Letters - Aug to Oct 2000
I was of course thinking of the tanpoora, or tambura, the four stringed lute, which is used to provide a harmonic drone in Indian classical music. In fact, tambura is a common name for the lute over much of the Balkans, and it also crops up in Turkey. Indeed, according to the New Oxford History of Music, the Iranians use the names pandore and tanbúr, both of which appear to be cognate with the Makranian damburag. There is therefore, no reason to assume an Indian derivation for this instrument, and every reason to believe that the Baluchistani brought it with them when they originally emigrated from northern Iran.
There is also a crying need for an affordable atlas of the world's musical instruments. Does anybody know where I can get one?
Fred McCormick - 31.10.00
Your review of the CD reissue of Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett's English Country Music prompted some thoughts and brought back many pleasant memories. I must first, however, crave the indulgence of your readers.
Reg really is almost a generation on, from me at least (1933 and 1949, respectively), and he is only eight years younger than my father. Their early experiences were completely different to mine. No wartime horrors to live through, no post-war privation, no National Service, access to television (some might call that a negative thing, but not me). Conversely, I also grew up within a relatively close-knit community - albeit a council estate (which, a few months earlier than when we moved in, in 1955, had been a farm) - which retained some of the old systems of mutual help and social bonds, though apparently none of the music making.
My mother's father, who had been in the Navy, could play the piano accordion and mandolin, and dance the sailor's hornpipe. His mandolin playing may have originated from the same impulse as that of Walter Bulwer's, but I was too young and narrow-minded to appreciate it at the time. By the time I was interested, he was dead.
When the English Country Music album first appeared in 1965 I was still knee-deep in popular music, though I'd practically passed on from the then-current dominant pop music and was in a pre-1950 Hollywood/Broadway/Tin Pan Alley Heaven. That was also the year I left school and started an apprenticeship. Over the next few years I began to discover some of the delights of traditional, or at least tradition-based, music, as I attended the London College of Printing at the Elephant and Castle one day a week and discovered a local library with a fair selection of things like Woody Guthrie and the Dubliners. I somehow managed to wangle a reader's ticket (or, more accurately, a listener's ticket) and it was a start. Certainly Reading Library had nothing comparable! The London branch also had a few albums of older American material, such as the excellent Smoky Mountain Ballads (RCA Victor LPV-507, issued 1964), with every track a winner. I still recall the excitement when I first played it. More than three decades on I still have a copy. Even now it's one of the best-ever compilation albums of that genre; and Gid Tanner's On Tanner's Farm still raises the hairs on my neck. (And can I take this opportunity to recommend the wonderful six volumes of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers in complete chronological order, recently out on Document - DOCD 5056 through 5061.) During my final year of day release at the Elephant (1968/69) I believe the library also had at least some of the first batch of the Topic reissues of the Caedmon Folksongs of Britain series (published 1968).
For those of us whose initial experience of the Hall/Plunkett album was the 1976 Topic reissue, the difference lies in the fact that, by the date of its appearance it was but one of a whole slew of releases showcasing English traditional music, including - as Reg observes in the quote you give - the superb Boscastle Breakdown.
Unlike yourself, I never had the opportunity to meet up with Scan Tester and others of that ilk during the late 1960s, which of course I regret. But by late 1972 I had connected with the brilliant melodeon player Bob Cann down on Dartmoor. During a winter living and working in Dawlish, on the south Devon coast, I had the opportunity to go to the odd barn dance up on the moor, for which Bob both played and called (and he made it seem so effortless!). On a couple of occasions he allowed me to sit behind him and widdle away on the spare box he always carried in case of reed failure. I was only a novice on the instrument at that time, but the gesture both thrilled and inspired me. His was indeed a generous spirit. I remember meeting up with him one Sidmouth Festival shortly after his album for Topic had appeared (recorded in July 1975 and issued later that year, so probably Sidmouth 1976), and asking if he minded us young squirts playing all his tunes. He gave that infectious chuckle and said he was glad about it.
I believe it was at the Berkshire Midsummer Festival in 1974 that noted step dancer, morris dance tutor and melodeon player Ian Dunmur asked if I had heard that recent release, English Country Music from East Anglia (issued by Topic in 1973). I hadn't, but sought it out and was knocked off my feet. Perhaps my feelings weren't quite as intense as yours appear to have been in the wake of the Hall/Plunkett release - '[providing] a focus for the undefined yearnings for a music we could begin to call our own' - but the impact was life-transforming nevertheless. Almost immediately I had a reaction against the Folk Revival (especially the song aspect) in which I had been immersed for the past three or four years, and swapped a friend twenty or thirty albums of Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Shirley Collins and that ilk, for the half share I had in the album Unto Brigg Fair (Leader LEA 4050, issued 1972), featuring Percy Grainger's 1908 Lincolnshire recordings.
I think you're correct when you state that it was bands such as your own which spread the music during the 1970s. My experience mirrors yours, in that records seldom appear to have been major sources for session/dance band tunes. I recall being at a festival shortly after Topic had issued Melodeon Greats in 1978, the first encounter for most of us (without access to the original 78s) with those skilful pre-1920 Scottish virtuosi. I was stunned by the album and learned (as best I could anyway - like John J Kimmel, a lot of it appeared to defy fingering logic) a good portion of the tunes. But I never encountered any other player who had done the same.
Oh, and as to when did I last play the vinyl version of English Country Music, not that long ago actually. And even given the wealth of related material issued in the intervening years, it's still a great album. Reg was, and is, among the foremost pioneers in the field. I'm looking forward to getting the expanded CD issue.
Thanks for allowing me to ramble back through memory. It was very cathartic.
Keith Chandler - 13.10.00
With reference to my review of Mary Mac Namara’s CD, The Blackberry Blossom, it has been pointed out to me that I made a few blunders. The worst - for which I feel really embarrassed - was in suggesting that there were two tracks with doubled concertinas whereas one of the ‘concertinas’ was, in fact, an accordion played by Marys’ brother, Andrew. I can’t think how missed the naming of the combinations and I apologise unreservedly. At least this solves some puzzles over timbre.
Secondly, it was Catherine McEvoy, not Mary, playing flute on the final track. I still believe that the beginning of that track lacked confidence – which was what put me off initially.
Thirdly, I mis-spelled Gerard Commane’s Christian name as ‘Gerald’; and was also misinformed as to the release of his CD. Apparently it was made with Joe Ryan and issued through Custy’s Music of Ennis.
Fourthly, some BT gremlins got into the piece between my writing it and its appearance. Thus, a number of punctuation marks were left out – dashes after ‘the more neatly diverting’ in my third paragraph, for instance, and after ‘by way of a different sound’ in paragraph five. Paragraph fourteen suffered worst. There should have been dashes between ‘the latter two tunes’ and ‘the ‘dark key’ of the first tune’; and the word ‘familiar’ should’ve been erased.
I’m sorry for these errors and hope that they don’t put people off buying the CD.
Promise to try to avoid such Senior Moments in future.…
Roly Brown - 1.10.00
Jimmie Rodgers recorded Mother, the Queen of my Heart on 11 August 1932, in Camden, New Jersey. Although it appeared original on US Victor 23721 (and a variety of related cheaper labels), Wiggy would have known it from its UK issue on Regal Zonophone MR 1310.
The song he calls Riding Along on a Free Train is actually The Wanderer's Warning (which has 'freight' for 'free'). At an English Country Music Weekend a few years back I noticed Wiggy singing along when Suffolk singer Hubert Freeman was giving it. I pointed this out to Paul and asked if he had recorded Wiggy singing it. He hadn't, but obviously did subsequently. Wiggy would have learned this from a 78rpm disc of Bud Billings (also known as Frank Luther, but real name Frank Crow) [ie. not from Jimmie Rodgers - Ed.], who recorded it in Camden, New Jersey, on 8 March 1929. It appeared originally on US Victor V-40057, but was released in the UK on Zonophone 5422. I asked Hubert afterwards if he had learned it from a green label 78 (i.e. the Zonophone), which he confirmed.
There are certainly far more recordings of The Strawberry Roan than the one noted, including a handful made prior to that by Rex Kelly in April 1932 (issued originally on Paramount 569). First up was the Arizona Wranglers' 1929 special limited edition Christmas disc, Merry Xmas L 949 (reissued on the New World NW 314/315 double album - and now on CD - Back in the Saddle Again). Paul Hamblin recorded it on 21 March 1930 (issued on Victor V-40260, and reissued on Yazoo 2023 CD When I was a Cowboy, Volume 2). John White (The Lonesome Cowboy) also beat Kelly to the punch. He did it twice for the same company (ARC), on 2 April 1931 (Conqueror 7753, reissued on Historical HLP 8007 album The Plains of Alberta), and also on 16 April 1931, both in New York City (issued on various ARC labels, including Perfect 12712, Oriole 8066, and Romeo 1629 and 5066). Bob Miller did it on 20 May 1931, in NYC (issued on Columbia 15677-D, under the pseudonym Bob Ferguson). The Carson J Robison Trio with Frank Luther made it in March 1932, in NYC, again for ARC (reissued on the Living Era CD AJA 5187, Home, Sweet Home on the Range). Western Swing band Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers recorded it on 7 August 1934 (on Bluebird B-5667, reissued on the Bluebird AXM 2-5503 double album). Rubye Blevins, better known as Patsy Montana, recorded it with the Prairie Ramblers on 17 October 1938, in Chicago, Illinois (on Vocalion 04482, reissued on Cattle LP 25, The Cowboy's Sweetheart). Ed L Crain (The Texas Cowboy) did it in the late 1940s, probably in NYC (on Continental 3013, and also reissued on The Plains of Alberta album). Bob Atcher, from Kentucky, recorded it about 1949 (on Columbia 20619).
Beyond the 78rpm era, field recordings include Bunk Pettyjohn, from Clay Springs, Arizona (issued on the Arizona Friends of Folklore AFF 33-3 album, In an Arizona Town), Val Giessler from Montana (on the Montana Folklife Project 001 album, When the Work's all Done this Fall), a Mormon singer Andrew Somerville in Utah (on Okehdokee Records OK 75003 album, The New Beehive Songster, Volume 1), and Harry Jackson of Chicago, Illinois (on Folkways FH 5723 double album, The Cowboy: his songs, ballads and brag talk).
It was used as a title for two B westerns, in 1933 (director Alan James), and in 1948 (director John English), and despite my interest in the genre I don't have copies of either. The first starred Ken Maynard, the second Gene Autry. Both were so-called 'singing cowboys' and may have sung the title song. In fact, I can hear Autry singing it in my head, but can't find a recording on any of my numerous Autry releases in all formats, nor does it feature in the complete Autry discography by Don Cleary (privately published, 1971). Thinking about it, I have a couple of made-for-television documentaries on Autry, and it may feature on one of those.
That Little Old Band of Gold was recorded by Autry in Los Angeles on 14 April 1939, as Little Band of Gold. Its original US issue was Vocalion 05080, but was issued twice in the UK on Regal Zonophone, first as ME 14 and later as MR 3497, one of which is the likely source for Wiggy's grandfather.
Incidentally, at the ECMW in 1998 I recorded Wiggy singing what I noted as 'Sweet William' (of course, few songs were announced by name). I haven't rechecked the tape, but this is the title I would usually give to the song which most often begins, 'Father build me a boat, so that on the wide ocean I may float'. This doesn't appear to feature either on the CD itself or on the listing of Wiggy's repertory.
Keith Chandler - 19.9.00
I should also say that I approach what we can loosely call 'the tradition' as a consumer. My interest in this material does not extend to necessarily wanting to know, for instance, why 'the people' sang the big ballads. I am just glad that they did and have left us examples to hear. I enjoy listening to traditional music and song from around the world. I do this not as an Englishman, I hope, but as a world citizen. I can get as much pleasure from hearing Almeda Riddle singing The House Carpenter as Jeannie Robertson's Andrew Lammie or Wade Ward playing Old Joe Clark as Willie Clancy playing Colonel Fraser. In short I do not see any national barrier to the enjoyment of music.
I have two basic problems with what Mike has to say. Firstly, whilst I am able to agree that there is not necessarily a strong sense of an English identity, I cannot concur that there is no feeling of 'Englishness'. There is also, in my view, no necessary link between the two.
My other complaint is that he draws a connection between the lack of an English national identity and our lack of a folk culture when compared with other countries. Again I think that the case is unproved.
I also have to take exception with the implied suggestion that culture involves only the arts, albeit in a loose sense. Surely, our architecture, the landscape, the lives of the people who live here, in short our history, forms an important constituent of any culture. The folk culture that he us talking about which I take to be music, dance and folk customs, I contend, is but a part of a wider folk culture, parts of which are in very good health. For example, in the area where I live, West Sussex, we have two open-air museums at Singleton and at Amberley. Here, in addition to the permanent exhibits, traditional country industries and crafts such as wood turning, pipe-making, thatching, trug making and milling, which I would argue are part of a greater folk culture, not only survive but thrive. Visitors come partly to see the craftsmen and artisans at work. They are, in short, part of the attraction. This is a point I will return to later.
I do fully appreciate the difference between being British and being English I am proud to be a British citizen but I see myself even more as, and take a great pride in, being English.
I understand the example he gives of an Englishman moving to Scotland but surely, if he stays there, marries, raises a family, there comes at some stage a point where his descendants can be seen as Scottish. Were that not so then it follows that Merlene Ottey would not be seen as Jamaican or Maradonna as Argentinean.
I am even more uneasy about the idea that an immigrant could become British but will never be English, which if I understand correctly, he is offering as a paraphrase of what Enoch Powell said. After all, the English are hardly a 'pure' race. We have been conquered successfully at least four times and the influences of the invading powers have pervaded our culture and our history until they been fully assimilated. In short, the English are an amalgam. Is this not in marked contrast to Scotland? Far from going on and conquering them, invading powers built defences to keep the Scots out. Further, to use a parallel with the USA, does this statement mean that an Irish immigrant can not be a Californian, a black slave could never be a Texan, but either could become American? I certainly don't believe so and I seriously doubt than anyone else would.
So, why is there no discernible sense of an English identity except in a negative sense as witnessed, for example, by the actions of English football supporters at the recent European Championships? - As an aside, I watched the television pictures of English supporters drinking in O'Neill's Bar in Brussels and chanting "No surrender to the IRA" without even a hint that there were aware of the irony of their actions.
An English identity, of necessity, implies a sense of English nationalism. Any display of English nationalism has come to be looked upon with suspicion, as a refuge for racists or other right wing extremists. Mike draws a comparison with Scottish and Welsh nationalism. From my viewpoint, the real difference is that, for instance, whilst Scottish nationalism is positively slanted towards a pro-Scottish stance, the usual vision of English nationalism is anti-immigration, anti-Jewish or anti-almost anything. Strangely enough, it seems to be a view of nationalism that we have exported to former colonial powers as witnessed by recent events in, for example, Fiji and Zimbabwe. Mike in his article floats and then rejects the notion that there is a link with our colonial past in the absence of a national identity. Both he and I seem to be assuming that it was the English, and not the British, who were the colonising power. I wonder why that should be? After all the Act of Union had been passed long before we sent our forces out. A significant number of the explorers who made colonisation a possibility, most famously David Livingstone, were Scottish and yet still the idea of England as the force behind colonisation persists.
Mike asks what would you show to a visitor who wants to see what being English means. I would have chosen as my examples a cricket match on a village green on a Sunday afternoon, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, children dancing around a maypole, the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, changing the guard at Buckingham Palace and a football match between Liverpool and Everton. To me these define the characteristics that I most see as English. Namely a certain stoicism, a pride in our industrial past allied to a belief (I would say mistaken) that there was an idyllic pastoral past that preceded it, a love of ancient ceremony and pageant and a loyalty to and a passion for a cause.
He uses the Eistedfodd as an example of what being Welsh means. Last summer while holidaying in Anglesey, I made my first visit to the Eistedfodd. My initial thought was that what I was witnessing was not a demonstration and celebration of Welsh culture, but rather one of the Welsh language. Apart from the ceremonial, I saw and heard boy bands, rock groups, poets, folk singers and children's choirs. The content was cross-cultural - I could have been almost anywhere except that they all performed in Welsh. Indeed, I felt that non-Welsh speakers were looked on almost with suspicion as outsiders. My impression was that they did not really want to share what was theirs with the outside world. We were tolerated only because the event had become so big that it was a commercial necessity to get as many paying visitors through the gates as possible.
So could there be clues here? The English have no unique national language. We have given our language away to the world and can it be that in so doing our national identity and culture have gone too? Have we simply failed to recognise the commercial possibilities of exploiting a folk culture? The English Tourist Board sends publicity material around the world to tell potential visitors about Castles, Cathedrals and the delights of town, shore and country. They show pictures of rolling countryside but no attempt is made to go below the superficial beauty of the place. Don't get me wrong, I think that England is the most beautiful country in the world. I am not decrying that. Is it possible that this is even part of the problem? As an example, could the Cotswold countryside be such an attraction in its own right that we don't have to use the Bampton Morris to draw visitors there.
Mike states "there's a distinctive indigenous culture, celebrated in local festivities, and exported as an advertisement for the nation. It has an official place in the school curriculum, and a protected niche on the broadcasting networks, and it is encouraged (and subsidised) by the government. Everywhere except England."
My first objection here is that this is not quite accord with the England that I recognise. Certainly there are no major government subsidies to or regular national broadcasting of our folk culture. I am not in a position to say if this happens nationally, but here in Sussex an appreciation of local culture does have a place in the school curriculum. My grandson who is 10 has spent the last term studying 'Worthing and the Weald' as his topic and local culture in all its forms was an integral part of the studies. The local Morris team (not a traditional side, I appreciate) visited the school and even I went in to talk about local music and song. (I don't make any claims of expertise beyond a love of the music. Incidentally, I was able to use among other material the MT George Townsend CD.) I am the first to admit that the children found it very difficult to enjoy the material although where there was a chorus for them to join in with, they did give it a go. Still at 10 years old, I'm sure that Bill Haley held a greater attraction for me than Harry Cox would have, had I had the chance to hear him. Folk dancing, including Morris, is still taught at his school, albeit not as a regular lesson but as an after school activity. Strangely, all the pupils who have taken up the activity are girls. So much for misogyny! Further, our local BBC television and radio stations do include items on folk culture. As an example, BBC South have a feature in their early evening news programme called 'Southern Ways' to which Bob Copper regularly contributes. I am quite sure that this can not be an isolated example and that similar things are happening around the country.
I also find the idea that it is only in England that there is no or limited state funding hard to accept. Again using the USA as an example, they do have the Library of Congress but two of the other major collections are held by the Lomax Trust and the Smithsonian Institute. As far as I know these are not government-aided organisations. Indeed if you look at the areas there where a folk tradition has continued uninterrupted to the present time you will arrive at the isolated and relatively impoverished communities of the Mississippi Delta, the Ozarks and the Southern Appalachians. Try telling a sharecropper who is eking out a subsistence living from the soil that the banjo playing he loves to indulge in the evenings is kept alive by some magic state funding!
Can I also draw attention to Mike's statement that "The thesis that ruling elites concoct synthetic traditions, and exploit them as instruments of social control, is now widely accepted in England." By whom? I find myself wondering. Presumably by academics such as he is - which is not how I for one would define 'widely'. He then goes on to say "From this viewpoint, massed dancing in national costume looks suspiciously like paramilitary drill, while a folk festival begins to resemble a Nuremberg rally." Somehow this, it is suggested, is one possible cause of the failure of the revival. The problem as I see it is that I doubt that the vast majority of those of us who were drawn to the tradition through the revival (by which I mean the folksong revival of the '60's) have ever heard the thesis far less would they unhesitatingly accept it. Even if they had, would that of necessity stopped their enjoyment of the music? I know that I, for one, had not even considered this and having now heard the thesis, I can truly say that I don't accept it - certainly not until I have had the opportunity of testing it more fully.
If it were so, could we not expect significant state support? My initial thought is that the idea of a state-controlled tradition being used to manipulate a gullible public grossly underestimates the intelligence of 'the folk'. Would Napoleon Bonaparte have been the hero of so many of their songs were it so? Would the Irish have hidden their instruments from the Catholic Church when they declared music and dance sinful or indeed would the church (for surely in Ireland, there is a very strong link between state and church) not have manipulated the music to suit their own ends?
If there is a simple link between our lack of a national identity and a lack of a folk culture, as suggested for England, it should also follow that a strong national identity will mean a strong folk culture and vice versa. But do the facts support that? Perhaps, if you take Mike's examples of Ireland, Scotland and USA. But what of Germany? Few would deny their sense of national identity but what evidence is can be found of a strong folk culture beyond those oompah bands we see at beer festivals? Another example could be Indonesia. That there is a lively folk culture is evidenced by the recent 20 CD series from Smithsonian with financial help from the Ford Foundation (another non-government body). But, far from having a strong national identity, Indonesia is falling apart, held in place, at least for the time being, only by a brutal military. They have recently, experienced civil war in East Timor, unrest on the streets of Jakarta and religiously motivated atrocities. So my contention is quite simply that the link is not proven and does not bear close scrutiny.
My view for what it is worth is that a traditional folk culture has survived less well in England for a wide variety of reasons. We are a small, relatively wealthy, densely populated country with good communications. Immigrants, including those from Ireland and Scotland, came to England before they arrived in Scotland or Ireland so that we became a multi-cultural society long before they did. All the evidence that I can find points to folk culture surviving better where communities were more isolated and not yet affluent. Look at Ireland which has only been a wealthy nation for the past 20 or so years. Even Ulster, in spite of, or maybe because of, its two opposing views of national identity, maintains a flourishing folk culture.
The theory that I am working towards, and I have to admit that I am not very comfortable with it, is that commercial influences have had the greatest impact on our local culture and maybe on that of other countries as well. Here at least I think I am more or less at one with Mike although I do approach it from a rather different viewpoint. He says that consumerism "has alienated most English people from their musical traditions." I view it more that we have failed to see the commercial possibilities of exploiting them or felt that England had so much 'history' that we did not need to. One can but wonder if the Padstow Hobby Oss or Helston Flurry Dance celebrations would have survived to this day had somebody not eventually seen them as a way of getting the punters in to bring much needed revenue to the towns.
In formulating this response I have posed almost as many questions as I have tried to answer. Can I leave you some more to ponder?
Roger Johnson - 8.8.00
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