Melodeon Players from East Anglia

The Pigeon on the Gate

Veteran Tapes VTVS 05/06

Comprising 118 tracks (many of which contain more than one tune), from 27 different players, this double cassette from Veteran Tapes takes a bit of coming to terms with in the relatively short time required to keep this review current.  I might prefer to write it in a year's time, but I think you would prefer it now.  So if what follows is less rigorous and considered than it ought to be, please forgive me in the cause of enthusiasm and immediacy.

Bert Mayes What is most striking about this collection is that it represents an extremely homogeneous musical culture which, nonetheless, allows for considerable stylistic flexibility within its confines.  My feeling is that this level of homogeneity is rare in the southern half of England - but I also realise that I have never before had the opportunity to listen to so much music from one geographical area at the same time, so this judgement could be quite wrong.  What will have made it homogeneous is its purpose, its function - and that is, I believe, to accompany the step-dance.  Listen to the bass behind the tune - in almost every case you find the regular, pumping 4/4 or 8/8 rhythm of the hornpipe/polka.  And while the melody may have hints of 'dottedness' in the hands of a few players, the basses remain insistently 'straight'.  play Sound ClipEven the few jigs and waltzes manage to retain this rhythmic flavour - Bert Mayes plays Cock o' the North/Pop Goes the Weasel with what are essentially polka basses all the way through (sound clip).

If this concept of East Anglian (and, most particularly, Suffolk's) music being centred on the step-dance is correct, it goes some way to explaining a number of anomalies I've noticed over the years.

If the step-dance is at the heart of the music, then all of this is perfectly natural.  It requires nothing more than a single, solid, regular, emphatic, undotted beat - to which two steps are danced.  This holds true for polkas, hornpipes, schottisches, even waltzes.  Only jigs pose a problem, but there are very few of these in the repertoire - and the rhythmic style is such that the polka step fits across them with little difficulty.  This two-steps-per-beat formula means that - with undotted, unsyncopated tunes like these - the number of beats per bar, bar length, phrasing, all become irrelevant.  They don't dance to the tune here, they dance to the rhythm.  One of the most noticeable differences between the older East Anglian dancers and those from other parts of the country (and from younger dancers from anywhere) is their unconcern about the tune.  I have rarely seen such a dancer begin to step at the start of an A or B music, or stop at such a natural break-point.  They begin when the spirit moves them, and stop when they've done enough.  If Oscar adds an extra beat, or Cyril loses half a bar, or if the B music isn't the same one he played last Saturday night, it bothers them not one whit.

In the same way, song tunes no longer have to conform to the standard formulae when there aren't a load of people wanting to sing the words all through, even on the choruses.  My experience was that it was us youngsters who would bawl out "Daisy, Daisy ..."; the locals tended not to get involved until "... It won't be a stylish marriage", and had usually returned to their conversations or their pints before the repeat came round.  So, if there was the chance that someone might want to do a bit of stepping, it was only common sense to leave out some of those long, uninteresting gaps and get on with the rhythmic bits.  And there are lots of rhythmic bits, and not many boring gaps, on these two splendid cassettes.

Tape number 1 is all of music from Suffolk, whilst number 2 is mainly Norfolk with 3 tracks from Cambridgeshire and 3 from Essex.  Side 1 starts in fine style with a sprightly Pidgeon on the Gate from Fred List.  This is THE step-dance tune of the area, and with at least 6 different versions to be heard here, it was the obvious title for the collection.

Fred is followed by Dolly Curtis, daughter of the landlord at the Dennington Bell.  Dolly is an untypical inclusion in almost every respect - gender, instrument, accompanists, repertoire ...  She plays a two-row box in the land where the one-row is king, play Sound Clipand works with a piano and drums back-up.  And while she is not alone in seeking out new repertoire, I can't think of many Southern traditional players who'd tackle the very demanding Entertainer (sound clip) - or do it so well.

I can't really do a track by track appraisal of this collection - there are 13 players on side 1 alone.  Suffice it to say that many of the Suffolk musicians you'll have heard of, plus a few you won't, give a tune or two each with great effect and plenty of variety.

Oscar Woods and Font Whatling Oscar Woods gets the whole of side 2, except for the last 2 tracks - which are by his son-in-law, Jen Newson.  Oc taught Jen to play in the last few years of his life, and passed on his repertoire, and his box.  Jen didn't play much in public for quite a while, but has been getting out a lot more over the past year or so, and was in fine form at Reg Reader's 60th birthday party at the Blaxhall Ship earlier this summer.  It is hoped that he will be one of the guests at next year's English Country Music Weekend.

Oscar plays a good selection of his song tunes and much of his more commonly played dance Sound Clip  But we also get the Cliffe Hornpipe and the Primrose Polka (sound clip) which, I would imagine, he picked up from some of the 78s he had in his collection.  They're certainly not usually found in the East Anglian repertoire and, if he did get them in this way, he'd certainly put his own stamp on them in the relatively short time he'd been playing them.

On side 3 we encounter George Craske from Sustead, near Cromer in Norfolk.  I suspect that few of us will have heard (or even heard of) him before.  These recording were made in 1977 when, I imagine, he was getting on a bit; he said he didn't play at home any more as his "people were getting old".  If these nine tracks are anything to go by, he must have been stunning in his earlier years.  Had we known about him back in '77 he would have been one of the doyens of the English Country Dance revival, and would certainly have given Bob Cann a run for his money.

The notes say that he had lots of polkas and barndance tunes, several waltzes (mostly song tunes), jigs for the Long Dance, the Keel Row for the Poker Dance (like the Broom Dance) and scores of hornpipes for the stepping.  He also had some special tunes from his father, but declined to play these for the collectors.  Apparently he often said that every step-dancer had his own tune - which perhaps contradicts some of my argument at the start of this review.  And Norfolk is not Suffolk.

John Woodrow Not only was he a great dance player, and much more 'bouncy' than most included here, but his tunes are extremely interesting.  Not that it was a particularly unusual repertoire, play Sound Clipbut that the tunes themselves contain numerous little twists and turns which are remarkably melodic and musicianly.  Listen to his Heel and Toe Polka (sound clip).  With George Craske, one is constantly exclaiming "Oh, that's nice!"

Elsewhere here, Sonny Barber has a crack at Putting on the Style showing, like Oc, that age is no bar to the acquisition of additions to the Sound Clip  John Woodrow plays a smashing little unnamed step-dance tune I've not heard before (sound clip) with considerable style, though rather more slowly than is usual for stepping.  And, to finish side 3, we have Bob Davies - recorded in Cromer.  This is another first rate player who's likely to be new to most of us - play Sound Clipand yet another reason to be grateful to Veteran for this essential collection.  Bob gives us five tracks, though we only get the name of one tune; a great hornpipe called The Gates of Edinburgh (sound clip).

Sonny Barber It's interesting that the splendid range of variants of quite recently composed popular tunes seems to directly contradict the accepted idea of how a traditional musician learned his tunes.  One of the criteria for defining the 'traditional' process is that the young player learns from a member of his family (Bob Cann's Uncle, Scan Tester's older brother) or from a 'significant adult' within his community like Oc Woods' Tiger Smith.  The 'master/apprentice' model is often quoted in this context, and stories abound of the youngster being turned away and told to "Get it perfect" before the next lesson can be given.  If this was really the norm, how do we explain the extraordinary abundance of local variants of popular music-hall tunes co-opted into service as dance music - Oh, Joe, the Boat is going Over being a good example.  Almost every player I can think of had a version of this polka, and in the late '60s - early '70s, when we were active in Suffolk, the tune can only have passed through three or four generations of players since its composition.  Clearly, the "Get it perfect" school of tuition was less widespread or rigorous than is commonly assumed.  Or perhaps "Oh, I just sort of picked 'em up from people in the area ... No, they weren't much bothered whether I'd got 'em perfect." was not a sufficiently interesting story for the collectors to trouble with.

Percy Brown, from Norfolk, is given the whole of side 4 - and rightly so, as (to my ears) he's probably the best player of the 27 to be found here.  As with George Craske, it seems a terrible shame that he was not more widely heard by the younger players of the revival during his lifetime - play Sound Clipparticularly as he had so much to teach us about the differences between one-row and two-row melodeon playing.  The 23 tracks come from four different collectors and range from 1979 right back to 1959 - and on some of these early tracks the playing is just blistering! (sound clip - hornpipe medley)

At the start of this piece I said that this collection demonstrates an extremely homogeneous musical culture which, nonetheless, allows for considerable stylistic flexibility within its confines.  Percy Brown amply demonstrates that flexibility.  He could never be mistaken for a player from another area - yet is atypical in almost every respect.

For a start, he plays a two-row box (I think only Font Whatling and Dolly Curtis are equally abberant - Bert Mayes has one, but plays it as a one-row), and this has a profound impact on the style of his music - more so than many (even some melodeon players) realise.  He uses his basses with a most untypical reluctance, yet will sometimes include the almost unheard-of third chord (C in the key of G) which is, of course, unavailable to the one-row melodeon player anyway.  This is immediately noticeable, and gives his music a kind of sophistication, particularly when heard, as here, after two hours of harmonically restricted one-row playing.  Similarly, he sometimes borrows notes from across the rows - smoothing and easing the playing of fast runs - which, together with the sparse basses, calls to mind an almost Irish quality apparent in his playing.  This is enhanced by his delicacy of touch, most noticeable on the '59 recordings, and a marked tendency towards dottedness in his playing generally.

Is it the case that the best players in Norfolk (Brown, Craske, fiddler Herbert Smith ...) tend to exhibit an independence of mind in stylistic matters which is far less common with their counterparts in Suffolk?

Percy plays for the famed step-dancer Dick Hewett on the first five 1979 tracks and the final 1959 step-dance medley.  play Sound ClipI have never before heard stepping of this quality from anywhere in the south of England and, unfortunately, I seem to have run out of superlatives at this point.  Just listen to this clip of the Yarmouth Hornpipe... and marvel!

The double-cassette format has a lot going for it with a label like Veteran and a collection like this.  It's relatively inexpensive to produce in the sort of numbers required, and can all be done in-house.  Most particularly, the 3+ hours playing time allows for the inclusion of a few tracks whose technical quality might be unacceptable in a shorter format collection.  Most of the recordings here are fine - only a handful remind us that the terms 'wow' and 'flutter' might well have been coined in connection with the recording of free reed instruments in less than optimal circumstances.  Really, the only drawback with the format is the somewhat limited space available for what used to be called sleevenotes.  The notes here are very good indeed, but despite the employment of a minuscule typeface, there's still no room for even basic biographical details of many of the players - or more than one photo.  Any chance of a supplementary info sheet for future releases, John?

When Veteran released Many a Good Horseman VTVS01/02, it was the start of their Vintage series.  Scan Tester's I Never Played to Many Posh Dances (VTVS03/04) followed last month, and now we have Melodeon Players.  Plans are afoot for a new Southern English Gipsy Singers collection, and other ideas are being mooted ...  If the new releases are of the same quality as the existing ones, we should nominate Howson for a K, at the very least.

Get to Veteran Tapes' website via our Links Page.

Rod Stradling - 18.8.97

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