The Compleat Anglo, Chas Marshall, nickbarber.net (2017)
Cormac Begley, Cormac Begley, cormacbegley.com (2017)
Without Haste, Without Rest, Steven Arntson, www.stevenarntson.com (2017)
The World in a Box, Michael Hebbert, www.soundcloud.com (2017)
Once Upon A Time . . . let’s say the twentieth century, the world of recorded music was firmly under the control of recording companies. It still is very largely, but times are changing.
Back then you waited to be invited by a record company to make a record. When the invitation came it was an exciting day; it meant ‘You’d arrived’! What it really meant, of course, is that someone in the company had done some sums and calculated that a recording of your music would sell well enough to cover the recording costs (often shoe-string) and make a profit. Fair enough!
In those days, as now – in Britain at least – the concertina lived 99% of its life in the Folk World, but back then this was a vibrant place with enough flourishing Folk Clubs to support a number of professional performers in all the areas that came within the remarkably broad ambit of the Folk Revival.
The record companies that produced recordings of Folk/Traditional Music had a much more idealistic attitude than their mainstream counterparts. Topic Records, the consistently good flagship company, was mindful of its left-wing roots in the Workers’ Educational Association and had a commitment to the less commercial end of folk music. As a result they created, and continue to create, a catalogue of traditional music that was never going to be commercially viable, but was of huge musical importance. Their ‘Voices of The People’ series ought to be in every public and academic library in the Western World at least – but sadly it isn’t.
Topic balanced the books with recordings of most of the major performers on the folk circuit and this approach was also followed by Bill Leader, who had previously worked for Topic. Leader simply ran two separate labels; ‘Leader Records’ released magnificently bold recordings of traditional music, supported by documentation that was remarkably thorough for its day, while ‘Trailer Records’ released more commercial LPs by popular folk artists, some of whom gave their services for nothing to support the enterprise.
For concertinas, Free Reed tried a similar approach; excellent archive recordings of Gordon Cutty and Tommy Williams, balanced financially by artists like Robin and Barry Dransfield and Roaring Jelly. Plain Capers, featuring a five-piece band led by John Kirkpatrick, is the outstanding release and should be compulsory listening for all those who aspire to play for Cotswold Morris.
Topic continues its excellent work today. The Leader/Trailer records were sold into very controversial oblivion and Free Reed sunk into debt and distrust, though to their credit they have kept their catalogue alive.
Why have I described all this at such length? Because today’s world – at least that part of it where a concertina is most likely to be found – has changed hugely. Web-based platforms like Youtube carry a vast resource of recordings, and simple software allows the creation of home-made CDs so that a quantity and range of music is available as never before. Not all of it is good! Far from it! Many home made CDs are recordings of undercooked performances which also fall well below Red Book recording standards; the latter doesn’t matter too much if the resulting CD is played on domestic equipment, but it won’t cut the mustard on, let’s say, Amazon. Nevertheless this Brave New World does indeed have some fine people in’t.
The four recordings listed at the head of this essay are all privately produced without the help of any major recording company. That in itself is worthy of mention.
Chas Marshall is well known in the North of England for being a fine Anglo player (40-button, C/G Linota) and one of the nicest men you could hope to meet. His health has been bad recently and he has been sadly missed out and about, so this recording is particularly welcome both for its music and as a harbinger of recovery. Sadly Chas’ wife, Viv, is also ill and this continues to restrict their movement. All proceeds from this CD will be donated to the health charities which have helped them, though even if that were not the case it would be money very well spent.
Chas plays mainly for dancing, both in bands playing for social dance and as a solo musician for clog and morris. These are his roots and his musical home.
I can’t ever over-emphasise, and I’ve almost certainly said it before over and over to anybody who will listen, that understanding dancing is essential if you’re going to play dance music. This is fundamental, but still bands are formed – and make their home made CDs – which appear to have no knowledge at all of how to play for dancing. Many morris musicians are equally inept, in my opinion, and need a regular dose of Plain Capers.
Scan Tester said that he always looked for the best couple dancing on the floor and played to them. Dooley Chapman was critical of musicians who had a few tunes but ‘weren’t onto the step’. Jimmy Power, a supreme Irish fiddler in great demand to play at fleadhs, spoke of putting the music ‘under the dancer’s feet’. This awareness of the dancers’ need for support from the musician is at the heart of traditional dance music.
Quite recently Martin Carthy, who has certainly done more than most for balancing Topic’s account sheet, told me a story. He had recorded the Bampton Morris tune ‘Old Tom Of Oxford’ on his 1976 Topic LP Crown of Horn. Martin likes to be at Bampton for their dancing on the May Monday if his commitments allow and he was there around that time. The late Francis Shergold, who was then the Squire, asked him to play for the dance. Martin went for his guitar and played on the small lawn behind one of the houses where Bampton are invited to dance on this wonderful village day. ( I remember, because I was there to see it.)
Now Martin is no stranger to morris music – he was the guitar player on Plain Capers – but he told me that he realised as soon as the dancing started that he wasn’t giving the dancers what they needed so he instantly changed to emphasise the lift that the dancers wanted, especially on grass. That Martin recognised this and was able to rectify it is a mark of his enormous understanding of traditional music, but it is also yet another powerful example of how dance music has to be the servant of the dance and give the dancers what they need if they are to dance happily and well.
Chas understands all this and you can hear that he does. He is also a magnificent example of the usual approach to the Anglo amongst current English players; he plays the tune on the right hand as far as possible and provides chords, rhythmic support and other elements of accompaniment on the left. The very first bars of the CD establish this.
This is functional dance music doing its job without the distractions of embellishment and pretension.
Here’s another example; notice particularly how the fingers of the left hand bounce off the buttons leaving clearance between the chords.
Traditional musicians have always taken popular songs, stripped then down, frequently throwing out tricky harmonies and even simplifying the tune. They then play them with all the techniques that they bring to the rest of their repertory. Here Chas does precisely that:
Chas is joined on a few tracks by Nick and Mary Barber (Nick did the production as well). This adds some texture to the overall CD, but it is Chas’ Anglo playing that is centre stage.
This CD is a bit hard to find. The easiest route is http://nickbarber.net/. This is English dance music as it is currently played on the Anglo and it’s a treat.
I mentioned in my first review on this site that a CD from Cormac Begley was in preparation. It has now been issued and it is a gem. Cormac is a young player with a finely developed technique and an understanding of the music that indicates what is to be gained from growing up surrounded by players. Cormac also has a reputation for his interest in less usual Anglos. I was recently describing one of my slightly unusual instruments to an Irish friend and she immediately remarked, ‘That sounds like one for Cormac’. On this CD Cormac plays nine different instruments over the thirteen tracks. They are all solo pieces; there’s no dubbing. The CD runs for a mere 36 minutes, which would be short even back in the days of vinyl.
The bass and piccolo Anglos are usually seen as novelty instruments, but not in Cormac’s hands, and though the first track on the CD – played on a Dipper Bass – does start off a bit like an imitation of a steam train in a goods yard, it quickly settles into a fine reel.
Cormac uses the same instrument for a slow air.
Slow Airs are very difficult on any instrument because of the enormous control required to achieve the essential legato, but the Anglo adds the extra problem of achieving that legato across the many changes in bellows direction; the natural effect of a bellows change is to bring the second note in slightly more brightly and that’s a huge advantage in dance music, but it takes great skill to eradicate that when it is not required. Add to that the greater difficulty that comes from the larger scale reeds of a bass register and you’d think a player had enough to worry about. Cormac then adds bass notes on the left hand, placing even more demand on the control of the pressure as these large bass reeds need plenty of airflow. Cormac’s playing pays equal tribute to his own skill and to that of the instrument maker.
Cormac adds more bass notes than is usual for Irish players. Listen to these two examples.
Here Cormac is building bass chords on the left hand in just the same way that many English players do and just as Chas Marshall demonstrates. So why do the two players sound so very different when they are employing the same left hand technique? It is because Chas releases the buttons on the bellows change whilst Cormac keeps some or all off them down, allowing the bellows change to change the chord, which is easily done if playing in the main keys of an Anglo. The reed responds very differently if there is a little pressure already in the bellows when the button is pressed from the way it does if the button is already down when the pressure starts to build. It’s quite clear from the sound clips here that the difference is a major one. The whole area of how reeds respond under different pressures and at different stages of a bellows movement is worth a lot of thought on any system of concertina.
The CD closes with a tune on a Lachenal piccolo which I include here for the sheer joy of it and to stress again that these less common instruments are not being exploited for novelty value.
I’m not convinced that any of these tunes benefit greatly from being played in these unusual registers, but the inclusion of so many different pitches and textures certainly adds a pleasing variety to a recording of completely solo playing. There are two tracks played on a Jeffries in one of the old pitches and here I do think there is a real difference. The old pitched instruments, invariably still in their precise original tuning, seem to my ear to have a softness and richness which is less apparent in concert pitch. Here’s a brief example.
All the music on this CD was recorded, mixed and mastered by Jack Talty who is rapidly acquiring a reputation for his ability and knowledge in this area. No commercial recording company could find fault with this quality.
There appear to be two different issues of this CD, a limited edition with extensive notes on the tunes, packaged in a hexagonal ‘cardboard concertina’, and a later minimalist issue in a simple card case with no title, much less information and a different track order. In both cases the CD itself has no information on it at all, though the colours are different! As far as I can see the hexagonal issue also has no copyright protection; perhaps this is simply a realistic acknowledgement that such injunctions are virtually meaningless in today’s digital world, or perhaps this limited issue was only ever intended for friends.
This CD is unlikely to be found except in very specialist outlets. Your best bet is to buy it directly from Cormac via cormacbegley.com.
I’m grateful to Ann Kirrane and Debbie Matthews for helping me get hold of both versions of this release. If you have the one without the notes on the tunes, here they are.
Steve Arntson is a writer, composer, singer and instrumentalist. Without Haste Without Rest is not in CD format and can be downloaded free of charge from Steve’s website, cited above. Having started on an Anglo, Steve now plays a Duet concertina. His earlier recording, The Devil’s Dreamworld, showed him pushing the Anglo to its harmonic edges and suggested to me that he was struggling with bellows changes, so the move to Duet has given him a greater freedom – a freedom which often lacks an obvious structure and is clearly still developing.
The concertina is not an obvious choice for experimental, imaginative work of the sort that Steve Arntson writes and plays and Steve is ploughing his own furrow. The result is intriguing and worth hearing. Here’s an extract from one of the instrumental tracks.
Steve’s singing is even and without expression, merely a conduit for his words. I’ve chosen this extract because it makes a brief allusion to one of my favourite poems of Louis MacNeice.
Five tracks are what Steve calls ‘yodels’. These are nothing to do with Alpine summits or singing cowboys; ‘yodel’ is Steve’s word for vocal sounds without words.
This imaginative use of a concertina in an usual context is an interesting project and Haste Without Rest can be downloaded from The Free Music Archive or streamed at Soundcloud.
Soundcloud has a large collection of concertina recordings, including many by the little-known Duet player, Lesley Henniker. It is also the platform chosen by Michael Hebbert for his collection of recordings, ‘The World In A Box’.
To say that Michael Hebbert is the leading player of the Jeffries Duet system is to recognise a big cog in a very small wheel; it is fair to say that Michael is up with the best on any of the Duet systems, and that is a much bigger wheel in which to excel. He is not so much a concertina player as a musician, one of whose instruments is the concertina and he draws his pieces from absolutely anywhere that attracts him. As a result his playing does not offer carefully rehearsed performances that are the same every time, but spontaneous creations that come from music which is inside him and is finding its way, through his great technical ability, into the Duet concertina. This gives all his playing a freshness and vitality that survives, extraordinarily, in recordings and repeated listening. Inevitably this approach is a bit hit-and-miss and there are always some misses, but the quality of the hits more than makes up for this and the vitality is palpable.
To give some idea of Michael’s scope and approach I have cobbled together this compilation track.
This indicates the range of Michael’s music, his trademark decoration created by rapidly passing through an adjacent button, his remarkable – even eccentric – harmonies and his perfect bellows control.
I mentioned Cormac’s ability to maintain a legato on the right hand even when the left hand was opening up big air-eating low notes. Similarly, Michael maintains an even line above big, hungry left hand chords. I think it is good use and control of the bellows that is the major factor in turning a concertina player into a ‘musician’.
I’ll include one more example of this; big chords, imaginative harmonies and the single note tune, with every note responding to every subtle change in air pressure.
The Duet system is fully able to achieve the Anglo technique of right hand tune/left hand chords and harmony. It can also achieve the crispness created by coming off the buttons at the bellows change, both features I have mentioned earlier. In this traditional march Michael does both these things, but he also introduces some extra left hand harmonies not to mention a key shift from F to G.
I began this piece with a long digression on changes in the production processes of recorded music. It’s interesting to speculate on whether any of these four items would have made it onto vinyl in, say, the 1970s.
Michael Hebbert’s Ramping Cat, FRR 009 (1977), was an early release from Free Reed with Michael fulfilling both of the criteria: a virtuoso player with a presence in the Folk World. It also included some vocal tracks from Andrew Frank. Back then Michael would not have been given the freedom to range through as wide a repertory as he does on his own Soundcloud selection. Record labels liked their output to fit nicely into pre-defined boxes so I don’t think this would have made it. Steve Arntson would have been far too much of a risk, though one or two labels specialising in ‘experimental’ music might have been interested. The musical world in which Chas Marshall plays was still on the sidelines and all-instrumental LPs in this area were rare with emphasis being given to archive recordings. Cormac Begley raises a different question. Recordings of Irish music were commercially viable and one such was the Topic/Free Reed collaboration which subsequently became known as ‘The Clare Set’. (There’s a review by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin here: http://www.concertina.org/archive/pica/pica_2008_5/PICA_5_p63_76.pdf) This review emphasises the many players who were not recorded, the practice being very clearly to record the older players. Today we rejoice in the wealth of younger players; I fear they would not have had a look in back then.
The new digital world offers us a richer harvest.