern machinery. Jack Bullock worked with him for a while after the war, recalling that he was having a drink in Saxthorpe Castle whilst on demob leave at the end of the war, when a man walked in and asked the landlady if she knew of anyone who could help him cut a tree down. The man, Percy, asked Jack if he'd like to earn a bob or two, and they ended up going over to Lord Radcliffe's estate at Matlaske where there were actually three trees waiting to be felled, Percy's mate having failed to turn up for the job. They started on the trees the following Monday morning, Percy teaching Jack the necessary skills, and Jack ended up working with him for several months. He recalls that Percy broke his pipe one day, bought another and promptly broke that too. Angered by this, he broke the pipe to pieces with his felling axe. Later in life, Percy abandoned such a physically demanding job and became a chimney sweep, being in this profession for the last fifteen years of his life.
Percy's wife Kate worked as a railway crossing gate keeper and the decision in 1963 to change to an unmanned gate at Aldborough prompted their move to Burgh-next-Alysham that year, where Kate took up position at the crossing gate there. It was here, on the outskirts of Aylsham, that Percy began to come to wider notice than his local community. Tony Engle of Topic Records recording his playing in 1972 and six tracks were included on the influential English Country Music from East Anglia LP5 in 1973. In June 1976 he appeared on television accompanying Dick Hewitt step dancing on a local programme called Bards of the Barleycorn, and in 1979 he was filmed in Briston playing for Dick Hewitt for a video released by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.6
Percy Brown had a powerfully rhythmic style, ideally suited for accompanying dancing, and a large repertoire of country dance tunes, particularly hornpipes and polkas. He would play long medleys of such tunes, often moving very quickly from one tune to the next, sometimes not even finishing one part of a tune before moving on to the next. Much of his repertoire came from a large collection of 78 rpm records which he famously swapped for a pig. Janet Devo: “Oh yes, we had loads of 78s and he used to like Harry Lauder and things like that.” He was also a good singer, occasionally performing in public, as mentioned in the following newspaper cutting: 'Antingham Men's Club Dinner. The 1938-9 season of the Antingham Men's Club was brought to a close with a dinner in the Rectory Room on Friday … Dancing was also enjoyed, and songs were rendered by Miss Brown and Mr P Brown.'7
As well as the country dance tunes, he had a large repertoire of hymn tunes. In fact the first tune he learned from his mother was Here We Suffer Grief and Pain. Janet Devo remembers: “He was a master with hymns, but I'm not religious at all and I don't think my father was either. He was frightened of religion! When my boys were born he said, “Are you going to have them christened?” “No.” He said, “Well, you'd better.” “Why? I don't believe in it.” He said, “Just in case!” He was god-fearing, should we say. But growing up in the churchyard, and his mum was something like a church warden or something like that, and if he had his bedroom window open he would hear all the hymns without going to church; and he just loved the hymns! My mother was a Methodist and she used to play the hymns out of the old Sankey, the old Methodist book, and he would play them. And he would always play what he called my favourites - I Only Touched the Hem of his Garment.”
Ray Bird remembers that when rock 'n' roll came out, Percy's comment was: “Thass buggered it, Billy, thass buggered it!” Despite this, Percy was a versatile musician, trying his hand at all sorts of tunes he liked the sound of. Later in life, he sometimes played with his son-in-law Fred Devo accompanying him on guitar, as Janet Devo recalls: “Fred, my partner, got very interested in dad's tunes; he would try to improvise a background to dad's playing. But he would play popular music that dad liked. Dad could pick up a tune by ear, if he liked it, and then play it. And he'd play it with a slant, y'know, and he got to know a lot of popular music.”
Percy Brown died in December, 1980, leaving memories of wonderful traditional music making. In the words of his daughter Janet: “I think he was unaware of quite how good people thought he was. It was, to him, just something he'd always done.”
Chris Holderness - 29.11.07
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project
(*) These two compilation CDs contain tracks from the Topic LP.