The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber

REVIEW ESSAY

The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber, by Dan M. Worrall.
London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2005. ix + 85 pp.
ISBN-13 978 0 85418 194 0.

JODY KRUSKAL

Not to be outdone by the handbell ringers and carol singers, William Kimber (1872-1961) and the rest of the Headington Quarry Morris dancers went ‘dancing out’ on a snowy Boxing Day (December 26th), 1899. Visiting the Oxford countryside, the composer Cecil Sharp heard the joyful sound of Kimber’s Anglo concertina and invited Kimber to visit him the next day. Sharp notated two of Kimber’s Morris tunes, published and promoted his own piano arrangements of them, and embarked on a long career as the premier collector, promoter, and champion of English folk music and dance traditions. For many years, the two men consistently delighted lecture hall audiences. The sophisticated, articulate, urbane Mr. Sharp spoke, while Mr. Kimber, simultaneously modest, rural, and elegant, demonstrated Morris dancing and performed on the Anglo concertina in his distinctive and masterful harmonic style. One of the tunes that Sharp would collect from Kimber was Country Gardens, which was borrowed by the composer Percy Grainger, whose arrangements became famous worldwide and are still played today. Kimber made the first known recordings on the Anglo concertina in the 1930s, and many of them have been kept available by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, including the 1999 collection, Absolutely Classic: The Music of William Kimber (EFDSS, CD 03).

Dan Worrall has listened to these old recordings and faithfully transcribed twenty-eight tunes in such detail that a present-day Anglo player can duplicate Kimber’s exact melody and voicing of chords right off the page. For years, aspiring Anglo students have listened to Kimber’s recordings for inspiration, and Worrall’s book now provides them with a welcome guide to unraveling the mysteries of Kimber’s idiosyncratic style on an equally idiosyncratic instrument.

This excellent book is both scholarly and accessible, as Worrall’s writing is at once extensively documented and lucid. The transcriptions fill just over half of the eighty-five wire-bound pages, the remainder of the volume being a trove of information, photographs, musical analysis, and anecdotes that place Kimber’s music in a rich social context. The book includes: (1) a concise and comprehensive history of the Anglo concertina, covering its distinctive features, development, and playing styles; (2) a brief biography of and stories about Kimber, his dancing and playing, and his family and community life; (3) a detailed analysis of Kimber’s harmonic playing style, including its relation to the Morris tradition and how his playing compares with other Anglo styles and techniques; (4) extensive notes on the tunes, with discussions of their origins, structures, associated lyrics, quotations, and stories; (5) the invaluable transcriptions themselves; and, finally (6) a complete discography of Kimber’s recordings.

Worrall relates the fascinating history of how the Anglo concertina developed from its origins in the simplest of free-reed instruments: the German mouth harp (or harmonica) invented around 1825. Soon after came a number of single-action bellows instruments (each button plays two pitches, one on the push and one on the draw) based on the same basic diatonic system: the one-row accordion, the one-row concertina with five buttons per side, and, with the addition of another row of five buttons a fifth away, the basic 20-button Anglo (-German) concertina. Eventually, additional buttons were added (I play a 45-button Jeffries, circa 1895) in various configurations to make up for the limitations of the 20-button version that, however, still forms the heart of today’s standard 30-button, three-row instrument.

The period during which William Kimber recorded the tunes that Worrall transcribes extended from the 1930s to 1956. However, evidence strongly suggests that Kimber’s Morris tunes were closely derived from what his father—William Kimber, Sr (1849-1931)—played some sixty years before the earliest recordings. Kimber Senior was among the first to use the newfangled concertina for Morris dancing, in the 1870s, when even the fiddle was considered a deviation from the traditional pipe and tabor and the tunes were played without harmonic accompaniment. Perhaps the fundamental elements of the harmonic Anglo style had already arrived in the Oxford countryside by then. Or perhaps, as Worrall writes, the Kimbers ‘independently developed the style in isolation: . . .we may never know. Suffice it to say that William Kimber and his father were trend-setters in applying this style to traditional Morris dance music’ (pp. 5-6). In any event, Kimber Junior was proud to adhere so faithfully to his father’s music. As he famously recounted his father admonishing him: ‘These are the right notes, William, and don’t you play any others’ (p. viii).

Despite the Kimbers’ conservative approach to the Morris melodies, Worrall observes in the recordings a constant element of improvisation in the accompaniment. This keeps the music fresh and flexible throughout the numerous repetitions of a single, immutable melody. Worrall’s transcriptions clearly show this diversity through the multiple statements of the tunes. It is fascinating to see on the page how Kimber alters both the bass notes and the voicings of the chords, and switches from using two-note ‘chords’ to a simpler style of playing in octaves. One example shows a two-measure segment of Country Gardens accompanied four different ways. Worrall notes that the improvisational process can sound

extremely subtle to the listener (especially given the brisk tempo and very brief duration of each crisply played chord or chord fragment), it approaches the degree of frequent change in ornamentation in a traditionally played Irish tune. Such improvisation is ubiquitous in all of his playing, giving us some insight into the Kimbers’ approach to this music. Although the melody was seen as a part of a tradition being passed on to a new generation, the left- hand accompaniment was something of William Senior’s, and/or of his son’s, creation, and William Junior at least felt quite free to modify the left-hand accompaniment at will [p. 19].

William Kimber both danced and played concertina for his team, which may explain why his Anglo playing fits the dancing so well. Morris dancing is usually performed outdoors, with bells jingling and sticks clashing, and it is only natural to want the concertina to have the fullest sound possible. Kimber’s music is lively, brisk and percussive. The chords are short, sharp, and persistent to define the beat clearly. For the tunes in 4 there are persistent quarter-note chords, and for the jigs, equally persistent dotted-quarters predominate.

Kimber plays the melody mainly in the right hand, with the left hand playing chords, often simply two-note, adjacent-button pairs that play in thirds. The resulting harmony, as Worrall puts it, ‘follows the melody around the keyboard’ (p. 16). There are, however, often minor-mode harmonies in unexpected places, giving the music a ‘charm and quaintness’ (p. 16). To my ear, Kimber’s harmonies evoke the delightfully self-trained harmonic treatment heard in the eighteenth-century choral music of William Billings or early American shape-note hymns. This is not the modern style of ‘oom-pah’ playing, and the chords do not always follow the standard I – IV – V progressions. Rather, as Worrall writes:

The Kimbers’ approach. . .arose organically from their rural isolation, their lack of formal musical training, and their adoption of a relatively new instrument. They brought few preconceived notions of how chords for any of these heretofore unaccompanied Morris tunes should sound, and crafted their accompaniment within the limitations of the two-row concertina. Kimber’s [Junior’s] music thus gives a fresh and independent take on musical accompaniment, and stands in strong contrast to the frequent rigidity of standard musical fashion [p 16]..

Worrall’s transcriptions pack a lot of information onto the page, yet his layout is spacious and friendly. There are twenty-eight selections: Morris tunes, country dances, and popular melodies of the day. These are written in standard notation with two treble staves, the top staff being for the right hand and the bottom one for the left. The letters P and D indicate push and draw with respect to the direction of the bellows, and a single-digit number identifies the precise button used.

Though the transcriptions reflect Worrall’s keen ear, I have one misgiving about the layout. The button numbers, the P and D indications, and the letters that mark the sections are stacked above the staff in a way that sometimes places that information too far from the music to which it refers; occasionally these indications are actually closer to the two-staff system above them than they are to the one below, the one to which they belong. However, this is a minor quibble, and a close examination makes the meaning clear.

Whatever quibbles one might have, though, Worrall has made Kimber’s historic playing available to all in black and white, and for Anglo players willing to familiarize themselves with the notation, Worrall’s transcriptions will prove invaluable. Furthermore, Worrall’s book provides us with a detailed and scholarly work that should be of interest to anyone seeking to examine this particular aspect of the rich world of English folk traditions. In all, the book offers an essential guide to the life, times, and music of William Kimber. It is a pleasure to read, and the music is a pleasure to play.