Country Review Great Britain
I have been playing the Anglo concertina for over 40 years, living most of that time in Britain. However, having accepted the invitation by the nascent Concertina Journal to be one of the “Country Correspondents”, I began to focus on this first piece, and then “got stuck” somewhat. What IS the “concertina scene” in this country? Whatever else, it is definitely NOT one single cohesive “unit”, but a scattering of disparate, discrete elements. Now, I recognise that Dan Worrall in the U.S.A. and the correspondents in Australia and South Africa might well consider that the geographical distribution of concertinas in Britain involves only very “short” distances, but (surely as a result of the long history of the concertina here) I did feel from the start that a glance into the past was the first door to open, in the search to understanding – or even explaining the British “concertina scene”. After that, I intend to add a few thoughts on the later twentieth century and the situation today, all from a personal perspective!
There is no great need then, here, to delve into the roots of and the origins of the concertina: many thousands of words have already been spent on this, and part of the interest of the Concertina Journal will stem from research and writing in that area. I used the phrase “invention of the concertina” in my first draft, here, but like many “inventions”, from the steam engine to the internet, the concertina came about through a conjunction of many factors, not solely the genius of one person. Charles Wheatstone could not have done what he did, had it not been for the technological developments which preceded his time experimenting in this area, or the availability of people skilled in so many different crafts and technologies, which simultaneously gave rise to other innovations in the musical instrument world of the nineteenth century. Similarly, the influence of musical instruments from the far side of the world, like the Chinese sheng, would almost certainly not have touched the west at other periods in history.
However, the variety and extent of the current British concertina world stems more, I think, from twentieth-century developments. Long before the 1920s, there were already at least four main currents of concertina use: the older “drawing-room” world largely playing music from written sources, and using the English system to play “light popular” and classical music; the often unlettered rural and urban musicians, who probably used both the English and the Anglo to play for dances or in church bands – or both; the often flamboyant world of the music hall, where duets were the favoured instruments of many of the big stars; and, following the lead of the highly competitive brass band milieu, the largely working-class tradition of the “concertina band” (which eventually became the sole preserve of the English concertina). All of the above were seriously declining, becoming unfashionable, as the second “folk revival” got under way in the 1950s. This meant that there was already quite a variety of concertinas in circulation, available for those “folkies” who sought out other instruments than the guitars that quickly became ubiquitous. I would not think it an exaggeration to say that a good majority of current players in Britain have been influenced to some extent by the ramifications of this “folk revival”, though many have dug into surviving remnants of the abovementioned traditions, and some have made their own, distinctive way.
There are, then, very few recent players not touched by the folk phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century. Even older musicians like the Lancashire Maccann duet player, Harry Litherland, who often busks in the streets of local market towns, or Septimus Fawcett, who took on the English concertina of his father Sam Fawcett (who had played dance tunes since his youth at the very beginning of the 1900s in Yorkshire) have had connections to the “folk world” in later years. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation: one would perhaps be in the sphere of Irish traditional music, where Anglo players like the late, gently wonderful Tommy McCarthy passed on music to his daughter Jacqueline, who grew up in London; another would be the English concertina playing of Douglas Rogers whose playing of the nineteenth-century compositions of Regondi have a special place; similarly, the late John Nixon who often played jazz.
However, none of the abovementioned pervasive influence of the folk revival means that there is a uniformity of approach, of style, or of repertoire amongst concertinists in Britain. One of the consequences of the break sixty years ago with the older traditions I mentioned above, into the 1960s and onwards, was that many of the “new” generation of concertina players were not bound to any past conventions and, despite links with a “re-born” folk tradition, set out to make their “own” styles and repertoires.
Before heading into the current state of British concertinadom, a mention of what we might call “archive” recordings seems worthwhile. We could divide these into two categories: the players who “went into the studio” to make commercial 78 r.p.m. Discs; and those who were the subject of “field recordings” by “enthusiasts” or “collectors”. In the space and time available, I am going to pick out a limited number of players, here.
One of the most prolific recording stars of the first half of the twentieth century, the Scot Alexander Prince (1874-1928) was a huge star of his time. Playing the Maccann system duet concertina, he was recorded on discs and cylinders. His version of F.J.Ricketts’ “Colonel Bogey March” is easily found on the internet, and opens the way to many other recordings of the era. A high proportion of the material recorded at the time features the Maccann; the Anglo, was often, perhaps, considered “not worth recording”. However a completely different sphere of concertina virtuosity did make its way onto discs as a component of the earlier “folk revival”. The folk music collector Cecil Sharp met William Kimber in 1899, and many recordings were made between 1935 and 1959 of Kimber’s morris dance repertoire (though he also played and recorded schottisches, waltzes and polkas for “social dancing”). Playing well for morris dancing calls for a deep sympathy with the essence of the dances: Kimber’s playing is rightly held up as an example of how it should be done! One of my favourite tunes here is “Over the Hills to Glory”. The major collection of Kimber’s recordings is easily available: “Absolutely Classic: the Music of William Kimber”.
Although the Anglo is often held to be “the” instrument for playing “folk dance” music, there was, prior to the “folk revival”, really only one other Anglo player seeped in the tradition of playing country dance tunes who was much recorded. Fortunately for those of us who never heard him live, we have a good selection of the recordings of the wonderful Lewis “Scan” Tester, a player who gave an unequalled lift and bounce to “simple” dance tunes, but who also continued to make “pop” tunes of the day his own, subsuming them into his eminently “danceable” repertoire, playing parallel octaves on the two ends of the instrument. Again, time and space constraints weigh in, here, but Will Duke, like Scan a resident of the Sussex coast, has kept Scan’s style going (and has one of his concertinas).
Recordings of Sam Fawcett, (mentioned above) from the north of England, then 74, playing country dance music on English concertina, were made in 1953. He learned some tunes from his father in Swaledale, so this is a tradition reaching back into the nineteenth century. They were first published on Folktrax Cassettes in 1975, and some can be heard on the British Library website.
The last stop on this much-truncated tour of “archival” recordings is to refer again to the glorious sound of the concertina bands, mainly from Yorkshire and Lancashire (though some recordings of London bands do exist). Recording quality is very variable, some of these dating from the first decade of the twentieth century. Few are commercially available, but the 3-CD set, “English International” has one or two.
So, to the last few decades, and today’s broad variety. Please be aware that the following is a small personal selection of some of the well-known concertina players who should be mentioned, whose names and music will be recognised far from home, and others who may be less renowned. Currently very active on the “folk scene” are well-known Anglo players John Kirkpatrick and Brian Peters. John has championed the “Anglo” interest in the folk revival for nigh on 50 years but has always played other “squeezeboxes” as well as the concertina. He uses the instruments to accompany his own rich singing of both traditional and his own songs, and his most recent album, “Tunes From the Trenches” has songs from the two world wars: “Lloyd George’s Beer” (played in C on a G/D baritone) is a good one!
Brian Peters plays a selection of other instruments as well as Anglo, but his CD “Anglophilia” is a showcase; Brian’s repertoire is varied and stimulating: and the first time I heard his “Dallas Rag” played live many, many years ago, stays with me: a treat!
Alistair Anderson, from the north-east of England, is not limited to the concertina, but his alternative is the Northumbrian pipes. I first heard him and saw him whirling his English, well over four decades ago. His delicate fingering and – on occasions – furious speed are well-known, rooted in the tradition of Northumbria, but with a rich, considered element of serious composition, found for example on “On Cheviot Hills: A Suite for Concertina & String Quartet” on the eponymous album, one of many musical collaborations.
The above are what an over-used cliché would call “stalwarts of the folk scene”, but there are also other talents, famous people like Jon Boden (who plays melodeon & some Anglo), Chris Sherburn (Anglo); Wendy Stewart, Sandra Kerr, Rob Harbron, Frances Wilkins, Simon Thoumire (all 5 English), etc. and I have to mention two of my all-time favourites, Michael Hebbert (on the relatively unusual “Jeffries duet”) and Iris Bishop, whose performance of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight” on the Maccann duet is simply wonderful. She has recorded it more than once: try the C.D. “Food” where she is with “the Other Band”.
Four other great, perhaps younger, concertina players in Britain are Alex Wade and Michael Jary (both English), Matt Quinn (Duet) and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (Anglo)… decades younger than some of the abovementioned musicians. There IS a question about the age demographic of the concertina, but there are signs (a slowly increasing number?) of younger players.
A quick look now at a few of the concertina “events” scattered around the country. These range from quite weighty “music courses”, to a weekend in a dormitory with no paid artists, but a lot of communal fun. “Concertinas at Witney” is at the more serious end of the spectrum. It takes place in the Oxfordshire town of Witney and always features a range of highly qualified tutors: besides the organiser, Dave Townsend, and Simon Thoumire on English, this year saw Tim Collins on Anglo, and Matt Quinn and Pam Bishop on duets, and workshops on “wild and whacky ideas and technical tricks”, “arranging for concertinas”, “introduction to Scottish traditional music”. I have been a tutor there, and at the Kilve concertina weekend in the south-west of England, but generally have had more to do with the “Swaledale Squeeze”, sometimes leading sessions on “blues concertina playing”, “improvising”, or “comparing Irish & English style Anglo playing”. The Arran concertina event, on a small island off Glasgow, is tiny, very informal and fun (with a visit to the local distillery when I attended). The Hawkwood concertina weekend has produced, as a spin-off, the Hawkwood Concertina Band, a large-scale, full range (bass to piccolo) concern, featuring well over twenty members, from all over Britain, on their lovely CD, almost all playing English system.
Whole pages could also be devoted to the various regional concertina clubs and groups, from the West Country Concertina Players to the Yorkshire Concertina Club, SqueezEast and others. These are all supportive, friendly groups, running meetings, playing sessions, and sometimes all-day get-togethers. The vibrant concertina activity on the south coast, which circles around Val Goodyear and Brian Cryer in the Lewes area, is another element which is opening doors to many who otherwise would, perhaps, never discover the existence of the concertina!
A final – and very important topic: concertina makers. There are, today, quite a few. One has to begin with the Dippers and Wheatstone, both making the best quality instruments to the highest specifications (with hand-made reeds). Colin & Rosalie Dipper still make breathtakingly wonderful concertinas, and their son John is continuing that work. Steve Dickinson – the same: superb Wheatstones are still leaving his workshop… but both firms have notoriously long waiting lists! Do check the websites, but also be assured that both firms deserve the highest possible praise. In Wales, Marcus Music makes handsome concertinas with Italian reeds.
A concluding paragraph: there are many, many aspects of this niche world that I have had to omit, and others that I have certainly forgotten. Sorry! In the same way, it must be remembered that the mention in this piece of names, recordings, etc., does not imply endorsement by the Concertina Journal. With limited time, I am simply trying to give a flavour of what, as I say all along, is a multifaceted collection of discrete elements, the British concertina “scene”.
Finally, for those not acquainted with Britain, it is salutary to remember that, whereas a hundred years ago, most villages, most streets would have been home to one or several concertina players, today most British people do not know the difference between a concertina and an accordion. (Sorry, again!) When preparing to go on stage at a festival or gig, with a band or solo, I usually just say “squeezebox”: that communicates with the sound engineer well enough. But it can then , sometimes, give quite a thrill when – though they have no idea what this little instrument IS – listeners appreciate what it DOES! That is what it is all about, really: playing music!
Alexander Prince: Colonel Bogey March (F.J.Ricketts) Easily found on the internet. https://soundcloud.com/ica-concertina-recordings/alexander-prince-colonel-bogey
Scan Tester: I Never Played to Many Posh Dances TSCD581D Topic Records, London. http://www.topicrecords.co.uk/scan-tester-i-never-played-to-many-posh-dances-tscd581d%C2%A0/
William Kimber: Absolutely Classic: the Music of William Kimber EDFSS CD 03 199 English Folk Dance & Song Society, London.
Sam Fawcett: (first published on Folktrax Cassettes in 1975) British Library. http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Peter-Kennedy-Collection/025M-C0604X0061XX-0001V0
The two 3-CD sets, Anglo International (2005) FSCD70, and English International FSCD80 (2008) have much “archive” material, as well as tracks by current British and other players.
John Kirkpatrick Tunes from the Trenches, 2015 Fledg’ling Records, FLED 3099 Available from: http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/shop.asp
Brian Peters: Anglophilia is available from: http://www.brian-peters.co.uk/anglophilia.html
Alistair Anderson: On Cheviot Hills (and many other recordings): http://www.alistairanderson.com/releases.htm
Marcus Music (concertina maker) http://www.marcusmusic.co.uk/concertinas.html
Wheatstone (quality concertina maker) http://www.wheatstone.co.uk/
C & R Dipper & Son (quality concertina makers) access: http://www.johndipper.co.uk/index.htm
Some Clubs & Events:
Hawkwood Concertina Band should be contacted via email@example.com
Yorkshire Concertina Club http://www.yorkshire-concertina-club.org.uk/
West Country Concertina Players http://thewccp.org/
Kilve Concertina Weekend http://thewccp.org/kilve-residential-weekends
Concertinas at Witney http://www.davetownsendmusic.com/homweekends/
Swaledale Squeeze http://www.swaledalesqueeze.org.uk/