English Gypsy Musicians

Musical Traditions (MTCD373)

Harry Lee: Flowers of Edinburgh, The Breakdown, Let's all Sing like the Birdies do, Irish Hornpipe, Over the Waves, Clog Dance, Killikrankie, Robert E Lee, Sailor's Hornpipe, No Mother To Guide You, Irish Washerwoman, Gary Owen, Gary Owen 2, Brighton Camp, Irish Washerwoman, Brighton Camp, Rakes of Kildare/Tenpenny BitVanslow Smith: Box polka medley, Fiddle Medley, Box hornpipe medley, Fiddle Medley, Box waltz medley, Fiddle Polka, Box hornpipe medley, Fiddle Waltz medley, Fiddle Waltz, Boys of Bluehill.  Lemmie Brazil: God Killed the Devil O, Harvest Home, Smile A While, Irish Hornpipe Stepdance 1&2, Irish Jig, Three Tunes, Devil O, Various tunes, Irish Hornpipe Stepdance 2.  Jasper and Levi Smith: Cock of the North medley.  Jasper and Derby Smith: Whistling Rufus medleyJoe Dozer Smith: Drunken Piper/Step it AwayMary Biddle: Little BeggarmanWalter Aldridge: Cornish BreakdownJohn Locke: Locke's HornpipeStephen Baldwin: Tite Smith's HornpipeFred 'Pip' Whiting: Billy Harris's Hornpipe, Will the Waggoner.
An important release - an entire CD devoted to English Gypsy instrumental music.  Although pour-quality cassette copies of Harry Lee's playing have circulated for some time, this issue, made with professional recording equipment with noise-reduction, is little short of miraculous.  Recorded in a natural setting with voices, dogs, and other background sounds, at last we can hear the full range of his performance .style.  It was worth the wait.

Obviously we only have a sliver of Lee's repertoire here - a later recording trip proved fruitless due to pub noise, but found him 'playing ("different") step-dancing tunes'.  Despite this, no further recording attempts were made.  This is a musician playing intimately for listening rather than as a pub dance musician.  Dance tunes are played steadily and more lyrically (especially in contrast to Lcmmie Brazils more spirited approach), and the song tunes are played as airs, rather than as public sing-song' pieces, allowing him to display his full panoply of fiddle techniques and ornaments.

The way he plays the airs is intriguing - Lee keeps pretty consistently to the correct notes of the chorus half-verse of the ghastly 1895 parlour song There'll Come a Time (identified by Paul Roberts and here called You'll Have No Mother to Guide You) by Charles K Harris (best known for After the Ball).  He plays it with considerable affection and lavishes all his skills to enhance the tune: sliding notes to produce a unison, delicate appoggiaturas to highlight the structure, use of third position (which he beautifully synchronizes with ornamental slides), and controlled finger vibrato.  Conversely when Brazil promises us a rendition of Murphy and Casting's The Singer Was Irish (1904), and almost correctly recites the first half of the chorus, she then plays a waltz tune that appears to bear no resemblance at all to the original common-time melody (she does this elsewhere with Swanee River, not included here).  Conversely when Brazil was having trouble with her voice, she would recite the words and then play the tune on the melodeon straightforwardly and accurately.

I never thought I'd see the day when I was reviewing a Musical Traditions album featuring electric violin!  But here it is.  Vanslow Smiths 'skeleton' amplified fiddle ensures unanimity of tone and attack, but allows us to hear his bowing patterns well - unfortunately there are some tuning problems.  His melodeon playing, however, displays great panache and a predilection for chromatic ornamental runs and occasional imaginative harmonies which are really interesting.  Again, Vanslow calls from a store of well-known tune features to construct medleys.

Despite Gwilym Davies's initial inclination not to re-record material (with Brazil he was working with very limited battery life), his decision to record more extensively bore surprising results.  Although many Traveller (and other) musicians reinvent, change, and vary their tunes fairly considerably, most were only recorded once.  These repeated recordings are some of the only evidence of the way a musician like Lemmie, or like Vanslow, constructed a performance.  Not only are tune structures not strictly binary, but individual strains sport melodic motifs, whether from other tunes, improvised on the spur of the moment, or variations on a previous idea.  They become quite modular.  No wonder few of them sported definitive names, nor that we should have such problems identifying them.

This extensive collection is finished off by some examples of mouth-music, or diddling, a few non-Gypsy musicians playing pieces they learned from Travellers, and the famous John Locke performance of an untitled hornpipe, from a cylinder recording held at Cecil Sharp House.

The notes by Phil Heath-Coleman are extensive, authoritative, and fascinating.  There are some valiant attempts at tune identification, although there is also much confusion, especially in naming hornpipes.  For example, the Bristol Hornpipe and the Breakdown/Lass on the Strand/Belfast Hornpipe group of tunes (hereafter Breakdown) both commence in a similar fashion: the 'Bristol' with a major-key descending broken chord, which rises again to the tonic, whilst the 'Breakdown' family has a straightforward iteration of a major arpeggio, first downwards and then back up to the tonic.  However, in the second measure of the 'Bristol', the underpinning harmony rapidly moves through subdominant, dominant, back to the tonic in the third measure, whereas the 'Breakdown' sticks to the subdominant and moves to dominant at the start of the third measure.  Thereafter the tunes go their separate ways.  It is intriguing that in virtually all of the recorded instances of the 'Breakdown' tunes, the first strain is fairly consistent - right through from Alexander Prince in 1907, taking in Irish versions from Allan's Irish Fiddler and Joe Derrane (who calls it 'Belfast Hornpipe'), to the instances at hand from Lee (1962), Brazil (1981), and Smith (1986?) - but then there is a bewildering selection of unrelated second strains.  Smith combines both - starting with the 'Breakdown' and moving to the 'Bristol' (although it sounds as if remnants of Underneath her Apron have also crept in!) - and using part of Felix Burns's Woodland Flowers as the second part.  (Interestingly, Alexander Prince's Hornpipe Medley and Woodland Flowers were issued as the two sides of one of his releases on Regal Winner in 1912).

Nitpicking time.  Inside the flimsy DVD case is the booklet which (in my copy) was poorly printed, resulting in a really disappointing reproduction quality for the photographs.  On the website, it appears to be the scanning quality that is poor and produces quite a lot of pixilation.  A great shame, as the use of PDF on the website and higher-quality scans would have permitted lossless zooming-in, allowing us to see even better how, for example, the musicians held their instruments.  And why Lemmy (as per Motorhead) when she has always previously been Lemmie?  Also, some track listings disagree between the booklet and the sleeve (20 and 21).  But an absolutely fascinating, even revelatory issue from the ever-magnificent Musical Traditions label.  Nobody with an interest in English instrumental music can afford not to have this CD.

Paul Burgess - 4.12.17
First published in Folk Music Journal, 11, 3 (2018)
with permission of the editor.

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