The Bismarcks

Upstream - Traditional Dance Music from England


I'm not completely certain, but I think this may be the first example of a record review of socially-functional music in the traditional sense, played by revivalists, to appear in the pages of MT since it moved to the medium of the Internet.

Almost all the traditional English music we know about might be said to be of four types: dance; social; ritual; and religious - and all of these entail some element of involvement by members of the supporting community, in addition to the musicians themselves.  Cover pictureWith a very few exceptions (like the social music heard on some Veteran releases and some ritual and dance music on Voice of the People - all played by traditional musicians), virtually all the revivalist music one hears these days - and not only from English players, of course - is performed for listening to.  Inevitably, this removes the social function, and thus the participatory element ... the traditional 'art as process' is no longer possible; the music becomes 'art as object'.  I don't think I'm entirely alone in lamenting this trend.

So it's a refreshing change to have to listen to a CD-full play Sound Clip(well, 51 minutes) of music intended to be danced to - or at least played as if it is (sound clip - Albert Farmer's Bonfire Tune).  It also requires a very different set of judgmental criteria to be used - both by the reviewer and by the potential purchaser.  The problem is, of course, that this CD won't actually be danced to by many of its listeners.  Even if it were this might not be a good thing - the booklet notes say, and I agree with them, "It is always preferable to dance to live music."  So there's this disparity between what this record is, what it should be used for, and what it may actually be used for.  The reviewer has to attempt to cover all these aspects.

Let's start with the easiest one - 'what it should be used for'.  Ideally, it should be used to practice dancing to, rather than the true social experience of dancing.  It will also provide a truly excellent example to countless musicians of a very good way to play a melodeon, a fiddle and a piano for dancing to in the 'modern' English barndance style.  It will further provide musicians with a good number of splendid tunes amenable to English style playing, to add to the quickly-growing store of such music.

What it is?  Also fairly easy - it's a high quality recording of a fabulously good band playing English dance music.  If you heard this music in a dance hall it would almost force you to dance energetically and well.  You would almost certainly have a very enjoyable evening.  The playing is crisp and bouncy, the tunes melodic and interesting, the tune pairs work well together, and there's a wide selection of dance types to enjoy.  (Only waltzes and barndances are missing, and all are of the standard 32 or 48 bar format).  The tempi are probably just about right for a general pan-English audience - i.e. a very few feel just fractionally too fast for my preference.  The Bismarcks always give the impression that they're playing for you ... never seeming to say "Listen to this bit - aren't we clever?"

All three band members: Nina Hansell (fiddle); Gareth Kiddier (piano); Ed Rennie (melodeon) are first rate musicians.  Ironically, it's a pity that there are so many good fiddle players around these days, play Sound Clipbecause what everybody notices about the Bismarcks is Gareth's and Ed's playing - since they are so much better than most of the competition.  Nina is a very good fiddler (sound clip - Tars of the Victory) and I would have liked to hear her in the front of the mix rather more often than she is on this record - and in real life.  That said, if you have a box player like Ed and, most obviously, a pianist like Gareth, you'd be daft not to make the most of them!

The booklet is excellent, too - having a good and pretty comprehensive introduction by Derek Schofield on the way the dance scene has developed from the '50s through to the present, brief notes on the types of tunes heard and a general discussion of dance style and form.  Each of the tunes has informative notes, and where a traditional source is quoted we get considerably more information than just a name and location.  Each track also has a dance or two from the EFDSS Community Dance Manual suggested as being appropriate, and six of these are clearly explained later in the booklet.  Finally, there's a couple of pages on the band itself, its members, influences and aspirations, and one on the EFDSS and the sponsors of the record.  Altogether thoroughly exemplary, with only minor gripes from me regarding a missing half-sentence from Ed's biography, and the use of a couple of photos which have been 'stretched' to fit the layout scheme.

(There's also what I think may be a somewhat misleading statement in the notes about the hornpipe Jacky Tarplay Sound ClipThis is said to be of the same "class of tune" as a "stage Sailors' Hornpipe" performed in 1740.  Now the Bismarcks' Jacky Tar (sound clip) is a dotted hornpipe in common time - and I wonder if the 260-year-old tune would have displayed either of these characteristics?

In the second edition of Grove's Dictionary (around 1907), Frank Kidson wrote: "About 1760 the hornpipe underwent a radical change, for it was turned into common time ..." and "The latest modern development of the hornpipe is to break up the regular time and even notes of the old common time ones by making the bars up of dotted quavers and semiquavers, producing a sort of 'Scotch snap.'"  Given that, I would suggest that the 1740 "stage Sailors' Hornpipe" might possibly still have been in the older 3/2 time, and that it certainly would not have been dotted.)

play Sound ClipThis really is a very good record of lovely music, brilliantly and appropriately played by one of today's top bands (sound clip - Robertson's Reel).  And it's particularly pleasing that 'one of today's top bands' should also be one which has, for the most part, based its style and repertoire so firmly on that of the traditional players of the past.  It's also very pleasing that the record should have been commissioned by the EFDSS - every one of their last three CDs has been a step forward towards a more central role in English music and an indication that they may well have re-found the plot that they so clearly lost in the late-1960s.

But what is this record actually likely to be used for?  Honestly, I don't know!  Quite a number of dance bands make records like Upstream - though rarely as good.  The Old Swan Band's first, No Reels, may have been a mission statement ... but it was also a dance record.  A gratifyingly large number of people found it interesting and enjoyable but - as a record - it wasn't a patch on Gamesters ... , in my opinion.  The ECDB made Barn Dance - also a good dance record - but not a particularly memorable listen.  Several others in the same vein suffer from the same problems.

Audiences apparently want bands to make records - or maybe it's dance promoters who want them? - a recent CD seems almost mandatory if a band is to get much work.  But they don't seem to sell terribly well and I'm not sure that many of them are actually danced to.  Those of us who see ourselves as functional dance musicians (like the Bismarcks) believe we have a duty to make a true record of what we do, rather than a 'studio production' designed to enhance our image.  Unfortunately, the results are generally not so enjoyable to listen to!

Maybe the truth is that we shouldn't be trying to make dance records at all.  We ought to realise that our proper function is to play for dancers - to participate in the socio-cultural event that is a barndance, where both musicians and dancers enable and inspire each other to contribute to and enhance the whole ... where the 'art' is the result of the communal 'process'.

You can't do that in a studio, or at home.  A record - even a great one like this - is really only for listening to.

Rod Stradling - 26.8.99

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