Current Chronicle for Great Britain, 3

Country Review, Britain, 2020

By Harry Scurfield

Our first “Current Chronicle” for Britain, in early 2017, suggested that the contemporary “concertina scene” is centred largely on “folk music” (quite unlike the position 100 years ago); and the second highlighted current players of different systems of concertina, all under the age of 40. The nucleus this time has been two fascinating conversations with two veterans of the folk scene, both known well beyond the U.K. folk world, and both greatly respected and outstanding musicians, John Kirkpatrick, and Alastair Anderson.

As we all know, what we used to think of as “normal” life has been severely disrupted in Britain – as in most parts of the world – by the covid-19 pandemic, so in the first instance John and Alastair were approached via a simple telephone call to suggest a short questionnaire. I had previously met both musicians a number of times over a period of at least twenty-five years, often quite briefly during concertina-centred events or elsewhere, but in the end these two telephone “interviews” (I use the latter term loosely) became two quite long, detailed conversations filled with interest, humour, and above all, warm, rich enthusiasm; a privilege for me in every way. Thanks John! Thanks Alastair!

Though I asked both musicians about their introduction to the instrument, it really only struck me as I began to read the notes that I had made, that, as a teenager in the nineteen-sixties, to take up any kind of concertina was surely an idiosyncratic choice, perhaps one that demonstrated a certain individuality of youthful taste and purpose. In U.K. terms, these two musical débuts were geographically quite distant from each other, John Kirkpatrick in Chiswick, West London, and Alastair 300 miles (480 km.) further north, in the conurbation of Newcastle upon Tyne. Of a similar age, each had his own route into concertina playing, but both were influenced from the start by the “folk revival”, a major feature of the zeitgeist of the time.

Alastair plays two instruments, the English concertina and the Northumbrian pipes (the small bellows-blown bagpipe of the North-east of England), but his teenage music making began with an interest in American “country blues” and he picked up a guitar like so many others at the time; he would accompany blues and other songs sung by school friend Dave Richardson (later of the very successful band “Boys of the Lough”). “There were hootenanny shows on, folk clubs starting…” he said, and there were strong American influences in that milieu, but a chance encounter with a lovely Wheatstone “Boyd” English concertina triggered his interest, sending Alistair on a bellows-driven path which would involve a local music form.

“I was on my bike on the way to school and went to call for a friend – who was always late, getting ready, and this day the family were decorating the living room, so I waited in the front room [the room in many homes at the time usually only used “for best”: festivities, or when “posh” visitors were expected]. The curious Alistair saw the leather case in the china cabinet, and enquired about it. It turned out that the concertina inside had belonged to his schoolmate’s grandfather, who had been a wheelmaker for horse-drawn buses. The grandmother said “Do borrow it!” and before long she agreed to sell it to the enthusiastic lad.

Wheatstones with the “Boyd” name, like Alastair’s superb octagonal 56-key example – which is still one of his two preferred instruments – have a distinctive, crisp sound and especially good response, even to very slight pressure; they can be loud without generally being considered “strident” – in Alastair’s words, “a very edgy sound”. They were either specifically ordered to be like that – or very carefully selected – by Harry Boyd, whose Newgate Street music shop in Newcastle was well-known amongst players in the north-east around 1900. Alastair’s has the name Boyd cut into the end fretwork, and he believes that it was “used for playing the cornet part” (i.e. a key “lead role”) in the organised concertina bands of the time, playing mainly a brass band repertoire. Suffice it to say that the guitar quickly began to take a less important place in his musical interests as Alastair found his way into the local tradition of Northumbrian music!

A good way further south, but around the same time, at the age of twelve John Kirkpatrick was “recruited” by a very different element in the growing U.K. folk scene. Should it be assumed that most readers of the current publication know something about “Morris dancing”? Morris dance teams (or “sides”) primarily of men, presenting public performances of a traditional dance form in streets, market places and village greens have existed for many centuries, but had – in many areas – been teetering on the edge of extinction in the earlier years of the twentieth century. The tradition, however, was by the second half of the century enjoying an enormous renaissance or resurgence, boosted by the efforts of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and also as part of the above-mentioned “folk revival”. John quickly became a regular and keen dancer with the Hammersmith Morris Men – in the second week of their existence in 1959.

At a very early age, John encountered E.F.D.S.S. members like Hugh Rippon, who played the 2-row melodeon1, “a great person, filled with missionary zeal” about English traditional dance music – in particular the form used to accompany Morris dancing. Hugh Rippon lent John a melodeon, saying, simply: “One note push, another note pull” to set him on the road… to folk music stardom(!) (Note that here, as is common in British usage, I am using the term “melodeon” to indicate the one-row or two-row diatonic accordion).

It seems that at the time the common version of the two-row model in Britain was the B/C version, with its two rows a semitone apart (similar to those favoured in Irish music). As John told me, this brought him eventually to the three-row B/C/C# button accordion, “…the quirky instrument that was taken round the world in the first class hands of Jimmy Shand” as he writes on his website2. But the melodeon also led him to the Anglo concertina.

John found that the “push-pull” system, intended originally for playing in one or two keys meant that, after the melodeon, the basics of a C/G Anglo fell easily into place, and finding the “other” notes – using the accidentals that are not on the two core rows – can be simply grasped by “trial and error”. He bought a new 39 button Crabb in 1968, which, as I understand it, is still the concertina that he plays most. (There are many concertinists who have changed concertina – and will surely do so again – many times, but it is interesting that both John and Alastair have remained faithful to one of the first that they played).

John explained that he learned much from – and was inspired by – Anglo player Phil Ham, but that he had just “missed” William Kimber, who died in 1961. (Kimber was the legendary player who was “discovered” by Cecil Sharp, the folksong collector, playing for the Headington Quarry [Oxford] Morris side in 1899). John does fondly remember hearing the great Lewis “Scan” Tester (1886 – 1972), “He was much more engaging [than Kimber]; he swung a bit more. I couldn’t imagine Kimber playing ‘The Carnival is Over’ [A major 1965 U.K. hit for the Australian folk pop group The Seekers] as Tester did!” John did also hear the Reverend Kenneth Loveless (who had learned directly from Kimber, and had carved himself out a prominent niche in the concertina scene of the day), but “…he was not my main introduction to playing”.

John Kirkpatrick’s primary interest has always been English traditional dance music, and he was swept up in that beginning of what is sometimes called the “second English folk revival” which began in the 1960s, when the older tradition of that music was otherwise in serious decline in many parts of the country. This was far from the local case in Alistair Anderson’s home area; there in the North-East the thread of tradition had continued, with varied instrumentation, (mention has already been made of the Northumbrian pipes) and, for Alistair, quickly superseded his teenage flirtation with the blues. His profound engagement with this local tradition led to a rich, deep affection for local musicians of an older generation who were then still very active:  Will Atkinson [harmonica] (1908-2003), Joe Hutton [Northumbrian Small Pipes], (1923-1995) and Willy Taylor [fiddle] (1916-2000), were three outstanding bearers of this music that he came to know well and admire greatly, and the lift and life of Alistair’s vigorous and dynamic English concertina playing surely owes a lot to their influence.

From the early years covered above – from a début in the fairly restricted world of traditional music and dance, folk clubs and festivals – John Kirkpatrick and Alistair Anderson each became that rare personage in late 20th / early 21st century Britain, a well-known player of the concertina. As a part of the audience, I heard both musicians in different contexts a number of times, from the early 1970s on. Alistair was a performing full-time professional from 1971, and my first experience of his style (probably in 1972) was when he was with the “High Level Ranters”, a lively, energetic band which at that time featured Tommy Gilfellon (guitar) Johnny Handle (accordion) and Colin Ross (Northumbrian small pipes): “the band that has done so much for the self-respect of the music of the North-east”. (The Guardian newspaper, quoted on Alistair Anderson’s website). I remember a great evening of folk music, but was even then captivated by Alistair’s punchy playing, and approach to crisp articulation.

John Kirkpatrick I heard probably a little later, but one element shared in the performance of both players “on stage” is a disinclination to sit or stand still. Passion is clearly visible in Alistair’s approach as – when it suits the music and the occasion – he swings and whirls the concertina while playing. As with many musicians of many genres, his instrument becomes part of the player, one part of who he is, and Alistair’s whole body, but in particular his arms and shoulders, are all swirling elements involved in the formation and shaping of notes and phrases. (A notable exception appeared to be when he was playing with the older Will Taylor, Joe Hutton and Will Atkinson: Alistair seemed to me to present a steadier, more staid, calmer image, possibly underlining respect for the great musicians who were passing on their music?) However, like these respected and revered musicians, Alistair understands and creates the crisp rhythmic pulse needed for dancers.

Alex Wade, one of the “younger” players who were subjects of the second Britain “Current Chronicle” on this website, says that “Alastair plays tunes just as a solo player. But he plays them – performs them – in a way that makes people really want to listen to them”. It can also – when the music heads in that direction, and the occasion is right – get dancers jumping to their feet.

John Kirkpatrick said to me that he, himself, “never understood the English system concertina”, but felt that the folk revival had contributed to an insipid style on that instrument, “just one note following another”. However, he enthusiastically added that Alastair “can do more with one single note than some players would put into a whole set”. (On the topic of different concertina systems, John did add, “I love the duet… but one can’t do everything!”)

On the Anglo, though, John’s own musical presence has a tremendous, joyous, exciting lift, bounce and drive, certainly connected with the fact that dance was primal to his development. It has often been said that one cannot play for Morris dancing if one does not have an understanding and a sympathy for the dance itself. (Similarly, I have often heard the quote – sometimes ascribed to Scan Tester, the Anglo player from the south coast of England – for social dancing, “You look out for the best couple, and play for them”). To play for dancing, it is important to give the music the pulse and spring that will keep feet moving. John Kirkpatrick lifts and drives dancers! This “motivation” is not only audible in his playing, partly through his punchy bellows use, but also visible in his own rhythmic dance-fuelled action. In a similar way Alistair is passionate about “social” or “ceilidh”3 dancing, and both men can, themselves, certainly dance… with vigour and style.

For over four decades, then, Alastair has been known as a leading player of the English concertina, with experience around the world, also featuring Northumbrian pipes in his gigs. John, on a similar time-scale, has had equivalent success playing various diatonic melodeons, accordions… and of course the Anglo concertina. They have both played festivals, folk clubs, travelled widely, and collaborated with other musicians in many ways, and John’s participation in more “traditional” formats (such as the “Umps and Dumps” band) in duets or trios, or in the “folk-rock” outfits, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band has contributed to a considerable broadening of the acceptance of bellows-powered free reeds.

Of his collaboration with widely appreciated guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, he said that “…performing the songs he [Thompson] had written was very exciting, the keys, the modulations… went way beyond [the Morris dance favourite] ‘Constant Billy’ ”. (One of my own up-beat musical memories is of being in the audience for a Kirkpatrick / Thompson accordion and electric guitar duet performance of Abe Holzmann’s flamboyant march, “Blaze Away!”) John did say that he has always made a point of using a spread of his different diatonic instruments in performances as in recording.

Alastair, too, has worked in different fields: some notable points are collaborations with London’s “Adzido”, a South African music and dance ensemble (despite an approach to concertina playing so different from the South African traditions!); with Spanish theatrical work (la Fura des Baus”; a concertina-led concerto with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra; and major pieces with classical instrumentalists.

Perhaps one of the less “obvious” projects involved the trombone of Annie Whitehead. “Airplay” (the ensemble also including electric guitar, percussion and fiddle) played venues from the south coast of England to Shetland way out in the North Sea. Press reviews appreciated the “…glorious music which is probably uncategorisable beyond its deep seated Englishness” [Jazz Review]; and the “yearning melodies and gentle funk” [the Guardian].

Alistair’s own many and thoughtful compositions do often reflect the local music styles that have been so important to him: there is often something that seems specifically Northumbrian at the heart of the melodies and structures of the pieces.

His method book, “Concertina Workshop” (first published in 1974) is still available (today as a download and with C.D.)4 Alistair’s ongoing enthusiasm, and the wish to share it, have led to a long-lasting engagement with what one could call “educational” work, promoting and teaching traditional music (with and without concertina involvement). This has, for decades, been appreciated by large numbers of people of all ages but many, many of them young people, touched by his passion and dynamism. Alastair told me of one concertina player who had been attending many of his workshops over several years; he spoke warmly of the moment when the student suddenly “got it”: she finally understood a point about interpreting music that he had been teaching all along. As he recounted this, Alistair’s voice expressed his joy and satisfaction.

In 2002, in a related major public milestone in his career as a musician and educator, Alistair’s work and enthusiasm were key elements in the founding and organising of the Newcastle University degree course in Folk and Traditional music, which in the following years has had an enormous influence in the area, and way beyond the North-East.

Reviewing his 2008 album, “Islands”, the “Scotsman” newspaper underlines the major importance for Alistair of such activities: “He’s also getting out to play a bit more, while remaining artistic director of the Folkworks music development agency, which he and Ros Rigby set up in 1988 and which has done much to bring traditional music to younger generations in the north of England. His co-musicians on the album include several former students of the traditional music degree course at Newcastle University, for which Folkworks was a catalyst, and of which he was head for four years”. [The Scotsman – 17 October 2008]

As a performer, Alistair is seen first and foremost as a concertina player, piper and composer, in that order. During the planning of this piece, a non-concertina player expressed surprise at the inclusion of John Kirkpatrick: “Does he play concertina, too, then?” During our telephone conversation, John volunteered: “I’d take the concertina with me to a desert island!” which I take to mean that it is his favourite instrument!

This was, as I stated above, at a disturbing period of the covid19 epidemic, and I asked how he was coping with the almost total absence of “live” bookings. After saying that he had done one or two online gigs, – in a similar vein to the comments that Alistair had given to the same enquiry – John said, “Once I’ve sorted my office (decorating, etc.) I’m going to make time to really explore the tunes with all the instruments [that I play]”. This sense of trying out, experimenting, testing, further possibilities is obviously a statement that there is rarely time – simply due to time constraints as a gigging musician (often solo) – to consecrate to such “investigation”, but is also a demonstration of a sense of the almost infinite discoveries possible.

John did go on to say that when working on a new piece, he knows that he can “go anywhere in C”, but that exploring other keys is of great interest. “If I go into D, I have to think more, and play less”. (His style often makes good use of quite full chordal accompaniment to a melody, and – depending on the model – though most chords are available somehow, somewhere on the keyboard, some may be only on “push” OR “pull”, not both). “The limitations of the Anglo are interesting and finding out how to play WITH them is part of it”.

The skill of working around the limitations of his instrument is something that John shares with Kepa Junkera, the Basque player of the “trixitixa” melodeon; at various times John has toured in different European countries with diatonic accordion players like Junkera, but also with Italian Ricardo Tesi, as “Trans Europe Diatonique” (and sometimes Frenchman Marc Peronne). John Kirkpatrick certainly sees the far more limiting constraints of the one-row melodeon as another element that can make a player think carefully, take thought-out decisions and be prepared to be inventive – surely even more that the less restrictive limitations of the Anglo.

John’s career has involved solo work as well as duets, trios and larger bands. Another string to his bow, singing is a major part of any John Kirkpatrick performance. He is a fine singer, and has also composed many songs, some serious, some sharply political, some simply funny, like, “What Do Doggies Do When They Get Bogies Up Their Nose?”; others, like, “What Do You Do In The Day?”, (covering the assumption by the public that someone playing “squeeze-boxes” in a pub cannot be a full-time “professional” musician), have an autobiographical element.

Like Alastair, John has also enjoyed working in “non-folk” environments, and has done theatre work, often as musician, with forays into the role of Musical Director, devising songs and arrangements – even choreography – as well as performing on stage. (The following, referring to a production of a play called “Gaslight” at the New Vic theatre in North Staffordshire, is from his website, and is hard to resist in this current publication: “Composed and recorded a concertina score of music in the style of Stockhausen for this heavy melodrama”).

Both John Kirkpatrick and Alistair Anderson have sizeable back catalogues of recorded material (as John said, “a necessary part of being a professional musician”). Both too, have many of their own compositions featured on these recordings

These two concertinists have on quite rare occasions appeared on the same bill, occasionally playing together. Both also have toured in many countries, and at home have tutored at U.K. concertina events. In these small groups the passion and enthusiasm of both musicians shines through and opens the door to a rich engagement with learners of all levels.

Readers of the Concertina Journal probably need little reminder that theirs is a minority musical interest; however the two men portrayed here have made very different – but in many ways parallel – contributions, not only to lovers of their two instruments, but to the U.K. folk music world in the broadest sense. I would suggest that this has gone beyond that narrower field, via many, many radio appearances, by a high public profile, and by the many and varied collaborative projects (some of which have been mentioned) and has had a lasting effect on general music culture in Britain. Not for a long time has such influence been wielded by two very eloquent and deeply involved concertina players.

On a personal note, during a period when hardly any “live” musical events of any sort are happening in this country, and many aspects of life here are severely curtailed, the two concertina conversations were an uplifting treat. Thank you both!

  1. There is much potential for ambiguity in the nomenclature. In Ireland and France, the term “melodeon” normally refers to a single-row instrument. (European French prefers the general – and more explicative – term “accordéon diatonique” for 2 /3-row variants). In East Anglia (in England) the same was at one time often just called an “accordion”; similar to the Cajun French usage.
  3. The dancing referred to, despite the Celtic word “ceilidh”, would not usually be Scottish or Irish in style, but largely English.