The Lads Like Beer (book and CD)

The Fiddle Music of James Hill: 2nd edition 2013
By Graham Dixon

Mitchell Music.  Book: ISBN 0-9511572-05   CD:MM01

1. The New Year's Gift / The South Shore / James Hill's Waltz - Stewart Hardy;   2. James Hill's Waltz - Pete Clark & Gregor Lowrey;   3. Roslin Castle - Greg Lawson;   4. Roslin Castle - Chuck Fleming;   5. The Old Church Hornpipe / The Newcastle Hornpipe - Greg Lawson & Nikki Williamson;   6. The Barber's Pole / The Locomotive / The High Level Bridge Hornpipe - Stewart Hardy;   7. Auld Robin Gray - Pete Clark & Gregor Lowrey;   8. Little Jim's Hornpipe / The Gateshead Hornpipe - Nell Smith & Erardo Evans;   9. No.8 - A Hornpipe / The Cage - Chuck Fleming;   10. The Champion Hornpipe / The Hunter / Tyke Side - Stewart Hardy;   11. Beeswing - Greg Lawson;   12. Free Trade / The Lads Like Beer - Chuck Fleming;   13. Underhand / The Steamboat - Jimmy Little & Kathy Anderson;   14. The Fiddler's Fancy - Greg Lawson;   15. Factory Smoke / XYZ - Stewart Hardy & Matt Wee;   16. Hawk's Polka - Greg Lawson & Nikki Williamson;   17. Earl Grey - Pete Clark & Gregor Lowrey;   18. Little Jim's Hornpipe - Greg Lawson;   19. Spence's Tent / The Lads Like Beer / The Quayside - Bottle Bank Band;   20. The Omnibus / The Marquis of Waterford's Hornpipe - Andy May;   21. The Hawk - Stewart Hardy;   22. Along the Bottle Bank - Johnny Handle.
Scotland celebrates its fiddlers, composers, publishers and arrangers of vernacular instrumental music, often enough in the same person.  Peter Milne, the Gows, Scott Skinner, Daniel Dow and James Oswald are among many who easily come to mind.  Much has been written both about the personalities and the music.  A significant proportion of the historical Scottish repertoire thus has known authors, about whom there exists at least some biographical detail, some lore, which enables the music to be placed within a cultural context.  Scotland may be unusual in the extent to which it is aware of its musical personalities, but Ireland too, has a store of knowledge and myth about the origins of its music: Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) and Walker Jackson (d.1798) are instances of known Irish composers of vernacular instrumental music.  Beyond that, other nations with an awareness of their musical heritage know at least some small things about their musicians.

In contrast, England, the culturally dominant power in at least the English-speaking world throughout the nineteenth century, is blithely unaware that it even has a vernacular musical history, beyond junior school Maypoles and Morris dancing.  Mention "English fiddler", and after "is there such a thing?" the image that is most likely to be conjured up is of a bewhiskered wandering beggar.  And how can people be blamed when there is so little in print on the subject?

There are honourable exceptions; a small number of articles in English Dance and Song magazine and the EFDSS Journal over the years1, Reg Hall's book on the life and music of Scan Tester2 and the series of articles by Keith Chandler, Philip Heath-Coleman, Chris Holderness and others in the online Musical Traditions website.3  There is also the recent Music and Society in Early Modern England.4

These deal with some of the practitioners, but there has been little attempt to uncover the composers of the music.

The only studies that have been published in book form and that are therefore available to the general reader, dealing specifically with practicing musicians who were also influential composers of vernacular instrumental music, all concern persons from one region: the north-east of England.

These Northumbrian life stories present a more rounded picture of what might be called 'traditional' musical composition than is available for the whole of the rest of England.

Billy Pigg (1902–1968)5 the piper and composer, lived a mostly rural life, and yet learned his art from, amongst others, John E Baty (d.1935) of Stannington (near Morpeth) and the very un-rural Cloughs.

Tom Clough (1881–1964)6,'The Prince of Pipers', lived in the mining community of Newsham in south-east Northumberland.

Robert Whinham (1814–1893)7 can stand for the typical peripatetic rural musician/dancing master.  The son of a market gardener, he was born in Morpeth, just beyond the edge of the Northumbrian coalfield, and therefore rural in atmosphere.  A small town by today's standards (pop.  5000 in 1851) nevertheless it was no backwater, being situated on the main north-south railway and road routes, and Morpeth's market gardens helped to feed Newcastle and the rapidly growing coalfield towns of Tyneside.  Whinham himself, defying preconceptions, had an important component of his musical education courtesy of a German music teacher in Newcastle, which was only about 20 minutes away by train.  He also had strong connections with the brass band movement, which was an enormous component of working class musical life.

James Hill (1811-1853), the subject of the book under review, occupied yet another part of the spectrum.  He was born in Scotland and immigrated to the fast expanding industrial conurbation of Tyneside sometime before 1841, by which time he was recorded in the census as a professional musician, married to the daughter, and living in the household, of William Hunter, the proprietor of the Hawk public house, Bottle Bank, Gateshead. 

Industrial Britain in the 1840s is well documented for the inability of its infrastructure to keep up with its rapidly expanding urban population.  Newcastle grew from 65,000 to 87,000 souls in the ten years 1841 to 1851, when Hill was most active.  Gateshead went from 19,000 to 25,000, and outbreaks of cholera were frequent.  Hill lived a very urban life, as one of a number of professional fiddlers working in Tyneside pubs and race meetings, with the industrial working class of Gateshead and Newcastle as his audience.  He was said to be the best of them, the Paganini of fiddlers, and his hornpipes remain some of the finest examples of the art, yet he lived the same squalid urban life as his neighbours, in and out of court for debt, when debtors could be, and were, imprisoned until the debt was discharged.  He died of consumption in 1853.

Dixon gives his reasons and methodology for writing the book and proceeds to relay what is known of Hill's life, including extra information that has emerged since the first, 1987, edition.  He places the man in his time with an illuminating and very interesting discourse on 1840s Britain, and Hill's Tyneside within it.  He goes on to describe the music and entertainment on offer to the urban working class, and the role of fiddlers such as Hill. 

Accompanying this are maps, and a good number very atmospheric old photographs of the urban scene, which leave the reader very aware of what city life in mid-Victorian times must have been like.

Hill is best known for his hornpipes, so Dixon devotes a chapter to the hornpipe, and James Hill's hornpipes in particular, followed in this new edition by Stewart Hardy's intelligent analysis, from a fiddler's perspective, of the melodic and harmonic structure of the tunes, and what is known of the bowing patterns thought to have been used.  He concludes - 'It would seem ...  that the 'Hill hornpipes' were by no means unique either in their harmonic or melodic structure, or in the bowing patterns associated with them...'( but )'...  may be considered as prime examples of such an idiom.'

How Hill's hornpipes related to the wider development of the form over the nineteenth century and in the wider world is a much broader topic, and is only touched upon here, Ryan's Mammoth Collection8, Kohler's9, and Kerr's10, getting but a passing mention.

So far, a treat in itself and as an investigation of Tyneside music scene it is worth having just for that.  But the tunes themselves are the reasons for James Hill's continuing fame.  Dixon has compiled all those "composed, attributed to, or associated with" Hill, in original keys, and their technical challenges ought to keep you delightfully busy for a while.  Added to which is a further section of 'Waifs and Strays', composed by or otherwise associated with some of Hill's local contemporaries.  This altogether amounts to over a hundred tunes, including such favourites as The Hawk, Beeswing, and The High Level Hornpipe, all given in a diverse array of fiddle keys.  It has to be said that some people, afraid of straying beyond the keys of G and D, think Hill's tunes are mainly notorious for their difficulty, whereas their notability ought to be their great beauty and originality.

A list of manuscript and printed sources for the tunes is given, though it is not exhaustive of even the Northumbrian sources, omitting as it does some tunes found in the John Moore of Tyneside MS (1841) [Spotted Bitch, Hawk, Gateshead] on The Village Music Project11, which Dixon doesn't seem to have been aware of.

Also given is a discography of the many recordings of Hill tunes, and a bibliography.

This is an excellent, well structured and researched book, deserving of a place on the reading lists and music stands of anyone interested in traditional music making.  The first edition has always been one of my favourites.  So if you've already got the first edition, you might ask, what's different with this one? (apart from the surprisingly lurid orange background colour for many of the pages!)  Well, it's not a mere reprint, it's a new book, and the text is revised and expanded.  The tunes, hand-written in the first edition (not unattractively), are now freshly typeset by computer and consequently more legible.  Some new information has been added to the tunes, and there are the 'Waifs and Strays' mentioned above, plus three newly found Hill tunes.  Stewart Hardy's analysis, the discography and similar ancillary parts are all renewed.  The many atmospheric photographs are a new selection.  If you're a fiddler you need this book, for the tunes, and not least for the introduction to the life of the urban fiddler.

Downside?  None.



The CD was recorded and mastered by Anthony Robb, co-produced by Anthony Robb and Stewart Hardy.

Writing this review has been difficult as, without exception, I like most of what each of the artists has contributed.  But after a great deal of agonising I have to bite the bullet and admit that I didn't like it as a whole.  Of course, I can't just assert that without going into some detail.

I will look at the performances according to the size of the artist contributions, and sum up at the end. 

Andy May (Northumbrian smallpipes) makes a splendid job of The Marquis of Waterford/The Omnibus [tr.20], (which are labelled the wrong way round on the CD).

Jimmy Little (mouthorgan) and Kathy Anderson (keyboard) put in an excellent turn on The Underhand/Steamboat [tr.13], though it's sometimes slightly affected by not quite agreeing on where the groove lies.

Erardo Evans (fiddle) and Neil Smith (recorder) get to play Little Jim's/Gateshead [tr.8].  Fiddle and recorder don't often get paired for hornpipes, possibly due to the absence from the recorder of any wild side.  Neil Smith is more known as a Northumbrian piper; would that not have been more fitting? The speed is probably set with clog steppers in mind, and is enjoyable enough, but for the CD they might have tried it a little faster. 

The Bottle Bank Band, consisting of Stewart Hardy, Sophy Ball, David Jones and Hinney Pawsey, (fiddles) play what seems to me a rather rushed Spence's Tent/The Lads like Beer/The Quayside [tr.19].

Pete Clark (fiddle), accompanied by Gregor Lowrey (accordion) offer Auld Robin Grey [tr.7] and Earl Grey [tr.17], successful, no nonsense Scottish style tunes, evidently Pete's strong suit, but with James Hill's Waltz [tr.2] he has only similar success to Stewart Hardy [tr.1].  I think the fault lies with the tune; it's a shame that we didn't get a couple of Hill's hornpipes from him instead.

Chuck Fleming (multi-tracking on fiddle, piano, mandolin and guitar) is an old hand at the genre.  I love the vintage piano sound on Roslin Castle [tr.4], and with the fiddle leading he makes effective use of light rubato.  He doubles the fiddle in places with effective and sensitive harmonies.

No8/The Cage [tr.9] starts with fiddle and piano on No 8, but on The Cage he adds mandolin to the mix.  I think his idiosyncratic fiddle intonation is usually very enjoyable and appropriate, but laying the mandolin on top makes it sound slightly off.  Perhaps he should have laid down the mandolin first and played to that? No such problem with Free Trade [tr.12], but on The Lads Like Beer [tr.12] the guitar tends to get in the way of the tune.  He has treated the hornpipes as four discrete items, and not attempted to artificially run them into each other.  Another half second of separation at the mix down would have been even better.

Greg Lawson (fiddle) has 7 tunes over 6 tracks.  I enjoyed his tracks, though at times he comes close to being too classical in technique, perhaps under the influence of his interest in klezmer.  Apart from Roslin Castle [tr.3], he stays on the fun side of the line, and his interpretations of the tunes sound authentic.  Old Church/Newcastle [tr.5], with Nikki Williamson (fiddle), starts dangerously close to being clipped and stiff, but loosens up.  Track 11 is a nice treatment of the classic BeeswingHawks Polka [tr.16], with Nikki Williamson again, and Little Jim's [tr.18], are both enjoyable.  Fiddler's Fancy [tr.14] comes close to that line again, but only gets a toe over it.

As Graham Dixon says: 'Stewart Hardy is a North East based fiddler with a strong affinity with Hill's music.'  He has 12 tunes over 5 tracks, plus membership of the Bottle Bank Band on 1 track, also co-producer of the CD.  He is a seasoned fiddler, who I admire and look up to, and an inspiring teacher with a deserved reputation, but I have to admit to being a little puzzled by his playing on this CD.  There is quite excessive use of rubato in many of the tunes, causing the pulse to be interrupted so damagingly that it's sometimes difficult to detect at all.  This is particularly marked on The Champion/The Hunter/Tyke Side [tr.10].  On Tyke Side, however, the last tune of the track, the rubato is absent, and all is well.

In other places, for instance The New Year's Gift/The South Shore [tr.1] and The Hawk [tr.21], alongside the aforementioned overuse of rubato, there is a tendency to emphasise tone at the expense of rhythm, and it's not a good swap.  Likewise the first tune in the set The Barber's Pole/The Locomotive/High Level Bridge [tr.6] gets off to a wobbly start with more rubato and some hesitant dotting and unnecessary triplets, but settles down through The Locomotive and into The High Level Bridge.  I think both the beauty of the tunes and Stewart's undoubted ability would have been better served had he got rid of most of the rubato and the odd bits of vibrato.

In Factory Smoke/XYZ [tr.15] he makes an excursion into a little light jazzy treatment, a la Easy Club, accompanied by Matt Price on guitar.  It gives an interesting slant on some of the possibilities within Hill's tunes, though I was uncomfortable with some of the chords, and yet again the tune change seems random.

So if there are plenty of good performances by all the artists, why does the album as a whole not convince me? After all, the tunes were freshly recorded for the album, and not lifted from previous recordings, yet four of the tunes were pointlessly allowed to appear twice.  The track order seems equally pointless, the only criteria seemingly being 'as randomly as possible, but with the artists evenly spaced'.  There seems to be no particular reason why one tune follows another, both within otherwise good recordings and across the whole album.  There are unaccountable lurches in tempo and rhythm even between hornpipes in the same set, resulting in a lack of a sense of cohesion.  There are places where one wonders why the tunes are not treated as the separate tracks that the artists obviously consider them to be.  This is exacerbated by too much rubato popping up every few minutes and interrupting the flow some more.  There is also an overall feeling of trying very hard to be 'proper music', though this is harder to detect in individual tracks and may be due to there being too few outbreaks of outright danceability. 

In short, the faults overwhelmed the good bits.

Chris Partington - 16.1.14

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 16.1.14