The Anglo Concertina Music of John Watcham, by Gary Coover, Rollston Press, 98pp. (2020)
Summer Symphony: Concert Music for Anglo Concertina, by Alan Lochhead, Rollston Press, 75pp. (2020)
I should start this review with full transparency: I’ve been a friend of Gary Coover for over forty years, and I interviewed him for this Journal a few months ago. Moreover, his Rollston Press is slated to print a revised edition of my 2005 book (EFDSS), The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber, now out of print. No doubt all of that weighs on my objectivity, but on the other hand, I’m one of the few who have also published tablature transcriptions of music for the Anglo. I shall do the best I can, but caveat lector.
John Watcham, as Gary mentions in the prologue to his new book, The Anglo Concertina Music of John Watcham, is certainly one of the foremost Anglo players of his generation, and of the English folk music revival of the late twentieth century. Watcham’s musical style employs glorious chords, compelling dance rhythm, and intricate walking bass lines to a morris dance repertoire. Gary’s new book seeks to commit Watcham’s notes and fingerings to tablature and sheet music to make it easier for other Anglo players to learn to play in that style.
Until the last two decades, learning to play in what most call the “harmonic” style on the Anglo concertina has been largely left to individual players to sort out. John Kirkpatrick wrote a very brief lesson for the old Free Reed Magazine in 1972, and Bertram Levy touched on this style very briefly in his tutor of 1985. While certainly useful, neither were of much help at any great measure of detail. For those of us not living close to a player in this style, we were left to fend for ourselves. In the late 1980s, captivated by the earthy vitality of the playing of William Kimber (1872-1961), I slowed down cassette tape recordings of him to half speed, and began to sort out how he made his music, listening to the recordings at half speed and an octave lower (this was, after all, some years before the digital music revolution). It took me several years of occasional such work sessions to eventually learn much of his repertoire, and with it an understanding of his style and technique. Encouraged by another old friend, Roger Digby, I published the study in a book with EFDSS in 2005. A tablature linked to the notes played by the master himself allowed one, if he/she had the time and passion, to learn how to play in the Kimber fashion.
Gary Coover took that idea much farther, simplified the tablature, and published Anglo Concertina in the Harmonic Style in 2013. It contained a smorgasbord of tunes taken from different players of note, each artist selected to illustrate the way the instrument could be played in a harmonic fashion. That popular book was followed by a number of books where Gary devised his own accompaniments for sailor songs, Civil War songs, cowboy songs and the like, all for Anglo players who needed a gentle push toward playing in a harmonic way. Such things are wonderful to a learning player, but still not the same as learning the harmonic style from one of the recognized masters of the tradition. Hence the significance of Gary’s Watcham book, and that of an upcoming book he plans to publish on the playing of John Kirkpatrick. These are books that delve into the details of the styles of master players.
The term “style,” as applied to music, typically refers to “a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed.”1 As a musical term applied to the Anglo concertina, “style” goes far beyond the selection of musical phrases, of the relative emphasis of notes, of chords selected, and of the rhythmic pulse employed. Because the Anglo is amazingly versatile in the ways in which its keyboard can be approached, there are very diverse ways to play the instrument’s keyboard that go far beyond those experienced by, say, a pianist or a flautist. Whereas the note G above middle C has one home on the piano, on the Anglo it can be found on the push on both the second and third rows, and on the pull on the first. Which one to play? Consider an old school Irish concertina player like the late, great Chris Droney. His hands sought out the third (G) row of the instrument and played notes one at a time, staying on that G row unless forced to find lower notes on the left hand second (C) row, or the occasional C# on the accidental row. Quite different than the approach of fellow Irishman Noel Hill and those who have followed him, who use all three rows to carefully choose buttons that allow bellows phrasing (for example, four successive notes all on the pull) and intricate grace notes. That complexity of keyboard choices goes beyond “style” as a pianist might see it.
Similarly, take the noted English player Scan Tester and the lesser-known Australian player Dooley Chapman, who both had two finger, two row styles where they roamed over both lower rows, each hand playing one button at a time, an octave apart from the other hand. Quite a different way of selecting buttons on the keyboard and its fingering from that of either Droney or Hill. William Kimber’s iconic style can be seen as a distant offshoot of such octave playing; he plays in a broadly octave manner on two rows, but typically uses two buttons at a time on the left hand (one is often the lower octave note), and plays those left hand notes only sporadically (and crisply) to create a rhythmic bounce used to accompany the right hand’s melody line.
These are examples of styles that result from hard-wired keyboard choices made over and over again by individual players, no matter which tune they play. For the average avocational Anglo player, this makes it difficult to switch styles, from, say, playing a tune as played by Noel Hill to a tune as played by John Watcham. Certainly one can do that sort of thing on a piano, but it is much more difficult on the Anglo. Each style requires completely different sets of muscle memories associated with individual notes on different rows, and in different bellows directions, of the instrument.
Which takes us to the Watcham book. The notes that Watcham plays are transcribed in detail and faithfully for the most part (more on that in a moment), and if one plays those notes as Gary has indicated, a good basic semblance of Watcham’s version of that tune – at least the notes – begins to emerge. In that respect, Gary’s job is done. But how easy is it to learn how to play in this fashion? In preparation for this review, I decided to learn two tunes from this book from start to finish: the lovely arrangement of Lumps of Plum Pudding and then Country Gardens. I wanted to learn the latter tune to be able to compare Watcham’s style with that of William Kimber, who arguably played the definitive version of it.
My own way of playing the Anglo is self-taught in the manner of my two favorite musicians, Droney and Kimber. Over the years, I have managed to switch back and forth between those two very different keyboard styles. Perhaps being lazy, I haven’t strayed too far from that relatively simple well. My experience with this book will therefore be far different from that of someone already playing in the harmonic style, especially if that style is post-Kimber. Watcham, like many players of the so-called Folk Revival, plays lots of chords and lots of “oom-pah” bass-and-chord pairings, which make special demands upon how one approaches the Anglo keyboard.
I found the Lumps arrangement nicely laid out, and the tablature easy to use. Gary accompanies each piece of sheet music with QR codes that allow one to hear either John Watcham or Gary playing the tune via YouTube, which is a very welcome feature of this book. This tune, like most of those in the book, was familiar to me, as I have been listening to Watcham’s beautiful playing for decades. I anticipated swallowing up the tablature and quickly adding the tune to my repertoire, but here is where I found a surprising challenge. Whereas I can learn the basics of a new tune played by Chris Droney or William Kimber or Dooley Chapman in a matter of a few minutes to at most a couple or three practice sessions, learning this tune was surprisingly difficult for me. I persevered, and after a month’s time of occasionally sitting down in the evening to work on various phrases, eventually mastered it. That mastering involved committing it all to muscle memory.
Why so hard for me? Because Watcham has yet another harmonic style that is surprisingly different from that of Kimber. Yes, both musicians primarily use the left hand for chorded accompaniment, and the right hand for melody, but there the similarity ends. Kimber played on just two rows, does not employ many bass runs or oom-pah couplets, and rarely plays a complete chord excepting the odd C and G chord placed at the beginning or end of a phrase. Watcham plays both oom-pah bass-and-chord phrases as well as bass runs, and frequently employs glorious full chords. Those two items mean that he uses buttons on all three rows, both to get his bass notes and his full chords.
Moreover, whereas rhythm is always predominant over chords in Kimber’s accompaniment style, Watcham’s playing is organized around full chords with accompanying bass notes, and this requires much more muscle memory (or perhaps, a different muscle memory) than I was used to. For example (see Figure 1), in Lumps the end of the opening measure has a melody triplet (C-B-C) on the right hand that is accompanied by a simple oompah couplet on the left hand. This left hand accompaniment has a long bass note F (1A pull) followed by a short FA partial chord (5,4 pull). Kimber, in my imagination (he never recorded Lumps, to my knowledge, because it wasn’t a Headington Quarry dance tune), would have played the melody line of that triplet in a pull-push-pull fashion all on the row (8 pull, 7 push, 8 pull) with, typically, just a partial C chord on the left (8,9 pull) for both the first and third notes of the triplet. Going further, in Watcham’s playing the long bass note (1a pull) as well as his yen for a more fluid, legato sound requires the triplet to be played all on the pull, hence 8-5-8 pull on the right hand.
This preference for a long bass and more fluid phrasing requires not a particularly more difficult keyboard technique, but a different one, at least for me. Then, in the fifth measure of the tune, that very same triplet reappears. Kimber would have played that phrase the same way both times. Watcham chooses to vary the accompaniment of that phrase the second time around to an A chord. Beautiful! But to do that requires playing that melody triplet the first time all on the pull, and the second time all on the push. Watcham’s beautiful playing thus layers on two more levels of muscle memory relative to that of Kimber: one to keep the melody triplet all in the same direction, and the second to vary that direction at will, sometimes push and sometimes pull, each requiring different fingerings and bellows directions. All of this is demanded by Watcham’s pursuit of fluidity and the most evocative chord.
This is in no way to be seen as a criticism of Watcham’s style, or of Coover’s fine transcription. On the contrary, Watcham’s chords are sumptuous and elegant. The price one pays to follow Watcham involves the addition of significantly more muscle memory work than does, for example, Kimber’s simpler style. To some people – I would expect here to include most UK folk revival-era players who play in the harmonic style – this comes naturally. To others, especially those like me who have entrenched, lifelong keyboard habits or those who come to this from the world of single-note-at-a-time Irish music, this would take more practice to master. Keeping triplets and their associated oompahs all in one direction imparts a legato nature to Watcham’s playing that is attractive and not unlike that (and I mean this in the best possible way!) of a piano accordion. Where the first bar of Country Gardens would sound like DAH-dump dah dee with Watcham, with Kimber playing it is POP pop pop pah 2. I find both appealing. The variation in keyboard approaches is somewhat similar, in a way, to the differences between a modern devotee of Noel Hill and one following a Chris Droney or a Kitty Hayes. In Irish concertina workshops, this sometimes results into the application of rules to be remembered, so that one does not make the mistake of playing like the old-timers. Thankfully there is none of that in Gary’s book!
John Watcham plays a 39 button Jeffries CG. Gary Coover plays a 30 button CG with a Wheatstone layout, and uses that keyboard for all his transcriptions, thinking most players will have a 30 button (he’s right) and a Wheatstone layout (I’m not so sure about that). The Jeffries to Wheatstone layout variability makes a significant difference only occasionally, in the fingering of the right hand, and I (with my Jeffries layout instrument) found it slightly annoying not to have Jeffries notes indicated in the few instances where such things were different. I would suspect that there are more players with Jeffries layouts aspiring to be harmonic players than there are players with Wheatstone layouts, and I suggest that, in the future, books that feature such notation should acknowledge different common layouts and indicate them in the score.
Then there is the issue of potential differences in keyboard note selections between a 39 button (as used by Watcham) and a 30 button instrument (played by Coover as scribe). In most parts of most tunes, the two instruments track one another well enough. But inevitably, Gary had to make occasional adjustments, the need for which he mentions fleetingly in the book’s prologue. In most cases those changes are quite minor. However, they make a larger difference at the very beginning of Country Gardens (Figure 2). By wishing this to sound somewhat smooth and fluid, Watcham plays the opening four notes of the phrase all in one direction (pull). The opening ‘oom’ bass note is a middle C played by Watcham on the pull, and that pull middle C doesn’t exist on the 30 button.3 Gary substitutes a pull FC (9-4 pull) partial chord for this ‘oom’ that is very weak by comparison; this is the best anyone with a 30 button can muster if confined to the pull. Kimber, for his part, wasn’t going for fluid, and started his version with a crashing 6 note push C chord (left 5,4,3,2 right 1,4), followed by a bounce into pull for the next three notes of the phrase. In this opening phrase, Watcham needs a 39 button instrument to pull off a strong but fluid style, whereas a somewhat more bombastic Kimber is not so constrained.
My recommendation to anyone who seriously wishes to learn the Watcham style of playing the Anglo is to get a 38 button instrument and buy this book. However, for those with only a 30, Gary has provided a 98% solution that works very well, and this book merits a place on the bookshelf of anyone who plays in, or wishes to play in, a harmonic manner. Well done to Gary for the transcriptions, and to John for allowing the project in the first place.
Summer Symphony: Concert Music for the Anglo Concertina by Alan Lochhead is a second new Rollston Press offering. These are not folk tunes, but the sort of pieces one would hear at a summer bandstand: Strauss, Sousa, and Scott Joplin, for example. The tune selections potentially comprise a wonderful way to stretch one’s repertoire. Lochhead originally published this book in 2008 with Mel Bay Publications, but it had an annoying transcription where all the notes were placed an octave below their true pitch, and no button choices (fingering tablature) was indicated. The Achilles heel of this book is that there are no publicly available recordings of Lochhead playing these rather complex arrangements, so goodness knows what his particular style is. Gary took Lochhead’s musical scores, corrected them to normal pitch, made available some computer-generated recordings of the notes being played, and gamely tried to show suggested fingerings for a 30 button instrument, never having seen or heard Lochhead playing any of these pieces.
The arrangements are in most cases fairly complex. Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, for example, uses fully 28 of the 30 buttons of the typical Anglo. One suspects that Lochhead, who plays a 40 button Wheatstone, makes full use of that instrument’s extra buttons to smooth out the fingering into some sort of fluid and repetitive keyboard style, like that of many modern South African Boer players, but there is no discussion of that. As it is, fingerings on the pieces that I tried rated exceedingly high on the muscle memory scale, to the point of being off-putting. What are needed are examples of Lochhead’s actual playing, and they aren’t there.
Gary has made a good effort in trying to figure out Lochhead’s technique, but it seems an uphill challenge without the knowledge that a) the pieces as played by Lochhead himself are artistically pleasant, and b) that the use of a 40 button instrument isn’t a key part of Lochhead’s approach and keyboard style. I could not highly recommend that the average player (like myself) purchase this book, unless they own a 38 or 40 button instrument and/or have lots of time on their hands to experiment with keyboard choices beyond Gary’s good first (30 button) start. For my money, a better approach for learning concert-style pieces would be to purchase the Anglo International CDs and learn the superb rendition of the Maple Leaf Rag and that of several other tunes played by the late Andrew Blakeney-Edwards. There you can hear the masterful playing, be inspired by it, and then go on to figure out his keyboard wanderings on your own.
One of the other “next things” on Gary’s Rollson Press plate is a book by John Kirkpatrick on how to play the Anglo in his own style. I eagerly await this one, not in the least because I’m told that JK is taking an active part in its writing, resulting in a first-person discussion on playing technique from one of the true modern masters of the Anglo. Keep these books coming, Gary.
February 5, 2021
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2007.
- If the second link is unavailable due to region restrictions, try this one instead, or put “Kimber Country Gardens” in the YouTube search box.
- Please note that the version linked to earlier is in the key of G and played on a GD instrument.