The Traditional Music of Cumbria

The Traditional Music of Cumbria

I have lived in Cumbia for over 20 years and have been ‘involved’ in traditional music for 10 years. In spite of this I still struggle to decide exactly is, or was, the traditional music of this area on a par with say the Traditional Music of Northumberland, or Ireland etc.

Notwithstanding the fact that modern-day Cumbria (UK) was originally three counties (Cumberland, Westmoreland and the some parts of Lancashire) there is a "Cumbrian" core area based around the Lake District.

There are (sometimes very long :( ) ballads, generally sung a capella by one person with a chorus joined by all, some of which seem authentically local, but I am more interested in tunes.

There seem to me to be three main categories which might allow tunes to qualify as local, but none of them are entirely right:

(a) Old Tunes with reference to Cumbrian placenames - there a quite a few of these once you start looking
But the title does not necessarily indicate that the tune was played locally, and in some cases (For example "Trip to…" tunes) the opposite is implied

(b) Old Tunes in manuscript collections of Cumbrian musicians
This seems to be closest to the ‘true’, historic music of the areas as musicians, typically travelling fiddlers playing for dances, would be playing regularly in the area so the music would be regularly heard.

For example the Rook Manuscript (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/musicfiles/rook/) is the personal collection of John Rook of Waverton (which is incidently about 5 miles from where I currently live) dating to 1840. There are a great many tunes in it. But these will not all be ‘local’ in origins and such collections are likely to reflect the wide ranging tastes of the musicians themselves.

(c) Tunes being played now in Cumbria
This includes tunes in the categories above, but my sense is that this is predominantly a result of revivalist input so I would be inclined to call it "neo-traditional". And in pubs in Cumbria, you will find the same mix of tunes as probably anywhere else, with a loose focus on "Irish" tunes in instrumental sessions

Any thoughts anybody?

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Neo-traditional just about sums it up. In the twenty or so years I went to folk clubs in the sixties and seventies, on a more or less daily basis in the North-east of England, I never heard a single traditional song or tune that had been learned from anything other than a book or a record. The folk scene declined during the eighties and nineties, and was almost non-existent at the turn of the millenium. Of course things may have been different in other parts of the country, but if it was, I never heard any music in my travels, or from visitors from other parts.

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I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this didn’t turn out to be a rich seam. According to Wikipedia there are almost half a million souls resident in Cumbria (494,300), so although the area has a low population density, in total there are a fair amount of people around. I’d be interested to learn if any of the songs and tunes had a trace of Cumbric language (related to Welsh) and culture in them. Old counting system (allegedly for counting sheep) still survive. Interesting discussion.

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"Old Tunes with reference to Cumbrian placenames"

Indeed - songs with reference too.

Little Musgrave is near Great Musgrave by Warcop. Not all that far from Barnard Castle, the home of Lady Barnard. Not sure what Matty Groves thought of all the plagiarism.

Of course, nobody has unearthed any Brythonic bodhrans or bouzoukis yet, but there is still hope…..

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Gutenberg and Edison have a lot to answer for.

Has anyone mapped out tune distribution from the 19C and 18C manuscripts ?

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In terms of tunes, local musicians’ tune books are your best (only?) source. These were the tunes played in the area, their place of origin is immaterial. But that still only gives you a bunch of tunes, not a tradition.

IMHO you just have to accept that there is no such thing as a ‘Cumbrian tradition’. Tradition lies not in the tunes, but in the style of playing. It is something that can only be passed down aurally from teacher to pupil, and once that line is broken the tradition is dead. You can dig up your granny’s cat and play with the bones, but you can’t ever bring it back to life.

Places like Northumberland and Ireland are lucky enough to have local traditions because that teacher/pupil line is unbroken. For the rest of us, we just have to accept that we don’t have a local tradition. We can enjoy playing music, but trying to turn it into something of academic worth as a ‘local tradition’ is a non-starter.

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For dance tunes I wonder if there could also be a ‘line of descent’ through the dancers that might survive breaks in the musical teacher-pupil line. Granny insisting on music for the local dance to be played the way it was when she was a girl.

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I haven’t spent much time in Cumbria, so I don’t know anything about present day local repertoire but, as regards tune names, this one springs to mind.

The Whitehaven Volunteers
https://thesession.org/tunes/6333/

I was going to mention The Trip to Cartmel, but I see you’ve just posted that one, Edgar https://thesession.org/tunes/12041

I did accidentally stumble on this one, though:
Cartmel Fell
https://thesession.org/tunes/9543

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You might be able to answer a question that has been puzzling me this last few days, Edgar?

I’ve no doubt that Cumbria is a very fine place - I think of the Lake District, the hills and crags etc. I’m sure the folk music is great and hopefully appreciated by the locals.

But why are you stocking the tune database of a site mostly geared towards Irish traditional music with Cumbrian music??

I’m no cultural elitist, far from it, and I readily appreciate that music crosses regional, political and cultural boundaries to a certain extent.

So you’d think that the odd Cumbrian or whatever tune that is known in the Irish tradition might be grand but I doubt very much whether the rest of them have much relevance to what appears to be the stated aim of this website??

Otherwise, where would you stop? Should people start submitting French folk music, Finnish folk tunes, Mongolian music??

Of course, it’s not just Cumbrian music and please don’t take any offence - this trend seems to be par for the course for a few years now. There’s 12,000+ tunes in the collection here now - a substantial proportion of which must be well outside the norms of what might be heard played by Irish traditional musicians???

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Don’t forget the Scandinavian/Irish influence in West Cumbria too.

All those diddley polskas being danced in St Bees. Some say it is the knock on effect from Sellafield though.

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"But why are you stocking the tune database of a site mostly geared towards Irish traditional music with Cumbrian music??"

Why does Jeremy have the classification ‘Strathspey’ in a purely Irish database?

Hoots mon, we’ll tak o’er yet……

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Given the work Greg Stephens has been doing with Cumbrian music, I wonder what the point of duplicating it here is.

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"Hoots mon, we’ll tak o’er yet……" Help ! …

… more "Three-twos" needed ;-)

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The Village Music project is a good place to look for Cumbrian tunes; they have a number of manuscripts. The 4 Brownes, in particular, have some really good tunes, but also Irwin, "carlisle", R. Harrison, Stables, Barnes. (I don’t mean that the others don’t, just that I’ve looked more in Browne).

Also, following on from Jack, http://richardrobinson.tunebook.org.uk/tune/CumberlandNelly is played round Lancaster, sourced as "Greg Stevens found it in a library somewhere", I know no more (but wouldn’t be suprised if it’s known north of the border). An external link, rather than pollute the ancient purity of the Irish Strathspey. "Donegal, man. Donegal".

(My site also has a full browseable mirror of the VMP stuff, but I’m reluctant to advertise it very strongly, I continue to be very unhappy about the site; it’s quite unreasonably slow verging on impractical. The good news is, I now think I see why and am working on it, so I hope to see it more usable in "just a few more weeks now, honest …" but, hey, if anyone does have any Mongolian tunes, it’d love them).

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"But why are you stocking the tune database of a site mostly geared towards Irish traditional music with Cumbrian music??"

It’s probably a lot more relevant than The Traditional Music of Cumbernauld.

:-P

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This site already has "The Cumberland Reel" - which is actually a Scottish tune whose original title was "The Cumbernauld Reel".

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"This site already has "The Cumberland Reel" - which is actually a Scottish tune whose original title was "The Cumbernauld Reel"."

That’s only because everyone asks "what’s it called?".

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Amazing.
I always used to rename it The Cumernauld Reel for a laugh but I was right all along!
:-)

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There seems to be quite a wide opinion as to this tune’s title.

"Also known as Bunty’s Goast, Cabbages And Onions, The Cannibal Islands, Cumberland Reel, The Cumberland Reel, The Cumberland, Double-dee-Doubt, The Ghost That Haunted Bunty, The Handcart Song, Hilly-Go, Filly-Go, Hilly-Go, Filly-Go All The Way, Hokee Pokee Wonkee Fum, King Of The Cannibal Islands, King Of The Cannibals, Les Deux Rivales, Nottingham Swing, The Nottingham Swing, Phillebelulah, Stanla Markit, Stanley Market, Vulcan’s Cave.


https://thesession.org/tunes/5957

It was originally submitted as "The King Of The Cannibal Islands"!

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I’m interested in gam’s comment about the northeast of England. Obviously you don’t mean Northumberland, as the traditional music scene over there has remained uninterrupted for centuries and there have been sessions/festivals/tune learning by ear right throughout the 80s, 90s and into this century. Where in the northeast are you talking about?

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Reverting briefly to the original post … on your point a) - I guess the Trip to Cartmel would be a Hest Bank tune ?

b) is the chewy one, of course. To a first, unresearched, approximation, I suppose we assume that a manuscript’s most likely to turn up not far away from where its author lived, and is thus a reasonable reflection of the tunes being played there then. Whether that makes them local might be a different argument; but what other info. might there be ? Not many people can trace a 200-year line of aural transmission for their tunes (in this country, that I know of). The trouble with paper is that tunes can tend to "come from" different areas as you play the same dots different ways.

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"…and once that line is broken the tradition is dead. You can dig up your granny’s cat and play with the bones, but you can’t ever bring it back to life."
‘Fraid I disagree. Bringing a tradition back to life is called a Revival. I’d say it has happened successfully otherwise why would this site be so successful? Scottish trad - and to a lesser extent Irish trad - needed some artificial respiration to get them on their feet again. The same may be said for Breton, Gallician and Italian trad musics - and no doubt many more. And if you need absolute proof that revivals work, think of the Hebrew language. about maybe 80 years or so ago it was mostly a literary and liturgical language and is now an official language of Israel.

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You’re on slippery ground there!! After all Gaeilge is an official language of Ireland……….

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Yes I know. But Hebrew has managed to be re-established far more successfully than Gaeilge, as much as I would like to see otherwise.

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….In fact anything BUT slippery ground. I’ve heard Hebrew being held up by revivalists in Ireland as an example of what could be.

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>>" ‘Fraid I disagree. Bringing a tradition back to life is called a Revival."

It’s a revival, not a tradition. Two different things.

If you gave a book of Irish tunes to a musician who had never heard Irish music, he would play the tunes, but he wouldn’t be playing Irish music. If you dig out an old Cumbrian manuscript, you can revive the tunes, but it doesn’t mean you are playing traditional Cumbrian music.

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But if you keep doing it long enough then eventually you will have been ?

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Probably, after a few generations. :-)

Actually, what we are talking about here isn’t even a revival - that implies that the tradition was still alive but had grown weak. What we are talking about here is more like a resurrection.

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OK fair point, well put. So, according to this viewpoint, you can’t, by definition, "revive a "tradition"?

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I think we’ve cross posted, but I’ve hinted at my view on that in my last post - if a tradition is down to just a few players, then gets poputar it can have a revival. But once it has died out completely It is a dead parrot.

I suppose it could be argued that any tradition which dies now, in the age of recording, will never actually be dead and can always be revived, because learning from recordings could be seen as continuing the teacher/pupil line. But any tradition that died before recordings is gone forever.

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Yes we cross posted. I’d go along to an extent with what you say about recordings, because then you can copy technique etc. But I wouldn’t say necessarily "grown weak" - more likely a locally grown tradition became *subsumed* because of (other!) recordings, radio, tv, mass transportation and so on. "Resurrection" seems quite a harsh term. I think EB was just talking about digging out some old tunes from Cumbria. If that’s resurrecting a tradition, so be it, if one needs to call it thus.

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Re the language analogy, there’s been a systematic attempt to revive the Irish language since the foundation of the Free State and later the Republic. And it’s largely failed in the face of general public indifference. That was my experience as someone who went through 14 years of compulsory Irish in school and repeated a generation later by our children. I was amazed even this morning to hear our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn talking about the dismal level of mathematics in this country and in the next breath opining that his great new vision for IRISH EDUCATION was excellence in Maths, English, Science and Irish. These in his view are all essential for the great new way forward in this modern world. I nearly choked on my cornflakes … laughing. Some people never learn, it’s a civil service state of mind.

Compare to that to the relative well being of Irish trad music - a hobby interest as well but looked on reasonably favourably by the average Irish citizen. A part of our culture, just like the language but which unlike the language, has survived and even thrived in spite of almost total state neglect & apathy.

Don’t get me wrong - I have plenty of time for the Gaeilge and for people who wish to speak it and I’d happily defend their right to do so. But for the large majority it’s irrelevant and redundant to their normal lives.

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Hmm…I suppose if there were a greater reason for people to speak it they would learn it.
I guess for Jews going to Israel from all over the world, speaking many different languages, but with Hebrew as the common denominator as it was central to their faith and was already used as a liturgical language, that was sufficient need, and convenient anyway.

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Sure, I guess for cultural matters to be revived, there has to be a need in the society. Gaelic games were largely revived and even reinvented in the later part of the 1800’s in Ireland. GAA - gaelic football and hurling are important matters in much of rural Ireland but they weren’t always so. So maybe there’s hope for Cumbrian music then :)

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As a Belfastian comfortably exiled in Westmoreland since 1976 I would point you in the direction of the Furness Tradition Tune Book, a treasure trove of tunes from this neck of the woods (collated by Mke Kermode) My friend the fiddler Carolyn Francis donated several tunes to the collection and there is a healthy local scene with players such as Hugh Taylor and Steve Tomlinson (of Tumblng Tom celi band) keeping the tunes alive.

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How about reviving the Old Cumbric language, to provide a common language for returnees from the Cumbrian diaspora?

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"A Trip To The Lakes", by The Boat Band, is a really nice sampler of Cumbrian or Cumbria-associated music, drawing on the tunebook(s) of the local c19 fiddler William Irvin. The album is in the Recordings section here:

https://thesession.org/recordings/display/2263

It’s fairly recent - the date 2005 is appended to the sleeve notes.

I took it out from Durham Library just to give it a try, and am glad I did. I make no bones about repeating something I put in the Comments section here for this album:

"I really like this album - traditional music from the Lake District, some of it tunes originally noted down by c19 fiddler William Irwin. The playing is refreshing without being slack and simple without being at all dull. It is a delight to listen to, though the two (old) songs are a bit weak.

‘There are some very nice tunes I hadn’t heard before. A polka turns up shared with Sliabh Luachra, and a related article points out that Cumbrian together with Manx fishermen often frequented the Irish coast. (And the west Cumbrian ports were, relatively speaking, more important then than now.)

‘There is, or has been, great Northern English trad outside Northumbria, and it’s always good to hear more of this"

(The Joshua Jackson - I think - tunebook is supplying players withn tunes from bygone Yorkshire, for example.)

In the neck of North-East Cumbria which extends past Brampton to Gilsland and the Northumberland border, there was a tradition (at Bewcastle, e.g.,) which was an extension of the Northumbrian music catchment: this pre-dated the postwar folk revival. That is a particularly quiet, tucked-away part of the world, and a very long way away from the Lake District.

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Ha ha, creadur, but you’ll have to wait about 2000 years first.

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(The c19 fiddler’s name *is* Irwin, not Irvin, btw…)

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Scientists discovered today that the ancient Cumbrians played an instrument called the Higgs Bodhran.

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Yes, apparently it was really heavy - about 133 times as heavy as the cajons that lie at the heart of every session.

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"Ha ha, creadur, but you’ll have to wait about 2000 years first."

That’s alright - I can wait. It’ll take me at least that long to discover my Cumbrian roots, anyway.

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…and by which time someone will have hit the Higgs Bodhran and create another Big Bang….

The William Irwin Symposium Of Lakeland Music & Dance

"BIG BANG!" But do we start with a black hole? :-D

Musing over what has been said here, first the playing with the bones of your grannies dead cat ~ as if a given ‘tradition’ were only about the bones, or merely tunes and technique… :-/

& a ‘National Irish language’ ~ wasn’t a failure becaues of "general public indifference." I place the blame on the treatment and approach, on the government and their lackies at the time… They were the ones with the ‘wrong’ tyrannical attitude, and a blindness and lack of respect for the surviving/living forms around them. It could be said that more damage was done to the Irish language after the English left, by the Irish who took power…

Fiddler William Irwin was recently celebrated in what hopes to become an every-other-year event ~ hoping that will become an established ‘tradition’ ~

The William Irwin Symposium Of Lakeland Music & Dance
https://thesession.org/events/2746

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Yes Ceol, I have heard, or read, the same wrt Irish language.

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"Scientists discovered today that the ancient Cumbrians played an instrument called the Higgs Bodhran…"

Ah! That has kept alive the quest for the Higgs Bison, which may or may not have provided the hides for this instrument that may or may not have existed.

Rumours concerning the existence of this creature in Kielder Forest and other wilderness areas in the region have been perpetuated by the occasional sight of wretched humans, seemingly entrapped by something consisting of an animate black solid cube some four or five feet across, hurling themselves into a lake, beside themselves with madness and fear.

However, the mystery was cleared up when several students and job-seekers were inveigled into being staked out in clearings and studied from a distance by beard-stroking researchers marinated in fly repellent and whisky. Sure enough, each subject was descended on by a large black square entity, and began to emit cries of distress. This was in the dark, so it could not be seen what the black thing actually was.

Subjects were soon tied by the feet in the Bede Crasher, North-East England’s improvement on the Hadron Collider, and the machinery began to whizz. The black things were sucked off the subjects and began to zoom round the Crasher. They atomised too fast to be bisons, and it was established that they had in fact been enormous solid blocks of midges.

The subjects said: "We’d rather they had been bisons…"

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" North-East England’s improvement on the Hadron Collider"

Is that something to do with Hadron’s Wall?

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At least with flying stinging bison you’d see and hear them coming, and they’d be of more use in the barbecue season…

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It’s funny isn’t it, that I grew up in Cumberland, played tunes there for many years and never played a single Cumbrian tune. We always played Irish music … which, as you might expect, made no one particularly happy. Quite the opposite in fact. Often playing Irish music made people very angry indeed.

I did latterly try a few ‘Cumbrian’ tunes, but seeing as all there is to go on is the dots I was at a loss as to what style they should be played in. I adopted my own pan-irish, psuedo-semi-scottish style and the tunes ended up sounding like bad Scottish or Irish tunes.

Oh well. I’m sure others have had more luck.

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To pavif:

Striding Edge, featuring my good mate Carolyn Francis who has already been mentioned, have some audio on their website, e.g.
http://www.striding-edge.org/sounds/keswick%20bonnie%20lasses.mp3
the first tune is here
https://thesession.org/tunes/8580

To my ears it sounds like what it is, Northern English music played with vigour. I don’t have their recordings but perhaps someone who has them will add them to the database?

Carolyn’s community music group Lakeland Fiddlers do have 2 recordings listed.

And… if people feel a need for something which has been lost and they revive, even resurrect it, is it any less valid than anything else? For me it’s more relevant to ask, is it any good, than is it traditional. Tradition is a value-free word which has somehow acquired a veneer of ‘you-can’t-argue-with-it’.

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the abuse of language, and ‘tradition’ meaning so much more than the narrow distilled poison some make of it… People ‘make’ tradition, and that can begin with one person with a passion.

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I know Carolyn. I grew up in Keswick. I did ask the question ’ is it any good’.

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Nearly 3,000 tunes have been found in Cumbrian manuscripts, these include jigs from Ireland and reels from Scotland , but much that is unique to the area. The music of especially Northern England is closely related to that of Scotland and Ireland and there are are upwards of 12,000 tunes. This is a fact and I have hardly met anyone from outside England who knew anything about this. There are indications from bow marks in manuscripts that the reels were played in a similar fashion to those of Shetland.The only really good fiddler that was recorded in the North of England was Willy Taylor, so it is said we cannot base anything as being "traditional" unless you copy him. If you want to call any revival of this as artificial, you might as well say the same for baroque music, which was not played for a hundred years, so the style was lost, but the efforts of classical musicians, musicologists and instrument makers have done a superb resurrection job.