Category Archives: Recording reviews

2005—The Year of the Anglo: Some Reflections

Anglo International, various artists. Folksounds Records, FSCD 70.
Your Good Self, Dooley Chapman. Australian Folk Masters, CS-AFM 001.
Anglophilia, Brian Peters. Pugwash Music, PUGCD 006.
Floating Verses, Mary Humphreys and Anahata. Wild Goose Records, WGS322CD.
(all issued in 2005)

One of the great advantages of an annual review-essay is that I can avoid the track-by-track approach (‘I liked Nutting Girl on the musical saw, but was less happy with Princess Royal arranged for sousaphone and swannie whistle’) and take a wider view. Also, in the opinion of our esteemed editor, I am not disqualified from musing on items where I had some slight involvement. Thank goodness for that, or a few tracks and a couple of suggestions would rule Anglo International out of bounds, and I would be unable to extol this extraordinary collection of music and musicians. It is tempting to jump straight into the superlatives: the most extensive … the most comprehensive … the most … but superlatives require comparison and there is nothing available with which to compare this 3-CD set. It goes beyond a compilation of Anglo players and stands as a definitive and encyclopaedic statement of what can be and is being achieved on the Anglo system. I make no apologies for a lengthy analysis of four themes which this collection suggests.

The idea began back in the 1980s when Alan Day approached a few musicians with the idea of a compilation showing the range of the Anglo. During the long time that the idea sat on the shelf a lot of changes took place: more players came to prominence, the new world of electronic communications established a network of international links and friendships, and the rarity of a double album became the commonplace of the boxed CD set. And how the playing came on!

Anglo International consists of seventy tracks by twenty-five players and one band and is a few minutes short of four hours in duration. Nearly all of the recordings are specially commissioned, appearing here for the first time. All the archive material is previously unissued. There is an extensive illustrated booklet. Yet it is not just quantity—it is the range and quality of the music that is remarkable.

Much is traditional, largely, but not exclusively, Irish and English. The Anglo is a mainstream instrument in Irish music, and no player is more renowned than Noel Hill. An original choice for the vinyl album, Hill continues to play with emotion and sincerity, and such is his current stature that his recent CD Irish Concertina Two was greeted by a full-page feature in the Irish Times under the headline ‘King of the Concertina’, an article that was sensitive to Hill’s deep emotional involvement in and respect for his traditional culture. His three tracks here show precisely this, with The Lament for Limerick draining the emotions as surely as his set of reels fires them back up.

Very many Irish players would have fitted easily into this collection, and it is pleasing that there are some included who are not amongst the household names and whose presence emphasises the depth and strength of the music. Chris Sherburn, writing in the notes to his tracks, states, `If you play Irish music too fast, it can end up being incomprehensible. . .Nine times out of ten it’s not the note but the gap either side of it that counts’. Wise words, though Chris still gets a bit frenetic at times! Mary McNamara, however, is the perfect embodiment of what Chris means. She plays her pure, rolling Clare tunes with a string of paradoxes, being both relaxed and assertive, gentle and authoritative. Her three sets here are consummate musicianship.

The English tradition is represented by archive recordings of Scan Tester through to contemporary recordings of morris tunes—via Playford and old manuscripts—and some well-known jigs and polkas. John Watcham’s morris medley is an object lesson in how to use the left hand to support, underpin, and power a tune along. He is a bit of a recluse these days, so don’t miss a chance to see the Brighton Morris, where there’ll be another object lesson, this time in uniting music and dance into a single unit.

Like John Watcham, Roger Edwards is less active these days and like John he is another example of the correlation between good Anglo playing and the dance. Roger led Garstang Morris, who, during the time in which they flourished, shone out with their accurate, vigourous dancing and colourful presentation. Together with fellow-dancer and melodeon player Martin Ellison, Roger was a stalwart of the sessions in The Ship at Sidmouth and The Eagle at Bampton, to name but two. The music of clog morris differs from that of Cotswold morris, driving rather than lifting the dancing, and this can be clearly heard in Roger’s forceful and powerful playing of Double Lead Through. Roger also accompanies the Threlfall sisters, leading me happily to the next theme of Anglo International: the Anglo as song accompaniment, of which there are five examples.

Roger shows a decorated approach which contrasts with the ‘squeeze it and see’ method which is where I tend to start (and usually finish), but the guv’nor here as in all else is John Kirkpatrick. More than any other player, John is the absolute master of cross-rowing, not just for the tune (many of the Irish players here can be heard doing that), but for all aspects of both hands and in keys outside the home rows. This means that he is never constrained by push-pull mechanics and can do what he wants whenever he wants. His two songs here, though lightweight choices, show this to perfection, and it is also this complete technical dominance of the instrument that allows the staggering accomplishment of Mattheson’s Gigue, revisited from his first album a mere thirty-three years ago! And there’s more: John’s fourth set is Hen’s March to the Midden. This is a fiddle piece in which raucous bowing imitates the clucking of chickens. John matches this on the Anglo and adds in some pecking and scratching for good measure; this is a remarkable performance, typical of the inventive, intelligent humour and pure skill which, even in this company, maintains John Kirkpatrick as the Anglo players’ standard bearer.

These two high points now lead me smoothly to those tracks where the Anglo boldly goes into repertories way outside the usual orbit. The working title for this collection was ‘The Versatility of the Anglo’, and this is remarkably displayed: from Mozart to Monk (Thelonius) via Handel, Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, and much more. The long gestation period of the project saw the extension of the Anglo into previously unknown territory, but it is not an entirely recent phenomenon. John K’s first recording of the Gigue was in 1972, Andrew Blakeney-Edwards was playing Scott Joplin in the early 80s, and Fred Kilroy, recorded here in 1976, had always played a wide range of material, taking an approach which amazed all who heard it. This is the first time that any of Fred’s music has been commercially available. Alan Ward, editor of the magazine Traditional Music, wrote about Fred in the very first issue in 1975. Ward is a recognised authority, and I have no doubt he is the reason that there are many recordings of Kilroy in the National Sound Archive of the British Library. In 1975, Ward was playing with Webbs Wonders, whose Anglo player (Tony Engle) and fiddle player (Peta Webb) had been members of Oak, one of the first bands determined to play English Music in an English style. Engle was an admirer of Tester, and Ward well knew the method of playing that Kilroy dismisses as ‘under-developed (sic!)’. In the interviews that form the foundation of Ward’s article, Kilroy suggests that his way of playing (which recalls the Duet system) was once much more common, but sadly there is no evidence beyond these reminiscences. Nevertheless the basic point is correct: the Anglo is still normally played along the rows with a traditional repertory, and anything else is still unusual. But for how much longer? Players who listen to the virtuosity on these CDs will surely strive to stretch their proficiency to enable this variety of music.

These ambitious tracks (Andrew Blakeney-Edwards’ Maple Leaf Rag defies belief!) are more than just party pieces or novelty items. They are presented with the same honesty and integrity as everything else. There is a tendency in Folk Clubs for performers to have a ‘naughty number’, something which shows what jolly chaps they are and how they can let their hair down. I can scarcely spend a few minutes in a club these days without recalling the oft-misquoted and even plagiarised words of Gully Jimson in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. (A wonderful book! How’s this for opening lines: ‘I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop’.) In response to a critic’s analysis of his artistic work, Jimson replies that ‘Well, it’s like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It’s clever, but is it worth the trouble?’. From a different cultural background comes the story, doubtless apocryphal, of Leonardo da Vinci. Asked by a patron to create a masterpiece, Leonardo took a pencil and drew a perfect freehand circle. The point here is that technique, cleverness, and skill are not enough in themselves. They have to serve the music, as exemplified by John Kirkpatrick. These less-thancustomary Anglo performances do just that; they don’t simply show that it can be done, but that it can be done without mocking or undermining the material. They are more than just clever technical exercises. They are genuine performances of real music.

The final theme that Anglo International brings into the spotlight concerns the use of the Anglo with other instruments. It can be argued that the Anglo is perfect for solo performance, having its own built-in accompaniment and rhythm section. The solo performances here certainly don’t lack anything! The Anglo also presents its player with a range of choices, particularly in chords. These can be constructed and inverted at will, emphasising fifths, creating bass patterns on the bottom, all things unavailable to the one-button/one-chord mechanisms of the melodeon and most accordions. This can be lost if the other musicians choose to put in what you have chosen to leave out! Accompaniment can also take away the Anglo’s briskness, and Scan Tester is presented here in the company of a piano accordion. Piano accordions can be vibrant and exciting (listen to Jason Price of Dartmoor), but too often they are bland and slushy. Scan’s playing is smothered by musical syrup when the accordion joins in. This is an observation rather than a criticism of two friends having a tune together in an informal setting. Sessions are for enjoyment and sharing—and best not recorded!

And while I’m on the subject of sessions and other instruments, let’s demolish the guitar! Pausing only to observe that those who play it well do not use conventional tuning and avoiding the question of authenticity (where the reductio ad absurdum would have us all damning the modern introduction of the pipe and tabor), we must all nevertheless know the cloth-eared guitarist. Most traditional tunes have a very simple chord structure, so our guitar-playing friend is bored stiff by the end of the first A part and begins to introduce an exciting new range of interesting chords. By the beginning of the B part he is also bored by the simplicity of the rhythm (he’s not listening to its subtleties), so he livens it up with some snappy syncopation and cross-rhythms. By the second time through, while those in charge of the melody are desperately trying to restore Jenny Lind to the manner in which she is accustomed, our guitarist friend is abducting her off to a gypsy encampment somewhere east of the Russian Steppes. As the evening proceeds ever more noisily, he makes off for his car and sighs of relief are heard, but these are premature as he returns with his small portable amplifier because he ‘can’t hear himself play’. If only the rest of us were as fortunate! Perhaps one day someone will come with his or her rope-tensioned military drum, and the two will go off and play amongst themselves. Harsh? Unfair? Yes, of course; and sessions are remarkably tolerant places. On record, however, there are serious questions that need to be asked of the strummed stringed instrument whether it has four or six or even eight. Just what is it adding? Is it actually helping the concertina or is it detracting? There are a few tracks here where the question must be put.

The absolute opposite is the formalised, rehearsed arrangement where the concertina is leading a group. This may be a bit too contrived for some tastes, but I defy anybody not to be energised by the tracks led by Jody Kruskal and Bertram Levy. Interestingly, both these players are American, and this approach is better suited to the smoother, more flowing dance music of that country. In Ireland where a similar approach has often been taken by concert bands the result is invariably dull and lifeless with more than a touch of the Annie Lauries.

The change of title to Anglo International (further justified by players from South Africa and Spain and tunes from France) does raise the inexplicable omission of Australia. Fortunately, 2005 also saw the release of recordings by Dooley Chapman made in 1981-1982, and they are wonderful. Australian rural music is similar in style to that of England, and it is no surprise that tunes from such as Sally Sloane, Harry Cotter, and Sam Holland have been taken up by English players. I expect that some of Chapman’s tunes will be similarly received. This CD is, however, much more than a collection of tunes; Dooley Chapman is another highly competent Anglo-playing dance musician, and in one of the spoken passages he is politely critical of players who can’t play to the dancers: ‘Even many players… you put them out to play for the dance and see where they are, see if they’re onto the step or what are they doing’. This observation, like that of Chris Sherburn, should be repeated as often as possible!

Chapman’s approach is similar to that of Scan Tester, though Chapman crosses rows more often. Both play brightly and crisply, use octaves and occasional bass notes, and bring up the end of a phrase with a little more bellows pressure. Both are also willing to take a popular song, strip it down to its bare bones, and recreate it as a dance tune; and there lies the real similarity: even when not intended for dancing, this functional purpose is the bedrock of their music.

I expect everyone has at one time sat with friends and chosen the world’s greatest sports side, eight records for a desert island, or (my favourite) the ‘Table from Hell’ at the staff Christmas Dinner! Anglo International immediately starts a discussion of who should be there but isn’t and who should go to make room for them. This is more evidence for the current strength of Anglo playing, and two names that have been mentioned in this context are Anahata and Brian Peters, both of whom issued CDs in 2005. When other musicians talk of Anahata, someone invariably says something like, ‘I’ve never heard him make a mistake.’ A great accolade. Musicians live with mistakes; they are a constant presence, lurking in every bar of every tune, and unless they are strident wrong notes they generally pass unnoticed by everyone except the player. Yet audiences are quick to notice a bland, timid performance. Mistakes are most likely to occur when you are pushing yourself to the edge of your ability; this is when the music is exciting, and it’s what audiences want. It is the tight-rope that we walk. ‘To be afraid to make a mistake is the worst mistake you can make’, as your Maths teacher should have taught you! I recently received some private recordings of The Rakes in one of their extended line-ups made from the mixing desk at a ceilidh. It is fantastic, driving, invigorating music, but it is full of ‘mistakes’. The fiddles take off on glorious flights of fancy that crash land or disappear in mid-air, but for every one that goes wrong two others go right and the result is compelling listening. It must have been fantastic to dance to, and I’ll wager few if any dancers spotted the errors. What they will have been aware of is the pure excitement and that is much more important.

If Anahata is sometimes guilty of excessive caution, he and Mary Humphreys have one great quality: they listen. When Anahata plays melodeon tunes from Suffolk, it is clear that he has listened to a lot of playing by the very best in this field. It is a studied performance. Similarly Mary Humphreys’ singing style is firmly embedded in a knowledge of traditional singers, and this makes her a lot better singer than many of the more fashionable and lauded divas, though it won’t get her much airplay on Radio 2. They have done their homework, and this is a sure foundation, though my earlier comments on accompaniment apply here as well. Mary and Anahata are gifted multi-instrumentalists, but how does this serve the music? Their best tracks are those most simply presented, and when the cello comes in there is a distinct suggestion of a well-known Scottish tune wafting through from the next room.

Brian Peters’ many followers will be pleased with Anglophilia, a nicely balanced and wide-ranging selection of material presented with panache and vitality. Most competent Anglo players can achieve the strongly rhythmic way of playing utilising the bellows direction, but the reverse, achieving total smoothness despite the double action, is much much harder and only successfully achieved by a hard-working few of whom Peters is a fine representative. Indeed, this CD’s many instances of very accomplished bellows control is its outstanding feature. (Different names for the same tune and different tunes to the same name are common enough instances, but I am staggered to find that Brian has a tune other than the usual one under the title The Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat’s Eye. I know this as one of the many names for Brighton Camp, which Dooley Chapman calls The Billygoat! There’s a Ph.D. dissertation here somewhere.)

Of course, putting together a compilation or issuing old recordings of a veteran player is very different from releasing your own CD. Brian, Anahata and Mary represent the small number of survivors struggling to make a crust in the dwindling and often moribund world of the ‘Folk Club’. At the end of the gig you hope for two things: that enough people will ask the organiser to book you again and that you’ll sell enough product to stay alive. Given the fact that a lot of audiences rightly want a relaxed evening out and not a lecture on the transmission of Bothy Ballads, this can lead to ‘popularising’ the music, forcing in variety, playing a ‘naughty number’ and very soon you’re farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. Yet another tight-rope for the poor struggling guest artist! Dan Quinn and Will Duke are therefore quite remarkable, though their two excellent CDs, Wild Boys and Scanned are outside the time frame of this review. They present their
traditional music without any compromise or concession in the way they think it should be performed, and they are tremendous musicians and singers. Between songs they wallow in anarchic chaos reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy; they seem to have nothing prepared and no idea of what to do next! The musical performance is, however, immaculate, and they break the set up with genuinely funny songs delivered in total deadpan seriousness, which in Dan Quinn’s case is pure Billy Bennett via Freddie McKay. They prove that straight traditional material can provide a highly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Mind you, they won’t make it onto Radio 2 either, though no one would deny Will Duke’s rightful place on Anglo International, even if his tracks there are a trifle diffident, being a little short on his usual confident flow.

So was 2005 the year of the Anglo? I think so. I remember my first ICA meetings back in the 1970s when it was all English system, music stands, and formal arrangements. This was a glimpse of a vanishing world where this was the norm for concertinas and where a folk tune would only be played if it was in a book arranged for four players (and then it was probably Annie Laurie). I used to drive Ken Loveless to his annual performance—presiding over the AGM—and he never even took a concertina with him. On my first arrival I was greeted with a scene worthy of Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell: ‘An Aaaaannnnngglloooooow!!!!???’ The attitude to Angloplaying was that of Dr Johnson to women preachers and performing dogs: ‘It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ The change in emphasis in recent years has been monumental. The rise of the Anglo, playing by ear, and the move away from formal arrangements have transformed the music, the playing, and the expectations. The Anglo now dominates; and while there are virtuoso players on other systems (some of their names begin A.A.), there are not enough of them to raise the sights of the many other players. This is the real strength of Anglo International. It raises the bar and shows the breadth and depth of what is being achieved. It is an inspiration to all players of all systems and all instruments.

The Music of Dickens and his Time

The Music of Dickens and his Time. The Seven Dials Band.
Beautiful Jo Records, BEJOCD-9 (1996).

Reviewed by ALLAN W. ATLAS

A few years ago a documentary film-maker, knowing of my interest in both the concertina and the representation of music in Victorian literature,1 asked me if I would be interested in supervising the musical soundtrack for a documentary about Charles Dickens. I declined the invitation, and provided him with a list of people who, I thought, were more suitable to the task. As it turned out, the project came to naught (for lack of funding). But had I known about this recording then, I would surely have recommended that he get in touch with Beautiful Jo Records, the Seven Dials Band, and Dave Townsend in particular.

Briefly, this is a delightful recording, one that deserves wide circulation among both concertinists and anyone interested in Victorian culture in general. Its twenty tracks offer a collection of songs and tunes that are either cited in one or another of Dickens’s novels or have words by Dickens himself.

Concertinists will obviously be most interested in the four tracks that cast the spotlight on Townsend (who also wrote most of the arrangements): No. 1, ‘The College Hornpipe,’ which Dickens cites in both Dombey and Son and David Copperfield; No. 4, Joseph Warren’s arrangement for English concertina of Sir Henry Bishop’s famous ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which song Dickens knew well by virtue of his having mounted a production in 1833 of Bishop’s opera Clari, or The Maid of Milan (1823, words by the American John Howard Payne), in which the tune appears (we also know that Dickens enjoyed playing the piece on the accordion);2 No. 10, ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’, a textual parody by Dickens of a well-known popular song (published in The Examiner in August 1843); and No. 18, ‘The Workhouse Boy’, another parody, this one of ‘The Mistletoe Bough’, and cited by Dickens in Bleak House. And it is on tracks 4 and 10 that I will concentrate.

About ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ I’ll be brief: it shows Townsend doing what he does as well as any player of the English concertina on the planet: devising full-voiced chordal accompaniments on the instrument (here a tenor-treble).

The rendition of the Warren arrangement of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, on the other hand, raises a number of questions (which are not the same as qualms) about ‘performance practice’. And here I’ll do no more than ask the questions, leaving it up to readers and players to begin thinking about the answers.

First, Warren published his arrangement as the opening number of a series titled Popular Melodies with Variations by 1859 at the latest, and I would speculate that he might have composed it more than a few years (perhaps more than a decade) before that.3 This raises the following question: would Townsend (who substitutes a harp for Warren’s piano accompani-ment, something certainly in keeping with Victorian performance practice)4 have better served the music by playing the piece on a ‘period’ instrument, one that more accurately reflects the way the concertina would have sounded at that time? Indeed, should he have used such an instrument throughout the recording, in order to give us a better sense of just what the Victorian ‘soundscape’ was like? But if the answer is yes, we open up a can of worms. For allowing that Warren might have written his arrangement as early as the 1840s, should we further ask that the piece be performed on an instrument with brass reeds, one with meantone tuning (that is with its E flats and A flats pitched higher than its D sharps and G sharps, respectively), and with an a’ equal to 452.5Hz?5 Should we also insist that Townsend have used an instrument with, say, four-fold bellows and played using four fingers of each hand, since the combination of the two might well have produced at least some differences in terms of articulation and phrasing? And should we insist that all the other musicians have been playing on ‘period’ instruments? As I said, here I will do no more than ask the questions.

Second, Townsend gives us only about half of the piece. Warren’s arrangement consists of the main theme (Bishop’s melody) and three of his own variations on it (Ex. 1, page 54).

Townsend, however, plays only the theme (and without the repeat of the first strain, to which a mid-nineteenth-century musician would eagerly have added some ornamentation), all of variation 2, and the conclusion only of variation 3. Now, I need hardly be told that this recording is not about Warren’s Home, Sweet Home in particular or even the concertina in general. Yet given the paucity of recorded examples of the English concertina’s Victorian repertory,6 could we ask that the concertinist who would record a piece from that repertory give it to us in its entirety? Needless to say, both performer and record producer have every bit as much right to say ‘No!’ and order their priorities as they will, just as the mid-nineteenth-century performer—who had a very different notion about the composer/performer relationship than we do (he/she was far less ‘up-tight’ about things)—would have done.

Finally, although it is certainly Dave Townsend’s presence that will attract concertinists to the CD (just as it is for our reviewing it here), there is no shortage of other wonderful material on it. Two of my favorites: Margaret Knight’s beautiful rendition of ‘Some Folks who have Grown Old’ (she accompanies herself on the harp), from The Village Coquettes (1836), an operetta by Dickens (libretto) and the musician John Hullah, who would become famous for his reforms in music education, and Chris Watson’s performance of ‘The Ivy Green’, on which Dickens collaborated with his brother-in-law; Henry Burnett (words and music, respectively) and which he would use in Pickwick Papers. In addition, we should cite the very informative notes by Tim and Edna Healy.7

In all, Beautiful Jo Records and everyone involved in the production of this valuable CD—and there can be no doubt that Dave Townsend was the driving musical force behind it – deserve a rousing round of applause.

NOTES

1. Two of my publications in this area deal specifically with the concertina: ‘George Gissing’s Concertina’, Journal of Musicology, 17 (1999), 304-18, and ‘Collins, Count Fosco, and the Concertina’, Wilkie Collins Society Journal, n.s., 2 (1999), 56-60. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Gaskins, both of these are now available online: http://www.maccann-duet.com/.

Return to Text

2. It is interesting to note that the full title of Warren’s arrangement is Home! Sweet Home! Sicilian Air; the reference to the ‘Sicilian Air’ is a reminder that Bishop (1786-1855) originally published the tune anonymously under the title ‘Sicilian Air’ in an 1821 collection titled National Airs. He used the song a third time in his ‘operatic drama’ Home, Sweet Home, or The Ranz des Vaches of 1829. On the popularity of the song in the nineteenth century—aided by Jenny Lind making it a staple of her repertory in the 1850s—see Nicholas Temperley, ‘Ballroom and Drawing-Room Music’, in The Athlone History of Music in Britain, 5: The Romantic Age, 1800-1914, ed. N. Temperley (London: The Athlone Press, 1981), 125-26, and Derek B. Scott, The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour,2nd ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 11-15; for its popularity in the United States, see Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 179; see also, Nicholas Temperley and Bruce Carr, ‘Bishop, Sir Henry (Rowley)’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, rev. ed., 29 vols., ed. by John Tyrrell and Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001), iii, 125-26.

Dickens himself tells us that he played Bishop’s ‘Home, Sweet Home’ on the accordion in a letter of 22 March 1842 (from Baltimore) to his friend (and biographer) John Foster: ‘You can’t think with what feeling I play Home Sweet Home every night, or how pleasantly sad it makes us’ (conveniently quoted in, among other places, the notes that accompany the CD). On Dickens and music, see Lillian M. Ruff, ‘How Musical was Charles Dickens?’, The Dickensian, 68 (1972), 32-33; James T. Lightwood, Charles Dickens and Music (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1912); Mary Burgen, ‘Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, in The Lost Chord: Essays on Victorian Music, ed. Nicholas Temperley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 42-67, which, though not devoted exclusively to Dickens, draws upon his works frequently.

Return to Text

3. See the British Library’s online catalogue of printed music: http://blpc.bl.uk, which dates the entire series of twenty-nine pieces from 1859-1862. My own copy of the piece (plate number: ‘C.W. & Co. 1791.’) was issued only in 1905 or later, since its title page locates Wheatstone & Co. at 15 West Street, Charing Cross Road. In addition, the running ‘footer’ at the bottom of each page refers to the series as ‘Popular Aires’.

Return to Text

4. No less a musician than Hector Berlioz praised the combination of concertina and harp in his Grande traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, rev. ed (Paris, 1855), 287; see Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 39. Still another Parisian critic who enjoyed the concertina-harp combination was Henri Blanchard, who expresses his opinion in a favorable review of a concert by William (piano), Henry (harp), and Auguste (concertina) Binfield at the Bains de Tivoli in April 1856; the review appears in Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, xxiii/17 (27 April 1856), 131. Townsend also uses the combination effectively in his recording of the ‘Serenade’ from Bernhard Molique’s Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 61 (1859), on the CD Concertina Landscape. Serpent Press SER006 (1998), which I reviewed in ‘Concertinas 1998-1999: A (Brief) Essay’, The Free-Reed Journal, 2 (2000), 53-54, where I raise some of the same questions. We might also note that the combination was not limited to the recital hall and drawing room, as witness the remarks in Henry Mayhew’s interview with a fifteen-year old concertina player in this issue’s HISTORICAL DOCUMENT.

Return to Text

5. It was to a’ = 452.5Hz that both the Philharmonic Society Orchestra and the piano manufacturer Broadwood tuned around the middle of the century and from 1852 to 1874, respectively; see Alexander John Ellis, ‘The History of Musical Pitch’, Journal of the Society of the Arts, 28 (1880), 330, 335-36; reprinted in Studies in the History of Musical Pitch: Monographs by Alexander J. Ellis and Arthur Mendel (Buren, 1968), 47, 52-53; see also Arthur Mendel, ‘Pitch in Western Music since 1500: A Re-examination’, Acta musicologica, 50 (1978), 87 (where it is noted that the a’ = 452.5Hz represents the ‘mean’ for the Philharmonic tuning). In addition, a Wheatstone & Co. price list from the mid-1910s lists the a’ = 452.5 (though expressed as ‘C = 540’) as the standard tuning for Wheatstone concertinas; the price list is reproduced online at: http://maccann-duet.com .

Return to Text

6. In addition to Townsend’s recording of the Molique ‘Serenade’ (cited in note 2), there are the two fine CDs by Douglas Rogers (on an instrument dating from 1858), The Great Regondi: Original Compositions by the 19th Century’s Unparalleled Guitarist & Concertinist. The Giulio Regondi Guild: Douglas Rogers, concertina; Julie Lustman, piano; David Starobin, guitar. Bridge Records, BCD 9039 (1993) and 9055 (1994).

Return to Text

7. Given the intense musicological research now under way on the representation of music in Victorian literature, it is no doubt time for a new assessment of music in the works of Dickens (see note 2). For a comprehensive glimpse into that new research, see The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction, ed. Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming), which, surprisingly, includes no contributions on Dickens.

Return to Text

View or Download the PDF format file for this page

Enlarged: 1041*757, 61.7 KB

Enlarged: 1101*763, 71.0 KB

Musical Examples

Concertinas at Bradfield / This Label is Not Removable / Ghosts and Lovers / The Lewes Favourites

Concertinas at Bradfield. Various artists. Video/DVD. Garland Films (2004).

This Label is Not Removable. Various artists. 3-CD boxed set. Free Reed, FRTCD 25 (2002).

Ghosts and Lovers. The Mellstock Band. The Serpent Press. CD SER 007 (2003).

The Lewes Favourites. Edited by Andy Warburton; forward by Vic Gammon. (Lewes [Sussex]: Lewes Arms Folk Club, 2003).

The English Country Music Weekend is flourishing again after its reincarnation a few years ago. The very first such gathering took place in Cricklade in 1975 when Rod Stradling and Neil Wayne (of whom more later) organised a weekend of specifically English traditional music as a focus for the growing enthusiasm for this previously neglected area. Highlights were the presence of Oscar Woods, Jim Small, Ray Andrews, Bob Cann, all now deceased, and a live performance by the line-up of Plain Capers, all still gloriously alive (and of which more later)!

This peripatetic weekend is shaped by its annual host, and in 2003 found itself on the farm of Mark Davies at Bradfield in Yorkshire. Mark featured a number of local Yorkshire artists and, being a concertina enthusiast, he also invited a number of concertina players and brought them together in a (very early) Sunday morning concert. The ECM Weekenders are rightly musically broadminded; many of the older generation of musicians had already established the fact that their repertoires were flexible and drew from all areas. If any eyebrows were raised at the presence of such a specialist concert spilling itself all over the ECM boundaries, their owners were quickly won over by the quality of the performances. Barry Callaghan was there with his video camera, and this edited eighty minutes not only records a remarkable concert, but can stand alone as a testimony to the glorious capability of the concertina and the many hugely talented players who are currently taking it from strength to strength.

Pride of place belongs to Michael Hebbert and his Jeffries Duet. A Jeffries Duet is seldom seen, and, sadly, so is Mike. Just one commercial LP virtually three decades ago (The Ramping Cat, FRR 009, 1977, of which more later) is the only recording of this virtuoso player. Here he plays traditional tunes, Schubert, and his renowned interpretation of the ‘Dambusters’ March’. The Jeffries Duet system is the most limited of the Duets, but Mike has achieved a style of playing which is both lyrical and rhythmic, with a way of ‘pencilling in’ the chords so that they are suggested as much as heard. All of this is here in his two short contributions. In addition, uniquely on this video, there is a real bonus in the visual element: the pleasure of watching Mike perform! Mike’s former musical partner, Andrew Frank, once likened Mike to Archie Andrews, the schoolboy puppet of ventriloquist Peter Brough, and the boyish face and impish grin are still there, betraying the clear pleasure he gets from playing. Yet the better comparison would be to a marionette rather than a hand puppet, as Mike virtually marches along to his own rhythm with the occasional swing and flourish of the concertina. The grin, the posture, the delight … there’s an echo of Loveless here as well. Ten minutes of sheer joy!

The more familiar MacCann Duet system appears in the hands of three excellent players. Harry Litherington, by far the senior member of this concert party, has the typical repertoire of his generation, and immediately recalls Tommy Williamson (of whom much more later). Here he plays Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ (having no problem with the key change that has caused me many a stumble on the Anglo) and similar standards. This is precise, practised playing, finely controlled and vibrant with interest. Much more relaxed is the performance of Iris Bishop, a hugely and rightly respected player from the musical hotbed of South Sussex (of which more later). Iris has the traditional tunes, but opts instead on this occasion for ‘Blue Moon’ with the familiar chord sequence getting a full Duet treatment, and then a blistering adaptation from the jazz pianist Thelonius Monk.

Iris could have played Tommy Williams’s ‘Spring Time in Battersea’ (still more later), but leaves that for Anahata, who shows convincingly that the 38-key Anglo can go comfortably into the repertoire of the Duet, a point which is also convincingly demonstrated by Harry Scurfield, who enjoys a reputation for taking on unlikely songs and tunes, influenced, as he states here, by the late Fred Kilroy, who would have a crack at anything. Harry also has a jazz pianist as one of his sources: in this case the Boogie-playing Jimmy Yancey.

Will Duke is a wonderful player. Owning Scan Tester’s concertina and living now in Scan’s geographical area (of which more later), he is widely associated with the playing of that particular Anglo icon and plays a set of Scan’s tunes here. Yet there is much, much more to Will than just this facet. On first meeting, Will appears a very unexceptional person, quiet, unassuming, even retiring. On closer acquaintance he reveals himself as a man of sharp intelligence, vast knowledge, sparkling humour, and infinite charm. His playing is just the same: there is nothing flashy or ostentatious; no concession to being on a stage, and the tunes, seeming at first deceptively straightforward, are underpinned with subtleties and whimsies and little flights of fancy without ever compromising the respect with which they are approached.

It was interesting to hear Geoff Crabb say at last year’s ICA /Chiltinas event that the English concertina system was never intended to be a solo instrument, and that it was hard to do much more than play a simple melody and occasional extra note. Talking to me a few days later, he explained that the various ranges of the English system were intended to represent the instruments of a string quartet. Dave Ball and Graham Pratt go some way towards this, playing arranged duets, and this discipline is in clear contrast to the style of the players on the other systems; as such they enhance this recording with a totally different style and approach. Chantal Noppen, the other player of the English system, reminds us that there are younger players and composers.

The English system is overshadowed at this concert, though not because of musical competence—the performances are highly proficient. The difference lies in the attitude. The Duet and Anglo players are out on the edge, and whatever the origin of their musical ideas, their approach is to think, ‘I like this. I play the concertina. Let’s bring it together, and take it all the way that the instrument allows’. You know that when you meet them in a few years’ time they’ll have tried something new. This sense of adventure and challenge fires their performance. This was a fine concert, and it makes a fine video.

The Free Reed record label was the most significant of the many enterprises that originated in the fertile and energetic mind of Neil Wayne, a leading enthusiast for the concertina back in the days when men walked on the moon and the junk shops were full of quality concertinas for the price of a pint. Like other labels devoted to minority interests (e.g. Leader/Trailer), the hope was that the specialist players, who would never have been recorded under any other circumstances, would be financially balanced by the more commercial acts who were playing to good audiences in the busy folk clubs. Some players like Mike Hebbert, John Kirkpatrick, Tufty Swift, The Old Swan Band, and my own Flowers and Frolics had a foot in both camps, being popular on the contemporary circuit, particularly the ECM resurgence, whilst also featuring free-reed instruments and respecting and learning from the earlier generation of players. Sadly the numbers didn’t add up, and Free Reed collapsed under financial pressures—fortunately not relevant to this review. A recent resurrection has seen a few ambitious projects of which This Label is Not Removable is a retrospective of the first twenty-five years.

All of the Free Reed vinyl albums are represented on this collection, and given the combination of old and traditional musicians with the wide variety of singers, songwriters, and novelty acts from the folk world, this creates an extraordinary hotchpotch of listening; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing these CDs without skipping some tracks. The concertina appears on sixteen of the sixty-one tracks, with the melodeon adding a free-reed presence on twelve more.

The great strength of Free Reed was its willingness to take risks with recordings that no other label would look at. If it was financial madness, it was also musical heaven. I mentioned Peter Bellamy’s Transports in my review last year (PICA, 1). Free Reed also gave us the only recording of Mike Hebbert (FRR 009), a splendid mix of tunes of all styles with some guest vocals from Andrew Frank, and the only recording of Tommy Williams, tunes and reminiscences from this former Lachenal employee and MacCann giant—musical giant that he is. He was so physically small that when he stood up to play (which he did, being a true old stager) you worried that he would topple forward from the sheer weight of the instrument. Spring Time in Battersea (FRR 008) contains some excellent playing and transports you back to a different musical era. Gordon Cutty (FRR 006) was recorded after his dance band days, surely the only conventional dance band to have an English concertina leading an otherwise standard line-up, and he demonstrates how much drive can be achieved on the English system.

Bellamy’s Transports was not the only Free Reed triumph. There were at least two others. Together with John Tams, Neil Wayne visited County Clare and made field recordings of the wealth of Anglo players who dominate the sweet, gentle style of that area of Ireland. These were magnificent releases and actually appeared on the Topic label, explaining why there are a few tracks on recent Topic compilations, but none here. Nevertheless they are a feather in Free Reed’s cap, and their current unavailability at a time when Irish music is looking back to its great musicians and re-issues abound is as big a mystery as it is a loss to music. Here were Mrs O’Dwyer, Bernard O’Sullivan, Tommy McMahon, John Kelly, Chris Droney, and more; some of the finest players of that or any other time.

Pride of place in the Free Reed catalogue belonged to John Kirkpatrick’s Plain Capers (FRR 010); a superb musician with a wide audience, Kirkpatrick played Cotswold Morris tunes with drive and integrity. On this LP he was joined by Martin Brinsford and Martin Carthy (monkeys without the brass), as well as Sue Harris and Fi Fraser. Plain Capers was released in 1976 . This was the time of ‘Folk Rock’, a short-lived fad which was only survived by the very few who were good enough to develop it further. 1972 had seen the release of Morris On, which sought to bring the electric treatment to Morris music. It was great ‘fun’ to listen to, with all the implications of triviality that that three-letter word increasingly carries. Although not stated, John Kirkpatrick was the only performer with real Morris credentials, having been involved in the dance from his teens. Now John can enjoy a lot of joking (as opposed to ‘fun’), as is clear from his contribution of ‘Laudnum Bunches’ on William Kimber’s Absolutely Classic CD (issued by the English Folks Dance and Song Society, EFDSS CD 03 [1999]). Deep down he is very serious about the music; and it is hard not to see Plain Capers as his commitment to setting the record straight. Certainly it serves as a primer for Cotswold playing; it led many ‘ear players’ to new Cotswold tunes, it is supremely entertaining and satisfying to listen to, and it shows that music with lift, drive, pace, and sheer balls comes from good musicianship, not from an electric wall socket. It will be played and celebrated long after Folk Rock has been forgotten and abandoned in the bin-liner of musical fashions.

Like all Free Reed issues, This Label has ample documentation, but the proof reading and accuracy is hopelessly inadequate. Missing punctuation, incomplete parentheses, inconsistent formatting, and variable font size. There are major gaffs: page 12 does not follow from page 11, and the bottom of page 42 reads ‘Reproduce relevant notes from original insert?’: an editorial suggestion has found its way into the main text. Then there are the factual errors: I know for sure that the few short paragraphs on Flowers and Frolics contain three outright errors. How many others must there be!

The notes on the tracks, particularly the bullet points, are often repetitive, but the main body of the text contains an account of the origins and development of Free Reed which lead me happily down Memory Lane, and will give useful background to any readers who were not around at the time. This, after all, is the purpose of a retrospective: a combination of nostalgia for some and first-time knowledge for others. Unfortunately, should those others become fired with enthusiasm for some of the excellent music that is reissued here, they will be equally frustrated by the unavailability of nearly all of the originals. Free Reed owns some tremendous recordings, some still unissued; and any reissue is to be welcomed.

Another musical experiment which was around in the ‘70s was the use of ‘Old Instruments’. Trotto were an unlikely starting point for Free Reed records, and Dolly Collins, probably the finest of arrangers in this musical vein, was responsible for the accompaniments on Bellamy’s Transports. There were other ‘consorts’ in similar style and, while these are interesting musical experiments, it is absurd to consider them authentic. Sorry, that should be ‘Authentycke’, as incorrect spelling and Gothic script are compulsory when claiming bogus historical validity. (‘When visiting Stratford on Avon, don’t miss Ye Olde Shakespeare Internette Caffe … Patron, heede thee that thou spilleth not thy sack upon ye keyborde’). The use of old instruments in this context can very quickly plummet into ‘Merrie England’, which is, of course, the marketing division of Heritage UK Ltd, a government initiative which is in the process of taking anything and everything of historical interest and rebranding it as a Former Lifetime Experience, so when the exhausted tourists eventually get to the ghastly tea-room and the overpriced scones, they are aurally assaulted by costumed clowns twanging lutes and ‘Hey Nonny No-ing’ from the Elizabethan Minstrels’ Gallery that was constructed on the wall of the cafeteria during the winter by a benighted marketing manager who knows more about Hollywood than history.

And lest I seem, gentle reader, to be banging on a bit off-topic—I am not! This is another example, like Folk Rock, of the glorious jewel that is the people’s music being abused, exploited, and immolated on the Altar of Mammon. If the culture of one of the UK’s other ethnic communities were trivialised and debased in this way, there would be a huge furore—and quite rightly, but English music can be violated with impunity.

The use of old instruments in formal arrangements can only be an academic exercise. The best that can be hoped is that it is done with knowledge, competence, and sensitivity, and The Mellstock Band are safe hands. The name, of course, recalls Thomas Hardy, who wrote about village bands, played the fiddle, and is the reason why a large part of Dorset has been rebranded as ‘Hardy Country’. On Ghosts and Lovers, they offer a range of tunes and songs from a variety of sources and a wide spread of England. It is melodious and thoughtful, but whether Hardy would have recognised it is another matter. The earliest sound recordings are too far removed in time to allow speculation. There are sufficient earlier recordings of singers to reach a few decades further back, but the Mellstock Band opt instead for the vocal style of the concert hall, sometimes a little shakily, and their audience is more likely found on the plush seats of the auditorium than the benches of the public house. The presence of the English concertina is a major part of the sound, and Dave Townsend can be relied upon to provide thoughtful listening.

If you travel eastward along the South coast of England, you will reach South Sussex, which could, with a change of cultural emphasis, be equally appropriately restyled ‘Copper Country’. A county of great traditional music and song for many years, it now contains a thriving community of session players, partly sustained by the quality of some of the local residents (Sussex is the home of Will Duke and Iris Bishop, both of whom I have mentioned earlier) and also by enthusiastic organisers of clubs and session venues. A collection of 180 tunes from these sessions named The Lewes Favourites has been compiled by Andy Warburton, and while the presence of a handful of tunes from Scan Tester and one from William Kimber does not justify a full review, a theme of this essay has been approaches to English Country Music, and those wishing to discover the repertoire will find a large number of the most widespread tunes in this well-presented collection, which also contains some photographs and the occasional dance notation. It will, however, not help with the playing style, and for this the enthusiast will need to search the internet and the second-hand shops for the excellent old vinyl records which are now mostly unavailable. The Free Reed retrospective will fill a few gaps in the revival players, and there are some specialist CDs in the Voice of the People series, but the big gaps will remain until Topic issues a similar retrospective based entirely on their wide resources of traditional English musicians.

NOTE
1. I must declare a slight interest, having played a small part in the first two items reviewed. Far from influencing my opinions, however, the presence of my own mistakes is a valid reminder of our human weaknesses.

Wake the Vaulted Echoes / Black Boxes / A Touch of Clare / Concertina Tutorial

RECORDINGS

Wake the Vaulted Echoes: A Celebration of Peter Bellamy.
Peter Bellamy. Free Reed, FRT CD 14 (1999).
Black Boxes. Sarah Graves. Issued privately, MFCD 4 (2001).
A Touch of Clare. Kitty Hayes. Clachán Music, CM CD004 (2001).
Concertina Tutorial. Niall Vallely. Mad for Trad, MFT 011, CD Rom (2002).

Reviewed by ROGER DIGBY

Peter Bellamy was the most flamboyant personality in the Folk World. About that there is no argument, though arguments and Peter went hand in hand. He held firm, clear views which he argued with passion, intelligence, and eloquence; and when he was not present, people argued about him: whether his singing style, based, as he claimed, on a close study of traditional singers, was in fact affected bleating, whether his confidence on stage was in fact arrogant pomposity, whether his style of dress was eccentricity or ostentation. Poor Peter.

I’ll admit I liked him enormously from my first teenage exposure to the vocal fireworks of the Young Tradition through the years of what became a valued friendship. Most singers enjoy singing, but Peter’s enjoyment was instantly infectious, and although he was acutely aware of the intrinsic beauty of much of the traditional repertoire which he sang, he never lost sight of the fact that traditional music, in its true context, was entertainment. Peter had very high standards but he always sought to entertain. He would often indicate with a small flourish or additional emphasis that a line or word particularly pleased him. He was an excellent singer and interpreter of traditional songs, accompanied and unaccompanied, solo or with others. He wrote songs thoughtfully and suitably in the traditional style, most famously his ‘ballad opera’, The Transports. His affection for Rudyard Kipling, acquired as a young boy, led him to set many of Kipling’s poems to music based knowledgeably on the styles and sort of tunes that were very likely in Kipling’s mind as well.

This three-CD set, which also includes a CDRom section, is the definitive retrospective, covering all aspects of the music and containing a detailed booklet of seventy-two pages, the excellent content of which deserves to have received better proof reading.

Peter was one of a small number of performers who accompanied themselves on the Anglo concertina. There is no traditional precedent for this; it is a blank sheet of paper, to use the current phrase. Of the fifty-seven songs on the CDs, twenty-seven are accompanied in this way, and although Peter would have been the first to admit he was not a great Anglo player and sometimes abandoned attempts to work out Anglo accompaniments because of his limitations, I think that, paradoxically, it was in his Anglo playing that he got closest to the traditional approach. Traditional musicians are often not great technicians; their quality lies in the fine-tuning of their music within the parameters of their technical ability, with a result that can be quite rudimentary, but polished to perfection. Peter’s song accompaniments fall within this definition.

Peter’s approach was to play chords, often in both hands, and to carry the tune—or snatches of it—over the top, with the occasional embellishment (e.g., ‘Way Down Town’). One of his concertinas had two small levers on the left hand that could be brought across the thumb button and the far left button of the top row so that these notes permanently sounded. Another adaptation was a layer of baffling immediately below the fretwork to soften the sound. (The lady’s garter round the end served no practical purpose!)

It is a feature of the Anglo that in the main keys a simple change of bellows direction is often all that it takes to provide the next note or chord. Beginners are always warned against such laziness, as it deprives the Anglo of the crispness that is its birthright. Peter, however, chose to do this, and like everything he did this was quite deliberate; it is the most distinctive feature of his concertina style and one which makes his playing instantly recognisable. His big, smooth chords laid a sure yet soft foundation for the razor edge of his voice and often the additional brightness of a fiddle, and he could supply the full range of expression, from the soft and wistful (‘Trees they do Grow High’) through the bouncy and rhythmic (‘Back to the Army Again’), with every shade in between.

Over this versatile and thoughtful accompaniment there is the eccentric but controlled voice which repays listening over and over again. Peter walked the tightrope between the mask of the traditional singer and the necessity of working the song for a contemporary audience, and he walked it with surety and finesse.

This CD set, then, stands as a superb tribute and celebration of a musician and a scholar. Like his hero, Kipling, Peter was a man of great compassion and humanity, and like Kipling he was too readily misunderstood.

Peter’s natural venue was the Folk Club. In England, this odd creation of the second half of the twentieth century was the joint product of the reviving interest in traditional song and the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) movement with its singer-songwriters and ‘protest songs’. This musical combination, which was so seamless in America in the persons of Guthrie, Seeger, and Dylan, produced an odd amalgam in England, and an evening in such a club can now provide a bizarre diet of anything from the most obscure traditional item to a song from Cole Porter. While in many clubs ‘if it’s acoustic, it’s OK’ holds sway, others apply much more rigid rules. Peter Bellamy was once offered a club booking on condition he didn’t sing any Kipling! There is also a much more defined sense of performance, of artist, and of audience, than exists in the Traditional setting.

I mention this because it is the context for Sarah Graves’s Black Boxes and an explanation for a CD which contains traditional and contemporary tunes and songs from writers in the contemporary folk style as well as from The Travelling Wilbury’s. (Bellamy/Kipling’s very early ‘Oak, Ash and Thorn’ is here too!)

Sarah plays the English system and plays it very, very well. Because of the context (explained above), it is a very multifaceted CD, and Sarah takes all the elements in her stride. The concert-based approach to the Morris tunes would be as much use to a dancer as a rubber stick, but the arrangements are fine and sensitive and highlight the tunes’ subtle beauty; the driving attack of the session tunes proves Sarah’s versatility and command of her instrument and should be compulsory listening for all those who want to get some real bounce into tunes on the English system; the Anglo’s ‘Concertina Reel’ gets a thorough workout on Sarah’s English. She’s a very good singer too, as her ‘Country Blue’ shows (nice to hear local hero Adrian May’s writing talents getting sound recognition!) One of the perks of reviewing is that sometimes something comes along that we might otherwise have missed. A small-issue CD like this could be a case in point; I would consider myself the poorer if I hadn’t heard it. I recommend it.

It appears to be a phenomenon of English female concertina players that they favour the English system over the Anglo almost without exception. Katie Howson comes to mind as an exception, but she is foremost a female melodeon player (and there aren’t many of those either). By contrast, in Irish music where the whole tradition is hugely male dominant at home and abroad—particularly in the older generation—there are some blindingly good female Anglo players. Mrs Elizabeth Crotty, whose CD I reviewed a few years ago for the ICA’s Concertina World (No. 417, December 1999, pp. 19-21), and Mrs Ellen O’Dwyer, who was a star of the Free Reed field trips in the 1970s (I’ve heard rumours of reissues—let’s hope so!), were players who stood head and shoulders above many of their male counterparts. Clachán Music have now released recordings of Kitty Hayes, another mature exponent of the gentle, lilting, and beautifully paced style of County Clare. Too much Irish music is currently played too fast; reels are usually fairly fast, but the other rhythms do not have to be, and too often subtleties of phrasing and tempo are ironed out (or steamrollered over!) by taking tunes unnecessarily quickly. Kitty Hayes’s sense of pace is superb throughout this recording session which apparently took place during one day in her home, a context which can only help the relaxed style of her playing. As if to make this point, the CD begins with two sets of reels taken very steadily so that the final notes of the phrases have the time to swell, rise, and hang on for just that split second before the next phrase comes in, creating a tension and excitement that faster playing cannot achieve. This continues throughout the recordings of jigs, hornpipes, more reels, and one song which make up the fifteen tracks. Throughout, the left hand works more than is usual with many players and there is a minimum of decoration on the right and only the slightly halting start of ‘Cooleys Jigs’ gives just a hint of the informality of the recording’s venue.

I have only one small reservation about this otherwise superb release. The liner notes give no information about the concertina itself, and I am forced to conclude that it is not a very good one. Clicks and air-intakes are inevitable in a closely miked recording, but the reeds sound thin and a bit choked. Fortunately this doesn’t detract from a masterful performance.

Teaching has always been a part of the Irish tradition, both formal lessons and the simple sharing of ideas and techniques by older players who have always been keen to encourage and help the next generations of players and dancers. (I have been present at Irish sessions in London pubs where the age range of the musicians has spanned over 50 years!) It was inevitable that the digital world of the CDRom would enter this, as all other forms of teaching.

Niall Vallely is a player of exceptional technical ability and comes from a family firmly rooted and active in Traditional Irish music and with a number of notable players. He is also an experienced teacher.

This CDRom falls into four sections, with navigation being very straightforward. There is a basic introduction to the instrument with a useful and clear section on basic music theory. I firmly believe that those who play by ear should have this knowledge if only because it is the language in which musicians communicate. What is here is sound and sufficient. Next there are two sections of tunes: ‘Beginners’ and ‘Advanced’. The tunes are given in conventional musical notation with some opening remarks and then are available in a simple performance of the separate parts with both ends of the concertina clearly visible by the use of an inset. (I found this hard to assimilate; perhaps it takes time.) The more advanced tunes are also played in full at the appropriate speed. Vallely pays particular attention to the use of ornamentation. It is not possible to view the musical notation and the performance simultaneously (unless you use two screens and two browsers), but the printable version of the score is perfectly adequate if a viewable copy is required. The fourth section is about Niall Vallely himself and contains some brief personal comments on the music.

It is possible to teach technique; it is much harder to teach style and musical understanding, both of which are essential in good Irish music. Style and feel come by absorption and osmosis, and when the teacher is a machine this is far removed. Vallely himself says ‘…people have to learn the tune as well as the instrument…buy the Cds…absorb the feel…’.

Beginners and intermediate players of Irish music will find this well-made and carefully conceived CDRom very useful. Then play your Kitty Hayes CD!

View or Download the PDF format file for this page