'Blind Willie' Purvis
Fred ‘Pip’ Whiting
John Playford’s ‘The Dancing Master’
All 535 of the ‘Playford’ tunes, and their variants, have been brought together by Jeremy Barlow in his excellent, ‘The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master’, Faber Music Ltd, 1985.
John Playford (1623-1686), bookseller and publisher of The Dancing Master, the earliest collection of tunes and instructions for English country dancing, was born and educated in Norwich. After a seven-year apprenticeship to a London publisher, he became a member of the Yeomanry of the Stationer's Company in 1647, allowing him to trade as a publisher himself, and he set up his shop by the Temple Church. Playford was a royalist during the civil wars, and the political revolution of 1648-49. After the execution of Charles I in January 1649 he published such tracts as ‘The Perfect Narrative of the Tryal of the King’, which led to a warrant being issued for his arrest in November 1649.
The establishment of a puritan Commonwealth, which banned dance music of almost every kind, and even the ‘pagan’ celebration of Christmas, was not, on the face of it, a propitious time for the launch of The English Dancing Master. (The ‘English’ was dropped from the title after the first,1651, edition.) ‘These times,’ Playford wrote in his preface, ‘and the Nature of it do not agree.’ Perhaps the danger and unrest of the Cromwell period, however, encouraged the wealthy to find amusement, and musical education, at home, behind closed doors. A further contribution of Playford’s to this underground culture was A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, published in 1654. His later output included song anthologies, psalters, and instrumental works.
Playford was no dancing master himself, and half a dozen or so contributors probably wrote The English Dancing Master, a copy of which is held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, at Cecil Sharp House, London. Music and directions are given for 105 dances, some taken, it is thought, from formal ‘masques’ and dancing at court, others from the London theatre. We know that the tunes were intended for the fiddle, even at that early date, because in another of his 1651 publications, A Musical Banquet, Playford specifically advertised The English Dancing Master as ‘to be played on the Treble Violl or Violin’. The Dancing Master appeared in a series of eighteen editions between 1651 and 1728, a period which, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, saw the growth and spread of country dancing from the court and theatre to the fashionable gentry and, with the initiation of the Bath Assemblies by Beau Nash in 1705, the affluent middle classes.
John Playford published the first seven editions of The Dancing Master, 1651-1686, himself. After his retirement, his son Henry took over, publishing the eighth to twelfth editions, and John Young the final six. After Playford’s death in 1686 the great Henry Purcell composed A Pastoral Elegy On the Death of Mr. John Playford, with words by Nahum Tate, which was published by Henry Playford in 1687.
The William Vickers manuscript of 1770-72 is held in the collection of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Society of Antiquaries. Matt Seattle edited and published it in three parts , as ‘The Great Northern Tunebook’, Dragonfly Music, 1986-87; and he is currently
preparing a new edition.
The Vickers collection, perhaps originally intended for publication, consists of about six hundred tunes, and, partly because most of the tunes do not appear elsewhere, Matt Seattle considers it ‘among the most important collections of traditional music, published or unpublished, to have been made in the British Isles’. The collection does seem, from various evidence, to record a ‘body of material transmitted aurally, rather than copied from printed sources.’
‘Boldly written’ inside the front cover are the words ‘Vickers book Anno Domini 1770,’ while inside the back cover, ‘among various doodlings’, appears, ‘The 10th of July, 1772’, perhaps, Seattle suggests, the completion date. The tunes are prefaced with the following verse:
Musicks a Crotchet the Sober thinks it Vain
The Fiddles a Wooding Projection
Tunes are But Flights of a Whimsical Brain
Which the Bottle Brings Best to Parfection
Musisians are half witted mery and madd
And Those are the same that admire Them
Theyr Fools if they Pley unless their Well Paid
And The Others are Blockheads to Hire them’
Most of the music, writes Matt Seattle, ‘is written in one script, presumably by Vickers,’ but ‘several styles of writing are interspersed for a few pages at a time, so that the collection is more a team effort than one person’s work.’ Although described by Vickers as ‘Country Dances’, (and ‘many of the tunes are known to have specific dances associated with them,’) ‘there can be little doubt that [Vickers] saw the collecting of tunes, and presumably their playing also, as satisfying pursuits in their own right ...and we may assume in this respect a situation similar to the present, when the same musicians play both for dances and in concerts, as well as getting together at sessions to play just for the fun of it.’ He also notes that Vickers is both ‘remarkably liberal in his musical tastes’, making no particular distinction between what were, in 1770, ‘new’ tunes, and older, ‘traditional’ ones; and noteworthy also for ‘the lack of regional, and even national, exclusivity in the selection of tunes.’ The tunebook includes Southern English tunes and French Cotillons, as well as Scottish, Northumbrian and other Northern ones. ‘To Vickers, a good tune was a good tune, irrespective of who wrote it, and where or when.’
In preparing the ‘Great Northern Tune Book’, Seattle writes in his Conclusion, he has ‘spent a large proportion of the last two years in the pleasant company of William Vickers,’ and his reflections on the subject are still well worth noting. He ponders the attraction of 17th and 18th century English music for musicians at the end of the twentieth. ‘All indications point to a revival on a larger scale than hitherto,’ he writes, very presciently in 1987, ‘and I think the obvious answer is that there is a need for the music.’ While the Scots and the Irish ‘can boast a virtuoso musical tradition stretching back to the 17th century,’ there seems to be ‘little in the surviving English traditional repertoire to present a challenge to the more technically gifted.’ The Polka in England, as he points out, ‘has become the dominant rhythm,’ leading to the neglect of ‘the many fine English tunes and their dances - 6/8 and 9/8 Jigs, Common- and Triple-Time Hornpipes, Reels and Rants,’ which historically preceded it as a dance form, and which offer such ‘breadth of repertoire, scope for collective music-making, and opportunity for individual virtuosity.’
The work of Joshua Jackson (1763-1839) has been researched and published by Geoff and Liz Bowen, and Robin and Rosalind Shepherd as ‘Tunes, Songs & Dances from the 1798 Manuscript of Joshua Jackson, North Yorkshire Cornmiller & Musician’, Yorkshire Dales Workshops, 1998.
Joshua Jackson (1763-1839) was a prosperous Yorkshire miller who lived near the industrial village of Burton Leonard, north-east of Harrogate. He started his tunebook in 1798, continuing to add tunes until about 1820. The book has one hundred and fifty pages, and contains over 500 tunes - ‘English country dance music, hornpipes and marches, Scottish reels, Irish jigs, minuets, allemands, incidental music for the theatre and excerpts of classical music’ - as well as songs and dance instructions. The Jacksons were a well-established farming family, and Jackson would play at musical gatherings at local country houses, as well as at ‘Burton feast’ in July, when, say Bowen and Shepherd, ‘villagers and musicians parade the village in fancy dress accompanying "Zany", or "Senny Peter", a mummer whose role was part religious, part comic.’ They also suggest that Jackson probably learned some of his tunes from touring companies visiting the theatres in Harrogate and Ripon.
Kershaw’s manuscript collection was edited by Manchester musician Jamie Knowles, and published as ‘The Joseph Kershaw Manuscript - The Music of a 19th Century Saddleworth Fiddle Player’ (In With A Chance Publishing, 1993).
Little is known about nineteenth-century fiddle player Joseph Kershaw’s life, except that he lived in Slackcote, Saddleworth, then a remote district in the Pennines, east of Manchester. But from around 1820 Kershaw kept a fiddle music notebook (now in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, London), containing some seventy-seven tunes. Of particular interest is Kershaw’s inclusion of a pair of 3/2 hornpipes, ‘Berwick Jockey’ and ‘Chip and Rant’, fine examples of a dance form previously thought to have been extinct by that time, as well as cut-time hornpipes like the one in the present collection, now known as ‘Kershaw’s Hornpipe’.
(Jamie Knowles and his associates around Manchester used to play mainly Irish music until Brian McNeill, of the Battlefield Band, pointed out that, however good they were, some brilliant new band would always be crossing the Irish Sea, and wipe the floor with them. So why not find tunes English from their own region?)
William Irwin (1822-1889)
The following notes are a digest of Greg Stephens’ excellent article, ‘A Really First-Rate Country Fiddler’, which you can read in full online at harbourtownrecords.com
Born in Keswick on 3 November 1822, William Irwin (1822-1889) learned fiddle from a North Cumbrian fiddler, Gillespie, ‘a master hand with the bow’, and played his first professional engagement at the age of sixteen, at the Grapes Inn, Keswick. He was paid ten shillings - 50p in modern money, but more than a week’s wages at the time. After serving his apprenticeship as a cooper (barrel-maker), he moved at the age of twenty-one to Langdale, to work for the Elterwater Gunpowder Company (which by 1849 needed four hundred barrels a week for the export of its powder). Irwin played in Langdale with two other fiddlers and a cellist, in the band at Holy Trinity Church. He then settled permanently in the Elterwater region, marrying a widow, Dorothy Greenup - his courtship included writing her a tune called ‘Mrs Greenup’s Reel’ - and working for the Gunpowder Company for the rest of his life, apart from a short break. Dorothy bore him eleven children, of whom at least eight reached adulthood, including his son Edwin.
William Irwin developed a long-standing association with pubs in the Langdale, Grasmere, Ambleside and Hawkshead areas, playing in around thirty of them over a forty year period, some, like the the King’s Arms in Hawkshead, as many as four times a year. ‘The music he played on these occasions,’ writes Greg Stephens, ‘was mainly for dancing to, either for couples in sets or for solo clog and step dancers; but it was also for listening to, so he had slow airs as well.’ In addition, Irwin played for parties known as Auld Wives’ Bakes, where ‘fiddling and dancing went on till dawn, fuelled by tea and cake.’ The Christmas custom of Hunsupping was another source of money. It ‘involved going around the village at night on Christmas Eve, wishing the inhabitants "Merry Christmas" by name outside each house’, and playing the tune, ‘The Hunt Is Up’ - hence the name of the custom. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) describes one such Christmas visit, as Stephens points out, in the introductory poem to his River Duddon sonnets.
Like many another fiddle player before and since, Irwin was a drinker. His son Edwin told early twentieth-century folk collector Anne Gilchrist, ‘How could he help but be? He was of a most sociable turn of mind. He was good company. He was looked up to by the denizens of the Dale as a man apart. He took sprees periodically - most of the coopers did that at the time.’ Irwin, however, managed to give up the booze in his early fifties, signing the pledge in 1875. This coincided with the building of ‘drill halls’ in numerous villages in the region, for the training of militias amid rumours of war; but they soon became used as dance venues. The rise of the drill hall dances provided fiddle players like Irwin with an alternative to the rougher, if tempting, world of the pubs, and a more affluent clientele. By the time he died of typhoid in June 1889, he had paid off all his drinking debts, and left a small sum of money, as well as the vast (if partly mislaid) legacy of his music. He is buried in the churchyard at Chapel Stile.
Irwin kept a meticulous record of his earnings from gigs, as well as writing down the tunes he played, even including such historical notes as ‘The polka came up in Bohemia in 1843.’ He also taught fiddle, and encouraged one of his pupils, Henry Stables, to keep a tune notebook similar to his own. Anne Gilchrist copied out many, though not all, of Irwin’s tunes, and wrote articles quoting from his diaries, but then, unbelievably, the original manuscripts ‘went walkabout’. They remain lost, so we don’t know, for example, how ‘Mrs Greenup’s Reel’ goes. Among the tunes of which copies do exist is Irwin’s ‘King’s Polka No.1’, also found, as Greg Stephens observes, in the repertoire of twentieth-century Sliabh Luachra box player Johnny O’Leary, as ‘Din Tarrant’s’.
Although Elterwater was on the face of it a remote area, says Greg Stephens, in fact it was well connected to the wider world. Both Manx and Cumbrian mackerel fishermen worked out of Dingle harbour, Co. Kerry, in the mid-19th century, while Co. Donegal seasonal farm workers made their way through Lancashire and Cumbria to Scotland. The Gunpowder Company imported sulphur from Sicily and Texas, and saltpetre from Germany and South America, then exported via Liverpool. Fiddle tunes inevitably circulated. ‘As I have said,’ notes Stephens, ‘Cumbria was remote but not isolated. It would be a brave man, and a foolish one, who would stick his neck out and say which tunes started in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or indeed, the Isle of Man. The Irish Sea is a great facilitator of communication.’
Gordon Ashman researched Moore’s life and music for ‘The Ironbridge Hornpipe, A Shropshire Collection from John Moore’s Manuscripts’, Dragonfly Music, 1991.
John Moore was born on 18 August 1819 in Wellington, east Shropshire, a small town (now just about absorbed into Telford) at the foot of The Wrekin, a famous local landmark, and near Coalbrookdale, a major early centre of the industrial revolution. (The world’s first Iron Bridge crosses the Severn there, built in 1779 to a design by Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard and cast at the Coalbrookdale ironworks of Abraham Darby III.) Moore describes himself, on the flyleaf of one of his notebooks, as a ‘Nursery Man and Seeds Man’. This was mainly ‘spring and summer’ work, remarks Gordon Ashman, and Moore may well have worked as a musician during the winter months, ‘when "polite society" held their balls and dances’ at Wellington’s ‘New Assembly Rooms’. He would have played fiddle at these dances for the ‘minor local gentry, the squirearchy and "better" tradesmen.’ Before the construction of the railways, Shropshire’s county town of Shrewbury, a possible source of some of Moore’s repertoire, was an important staging post on the journey between the great musical centres of London and Dublin. As Ashman points out, ‘almost all of the virtuosi of the age gave performances in Shrewbury’. All but two of the 149 tunes in John Moore’s collection are in major keys. It is not known what became of him in his later life.
Leadley’s life and music have been researched by James Merryweather and Matt Seattle, ‘Lawrence Leadley, The Fiddler of Helperby’, Dragonfly Music, 1994.
Lawrence Leadley (1827-1897) grew up in the village of Helperby, North Yorkshire, in a locally well-established family, the youngest son of a joiner. During his teens and early twenties he played fiddle in the Helperby village band, both at the Primitive Methodist Chapel and for local dances. The band consisted in the 1830s of ‘flute, concertina, keyed bugle and bassoon (evidence from book 1)’, thinks Merryweather, and later, ‘up until 1850 or so, when Leadley went off to Bradford, violin and other instruments, perhaps including cornet.’
Seven books of music constitute the Leadley collection. The earliest, probably compiled by a member of the Helperby band in the 1820s or 1830s, before Leadley’s time, is ‘bound in painted card with a canvas spine, 24 x 15.5cm’, and has a ‘blackened, worn cover’, with ‘lettering on the front which has proved to be almost illegible, even with the aid of... ultra violet light.’ (Perhaps ‘Flute...’?) The tunes, suggests Merryweather, were written down without titles, merely numbered. The titles we see now were added later, in a youthful hand of ‘decreasing naiveté’, by the young Lawrence, as he learned to play the tunes himself. Leadley was inspired to compile the second book, which, as well as ‘Billy Pitt’, includes many widely popular tunes, albeit with corrupt titles, such as the New-Rigged Ship (‘The New Right Shift’). Other tunes in Leadley’s collection ‘have titles of a local flavour and probably originated in the region.’ Besides the dance tunes, there are two books of hymn tunes and psalm chants, including, in one entitled ‘Methodist Tunes’, some three-part, and four-part, hymn arrangements.
About 1850 Leadley left the village of Helperby as a journeyman carpenter. He moved to West Yorkshire, where he prospered in his building career. By the age of 47 he was practicing as a freelance architect in Bradford, and teaching construction at Bradford Mechanics’ Institute (motto: ‘Knowledge is Power’). Although Leadley appears to have given up fiddle playing altogether in his life as a respectable Victorian architect, he preserved his collection of the Helperby tunebooks until his death.
James Hill (active 1840s/1850s)
Graham Dixon has researched the life and music of the ‘Paganini of hornpipe players’ for his book ‘The Lads Like Beer, The Fiddle Music of James Hill’, Random Publications, 1987.
Very little, except his music, is known about James Hill. He was born in Scotland, possibly Dundee, some time between 1813 and 1818. He was probably in his early twenties, and an accomplished player, when he left Scotland and moved south to Tyneside. The cities of Newcastle and Gateshead, on opposite sides of the river Tyne, experienced a huge population increase during the early- to mid-1800s. New workers in the expanding engineering industries came not only from the rural districts of north-east England, but from Ireland and Scotland as well. Fiddle music, widely popular in rural Northumberland, also found a niche in this urban environment. By 1841 Hill was married to a Durham woman and living near the river in Bottle Bank, Gateshead, a ‘decaying area, occupied by the poorer parts of the community,’ and making his living playing at race meetings, weddings, dances etc. He became an outstanding public house fiddler, and a tune composer of lasting fame. He died relatively young, probably in the late 1860s, leaving an output of over sixty original tunes, mostly hornpipes. ‘Amongst those professional musicians who are content to perform at the merry-makings of the humbler classes,’ observed the Newcastle Courant some years after his death, ‘he had no superior and indeed no rival.’
Hill was not the first Scottish fiddler to try his luck on Tyneside. Abraham Macintosh, fiddler, composer and dancing master, had moved down around 1800, publishing a collection of tunes dedicated to one Lady Ridley. Hill arrived, however, after the upper class fashion for country dancing had declined, and performed for a mainly working class audience. A remarkable culture of Tyneside public house fiddling flourished in the 1840s. It evolved from the ‘free and easy’ - ‘little more than an informal sing-song in the back room of a public house,’ explains Dixon, ‘organised by the landlord, and at which a local singer or musician would be engaged to lead the proceedings.’ Some public houses then became formal ‘music saloons’, with ‘entertainment subsidised by more expensive beer,’ and the success of the music saloon ‘in turn led to the emergence of the music hall.’ An eye-witness account of this world circa 1848 occurs in the memoirs of Richard Thornton, published in the South Shields Gazette. His father was a miner who played fiddle in pubs to supplement his income, and was popular enough eventually to become a publican himself.
‘My father could play the fiddle. I don’t mean he was a Paganini, but he could get through a lot of stuff in the first position and it is quite possible if he had attempted any other there might have been a pit-house to let. However, he could get through hornpipes, strathspeys, jigs and snatches from "William Tell" in a manner that pleased his pals, and he made it a custom to take the fiddle and myself to the Grey Horse pub every pay Saturday, and would play tunes that pleased his pals midst beer, tobacco smoke and sloppy tables, which kept the waiters busy and myself amused.’
Thornton also describes hearing James Hill and other music saloon fiddlers. ‘About this time I remember my father taking me to Newcastle to hear the various fiddlers who were considered clever and who could be seen and heard on Saturdays by calling on them in their beershops and ordering a beer and requesting the proprietor to play any tune you fancied, which he would do after you had waited your turn... There were fourteen such places at that time in Newcastle, and the miners would visit them all to form an opinion as to who was the best fiddler. They did a roaring trade on Saturdays. Our first call, I remember, was to hear Jimmy Hill who was located at the Hawk on the Bottle Bank, Gateshead. Jimmy wrote several very fine hornpipes, the Hawk, the High Level, and many more and he was the daddy of them all at hornpipe playing. He did not live long, poor fellow. Bobby Stephenson, of the Lord Nelson, in Pilgrim Street, we found in his usual elevated chair ready and willing to oblige. Bobby Spoor we next called on and enjoyed...’ They also visited ‘little Watson Derbyshire whose parents kept a house in Sandgate.’
Besides James Hill, Bobby Stephenson, Bobby Spoor and Watson Deryshire (who, says Thornton, ‘became a very fine violinist, and finished his career... as conductor of the Tyne theatre), there were many other fiddle players around Tyneside at the time. These included James Reid (1843-1874) of North Shields, piper to the Duke of Northumberland, an ‘equally proficient’ fiddler, and an instrument maker; fiddle player, ‘union’ piper and eccentric 'Blind Willie' Purvis (1784-1853); Bobby Nunn (1808-1853), ‘a Tyneside slater who lost his sight after a fall and subsequently supported his family as a musician, being a talented fiddler, singer and songwriter’; showman Ned Corvan (1829-1865) ‘whose act would include his own songs, monologues and violin solos; and Willie Hindson (‘Fiddler Will’) of North Shields, ‘a quiet wag and full of long yarns.’
James Hill’s music made the most lasting impact. His repertoire included waltzes, jigs, reels and strathspeys, but his hornpipes became famous in his own time, and are played today. With titles like The Cage (referring to the lift that took miners down to the coalface) and The High-Level Bridge (celebrating the two-tier road and rail bridge built across the Tyne in 1848), they seem to confidently embrace the industrial world. Also named after pubs (The Hawk) and racehorses (Beeswing), often in the flat keys, and sometimes, like the new polkas, including both key shifts from one section to another and short chromatic runs, Hill’s tunes represent an evolutionary development of the hornpipe form. The introduction of a ‘dotted,’ or more accurately, ‘triplet swing,’ rhythm is combined with new bowing patterns, especially the use of slurs across the beat. William C. Honeyman, in his 1898 ‘Strathspey, Reel and Hornpipe Tutor,’ termed it the Newcastle Style. Graham Dixon suggests a three-fold cause for the popularity of the hornpipe. ‘A section of the now urban population with rural roots would be used to step dancing to hornpipes. The developing Tyneside theatre and music hall exposed large audiences to the stage hornpipe, and the large Tyneside Irish community with its own musical roots would also be familiar with the hornpipe.’ Hill appears not to have attempted to publish his own compositions, but violinist W. B. Laybourn, who lived in North Shields from 1845 to 1858, later became the editor of ‘Köhler’s Violin Repository’, a weekly music magazine, and published many of them. Others were published in 1882 by J. Stokoe in the Newcastle Courant.
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928),
In his novels of the 1870s Under The Greenwood Tree (1872), Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) and The Return Of The Native (1878), Hardy vividly portrays rural music-making in 1830s Dorset. His old-style country fiddlers, clarinet players, cellists and other musicians - at dances, playing in church, or outdoors - inhabit a fictional ‘Wessex’ but remain, give or take a little satire, historically convincing. In fact, some characters are loosely based on members of Hardy’s own family. His grandfather, Thomas Hardy I, is probably the original of the cello player in Return Of The Native, who ‘drove his bow into them strings that glorious grand that he e’en a’most sawed the bass-viol into two pieces.’ Details like the names of dances and dance-tunes, as well as the players’ dialect-rich, between-gigs conversation, evoke a pre-Victorian rural world that was also, arguably, the golden age of English vernacular fiddling.
English Country Music Dance Bands
Hardy himself, who learned to play violin as a boy, was born in 1840, just at the tail-end of that heyday period, but his father (fiddle and viola), uncle (fiddle) and grandfather (cello), local builders and master-masons by trade, were long-established musicians, and played for dances around Stinsford, near Dorchester.
As a young boy, according to Florence Hardy’s Life of Thomas Hardy, Hardy would dance alone in the middle of the floor to the ‘endless jigs, reels, waltzes, and country-dances that his father played of an evening in his early married years.’ Jacob - Tune 18 - was one of three or four ‘that always moved the child to tears’. His father not only played fiddle but could also dance ‘hornpipes and jigs, and other folk-dances... with all the old movements of leg-crossing and hop, to the delight of the children.’
By the age of twelve, attending school in Dorchester, the young Hardy, deeply bitten by the fiddle bug, played fiddle with his father at weddings and village dances, often walking three miles there and back. He once played The New-Rigged Ship (the jig in D, not the Shetland reel of the same name) without pause for three-quarters of an hour, until the lady of the house stopped him, for fear he’d burst a blood vessel.
The West Gallery Tradition
Hardy wrote retrospectively about the village music of his father and grandfather’s generation. In the 1820s and 30s, musicians who played for a local squire’s ball, or at weddings, or who, like the Mellstock Band in Under The Greenwood Tree, trooped round the parish to perform carols at Christmas; these same musicians often also constituted the church ‘quire’, and played there all year round, twice every Sunday. While the rural dance musician in Ireland at this time was often, we are told, an itinerant solo piper or fiddler, many English fiddlers played regularly in these church bands. The term ‘choir’ today of course implies vocal music, but then referred to a mixed group of singers and instrumentalists, who led the congregation’s singing from the West Gallery, a raised timber structure opposite the altar. Village quires like this were found all over England at that time. Michael Turner (1796-1885), of Warnham, Sussex, played fiddle in one of over a hundred such bands in Sussex alone.
West Gallery music was, to quote Dave Townsend, ‘a harmony singing tradition that flourished in English parish churches from the early 1700’s until the mid-nineteenth century. Much of it was composed, adapted and taught by people of humble origins and little formal education... At its most characteristic,’ he says, ‘it is rhythmic and full-voiced, with a fascinating combination of extraordinary harmonies and unorthodox counterpoint.’ The relative merits of the various instruments used, you may remember, are discussed by members of the Mellstock Quire in Under The Greenwood Tree.
‘As far as look is concerned,’ said the tranter, ‘I don’t for my part
see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar’net. ’Tis further
off. There’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks
that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o’en...’
The fiddle’s connection to the devil, or other supernatural figures, is of course widely encountered in fiddle music, especially in protestant cultures. Here, however, old Dewy, though dialect makes him a bit hard to understand, is definitely pro-fiddle.
‘Your brass-man is a rafting dog - well and good; your reed-man is
a dab at stirring ye - well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-
shaker - good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing
will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness of’ the man of strings!’
It was in 1836 that Hardy’s mother, then Jemima Hand, first really noticed her future husband. This is Hardy’s sonnet A Church Romance.
She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
Against the sinking, sad tower-window light.
She turned again; and in her pride’s despite
One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her below,
Which said: “I claim thee as my own forthright!”
Thus their hearts’ bond began, in due time signed,
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim.
Bowing “New Sabbath” or “Mount Ephraim”.
Up to around the time of Hardy’s birth, his father, uncle and grandfather constituted the Stinsford church band, or ‘quire’, and were considered ‘among the best church-players in the neighbourhood.’ This union of sacred (west gallery) music and secular (country dance, step-dance) tunes in the musical lives of village players was common, not just in Dorset but in much of England at that time. Leading the hymns and psalms in church gave the musicians prestige in the eyes of the congregation. Aspects of the west gallery style, particularly its use of harmony and counter-melody, must also have influenced their dance-playing style.
Hardy himself, however, could have no personal experience of playing in a church band. From the early 1840s ‘quires’ were dismissed, and west galleries taken down, across the country, in accordance with policy changes within the Church of England. Like other aspects of village life, the old-style, fiddle-led bands went into decline. The coming of the railways at roughly the same time effectively ended rural isolation. To many of Hardy’s generation, future life beckoned from the town or city. When he wrote retrospectively about village life in the 1830s he did so, as he was well aware, across a historic divide.
The music of his father and grandfather’s period is often featured in Hardy’s poetry, as well as his novels. But let’s look at some stories.
Absent-Mindedness In A Parish Choir
This is one of two short tales - The Fiddler of the Reels is the other - that Hardy published two years after his father’s death. They came bang in the middle of the ‘dark’ period, between his last great novels, Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1891) and Jude The Obscure (1896), in a collection called Life’s Little Ironies (1894). ‘Absent-Mindedness’ is an account of the disastrous final performance of the fictional Longpuddle village band, who fatally confuse their religious and secular functions.
Led by fiddle player Nicholas Puddingcome, with a line-up of bass-viol (cello), tenor fiddle (viola), clarinet, oboe and serpent (a bass wind instrument), they’re much in demand over Christmas - ‘for they could turn a jig or a hornpipe out of hand as well as ever they could turn out a psalm’ - and might find themselves, at one moment
‘playing a Christmas carol in the squire’s hall to the ladies and gentlemen, and drinking tay and coffee with ’em as modest as saints; and the next, at The Tinker’s Arms, blazing away like wild horses with the "Dashing White Sergeant" to nine couple of dancers and more, and swallowing rum-and-cider hot as flame.’
The Sunday after Christmas they are in church, but the musicians’ gallery is so ‘mortal cold’ that they bring along ‘a gallon of hot brandy and beer... wrapped in Timothy Thomas’s bass-viol bag,’ to keep themselves warm. Having fallen asleep during the parson’s sermon, they’re suddenly woken up by his announcement of the Evening Hymn.
‘ "Hey? what?" says Nicholas, starting up; and the church being so dark and his head so muddled he thought he was at the party they had played at all the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at "The Devil Among The Tailors," the favourite jig of our neighbourhood at that time. The rest of the band, being in the same state of mind and nothing doubting, followed their leader with all their strength, according to custom. They poured out that there tune till the lower bass notes of "The Devil Among The Tailors" made the cobwebs in the roof shiver like ghosts; then Nicholas, seeing nobody moved, shouted out as he scraped (in his usual commanding way at dances when the folk didn’t know the figures), "Top couples cross hands! And when I make the fiddle squeak at the end, every man kiss his pardner under the mistletoe!" ’
Outraged, the parson and squire promptly dismiss the band, eventually replacing them with ‘a barrel-organ that would play two-and-twenty new psalm-tunes, so exact and particular that, however sinful inclined you was, you could play nothing but psalm-tunes whatsomever.’
The Fiddler of the Reels
Hardy’s other important late (1893) tale, The Fiddler of the Reels, is set in and around 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, a symbol of Victorian scientific progress and political empire, well into the era of train travel between London and ‘Wessex’. It was also when England, after its rapid and widespread industrialisation, became the first country in history with more than half its population living in cities. ‘For South Wessex the year formed in many ways an extraordinary chronological frontier or transit-line... As in a geological "fault," we had presented to us a sudden bringing of ancient and modern into absolute contact, such as probably in no other single year since the Conquest was ever witnessed in this part of the country.’
The fiddler of the title, Wat Ollamoor, is an itinerant musician, an outsider to the orderly world of the village. ‘Musician, dandy, and company-man in practice; veterinary surgeon in theory, he lodged awhile in Mellstock village, coming from nobody knew where; though some said his first appearance in the neighbourhood had been as fiddle-player in a show at Greenhill Fair. Many a worthy villager envied him his power over unsophisticated maidenhood - a power which seemed sometimes to have a touch of the weird and wizardly in it. Personally he was not ill-favoured, though rather un-English, his complexion being a rich olive, his rank hair dark and clammy... By girls whose love for him had turned to hatred he had been nicknamed ‘Mop,’ from this abundance of hair, which was long enough to rest upon his shoulders; as time passed the name more and more prevailed...’
Ollamor, though ‘rather un-English’, is a naturally gifted fiddler, and only ‘indolence and averseness to systematic application,’ we are told, ‘lay between ‘Mop’ and the career of a second Paganini.’ So what was his playing like?
‘While playing he invariably closed his eyes; using no notes, and, as it were, allowing the violin to wander on at will into the most plaintive passages ever heard by rustic man. There was a certain lingual character in the supplicatory expressions he produced, which could well nigh have drawn an ache from the heart of a gate-post. He could make any child in the parish, who was at all sensitive to music, burst into tears in a few minutes by simply fiddling one of the old dance-tunes he almost entirely affected - country jigs, reels, and 'Favourite Quick Steps’ of the last century - some mutilated remains of which even now reappear as nameless phantoms in new quadrilles and gallops, where they are recognised only by the curious...’
The old village band musicians, however, though no longer required in church by this date, ‘despised the new man’s style.’ Their aesthetic judgements also imply a moral centre, and Mop’s ruthless individualism, his lack of kindness, is implicitly judged in his playing style.
‘Theophilus Dewy (Reuben the tranter’s younger brother) used to say there was no ‘plumness’ in it - no bowing, no solidity - it was all fantastical. And probably this was true. Anyhow, Mop had, very obviously, never bowed a note of church-music from his birth; he never once sat in the gallery of Mellstock church where the others had tuned their venerable psalmody so many hundred of times; had never, in all likelihood, entered a church at all. All were devil’s tunes in his repertory. ‘He could no more play the Wold Hundredth to his true time than he could play the brazen serpent,’ the tranter would say. (The brazen serpent was supposed in Mellstock to be a musical instrument particularly hard to blow.)’
The story’s heroine is Car’line Aspent, a young woman ‘of fragile and responsive organization’, engaged to marry Ned Hipcroft, a ‘respectable mechanic, in a far sounder position than Mop the nominal horse-doctor,’ but obviously she falls under the spell of the sexy musician. Ned ‘could not play the fiddle so as to draw your soul out of your body like a spider’s thread, as Mop did, till you felt as limp as withy-wind and yearned for something to cling to.’
While a romantic figure, Mop is also manipulative and sinister. Here’s part of a scene in a public house, later in the tale.
‘It was not the dance nor the dancers, but the notes of that old violin which thrilled the London wife, these having still all the witchery that she had so well known of yore, and under which she had used to lose her power of independent will.’ She is at the point of leaving when ‘according to the account of some who remained, at that very moment a five-handed reel was proposed, in which two or three begged her to join.
‘She declined on the plea of being tired and having to walk to Stickleford, when Mop began aggressively tweedling ‘My Fancy Lad,’ in D major, as the air to which the reel was to be footed. He must have recognised her, though she did not know it, for it was the strain of all seductive strains which she was least able to resist...’
As the story builds to a crisis Hardy’s narrator stops to explain the Dorset five-hand reel. Why? Because the dance figures, and their particular relationship to the parts of the reel as played by the fiddler, are a crucial plot element.
‘Reels were resorted to hereabouts at this time by the more robust spirits, for the reduction of superfluous energy which the ordinary figure-dances were not powerful enough to exhaust. As everybody knows, or does not know, the five reelers stood in the form of a cross, the reel being performed by each line of three alternately, the persons who successively came to the middle place dancing in both directions. Car’line soon found herself in this place, the axis of the whole performance, and could not get out of it, the tune turning into the first part without giving her opportunity. And now she suspected that Mop did know her...’
Ollamoor turns up the heat, switches to ‘The Fairy Dance’ and keeps her dancing in a helpless frenzy after all the other dancers have dropped out... I won’t spoil the story in case you haven’t read it. But Hardy’s working knowledge of fiddle playing and dancing, evident in this as in so much of his writing, enables him to evoke scenes from the music’s bygone, pre-Victorian heyday, the 1820s and 1830s (or in this case, the early 1850s), from the inside, as it were.
So is Hardy, in his prose and poetry, a reliable source of information on southern English fiddling? I’d say, yes. Another great literary fiddler, John Clare, actually lived, wrote - and of course played fiddle - in the pre-Victorian period that Hardy describes in retrospect, and Clare’s prose writings are great contemporary reportage. Although he and Hardy stand on opposite sides of that ‘extraordinary chronological frontier’ for English rural music, though, Hardy brings a great sense of drama to his accounts of fiddle music and fiddle playing, often imbuing them with a deep awareness of historical significance.
The Hardy Fiddle Manuscripts
His writing apart, Hardy’s collection of fiddle music manuscripts is of great interest. The Hook Manuscript was given to his grandfather by its compiler’s son, James Hook, around 1820 - an entirely different James Hook, as Dave Townsend notes, from the one who wrote ‘Sir Sidney Smyth’s March’ - tune 42. The Hook MS contains over two hundred items, mostly eighteenth-century hornpipes, reels and jigs - including ‘Dribbles of Brandy’- tune 6. Its later pages also include quadrilles, waltzes and polkas, reflecting changes in dance fashions in this transitional Napoleonic / early-Victorian period. The second manuscript is a collection of ninety-seven ‘Tunes for the Violin’ that Hardy’s father compiled himself. Photocopies of both manuscripts are held at the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House, London.
Thirty-four of Hardy’s country dance tunes, edited by Joan Brocklebank, were published as ‘The Dorchester Hornpipe’, Dorset County Museum, 1977, and as far as I know remain in print. A bigger selection of 101 tunes, edited by Roger Trim, Bonny Sartin, Pet Shutler and Mac McCulloch (‘The Yetties’) appeared as ‘The Musical Heritage of Thomas Hardy’, Dragonfly Music, in 1990. (And there may be a new edition that I haven’t come across.) Highly commended, too, are Dave Townsend’s ‘Village Band Book’, with three-, four-, and five-part West Gallery-style arrangements of English dance tunes and marches, and ‘The Mellstock Carols’ (both from Serpent Press, 2003). Listen also to the recordings of ‘The Mellstock Band’, who perform ‘Hardy’ songs and tunes in period style, and often in costume.
Michael Turner - A 19th Century Sussex Fiddler, by Vic Gammon, in Traditional Music magazine.
The Mellstock Carols, West Gallery Carols from Thomas Hardy’s Family and other Wessex Sources, Serpent Press, 2003
Fred ‘Pip’ Whiting b.1905
Born in Kenton, Suffolk in 1905, Fred Whiting bought a fiddle when he was sixteen, and taught himself to play using William C. Honeyman’s tutor. He was left-handed, and played left-handed, but kept his strings tuned in the normal way. In his late teens, working as a bricklayer on the railway in Australia, he played with Irish musicians in the navvy camps. From his return to England in 1932 until the mid-1950s he played in pubs around Debenham and Earl Soham, and was much in demand to accompany stepdancing. He can be heard The Earl Soham Slog Topic Records 12TS 374, 1978
John Clare (1793-1864)
George Deacon has researched Clare’s fiddle tune and song collections in his marvellous book ‘John Clare and the Folk Tradition’ (Francis Boutle, 2002)
Poet, writer, fiddler and song- and tune-collector John Clare was born in the East Midlands village of Helpstone, near Stamford, at the bottom level of rural society. His parents, Parker and Ann, were poor and illiterate, though Parker, who worked as a farm labourer, had a great fund of songs and ballads which he regularly sang at the Bluebell Inn, and Clare’s mother encouraged her son to learn to read and write. It seems to have been in his early twenties, about 1816 or 1817, that he took up the fiddle.
‘As I grew up a man I mixed more in company,’ he wrote, ‘and frequented dancings for the sake of meeting with the lasses... At these feasts and merrymakings I got acquainted with the gipseys and often associated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle of which I was very fond. The first acquaintance I made was with the Boswells Crew as they were called a popular tribe well known about here and famous for fiddlers and fortunetellers... I used to spend my sundays and summer evenings among them learning to play the fiddle in their manner by the ear and joining in their pastimes...’
Clare was tempted by their migratory life-style. ‘I had a great desire myself of joining the Smiths Crew...Their descriptions of summer revellings, their tales of their yearly journeys to Kent and their rendezvouses at Norwood, where they got swarms of money by fiddling or fortune telling...were tickling temptations to my fancy.’ He stayed put in Helpston but played with the Smiths crew whenever they camped nearby: ‘As I began to be a decent scraper we had a decent round of merriment for a fortnight sometimes going to dance or drink at the camp & at other times at the publick house.’ He met his future wife, Martha Turner, known as Patty, at this time: ‘I first saw Patty going across the fields towards her home... I was in love at first sight.’ He saw her a second time ‘one evening when I was going to fiddle at Stamford.’
By this period he was writing the poems whose publication would make him a surprise literary celebrity in 1820. Through a Stamford bookseller, Edward Drury, he met John Taylor, John Keats’ publisher. Taylor printed a first edition of 1,000 copies of Poems Descriptive Of Rural Life And Scenery by John Clare, a Northamptonshire Peasant. It was an instant success, and four editions appeared within the year. Now aged 27, Clare made the first of his four visits to London, in the course of which he met Lamb, Hazlitt, Thomas Hood, Coleridge, de Quincey and other famous writers of the time, and, among other attractions, visited Astley’s Amphitheatre.
The 1820s were Clare’s peak creative period as a writer, and probably as a fiddler as well. How he learned to write music is not known. He learned fiddle by ear, and we also know that he copied tunes down from printed collections in Drury’s bookshop in Stamford. Possibly he figured out musical notation by finding written versions of tunes he already knew. His fiddle manuscripts, containing over 250 tunes, are held in Northampton public library. Jigs, marches, hornpipes, reels and waltzes are crowded into their pages with not a precious space wasted - a characteristic rag-bag of English, Irish, Scottish, and a few Welsh (St David’s Day, Welsh Jigg), American (Yankee Doodle), French (The Downfall of Paris) and German (New German March) dance tunes, along with many song airs, and tunes from the theatre and opera house. Clare’s next book of verse, The Village Minstrel (1821) was also successful, but he still had to make his living as a farm labourer. The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) sold badly and his fourth book, The Midsummer Cushion, completed in 1832, remained unpublished during his lifetime. Literary taste changed and rural life, as meticulously documented by Clare, was increasingly seen at the dawn of the Victorian era as old-fashioned and irrelevant. In 1837, in his mid-forties, he was admitted, voluntarily, to High Beach asylum in Epping Forest, Essex, from which he escaped in 1841. In A Journey Out Of Essex, he describes how he walked back to Northamptonshire, music still in his mind when he got lost in the darkness of night.
‘Doubt and hopelessness made me turn so feeble that I was scarcely able to walk yet I could not sit down or give up but shuffled along till I saw a lamp shining as bright as the moon which on nearing I found was suspended over a Tollgate.’
Having obtained directions, he
‘went through on the other side and gathered my old strength - as my doubts vanished I soon cheered up and hummed the air of Highland Mary as I went on.’
Clare was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he remained for twenty-three years, until his death in 1864. He still wrote poetry, including some of his greatest work. Whether he still played the fiddle is not known. One suspects not.
Willie Taylor (1916-2000)
Willie Taylor, shepherd, and fiddle tune composer was, according to Kathryn Tickell, ‘undoubtedly the foremost exponent of the traditional Northumbrian/Border fiddle style.’ He lived his whole life in north Northumberland, working on farms in the Cheviot Hills. Despite the loss of the index finger of his left hand to a turnip-cutter when he was fifteen, ‘Willie’s playing was a model of rhythmic drive and vitality.’ He was a founder member of the Border Strathspey and Reel Society. After he retired, Willie travelled all over the country, playing with piper Joe Hutton and mouth-organ player Will Atkinson, with whom he recorded the classic Harthope Burn album in 1983, followed by his solo album Welcome To The Dene in 1991.
'Blind Willie' Purvis b. 1752
Newcastle fiddler and eccentric. Bruce and Stokoe, editors of Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882), describe Blind Willie: "This eccentric character never enjoyed the faculty of sight, and many still living remember the sonsy, contented, and sightless face of Willie as he trudged the streets without a covering on his head... Blind Willie was perfectly acquainted with all the streets, lanes, and chares of his native town, and made his way everywhere without a guide, only using a long stick. His happy, contented nature made him a universal favourite with all ranks of society; and he had his regular places of call, where he was always welcome and duly served. At the inns and public houses of the town Blind Willie's presence in the taproom was a sure attraction, and his voice and fiddle in harmony, singing some quaint local ditty, gave never failing delight to his appreciative audiences." For more on Newcastle fiddlers see also James Hill
Joshua Gibbons 1778-1871
The manuscript tunebook of Joshua Gibbons of Tealby, Lincolnshire, papermaker and fiddle player, was transcribed in 1976 by Dr Robert Pacey and, with further editing and biographical research by Peter D. Sumner, published as Peter D. Sumner, ‘Lincolnshire Collections Volume 1, the Joshua Gibbons Manuscript’, Breakfast Publications, 1997.
Christened on 7 November 1778, Gibbons grew up in what is still, I’m told, a very picturesque village. He ‘would have learned his trade as a papermaker,’ says Sumner, ‘partly at one of the many mills situated on the River Rase and partly as an apprentice elsewhere.’ He ‘married his wife Elizabeth shortly after the turn of the century and established himself in his native village, living in a cottage in the Park at Tealby, which he bought in 1814.’ His grander neighbour, owner of the estate known as Bayons Manor, was George Tennyson, grandfather of future Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), who would succeed Wordsworth in the job in 1850.
During the 1820s, despite the general decline of papermaking in the region, Joshua Gibbons prospered, and evidently found enough time for music. ‘The popular paper-maker/ fiddler would be much in demand to play at elegant balls at Bayons, village feasts and various functions of rustic amusement in front of the thatched King’s Head Inn,’ suggests Sumner. ‘He would have played in the marching bands of the local militia and in the church band.’
Gibbons’ pocket-size tune notebook, compiled in his mid-forties between 1823 and 1826, contains some 186 tunes, many arranged in ‘Sets for Dancing’, and thirty of them ‘harmonised for two or three instruments, either for Church Band, Village Band or a marching band connected with either the local volunteers or militia.’ A large number of the tunes are in the ‘flat’ (or flattish) keys of C, F and Bb. They’ve been transposed in Sumner’s edition into the ‘sharp’ keys, as played by local revivalists since their discovery by fiddler Sue Cave on a visit to Scunthorpe museum with the Grimsby and District Youth Orchestra in 1969. ‘It is a snap-shot of a village musician’s repertoire,’ Peter Sumner observes, ‘the tunes being tightly packed and written down just as Joshua Gibbons learnt them. Crammed into every spare space, tunes were sometimes squeezed into one line when really they needed two.’ Surprisingly perhaps, the paper used for the notebook was not of Gibbons’ own manufacture, but handmade by Daniel Newman of Holingbourne, Kent, in 1818.
In that same year of 1818, by coincidence, a general election took place in which, ‘by virtue of his status as a freeholder’, Gibbons was for the first time qualified to vote, and in which Charles Tennyson (1784-1861) was returned as Tory MP for Great Grimsby, apparently ‘at great expense’. Once at Westminster, Tennyson ‘developed Radical tendencies,’ and eventually, after thirty years in Parliament, ‘became a Privy Councillor’ and ‘known as "The Father of Modern Reform." ’ Back in Lincolnshire, meanwhile, Charles Tennyson inherited Bayons Manor in 1835, and immediately changed his name to the even posher-sounding Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt. In anticipation of a peerage at the future queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, he also began converting the modest Georgian country house he had acquired into an imposing 60-roomed Romantic Gothic mansion. The peerage was not, in the event, forthcoming (God dammit, sir), but work on the house proceeded. Joshua and Elizabeth Gibbons appear in the population census of 1841, says Sumner, ‘at the head of the list still living in the park, in the shadow of the magnificent, now nearly completed Bayons Manor with its romantic towers and castellations. Joshua would be invited to play there for the amusement of the squire, his family and eminent guests from fashionable London.’
By 1851 Joshua Gibbons had retired from paper-making. After his wife’s death in 1859 he was looked after at the cottage by his niece Hannah Page, who lived with him, and her married sister. He died at the age of 92, and lies buried next to Elizabeth in Tealby churchyard. Bayons Manor, with its ‘romantic towers and castellations’, was dynamited in 1965.
Michael Turner (1796-1885)
Dr Vic Gammon researched the life and music of ‘Michael Turner, a 19th Century Sussex Fiddler,’ for an article of that title, published in Traditional Music magazine, 1976, and available online at the ‘Musical Traditions’ website: www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/turner.htm
Most of the available biographical information, Dr Gammon says, is provided by a ‘printed card together with photograph of Turner in his Sunday-best’ (reproduced in his article), which reads:
‘MICHAEL TURNER was born 25th May ,1796, at Old House Farm, Warnham. His father was a farmer, and apprenticed MICHAEL as a lad to JAMES HARDING, shoemaker, in the village, to learn his trade, which he afterwards adopted, but never worked very hard at. He was a very "peart" boy, and all his life he was very particular about his personal appearance. As a young man, he was looked on as the "dandy" of the village, always clean-shaved and most correctly dressed in true Sussex style - smock frock, breeches, and gaiters; and on Sundays he wore a clean white smock, high hat and top boots. He was never married. On 17th January, 1830, he was appointed Parish Clerk and Sexton with a salary of £5 a year [in fact, as Vic Gammon points out, churchwardens’ accounts show this to have been £10.00 a year], which office he held for Fifty years, until January 1880, when failing health obliged him to retire; and at a general meeting of the parish an Annual Subscription was raised in recognition of his long services, to maintain him during his old age, under the care of Mrs. JUPP, who was most kind and attentive to him until his death on 18th December, 1885.
‘Besides his office of Parish Clerk and Sexton, he was also leader of the Church Choir, which he led with his viol [i.e. violin] (preserved in the Vestry). He used to sit in the Rood loft, over the Chancel arch (removed during the partial restoration of the Church, in 1856) [in fact, other sources indicate,1847], where the Choir were most conspicuous, facing the congregation; and MICHAEL used to boast that he could "play the tune on his viol, sing the ‘seconds’ himself, and beat time with his head for the rest." He had also from this elevated position a good view of the Church, and kept an eye on the children, amongst whom if he noticed any frivolity going on he would gesticulate to them to conduct themselves properly in Church; and if this was not sufficient he would come down to the body of the Church, stick in hand (never mind what part of the service was going on), and either reprovce the culprits or lead them out of Church. He gave the responses and Amens in a clear, loud voice.
‘He was in great request at village Fetes all the neighbourhood round, and at the big houses, to play the music at their dances; and between times he would perform a first-rate jig playing his fiddle the while, or sing a capital comic song. He was confined to his bed for three years before he died, and although his mind sometimes wandered, nothing gave him greater enjoyment than for someone to sit by his bedside and talk over old time before the days of railways, when he was "head-man" of the village; and he actually passed away with his fiddle in his arms, which was his constant companion to the last. The headstone at his grave, near the tower door of the Church, was erected by subscription among his old friends and parishioners.’
This headstone, ‘Sacred to the memory of Michael Turner, Clerk and Sexton of this Parish for 50 years’, carries a verse inscription which reads:
His duty done, beneath this stone
Old Michael lies at rest
His rustic rig, his song, his jig
Were ever of the best
With nodding head the choir he led
That none should start too soon
The second too he sang full true
His viol played the tune
And when at last his age had passed
One hundred - less eleven
With faithful cling to fiddle string
He sang himself to heaven
‘The cost of his gravestone, £4 18s 11d, was paid by the parishioners, but it was not erected till 1887. Ironically,’ comments Dr Gammon, ‘it was delivered by "The London Brighton and South Coast Railway", the agency Turner thought responsible for the break up of the old village ways.’
The first of Turner’s two manuscript books is dated ‘1845 and 46 - 47 - 48 - 49’, and contains twenty eight tunes, while ‘the second book, dated 1852, contains 16 titles as well as 42 psalms and hymn tunes at the other end of the book’. Gammon lists the titles of tunes - waltzes, quadrilles and polkas - in both books. ‘The quadrilles are in five parts, different rhythms equating to the five sections of the dance,’ he notes. ‘From these lists there can be little doubt that Turner was very much a "pop" musician of his day. The waltz and the polka were both new idioms in the 19th century, and when Turner compiled his books the polka was particularly new.’
‘On the fourth page of the earlier book Turner gives a list [of 23 tunes, reproduced by Vic Gammon] under the heading "Country Dances", which only in the case of two tunes ties up with either manuscript. Here we are on much more familiar ground. There are some mysteries, but a good proportion of the tunes listed are still current or have been recently collected from traditional musicians, e.g. "Off She Goes" and "Haste to the Wedding". Others are ubiquitous like "College Hornpipe", "The White Cockade" and "The Flowers of Edinburgh"... Did Turner know these from memory or was there a third manuscript that has failed to survive?’
Of particular interest in Turner’s second tunebook are instructions for ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, a dance that enjoyed a vogue in the early 1850s, though the tune itself is considerably older. The same book includes a beautiful, untitled ‘Waltz’, most often known, since its inclusion in Anne Loughran and Vic Gammon’s A Sussex Tune Book, EFDSS, 1982, as ‘Michael Turner’s Waltz’, but identified by Paul Davenport in English Dance and Song magazine, Summer 2003, as composed in 1788 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (KV 536, No. 2, ‘Six German Dances’).
Surprisingly, besides his own notebooks, Turner owned several printed books including John Playford’s ‘The Dancing Master’ (1665 edition), and his ‘Introduction to Music’ and ‘Introduction to the Playing on the Viol and on the Treble Violin’, both of 1664. ‘If as I suspect, writes Gammon, ‘Turner’s musical literacy was largely self-taught, we have the extremely interesting phenomenon of a 19th century village musician learning from 17th century self tutors.’
Walter Bulwer (1888-1968)
Extensive research by Dr Reg Hall into the life and music of Walter Bulwer, whom he got to know personally, and recorded with, is published in his booklet for the seminal recording ‘English Country Music’, Topic Records TSCD607, 2000. This CD’s essential listening, and it’s from the accompanying booklet that all the quotations here are lifted.
Fiddle and mandolin player - indeed, multi-instrumentalist - Walter William Bulwer, the second son of William Bulwer and his wife Alice, was born on 4 December 1888, near Shipdham, Norfolk. His father, a journeyman housepainter, had learned to play the violin, and passed this skill on to both Walter and his elder brother Chamberlain, ‘from the age of four’. He ‘had a photograph taken of himself and the two boys posing out in the yard with their fiddles and bows in playing position.’ Walter, born with with a disability of the legs, sat ‘in a custom-built hand-cart, which he used to get about in, and he couldn’t have been much older than five years old.’ The only tune in Walter’s repertoire that Reg Hall knows for sure he learned from his father is the ‘Egg Hornpipe’, also known as ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’, though there may have been many others. At the age of seven he joined the village orchestra, which consisted of two violins, viola, cello, cornet, flute and ‘bass fiddle.’ As well as popular secular music, the band played hymns in church and chapel, but broke up ‘when several players left the village.’
About 1899 Walter’s father died. Alice Bulwer made a living running a Shipdham grocery shop. Walter served his apprenticeship to become a journeyman tailor. His brother Chamberlain, around the turn of the century , was ‘working as a lad in the Post Office’, and became band sergeant of a Boys Brigade troop formed by the postmaster. Chamberlain taught the boys bugle and fife, and in 1903 organised local music to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. He played side-drum and cornet in the band, and his younger brother the piccolo. Chamberlain left the village not long afterwards, but later ‘a cornet player and his three sons came to live in Shipdham and they re-formed the band. It was then about nine strong, and, though unable to march, Walter played regularly for the sitting-down engagements at dances and garden parties. This band was disbanded at the outbreak of the Great War,’ notes Reg Hall, ‘when several of the members went away on military service.’
In these Edwardian years, as well as playing clarinet and trombone in the brass band, Walter played in Shipdham’s pubs. ‘These pub sessions, where he often partnered a much rougher musician, Fiddler Brown, were all-male affairs, and if there had been any dancing it would seem most likely to have been stepdancing and possibly The Four Hand Reel...’ Walter and ‘a pianist’ also played ‘at the servants’ balls held at some of the big houses’ for the four years up to 1914. The repertory,’ suggests Reg Hall, ‘if it was at all like the fashion elsewhere’, would be ‘waltzes, schottisches, polkas, sequence dances and quadrilles.’ At the age of twenty eight, ‘while living in East Dereham and doing war work as an engineer’s presser,’ Walter married Daisy Dora Hart in December 1916. With ‘musically inclined’ relatives on her mother’s side, Daisy had learned the piano as a girl, ‘and was playing the organ in church before she met him.’ They immediately became musical partners, ‘and Walter gave Daisy some instruction on the G banjo.’
In the 1920s, when ‘the craze for modern ballroom dancing hit Shipdham’, Walter was invited to join, and then to lead, a local dance outfit, playing ‘the Edwardian sequence dances and the latest one-steps and foxtrots’, as well as the old polkas, schottisches and waltzes. ‘’With the legend "Time and Rhythm" painted in fairground style on a board fitted into the front of the bass drum, Walter Bulwer’s Band took on many of the local jobs at wedding receptions, socials and dances. Daisy came in on the piano...’ By the end of the 1920s, besides some work as a tailor (and his other sideline of cutting people’s hair on Saturday nights after the pubs closed), Walter was running a grocer’s and newsagent’s shop. Music was important, though, and the band remained active. ‘The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to regular village hops in that area,’ says Reg Hall, ‘though Walter continued to play off and on with different local bands until about 1953.’ Later in life, Walter and Daisy amused themselves at home by playing through printed music of ‘popular songs and dance albums’, but generally preferred playing by ear.
The story of Walter’s various recordings with Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett is a fascinating one in itself. ‘Very few people connected in any way with the folk-dance movement,’ says Reg Hall, ‘had even the slightest notion of the existence of traditional instrumental music, and most commercial recordings of English country-dance music were, to put it mildly, gutless.’ The tapes were made over an eight year period between Mervyn’s chance ‘discovery’ of Walter and Daisy in 1958 and the last session in 1966, about two years before Walter’s death, and the line-up sometimes also included dulcimer-player Billy Cooper and Scan Tester on Anglo-German concertina. An LP was issued in 1965, ‘as Record No. 1 on our nameless label’. Only ninety nine copies were issued, but they proved surprisingly influential. By the time the LP was re-issued by Topic Records in 1976 as ‘English Country Music’, it had already become ‘a model for a new generation of melodeon, concertina, fiddle, dulcimer, banjo and brass players all over England.’
Of the tapes that have survived, some tracks not included on ‘English Country Music’, (Topic Records TSCD607) may be found on volumes 9 and 12 (TSCD 659 and 662) of Topic’s ‘Voice of the People’ series.
‘We should all know by now what a traditional fiddler is,’ concludes Reg Hall. ‘Harry Cox was a fiddler, and so was Scan Tester. Theirs was the traditional music, the aural tradition of the country, characterised not only by their repertory of dance tunes and song airs, but by their technique. There were other contemporaries - Fred Whiting from Suffolk, for example... - whose music was more urban in origin, and, although faked by ear to suit the occasion, at least owed some allegiance to literacy and violin technique. Walter Bulwer seems to have had a foot in both camps, shifting his position according to context between being a country fiddler and a vernacular violinist.’
The life, music, recordings and background of this most celebrated of the Forest of Dean fiddlers have been extensively researched by Philip Heath-Coleman, who wrote the excellent booklet accompanying Musical Traditions’ 2005 CD release,
Stephen Baldwin: Here's One You'll Like, I Think (MTCD334).
His text also appears as ‘Article MT160’ on the Musical Traditions website.
Stephen James Baldwin was born in Hereford in 1873, the youngest of eight children. The family moved soon afterwards to Newent, where his parents Charlie Baldwin and Eliza were both from. Newent, nine miles from Gloucester, had been ‘a centre of iron smelting since Roman times,’ writes Heath-Coleman, ‘but was also noted for its orchards and the cider and perry they produced, the cheese for which Gloucestershire is famous, and linen.’ A tradition of fiddle playing, be it for country dancing, Morris dancing, stepdancing, or just for the players’ own recreation, also flourished in the region, especially in the nearby Forest of Dean, south-west of Newent between the River Severn and the Welsh border. ‘The overall picture is one of dense traditional musical activity - and fiddling in particular,’ Heath-Coleman observes, ‘on Stephen Baldwin’s doorstep in his own and earlier generations.’
Charlie Baldwin, Stephen’s father, was born around 1827 and, like his own father, James, played the fiddle. Charlie worked as a charcoal-burner in "the woods belonging to Squire Onslow" near Newent. ‘Charcoal burners, or "colliers" as they were usually known, would have to bivouac in the woods for days on end,’ Heath-Coleman explains, ‘firstly to watch for and repair any cracks which might appear in the turf walls of the 'stack' inside which the wood was burning, and later, once it had cooled, to recover and bag the charcoal...’ It is easy to imagine Charlie, alone in the forest or perhaps with a Gypsy associate, playing the fiddle for recreation.
We talk of the hard, socially disruptive impact of the English industrial revolution on rural life and its musical traditions during the 1800s. In the Forest of Dean, with its mixed rural-industrial economy, coal and iron ore having been mined there for centuries, the fiddle tradition too had iron in its soul, and survived well into the twentieth century. Local working people, ‘industrial’ and ‘rural’ alike, enjoyed the same kinds of dancing, and music. The Forest provided not only wood for the charcoal used for smelting iron, but traditional stopping places for gypsies - some important fiddlers among them - who regularly travelled in the Welsh borders.
Learning the fiddle - ‘It was like a gift.’
Following his father, Stephen learned to play fiddle by ear - and very rapidly, presumably about the age of twelve. "When I’d just left school something came over me and I asked him to show me how to finger it - he showed how to put my fingers on. The first tune I played was Men of Harlech. I learned to put ’em in tune; somehow I stuck to it. It was like a gift. All of it come to me one after the tother. Eighteen months later I was playing for dances and all sorts of things".
Bill Williams, a friend of Baldwin’s, ‘recounted to Peter Kennedy how he and Stevie Baldwin would go to the clubroom upstairs at the Yew Tree on "the Mitcheldean road" and elsewhere where Steven would play,’ Heath-Coleman reports. ‘ "The fiddler, he'd sit down in his chair and he'd play the fiddle, you know, and everybody would be having their drink and listening for a time, and then soon as he started on the dancing, see... up they was and holding one another, and round and round and dancing about there in the club room. Well, I've knowed 'em up there as you couldn't hardly get inside the club room at the Cross, where there were so many people go in there... of a night." ’
Tambourine, and melodeon (‘accordion’) players would often join fiddlers like Baldwin in these pub or club-room sessions, though a solo musician sufficed, since the people knew the dances anyway. ‘Most of the country dance tunes he played,’ says Heath-Coleman, ‘were simple tunes universally associated with particular dances’, and included ‘the Heel and Toe Polka- Tune 73 -(‘1-2-3-4-5’), Step and Fetch Her (The Triumph), the Cross Schottische (the Seven Steps), Pop Goes the Weasel - Tune 99 - (which he described as "pretty old-fashioned"), and two versions of the Varsoviana... Others seem to have been associated locally with particular dances: The King of the Cannibal Islands, the Cock of the North and the Irish Washerwoman (Broomstick Dance). He also described Soldier’s Joy as a "six-hand reel", and Fisher’s Hornpipe (the Cottage Hornpipe as he called it) as a "three-hand reel". Stephen Baldwin would have cultivated and maintained these tunes to meet public demand, and the same would be true of his schottisches and waltz.’
Stevie Baldwin’s day job for all his working life was as a plate-layer on the Great Western Railway, though getting to work in the morning cannot always have been easy. Fiddle playing was always his passion, whether at a dance or an impromptu session. One of his musical associates, John Lewis of May Hill, a farmer, said they often played their fiddles together for parties all through the night, and ‘recalled one week when they had only got nine hours sleep all told.’ (Perhaps they were sustained, in the phrase of another West Country fiddle player, Laurie Lee, by ‘the magic fuel of youth.’) ‘On one occasion Stephen Baldwin had been playing at the Yew Tree,’ says Heath-Coleman, ‘but it had got late and he and Bill Williams decided to sleep in the cart house. They settled down in the wagon, but the daughter of the house who slept over the dairy across the yard later described how she had heard Stephen Baldwin playing tunes in the early hours.’
Gypsy Fiddlers in the Forest
Stephen’s father evidently knew and played with ‘Fiddler Lock’, from Gorseley. This may have been the gypsy fiddler John Lock (or Locke), whose playing was later recorded on wax cylinders by local folklorist Ella Leather, and to whom she introduced Cecil Sharp at Leominster in 1909. Several members of the Lock(e) family, also known as the Gentlemen Lockes, played fiddle, and were still travelling in the West Midlands and Welsh borders in the early years of the twentieth century, though some settled eventually, I believe, around Clun, Shropshire. It was a Gypsy fiddler, Abram Wood, patriarch of a Welsh Romany family, who is popularly credited with having introduced the violin to Wales in around 1700.
The Baldwins were themselves sometimes assumed locally to be gypsies - ‘even as far as being described as "didikies" by one source,’ notes Philip Heath-Coleman - but ‘parish records and registers’ suggest they’d been ‘settled at Newent and Ruardean for generations.’
According to Heath-Coleman, ‘Keith Chandler has been able to identify the gypsy fiddler 'Tite' Smith, with whom Stephen Baldwin associated one of his hornpipes [mistakenly titled ‘Ted Smith’s Hornpipe’ - Tune 92], as Josiah Smith, known as 'Tite Neptune', who was about 70 when he drowned in a ditch containing just a few inches of water in 1898. His obituary relates that he was well known for playing the fiddle on Saturday nights in several of the local pubs.’ Tite Smith played for the morris dancers at Ruardean. (Fifty or so years later, ‘the only remaining member of the morris dancers left’ was a fiddler called 'Croogy' Bennett, living on the hill to the south of the village. Little is known about him except that ‘he did not like being called "Croogy".’)
Stephen Baldwin described a Gypsy wedding he provided the music for. ‘Arriving at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, he stayed until 2 o’clock in the morning, perched on a tree stump and playing, in his own words, "nothing but hornpipes", to which the Gypsies danced "with great vigour". "The sweat simply rolled off them. They never seemed to get tired".’
Of step-dancing itself, commonly danced to hornpipes, musician and writer Reg Hall says: ‘There has been a range of styles, but the common characteristics - the relaxed posture, the low centre of gravity, the loose swinging arms, the rhythmic beating and scuffling of the feet on the floor and the glazed facial expression - unite the diversity into one recognisable phenomenon.’ (Reg Hall, ‘I Never Played to Many Posh Dances,’ Musical Traditions, 1990).
His ‘stock of hornpipes,’ is, in Heath-Coleman’s view, ‘by far the most significant, and sophisticated, element in Stephen Baldwin’s repertoire. In England, the hornpipe seems to have filled the niche which came to be enjoyed by the reel in Ireland. Its popularity was obviously tied up with its intrinsic association with step dancing, and hornpipes form the liveliest part of the repertoire of many a traditional musician in southern England.’
His father, Charlie Baldwin, had himself played for Morris dancing at Clifford’s Mesne (pronounced ‘Mean’) before ‘the dancing stopped in about 1870.’ ‘With its bells and handkerchiefs, the morris dancing of the Forest of Dean seems to have had more in common with the morris dancing of Eastern Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire than with the so-called 'border' traditions of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire to the north,’ says Heath-Coleman. However it was the border style, evidently, that attracted Stephen.
He would have been in his early twenties when ‘at Christmas one harsh winter in about 1897 Thomas Bishop, the "King" of the morris at Bromsberrow Heath, fetched him over from Newent to stand in for the regular musician, concertina player Bill Rudds, who was ill. Stephen Baldwin was so taken with the dance - which involved two parallel rows of three dancers alternately clashing sticks or stepping in pairs and dancing a figure of eight (a 'six-hand reel') - that he taught it to a side he himself raised at Mitcheldean.’
Before the War and After
By the turn of the century Stephen was married, living near Mitcheldean with his first wife Mary, and the first two of their four children. Cecil Sharp, after meeting the fiddler Henry Allen at Stratford upon Avon, visited the Forest of Dean in 1909, and although he met several local dancers and musicians he ‘does not seem to have attempted to get in touch with Stephen Baldwin, probably because he would generally seek out the oldest living sources in the areas he visited.’ On a return visit in 1910 Sharp did however meet Charlie Baldwin, now living in the almshouses at Newent, and noted down five tunes from him.
During the Great War (1914 - 1918) Stephen Baldwin, by then in his forties, served in France with the 13th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, the 'Glosters'. He was invalided out after the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and was later able to resume his job with the Great Western Railway.
After Charlie Baldwin’s death, Stephen inherited his father’s violin, which ‘he in turn passed on to his own son Charles.’ Young Charlie ‘played the mouth organ and was renowned locally as a bones and spoons player.’ Young Charlie would also ‘accompany his father in pubs vamping on the piano, and remembered one such occasion at the Crown in Aston Crews (Herefordshire) when his father suddenly stopped playing and said: "Listen! There’s a wireless; we’re off!" Off they went down the road to the White Hart, where there happened to be a coachload of people from Wales. Stephen and his son Charlie got in by the back door, collected their pints and "soon got going".’
The family had music at home. Stephen’s second wife, Grace, played the piano, and would accompany him when he played the fiddle in the evenings. Two of his other sons, and his daughter Nora, also played the banjo.
Peter Kennedy recorded Stephen Baldwin’s fiddle playing for the BBC in 1952.A couple of years later, in June 1954, he was recorded at Upton Bishop, Herefordshire, by Russell Wortley and the Cambridge Morris Men (‘the Travelling Morrice). ‘It is hard to overestimate the significance of the recordings which Stephen Baldwin made for the BBC and Russell Wortley in the early 1950s,’ Philip Heath-Coleman writes. ‘In its scale, the working repertoire he recorded far exceeds anything else which has been left to posterity by a traditional English fiddler... Although these recordings sometimes betray his age, Stephen Baldwin was hardly 'out of practice' when he made them, as has sometimes been suggested. His assured performance on any number of his hornpipes in particular - listen to the Swansea Hornpipe [The Gloucester Hornpipe - Tune 93] or the Wonder Hornpipe, for instance - is that of an accomplished, exciting and sophisticated fiddler still at the height of his musical powers. And although he may have occasionally been a little rusty on tunes which weren’t among his favourites, his playing is always powerful.’
Both sets of recordings are included on Stephen Baldwin: "Here's One You'll Like, I Think" (MTCD334), the Musical Traditions CD. On the later recordings (first released in 1976 on the LP ‘Stephen Baldwin, English Village Fiddler’, Leader LED 2068), he tends to play the tunes three times through, so that even those he had perhaps not played very recently are well explored by the end. Transcriptions of many of Stephen Baldwin’s tunes are included in The Coleford Jig, Traditional Tunes from Gloucestershire, Charles Menteith & Paul Burgess, 2004.
Stephen Baldwin, who’d had heart problems for some time, died at home in Upton Bishop, of a heart attack, on 24 November 1955. He died in the arms of his wife Grace, who had nursed him night and day without medical assistance, and the last thing he said was, ‘Mother.’ He was buried at Newent, with his medals and a Union Jack on the coffin.
Notes in preparation.
Notes in preparation.