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English Gypsy Musicians

Musical Traditions (MTCD373)

Harry Lee: Flowers of Edinburgh, The Breakdown, Let's all Sing like the Birdies do, Irish Hornpipe, Over the Waves, Clog Dance, Killikrankie, Robert E Lee, Sailor's Hornpipe, No Mother To Guide You, Irish Washerwoman, Gary Owen, Gary Owen 2, Brighton Camp, Irish Washerwoman, Brighton Camp, Rakes of Kildare/Tenpenny BitVanslow Smith: Box polka medley, Fiddle Medley, Box hornpipe medley, Fiddle Medley, Box waltz medley, Fiddle Polka, Box hornpipe medley, Fiddle Waltz medley, Fiddle Waltz, Boys of Bluehill.  Lemmie Brazil: God Killed the Devil O, Harvest Home, Smile A While, Irish Hornpipe Stepdance 1&2, Irish Jig, Three Tunes, Devil O, Various tunes, Irish Hornpipe Stepdance 2.  Jasper and Levi Smith: Cock of the North medley.  Jasper and Derby Smith: Whistling Rufus medleyJoe Dozer Smith: Drunken Piper/Step it AwayMary Biddle: Little BeggarmanWalter Aldridge: Cornish BreakdownJohn Locke: Locke's HornpipeStephen Baldwin: Tite Smith's HornpipeFred 'Pip' Whiting: Billy Harris's Hornpipe, Will the Waggoner.
'Boshamengro' is Anglo-Romany for 'fiddle player', though the literal meaning is apparently 'music maker', and there are over a dozen musicians on this CD playing not only fiddles but melodeons, mouth organs, tambourines and guitars.  But there is no doubt that the star of the CD - and the reason why anyone with the slightest interest in English fiddling should buy it immediately and without hesitation - is the Kent Gypsy Harry Lee, whose very nickname was "fiddleplayer".

I first came across Harry Lee on the 1974 Topic LP Boscastle Breakdown, a ground-breaking introduction to the rural dance music of early and mid-20th century England.  This was long before I played fiddle myself, but even then I recognized his playing as something important.  Received wisdom at the time said that English fiddle playing had died out by 1962 when these recordings were made, and that the few survivals in the 20th century had been limited musicians with a simple and even crude style.  Yet Harry was clearly a highly skilled musician playing complex music that still had a role within his community.

Since then we have come a long way.  We now know of many fiddlers who were still active in the English countryside during the 20th century, and we also know that some of them were highly skilled musicians playing complex and subtle music.1  Yet I don't think the importance of Harry's playing has been at all diminished by this, particularly as it remains the only solid body of recorded music from one of the Gypsy fiddlers who long played such a pivotal role in rural music-making throughout the country - a subject thoroughly discussed in the excellent accompanying booklet by Phil Heath-Coleman.  Harry is also a good example of something central to the concept of traditional fiddling: the fiddler who learned his music from a long dynasty of fiddlers.  Thanks again to Phil's research we can now trace something of the dynasty of Lee fiddlers and musicians back to the early 19th century, and though we should never underestimate the inventiveness of the individual, it seems likely that much of Harry's style was inherited from his forebears - it clearly owes little to modern classical style, but compares directly to much that we know of 18th and 19th century fiddle styles.2

Harry's 17 tracks were recorded by Paul Carter of Topic records and amateur enthusiast Ken Stubbs in October 1962, when Harry was 71, and just 5 years before his death.3  Aware that many traveller families were camping in the Horsmanden area for the September horse fair and the annual hop picking they had gone along with fiddler Steve Pennells to see what they could record.  As luck would have it one of the travellers they approached recommended a visit to Harry Lee, and persuaded his son to take them to the Lee encampment at nearby Marden Plain.  Here they found the men gathered round the campfire after lunchtime closing, and Harry more than ready to play a few tunes for them.

All the tunes are fairly short, typically around a minute, and would appear to have been performed very much as samples for the tape machine.  Nevertheless, there is no sign of nervousness, or of impatience at the visitors, and the music is relaxed and controlled, perhaps reflecting Harry's lifetime experience as a professional busker.

His technique is complex and highly creative, drawing on a wide range of decoration - drones, chords, unisons, grace notes, mordants, runs, birls.4  Particularly striking is his handling of the slower numbers where he employs both a slight vibrato, the most sliding I have ever heard from a British or Irish fiddler, and occasional but confident and accurate use of the higher positions.  His control of the bow is excellent, and he utilized complex and sophisticated slurring to drive the music, including the so-called 'Nashville shuffle' and 'Newcastle Hornpipe' patterns.

His creativity shows also in his treatment of the material.  Most recorded rural musicians in the south were musically illiterate, and picked up their tunes via oral/aural transmission.  Thus the process of Chinese whispers ensured rural musicians tended to play versions of tunes quite different from standard written versions, an important factor in the development of new tunes.5  Quite often a tune would feature fragments of several melodies from within the same category: thus Harry's Rakes of Kildare has a B part closer to Paddy in London, while something closer to the standard Rakes of Kildare B part actually forms the B to his version of Tenpenny Bit - if we can call it by that name, as only a short section in the middle and the coda are recognizable as Tenpenny Bit, with the entire first half of the piece sounding very much like extempore composition out of random jig clichés and fragments of Flanagan's Ball.  There is more to all this than playing tunes "wrong": it is a process that unflinchingly reveals a lot about the player's basic musical creativity, something particularly apparent in Harry's hornpipes, where phrases of well-known hornpipes are welded together with what appears to be totally new material, probably of his own creation - such as the magnificent B parts to his Breakdown and Flowers of Edinburgh.6

Whilst these dance tunes have the expected driving, strongly rhythmic pulse, he also had a more lyrical side, very evident in the waltzes and songs: thus his free-flowing treatment of Charles K Harris' 1895 hit There'll come a Time (here called You'll have no Mother to Guide You) turns this sentimental parlour waltz into something more like a slow air.7  More surprisingly, he also brings this lyricism to bear on his version of Brighton Camp - perhaps he thought of it as a song.  Even more intriguing is his treatment of the piece he calls Killiekrankie.  It begins rhythmically enough, and appears at first to be a conventional bagpipe strathspey, but then segues into a lyrical, flowing air with no apparent dance content and sounding remarkably like a piobaireachd variation, an impression aided by the unconventional structure, which steps outside 8 bar phrasing, with many hangs and unexpected repeats.  As it happens, I am quoted in the booklet suggesting it could be the fragments of a lost "harp pibroch".  This was a fairly off-the-cuff comment made several years ago, and I was probably being a bit over-imaginative, but it is still a rather strange and haunting melody, and one bearing little apparent relationship to either of the two known Killiekrankie tunes.  In fact, having now played the piece through a few times on both fiddle and chanter, I find it easily converts into a perfectly ordinary strathspey - though not one with which I am familiar - and I'm now inclined to think that what Harry is really doing here is distilling various elements of bagpipe music heard over the years into a sort of archetype.  But ultimately the piece will have to remain something of a mystery.

Not surprisingly, material that is more recent, or more widely performed in the mainstream, tends to be a lot straighter and more 'correct', though even here his creativity shines through.  Thus his Robert E Lee chorus - the part usually heard - is straightforward and accurate enough, but the verse, much less often heard, is quite cleverly modified.  Similarly, his version of She was a Sweet Little Dickie Bird is pretty much the standard song, but he adds an element of birdsong imitation to it, probably as a crowd pleaser for the kids - on the Stubbs tapes a child can be heard pleading for "dickie bird".  This would explain his odd title: Let's all Sing like the Birdies do. 

Of the other fiddlers featured here, two seem to have been tagged on at the end for comparative purposes - from Phil Heath-Coleman's previous MTCDs we have Stephen Baldwin (Gloucestershire) and Fred Whiting (Suffolk) playing hornpipes learned from local Gypsy fiddlers.  Placed with them is the legendary EFDSS cylinder recording of a fiddler playing a hornpipe, generally agreed to be the Herefordshire Gypsy John Locke, as recorded by Ella Leather in about 1905.8

Like Harry Lee, all three men play their hornpipes in a fairly smooth style, without the heavy dotting sometimes associated with the north and the clog dance, and all use complex slurred bowing.  Unlike Harry, all three use only a little in the way of double stopping, which is more typical of the way British and Irish fiddlers usually approach hornpipe playing.  Locke is the most impressive: even through the cylinder distortion you can hear a very clean player with great control, perfect intonation, solid rhythm, and a remarkably clear tone.  On the other hand, his tune is a lot "straighter" than the others, without the irregularities and eccentricities that add to the beauty of so much traditional fiddling.  Up to a few years ago this track alone would have been worth the price of the CD.  In fact it probably still is, even though it can now be found online.9

There is one other fiddler on the CD, and he is given 10 tracks immediately after the Lee recordings - 6 on the fiddle and 4 on the melodeon.  This is Vanslow Smith, from Sussex/Kent Gypsy stock, though he seems to have spent most of his life in settled occupations.  He did travel as a child however, and remembers meeting Harry Lee in the 1930s.  Vanslow was of a younger generation than the other musicians on this CD, and these are fairly recent recordings made in 2006, when he was 82.

Vanslow is probably most interesting as a melodeon player (though his best instrument was apparently the banjo, unfortunately not heard here).  He is comparable to many English country box players in his rather random use of the basses, but I suspect quite unique in his frequent use of accidentals.  Presumably this reflects the greater internalization by a younger man of the rules and aesthetics of mid-century popular music.

His fiddle playing is strong and clean with good control, though his intonation sometimes wobbles - at least some of which seems to be due to tuning issues.  Unlike Harry Lee he uses no double stopping and only a little (though very effective) decoration, and though the smoothness of his playing suggests the use of slurred rather than single bowing, his use of a portable (and what sounds like poor quality) amplifier makes it very hard to tell.

Almost half his repertoire as presented here consists of Hornpipes.  These he plays in a much choppier and more 'dotted' style than the other musicians on the CD.10  Possibly this reflects greater exposure to Folk Revival or Irish music, but I think it more likely that he simply didn't draw much of a distinction between Schottisches and clog-hornpipes, two categories which easily overlap.  Like many southern musicians his hornpipes are made up of a series of stock phrases, many of them recognizable as fragments of 'proper' printed tunes, and he certainly seems happy to blend phrases from well-known hornpipe and schottische tunes in the same piece.  Thus most of the hornpipes here consist of variously reworked fragments of Underneath her Apron, Oh Mr Porter, Woodland Flowers, and the Bristol and Strand Hornpipes.  There is one exception: a rather nice version of Boys of Bluehill in which he plays the 'correct' first part and then segues into a startlingly jazzy B part which sounds very like the sort of thing Harry Lee might have played.

The remaining tracks are taken up by melodeon and mouth organ players and by several examples of 'tuning' - the English Gypsy name for mouth music or diddling.  We have Lemmie Brazil on melodeon, as recorded by Gwilym Davis in 1977 and 1981; Jasper Smith on mouth-organ and tuning, with Levi Smith on tambourine and Derby Smith on guitar, as recorded by Mike Yates in 1975; Joe Smith and Mary Biddle tuning, as recorded by Gwilym Davis in 1976 and 1992; and Walter Aldridge on mouth-organ, as recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1956.  The Levi Smith tracks have appeared on previous MT and Topic albums, but it is great to have them together here on a purely instrumental album, and the other tracks are newly released.  It's particularly nice to hear the examples of "tuning", something often mentioned in an English context but rarely recorded.11  The most interesting musician here is probably 91-year-old Gloucestershire melodeon player Lemmy Brazil.  Apparently by this time her melodeon was past it's best - for one thing the thumb strap was broken - and she herself was not happy with her playing anymore.  It is certainly better on her earlier recordings by Peter Shepheard (available on MTCD345-7), but these tracks still show her characteristic energy, and are well worth a listen.  Whilst her style and repertoire are directly comparable to other post-war recordings of English box players, there is also a distinct Irish influence, not surprising given that she spent the first 27 years of her life travelling in Ireland.  It's worth pointing out that the family, though English, also have a Wexford/Waterford surname, and I think this family history tells us something of the close links that have long existed between south-west England, south Wales, and south-east Ireland.12

In summary: this is a seriously important CD.  For one thing, I'm pretty sure this is the only album of purely instrumental music by English travellers ever released.  But it's greatest importance lies in the Harry Lee and John Locke tracks, which make it an absolutely essential purchase for anyone with the slightest interest in traditional English fiddle playing.

Paul Roberts - 17.5.17


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