Enthusiasms No 2
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
Some three years ago, I accepted the offer to 'take the money and run' from my day job, and the following is a consideration of some of the benefits and possibly revelations resulting from activities now pursued by one interested and involved in traditional music.
I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, which was basically to 'utilise and extend my vocational skills and interests'. In a nutshell this was to expand the amount of activity previously carried out in my spare time within the community and elsewhere, in the areas of Public Speaking, Entertainment, Craft and Music Workshops, both fee paid and charitable.
In this last respect, as well as other work, I planned to continue to support free of charge except for travel as appropriate, public access groups of the elderly or disabled, but not including private rest homes. Such groups form the basis of this article.
On my first day as a free man, I saw an advert in the village shop for people who could either drive, had keyboard skills or play the piano, to call the local office of the Council of Community Service. I could do the first two but didn't really want to, can't do the third, but guessed what they might have wanted and telephoned to offer my services as a melodeon or banjo player and song leader!
As a result of the first visit, I now visit an average of one and sometimes two groups of senior citizens per week, and out of this has come several unexpected challenges including one to try and create a county wide database of entertainers willing to serve such groups as well as the wider community.
I had long known there to be, as is likely elsewhere, a great demand for such information - I am regularly asked if I know others able and willing to entertain, and in response provide lists of friends and acquaintances who can accept or decline as appropriate. Sadly, despite a fairly wide appeal through Age Concern's newspaper, my County Council's computer network and others, input has proved slow and sparse - everyone wants more names to add, but are reluctant to share those of their own existing list! However, I shall persevere and urge others to do likewise.
On a more musical note, in such environments one very quickly learns that the songs wanted are not those one might think the members will like, but what they know, recognise and enjoyed from their youth and life - typically of around 80 years or so. Many of these were of course also sung by their parents, and often include items from the accepted 'traditional' or 'folk' repertoire like The Faithful Sailor Boy, Died for Love, If I were a Blackbird and the like, but it's those of the more 'popular' or 'community' kind which predominate.
The tunes of these are relatively all well known, but the words less so - in this case suitable song books prove invaluable, and I've found those published by Ulverscroft Large Print Books to be the best, especially the blue one, with around 139 or so songs, almost all known. Ulverscroft Books are not readily found in book or music shops, but I have a small stock if anyone is interested call me on 01703 866365 for information or if you want your name added to a list.
This is all very well, but when requests for things like Old Father Thames and Auf Weidersehn are made, try playing them on a one row melodeon when you haven't done it before! It's no good saying you can't when you're there as an expert of sorts, and particularly when, as often the case, someone's dad always used to manage it!
The experience has certainly sharpened my playing, broadened my repertoire and confirmed my understanding of the tradition as it really is today. That 'specialists' often don't accept tunes and songs of 70 and considerably more years old as being part of 'the tradition', when they have been naturally assimilated by the wider populace over many years, is quite a contradiction.
Recently looking at the festival or 'folk' world and it's practitioners and habituee's choice of repertoire as one typically from 'outside', I saw a, perhaps unconsciously, contrived and select environment which the 'real people' from my world wouldn't recognise, have little understanding of, or place in. Surely if one is to believe in and recognise a 'people's' music, some major rethinking and owning up needs to be done.
Happily my workshop at Sidmouth this year with the same name as this article was well attended, appeared equally well received, and hopefully it's attendees if not already doing so, will take up the challenge (and their melodeons!) to support such needy areas of their communities.
The trade is very much two way, the company as enjoyable as the gifts of songs, tunes and reminiscence, and the satisfaction that one is part of a real living tradition great. At one day centre I meet Fred Knight, a ninety plus year old ex-bandsman who by coincidence, and to the great surprise and pleasure of colleagues, plays the melodeon. Hopefully this is recognised, and he is encouraged to play when my instrument is not there as a catalyst. Perhaps melodeons or mouthorgans would be better gifts to day centres than Hammond style organs - one I visit has two or three of these monsters rowed up and never played!
Seriously though, there are enough melodeon players out there to eat the job if they were to bite the bullet of possibly thinking some tunes 'naff' - there are more in this world than Not for Joe or Old Billy's Number Three, although one could be easily deceived!
The late Fred Todd told the story of an OAP coach trip he was on when some Morris Dancers happened on the scene. "What's in the box?" Fred asked the musician. "It's a melodeon" was a reply. "That sounds interesting" replied Fred, "What does it do?". There followed the usual erudite lecture on the first kind of accordeon, push pull bellows and different notes in and out etc. "Do you think I could have a look?" said Fred, followed by "Can I hold it?". "As long as you are careful" conceded your man, with instructions as to how the buttons and bellows worked, only to be called to the bar to pay his round.
Much to his surprise and I imagine annoyance, Fred struck up with vigour and to the delight of the company, likely a selection of tunes they wanted to hear and could sing!
That Joe Public noticeably dances with greater panache to tunes he knows rather than the obscure is also worth noting - my old colleague George Skipper who came from the 'real world' regularly injected these into selections of less well known tunes when he saw dancers flagging!
On the subject of the elderly, I have recently worked on three 'Age to Age' projects run by Traditional Arts Projects, involving Junior and Infant schools and their nearby Day and Residential Centres, as well as other elderly individuals. Here, a songwriter and I took their reminiscences into the schools where, with the children, we wrote songs to well known traditional tunes on selected topics, later sung back to and with the elders concerned and their peers - these were all most enjoyable and provided many gems, as well as building bridges of understanding across the years.
The last of these yielded two ladies - Mary Varndell, who is in a concert party, and Vera Hawkins, who played the ukulele banjo. Vera sent me a picture of 'The Live Wire Syncopators' in which her brother played the alto saxophone.
Perhaps, in their plethora of banjos, there is a message. I find there are some occasions where this device is a saving grace in the face of the seemingly impossible tune for the melodeon - it's good to have one handy, but one shouldn't give up on the buttons too easily!
Dave Williams - 8.9.97
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