Billy Harrison & Jim Eldon

Yorkshire Fiddle Tunes, Songs and Carols

Musical Traditions MT Cass 201

For most of us average, everyday musicians, the 'tradition' is the recorded source; no more sitting with a particular group of previous-generation players and absorbing their repertory and style over years.  We're eclectic; we choose the styles we like to play.  Trouble is, most of the recorded sound available (tunes, that is - the singers are rather better served) are already heavily processed by really good, and eclectic, musicians.  Our 'tradition" is The Rakes, The Old Swan Band Mk I or pub sessions where the others have learned from these recorded sources.

Well, I don't actually think there's anything much wrong with that - the recorded sound is a central feature of our culture now, and it's a logical 'tradition bearer', but it isn't half nice to see the increasing availability of un-reprocessed source music that's been happening over the last few years through such small-scale cassette-based operations as People's Stage, Vintage Tapes, The Vaughan Williams Library and the offspring of this very organ, Musical Traditions Tapes.  It all still furthers our eclectic approach, but we really can hear so much more for ourselves, and base our choices that much nearer the sources.  In case certain people are reading this, I ought to say that, despite the above, I do think that really there's no substitute for sitting and playing with the old ones.

All of which is a rather rambling approach to a great new offering from Musical Tradition Tapes: Yorkshire fiddler Billy Harrison, recorded with Jim Eldon, of Yorkshire Fiddle Tunes, Songs and Carols.

It's great.  You should buy it if you're at all interested in country music or the carols.  But I'm going to start with one quibble, and that's the opening track, and the impression it gives about the relationship between the musicians.  It's just called Hornpipe, and its both Billy and Jim playing fiddle in unison.  It's a fine track but it brought one of my recurring iconoclastic thoughts into my head: on the 'Black' English Country Music record, notwithstanding the fact that Reg Hall is one of my favourite of all musicians, what I always really want to hear is how Walter and Daisy Bulwer and the others would have sounded on their own.  When I first put this cassette on, I thought, Gawd, they're wheeling Jim in to stiffen up the playing.  As it happens, though, this is precisely what isn't happening, and that's why I think that track should have been used later.  Billy's playing has shape, vigour and a good tone, and doesn't need helping along at all.  What is happening is that Billy actively likes playing with other musicians, playing parts, playing cello - and it's this that ultimately comes over on the tape.  "Always Billy wants to teach me more so that he can show me the parts - the second fiddle or the cello bass line ...  Billy has always been keen to draw the best possible music out of the musicians present" says Jim in his introductory notes.

On side one there's a selection of hornpipes, polkas etc. interspersed with occasional brief reminiscences giving background to the tunes, played on solo fiddle, two fiddles and fiddle and cello.  The second side opens with Keel Row/Cuddle in, Cuddle in (cf. The Cats Got the Measles/Mrs Huddledee set on English Country Music), but thereafter consists of Christmas carols, sung, played and talked about.  The carols that Billy learned from his father's generation are familiar representatives from the 'old' carol repertoire that still surfaces from place to place around the country, most spectacularly as the 'Sheffield Carols'.  Mostly, here, settings of While Shepherds Watched; of which, according to the full and informative notes, Billy knows five.  The ones on the cassette are the ones known elsewhere as Sweet Chiming Bells and Mount Zion.  The singing is, well - valiant; but the playing is lovely.

It's a cassette that's well worth having, both as a source of style and repertoire, and also as a document of widespread vigour of this kind of music.  And it's good to listen to.

Barry Callaghan - 18.8.98

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