Letters - Oct to Nov 1999
I'll accept the judgement of others that Nick is trying to be constructive; unfortunately to me he seems both to be denigrating the 'tradition' of which he claims to be a part, and saying "I'll use words to mean whatever I want them to mean, regardless of what others think". And I find both those aspects of his letter distressing.
George Hawes - 2.11.99
I enjoyed reading Philip Heath Coleman's letter. But he's mistaken in supposing that my earlier remarks were intended to "stifle any comment on Nick Jones' letter". Not at all. I was simply trying to prevent the discussion turning into an intemperate and unprofitable argument about words and their definitions. But by all means, let's talk about the music itself.
I entirely agree with Philip's observation that one of the valuable things we can learn from veteran musicians is their phrasing. I would also agree with him that their way of accenting tunes often owes a lot to the discipline of playing for dancers. So, people who care about such things need to study the dance environment in which older musicians learned their craft, in order to understand their music better. Good luck to all those who do so, and then pass on the benefit of their experience to the rest of us.
But there are also many people for whom 'the tradition' is a resource to be exploited, rather than an inheritance to be conserved. And a good thing too, because sometimes this can produce exciting results. If Louis Armstrong hadn't broken away from the established New Orleans formula of his mentor, Joe 'King' Oliver, and begun developing his own distinctive style, we would never have heard those wonderful Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.
A healthy culture needs people with both approaches to 'the tradition'. It's good that we have scholars to research past performance styles, and interpreters who try to present faithful reconstructions of them. And it's also good that we have innovators who revisit old material, and reshape it in new ways. I regret that so many people who admire one activity feel obliged to condemn the other. In many cases, I suspect, they are arguing about the label on the bottle, not the taste of the brew. 'Traditional' is a label that some of us find useful, some of the time. Nick Jones wants to redefine it, in order to reflect his own interests and values. I think his suggestion is not a helpful one. But he has the right to try and convince us that it's a good idea.
After all, what does 'traditional' really mean, here and now? Examine the advertising copy for many "traditional" English food products available in your local supermarket, from Cornish pasties to Yorkshire puddings. They are regularly described as being made from "traditional" ingredients, by "traditional" methods. To drive the message home, they are often decked out with images of green fields, cosy cottages, and rosy-cheeked milkmaids. But read the small print on the packaging. Chances are you'll find a long list of emulsifiers, stabilisers, preservatives, colourings and flavour-enhancers (Oh, the monosodium glutamate of old England! ). And as to what they feed to the animals that the meat comes from - have you been reading the papers lately?
In short, the word traditional is so frequently abused and misused that it hardly seems worth fighting for. If Mr Jones wants to nick it, let him have it. The rest of us can probably manage to find another label for the kind of music we used to call by that name. And it will still sound just as good to all those who are willing to open their ears, and their minds, to it.
Mike Sutton - 1.11.99
This letter embodies my thoughts on the tradition and the revival - we are all lumbered with them, I fear - and is not meant as an attack on Nick Jones – his letter was only the catalyst. If his name keeps cropping up in my own letter it is only intended as a cross-reference to the points he himself makes.
Firstly, you have to be quite unmusical not to know why Scan Tester (for example) is "important other than as a source of tunes" – but then (sadly) musicality is hardly a prominent feature of the revival. Where else, we must wonder, does Nick go for his stress and phrasing? If not from the "old blokes", as he calls them, then, is he not, like most revivalists, just adapting sequences of notes culled from "English" tunes for use in another style of music, or, as is more common nowadays, for use with no musical style at all.
If he were to suggest to Irish musicians – who have engineered an extraordinarily successful revival of their own traditional music – that there was nothing to be learnt from traditional players, other than a few tunes, I am sure he would have them laughing into their Guinness, confirmed in their suspicions that there is no such thing as English traditional music.
Nick Jones wonders how we should regard players like Simon Richie, and I am in the happy position of being able to tell him. I spent most of the 1980s drinking my way around Essex and Suffolk in the hectic company of Simon, and he was even more extreme in his intent to sniff out "old blokes" (we called them 'old boys') than I was. This was at time when it was still possible to hear players of the calibre of Billy Bennington in the wild. Simon would also drag me off to Dartmoor to hear Bob Cann, who was probably his second greatest influence. I say second, because Simon was devoted to Jimmy Shand. I was there when Simon bought his first melodeon, and heard him learn his power from Shand the hard way. My point is that players like Simon are only the players they are, not just because they listened closely to traditional musicians, but because it never occurred to them to do otherwise.
Nick Jones seems to imagine that somewhere between Irish, Scottish, American and Venusian traditional music there is a void in which anyone can invent "English traditional music" to suit themselves. As he says, he is far from being alone.
But while I don't really subscribe to the consensus on the subject of traditional and revivalist music – in fact I regard tradition as an external perception, adopted by many revivalist players to justify themselves, and by academics for the purposes of taxonomy – it is quite plain, speaking musicologically, that there is an identifiable genre of music at the heart of what we must, for want of a better term, call 'traditional' English music. If you want to pin me down on this, it is characterised by highly repetitive one- or two-bar rhythmic phrases which cross conventional bar boundaries, and culminate by emphasising – and dwelling on - the second stress in the bar, on the 'off-beat': this is not only apparent in the playing of the "old blokes", it is also conspicuous in the notes which are left out in the many simplified versions of familiar tunes. The style derives ultimately from military marches and the application of 18th century popular music to step-dancing. And, as with any form of music, there have been a handful of players - like Scan Tester, for example – whose own genius has defined the genius of that music.
I, for one, think that it is possible for an astute modern player to celebrate (not revive) that music, much in the way that good 'traditional jazz' musicians celebrate traditional jazz.
Anyone who knows both the tunes and the playing of traditional musicians (i.e. the "old blokes") will know that so-called traditional tunes only come into their own when played by a perceptive traditional-style musician. And that will remain the case until revivalists twig how the "old blokes" play. Until then the pure revival-only style will remain what the world beyond regards it as – a pointless and lifeless substitute for music.
I must again point out that – despite appearances, perhaps - it has not been my intention to have a go at Nick Jones – he seems to be genuinely interested in playing English traditional music – but I feel that he and the many others like him were let down from the very start by the early failure of the English folk music establishment to recognise what they had on their hands. Sensitive celebration of a defunct tradition might be no substitute for the real thing, but it would have been a darn sight better than the perversities of the revival as we now know it.
Philip Heath Coleman - 23.10.99
A few thoughts prompted by the recent letter from Nick Jones.
Some people have feelings of respect and gratitude towards elderly artists who've kept the tradition alive under difficult circumstances - even if the performances delivered by these veterans are sometimes (though by no means always) technically flawed. Some people are only interested in what a performer can deliver in the here and now, and judge it solely by their own standards of excellence. Neither of these two attitudes is necessarily right or wrong - it's all a matter of taste, and that's an entirely personal thing.
In this very big world, surely there is room for people with different tastes to find a space for themselves without treading on each others toes? And aren't there better things for us to do with our all-to-short lifetimes than spend them bickering over artificial boundaries like this?
Mike Sutton - 17.10.99
Just discovered the mag online ... we've just gone on at work ... I'm still a Luddite at home. Suffice to say, great job ... my donation will be in the post a.s.a.p.
Ref the Nick Jones letter ... shurely shome mischtake here? I don't think I understood it at all. I'm proud of having played with Oscar, Bob, and many more. I'm even more proud that Tony Harvey once bought me a pint, and that I went out for fish and chips for Oscar at the Broseley ECMW.
Does this make me a traditionalist, a revivalist, or just plain confused?
Baz Parkes - 14.10.99
I've played with you in sessions and read your thoughts on music in various articles on the web site. I have been thinking recently about putting something down on paper as inevitably I don't agree with some of the current thinking on the matter of Traditional music. I'm not the only one!
It may surprise you to know that I consider myself a Traditional musician, able and willing to represent the national music of my country to anyone who will listen. You will say that I haven't learnt the tunes off a Traditional player and therefore are by implication a revivalist. I don't like to label myself as some second class performer just because I didn't play with Scan Tester/Oscar Woods/Walter Bulwer/Bob Cann et al. How are these people important other than as a source of tunes? Although many older performers were obviously very good, some equally were quite bad and hence not really worth listening to. In other words, if I went on stage and played like that I would be laughed off! Are we not guilty of concentrating on these older players because we are suffering from the Cecil Sharp disease; limiting the search to agricultural labours over the age of 70 who live in Somerset. CS was searching for a national identity at a time when English musical society was very Germanic in origin (the Austrian symphonic tradition) and thought, quite logically, that older members of the rural community would have a memory of something going back a long way and by seeking them out he would be able to get in touch with it. It's true we have a lot to thank him for (he did save the Morris) and gave us a prepackaged view of our national music and song ("songs can be music"! JK quote). However, by inventing the concept of a revival he immediately put up a barrier between those who were deemed to have it and those who by implication would never have it. These people were idolised because they learnt there music off other members of their local community and this was taken (why?) as the only way. Authenticity was somehow gained just by this process even if you couldn't sing or play very well. How about this then........
I have been able to side-step this whole thing and am no longer bound by it. Because I am English everything I do is automatically authentic and therefore traditional in your sense of the word. Let me explain....
If I hear a tune I like or find one in a book of tunes or hear it on the radio etc., I make it my own straight away, I'm not really interested in how others play it, I only want to get it to sound right to me. This is something I would do even if the aforementioned players were still around. I would definitely view them as a good source of tunes and steal good ideas off them just as I do off you! And I'm not ignoring the friendship aspect of this either, but I would fail to see how they could ever be as significant as they have become, especially as brilliant newer players are frequently not acknowledged for what they are. They too are English and are therefore fully authentic (by my reasoning). Because of the Traditional/Revivalist tag we have created second class citizens of our own country who, by your definition can never be valid as traditional players. You yourself call yourself a revivalist I would not demean myself by doing this and I think it's about time we all started to think seriously about where we are going and started to ditch the CS kind of reasoning and accept that if we are English and have taken enough interest in our country's national music to play it to a good standard then we are all in fact authentic Traditional musicians of England able to represent our music to all who will listen; it becomes authentic because we say so!
In the absence of older players we would have just learnt the tunes without too much knowledge of how it used to be done and made everything up as we went along (pretty much how we all operate anyway!) We would have got our tunes from fiddlers tune books and the like or just written new ones and it would have all been authentic English music because we were English and because that would have given us the right to stamp it as the traditional music of England. We would in fact, have been acting in the same way that the very people we now idolise would have acted.
There are so many good musicians out there, but the only albums that get made are recordings of people of doubtful ability who are recorded just because they fit this pre-conceived idea that goes all the way back to CS at the beginning of the century. Why do we waste our time on all this? Isn't it about time we looked at what other players are doing. How about Simon Richie, his accuracy and power are amazing, how about Steve Burgess (an accordion player you may not have heard) who just plays English music but doesn't play anything that you lot play! If these people were 75 years old and were found playing in a country pub they'd be at every festival in the country and beyond. See the musicianship and forget the limiting concepts.
The other part of all this is the barrier between the Town and the Country but this is a very involved argument and you need to read Raymond Williams' 'The Country and the City' (a superb if heavy going read). Do we feel removed from it because we are townies and they are generally country people. Does that make us feel that we can never be a part of it and make us use terms like 'revivalist' (a horrid word that sounds so cringing and whimpy that I would never apply it to myself - "sorry, you'll have to see him, I'm only a revivalist"!)
Only when we stop seeing everything in the country as better than town and realise that we are just as valid as everyone else will we start to gain some self respect and stop denigrating ourselves with pointless labels that prevent the proper development of our national music. It will also stop us having blinkers on when dealing with the 'old bloke in Suffolk who plays a sqeezebox' syndrome, where suddenly we seem to go all funny and nostalgic and are literally unable to evaluate if he's any good; Imagine he's 35 years old and playing in a session ran by you - has he pissed you off yet: A good test I think. The blinkers also prevent us seeing the worth of younger players who just can't cut it because they don't fit the picture. Let's just tear the picture up and get a new script, the old one is leading us up a dead-end street. Long live England!.........
Nick Jones - 12.10.99
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