Article MT306

English Country Music

A Tradition in Isolation?

For a traditional music with no mystical or romantic pedigree, no nationally recognised star performers or composers, that has exercised no significant influence on other Folk cultures and that has never been exploited commercially, the survival of (and in some quarters reverence afforded to) English Country Music must rank as a mystery equivalent to that of the Turin Shroud.

There is always a great danger in calmly analysing a music's development as contemporary evidence, often drawn from a miscellany of otherwise unrelated trivia, is generally so flimsy that it can be moulded to fit any theory.  However the last ten years have seen sufficient fieldwork (and I am limiting myself to Southern England) for us to establish the current state of the music.  With few exceptions the repertoire of an English traditional musician today can be described as a ragbag of old-time couple dances - polkas, schottisches and waltzes, the occasional step-dance tune drawn from a small stock of widely known hornpipes and a considerable body of popular sing-along tunes ranging in ancestry from The Yellow Handkerchief to Viva Espana.

The tradition is nowadays basically a solo one.  Musicians will occasionally play together but this is not usual and traditional bands are very rare.  The melodeon dominates the music; whilst there are a few mouth-organ players, the hammer dulcimer and fiddle are uncommon and the concertina virtually extinct.  The music itself is played in a basic rugged fashion, with little ornamentation - lack of subtlety is made up for with boisterous drive.  Although some of the tunes, in particular the hornpipes, can be traced back several centuries, the bulk of the current repertoire probably dates back little more than a hundred years.

However if recent research has stressed the music's limitations it has also demonstrated that its popularity, in rural areas at least, has been considerably underestimated.  Early collectors, admittedly in search of songs, displayed little interest in country musicians unless they were connected with ritual dance.  A parallel can be drawn with Cecil Sharp's observations that he heard few banjo or fiddle players in the Appalachian Mountains between 1916 and 1918.  However, research proves that there was an abundance of players of every instrument from Cromer to Padstow until fairly recently.  When I was collecting in Suffolk throughout the Seventies, it soon became apparent that the song tradition had lost its function and had to be drawn from people's memories; however it was a bad trip indeed if I did not contact two or three active musicians.

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the fiddle and other related stringed instruments dominated English music and the musician was a vital member of rural society, with a full diary.  He would be required to play at dances for both the nobility and their employees, for ritual music where this existed and in both Church and pub.  As the century progressed however, this strenuous itinerary was eased somewhat and Sunday became a day of rest for the fiddler.

Hymns Ancient and Modem was published in 1861 and church bands, many of which had degenerated both musically and spiritually beyond a point acceptable to polite society were gradually disbanded in favour of more respectable instruments such as the piano and organ.  However, where brass bands were employed for church services, there was still an opportunity for the musician to adapt and develop his skills.  Although survivals can be heard at Sacred Harp Conventions and Baptist revivals throughout America's Deep South, old-style religion faded fast in England under the deadweight of Victorian morality and it was only in remote rural areas that church musicianship survived into this century.  Both Walter Bulwer and Harkie Nesling, two East Anglian fiddlers, played in church bands as late as the Thirties and Percy Richardson, of Wickham Market, Suffolk, recalls local church services at that time:

If the fiddle was gradually being eased out of religious importance, its popularity in other areas was also taking a knock.  It is often stated that the English style of country music is functional rather than inspired and largely this is a result of social as much as musical development.  Southern England has never had an equivalent tradition to that of Irish 'ceilidhing'.  In Ireland and to a lesser extent Scotland it has always been a custom to visit the homes of friends and relatives to indulge in hours of chatting, singing and playing to pass away long evenings.  England on the other hand has reserved its music for the pub, harvest supper, country fair and wedding.  It has never been a listening music.  So whereas the fiddle admirably suited the atmosphere of a remote Irish cottage between shots of poteen and long ballads and folk-tales, in a crowded four-ale bar after a hectic quoits match or horse-fair, its thin tone and lack of volume must have been quite irritating over an extended period.

The domination of stringed instruments was also affected as the older French-inspired dances - the quadrille.  galop and contredanse, popular with the upper classes and imitated by their servants and labourers, began to lose their appeal in the face of the more exciting polkas, schottisches and mazurkas from Central Europe.  The introduction from Germany of the melodeon and concertina in the middle nineteenth century, ideal for producing the jerky rhythms for these dances had a dramatic and lasting effect on English Country Music.

The older string band tradition continued, however, well into the twentieth century, spread by music tutors and preserved by determined men such as Walter Bulwer and Eely Whent both of whom led bands performing traditional music alongside the 'hits' of the day up until the Second World War.  However both these men fought in the First War and, as with countless other musicians were exposed to the military and brass band music that was eventually to be adopted by the village band.

If traces of this older music can be heard in the recorded examples of Bampton fiddlers Jinky Wells and Bertie Clarke and in America from Joe Politte and Blind Uncle Gaspard (from French Missouri and Louisiana respectively) there is little documented evidence of what an English country string band sounded like.  A couple of examples from Cornwall on Boscastle Breakdown (Topic 240) and the specially arranged combination of Walter and Daisy Bulwer, Reg Hall and Norfolk dulcimer player Billy Cooper on the splendid English Country Music (Topic 296) is about all that is available.  However recent recordings (Ocora 558 534) have been made in the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean administered at various times by both France and Britain, of Creole musicians performing the older dances on fiddles, guitars and triangle and their joyous, uninhibited music could well be that of a nineteenth century English village band.

The melodeon and concertina were first developed in Germany in the 1820s but their expense restricted their use to wealthier circles of society.  However by the 1870s German manufacturers were flooding the market with cheap but reliable instruments and in 1900 alone exported over 25,000 into England.  As I have mentioned, their suitability for English musicians was obvious and many players I have spoken to trace their childhood involvement in music to a seafaring relative bringing them back a melodeon as a gift from Germany or France.  However it was common for musicians to progress to the melodeon from humbler instruments.  The Salvation Army freely distributed concertinas at the turn of the century and many children learned the rudiments of the instrument in Sunday Schools before progressing to its larger relative.  The late Scan Tester of Horsted Keynes, Sussex - an exemplary concertina player and an active musician for 75 years - was a rare example of a Southern performer making the reverse progression.  The mouth organ was also generally within the reach of most children, being easy to play and relatively inexpensive although Fred Whiting, the Suffolk fiddler comments:

Throughout the Victorian Age until the outbreak of the First World War, Germany established itself as an industrial and trading power rivaled only by Britain and its influence, both economic and cultural, was enormous.  Unlike England, German traditional music formed a part of this influence.  Unfortunately there are few examples of genuine German country music available.  Folk music was used so extensively as an agent of propaganda by the Third Reich that what little remained has been largely ignored in Germany itself.  Nevertheless a strong Bohemian influence can still be found today in many living traditions, for example, in the South Western States of America.  Thousands of German and Czech workers flooded into New Mexico.  Lousiana and Texas during the nineteenth century to develop and organise the rich mining areas and oil fields, bringing with them their accordions and dances.  Here they combined with the established French and Hispanic traditions to produce the driving sounds of Cajun and Norteno music.  Santiago Jimenez Sr., one of the pioneers in the recording of Tex-Mex music in the Thirties recalls: In central and southern Texas, an undiluted form of Bohemian music - Polka music - thrived in the German and Czech communities.  This little documented traditional music, centred around brass instruments and the cimbal (hammered dulcimer), remains popular to this day and its leading exponents - The Baea Family of Fayettesville, Lee Roy Matocha and Adolph Hofner have enjoyed considerable local commercial success.  The latter artist even introduced elements of the music into a new hybrid - Western Swing.

As the melodeon spread across Europe, so did the tunes and style of its originators.  Only countries where the active traditions were so strong, for instance Ireland and Greece, or so poor or remote, such as Iceland and Finland, that trade links were minimal, were little affected.  In Sweden the older fiddle tradition was all but squeezed out by the melodeon except in the most isolated rural areas.  Recent field recordings of melodeon and mouth organ players in Sweden (Munspel och Handklaver - Caprice LPF1) and France (Musiciens de Villages en Morvan - Vendemiere Vol 1-4) show tremendous similarities in style and repertoire not only to German based traditions but also to English country music. 

The music was spread throughout England not only by seafaring contact but through the influence of Gipsies and itinerant musicians.  Country fairs were a great opportunity for an aspiring musician to hear not only local and travelling performers but organ grinders, puppeteers (often accompanied by a hammer dulcimer player), minstrel troupes and barrel organs.  The music of Oscar Woods, the fine Suffolk melodeon player is often referred to locally as 'barrel organ music' and he himself has a large collection of recordings of such mechanical instruments.

It has been estimated that at the turn of the century as many as 100,000 Gypsies roamed the British countryside, taking with them not only their skills as tinsmiths and scissor grinders but also their songs, music and step-dancing, a Gipsy speciality.  As such they were more readily accepted than today and were often welcomed visitors in the English villages where many settled and passed on their traditions.  The late George Ling of Blaxhall, Suffolk, though not a traveller himself, like many young country people was fascinated by the Gypsies:

Step dancing was enormously popular as a rural pastime well into this century, one reason being that it was generally unacceptable for women to enter a pub, so the only dancing performed there would be solo or competitive stepping.  Contests were often held at village fairs and Bob Cann, the noted Dartmoor musician and dancer recalls: In Suffolk the judging was sometimes done from the cellar of a pub where only the dancers' rhythm could be heard.

If English country music thrived in the Victorian era and beyond, unlike Scots and Irish traditions it failed to make a significant impression on foreign folk cultures.  This is partly explained by the pattern of English emigration.  England (and particularly the South) was the richest, most powerful country in the world at this time.  Oppression in rural areas had the effect of forcing agricultural labourers to the booming industrial cities, whilst making the remaining rural population more insular and suspicious.

In general terms of migration, it was the English middle classes - the men with both the finance and entrepreneurial skills - who developed Britain's colonies and this level of society included few traditional musicians.  The Canadian fiddler Louie Riendeau while discussing the Scots and Irish musicians he has heard remarked pointedly "I never heard a man from England play a fiddle - funny thing that".

In America, despite the well-worn lip service paid to the Anglo-Tradition, the bulk of America's musical culture has been fashioned by dispossessed and dislocated peoples - the Irish, the French and the Negro who often clung to their music for identity in the face of oppression.  Only in Australia, where a larger proportion of England's working class emigrated, or were transported to, do we hear music identifiable as Southern English.  It is only in the fiddle and melodeon tunes of Harry Cotter, Simon MacDonald and Dave Mathias that we can hear a direct equivalent to Bob Cann or Stephen Baldwin.

The lack of a national identity with English music and its social demands for rhythmic competence as opposed to inspired technical excellence caused it to miss out on the Golden Age of Folk music - the exploitation of traditional music by the phonograph industry in the first thirty years of the twentieth century.  The recording of Scots and Irish musicians, both in Britain and America, had been going for twenty years by the time American record executives realised in the early twenties that profits could be made by recording and issuing discs of virtually every musical community.  However amidst the adverts for genuine Swedish, Polish, Dutch and Ukrainian music from the homeland you will find none for 'Real old English step dance music just like Dad played back at the village pub'.

At home, English music's contribution to the phonograph boom was slight indeed - a handful of 78s in the Thirties and Forties by Jinky Wells and William Kimber from Oxfordshire and George Tremain of North Yorkshire.  Splendid and invaluable though these remain they were largely produced with the backing of the English Folk Dance and Song Society to concentrate on music for the Morris and Sword Dance traditions (already well in decline by this time) and in no way could be considered representative of the vast body of traditional music being performed in the English countryside at this time.

If Southern England did not contribute to the commercial documentation of folk and related music, it would be totally wrong to assume that it was not influenced by it.  Thousands of 78s found their way into the homes, and often the repertoires of English musicians.  The son of the late Alf Peachey, a noted Suffolk melodeon player, still has his father's collection of over 500 old discs, many of Scots and Irish traditional musicians such as the Wyper Brothers and John Kimmel.  Percy Brown of Norfolk once obtained sixty wax cylinders of the music Hall singer Billy Williams in exchange for a pig.  Village bands such as Walter Bulwer's 'Time and Rhythm' in Norfolk and Suffolk's Pearce and Crane Band and 'The ERBS' led by Eely Whent were quick to introduce the rhythms of the foxtrot, quickstep and Palais Glide alongside the older traditional dances at the sixpenny hops they still regularly played.  Total commitment to these new sounds was not paramount of course - Scan Tester's band 'The Tester Imperial' classed itself as a Jazz Band on the grounds that it introduced a set of drums (played by Scan's wife Daisy) to accompany the fiddle, concertina and piano!  Finally, of course, only the most isolated or intransigent squeeze-box player could not have been influenced and effected by the incredible success of Scotland's Jimmy Shand.

However the growth of mass media and the social effects of the Second World War effectively reduced the music's reason to function.  A generation, exposed to both the privations and excitement of the War years rapidly became disillusioned with old-style rural life and flocked to the towns and cities in search of work and entertainment.  Traditional music became even more remote, isolated from its audience and made redundant by Radio and TV - but it still kept going.  David Peachey, again:

If the Folk Revival of the Fifties was largely American inspired, it was an Anti-American feeling in the Sixties that prompted the British Folk Movement to explore its own traditional culture.  Whilst Irish song and music gained the most attention, there was a small but significant body of enthusiasts, often inspired by the resurgence of interest in ritual and social dance, attempting to define and promote an English musical identity.  They did not have much to go on but the pioneering work of Reg Hall, Russell Wortley and Mervyn Plunkett amongst others, in performing, recording and promoting English country music inspired scores of younger musicians across the country.

Certain clubs, such as the Fox in Islington invited traditional musicians like Scan Tester and Bob Cann to perform.  Recordings such as English Country Music from East Anglia were a revelation to many and introduced musicians such as Billy Bennington and Oscar Woods to a new generation of enthusiasts at festivals such as those organised at Cricklade and Broseley.  This interest revitalised many a musician.  I well remember lending Oscar Woods a copy of Bob Cann's record on Topic and on my next visit a weekend later was handed an order for thirty more for Oscar's friends and relatives.

The Seventies have seen many revival bands such as Flowers and Frolics, The New Victory Band, Oak, The Old Swan Band and Webbs Wonders, formed to perform solely or predominantly English country music.  However exclusivity in musical forms and styles can often lead to sterility and in the same way that traditional musicians have never been slow in picking up new tunes, instruments and ideas from a wide variety of sources, so too have the best of the younger bands.

I have attempted to explain the component parts of English traditional music today.  I suggest that any musicians who limit themselves to a repertoire and style 'totally English' is walking on very thin ice and giving little credit to the imagination and adaptability of the thousands of traditional musicians who have kept this thing going.

Keith Summers - uploaded 3.11.16
but proably written in the late-Seventies or early-Eighties ...
but I still have no idea why it was never published in MT. - Ed.

Article MT306

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 20.6.15