English trad sessions

English trad sessions

I’ve had a listen to a Dave Swarbrick record, which is very unusual for me as I am really listening almost exclusively to Irish trad and have been doing so for years. Now, the whole world of "English trad" is unknown to me, but I have heard that such a thing exists, moreover that there are English trad sessions in England, so I’m going to ask this question out of curiosity and no lack of respect to other musical cultures.
On his record ("rags, reels and airs") there are several tunes that are part of the common Irish repertoire (a discussion of their origins - born in Ireland or borrowed - is besides the point of my question - please do not take it there). The point is that I am used to hear them in a certain style and Swarbrick is playing them very differently. My question is: should I ever stray into an English trad session, should I expect the same? I.e., some tunes that I’d know would be played but in such a different style?

Re: English trad sessions

I’d wait for a more educated reply, but just to add I live in England and have been to lots of “English sessions” and in my experience the tune origins chosen/allowed are dependant on the culture of each individual session.

In my experience most “English sessions” actually mean “not Irish” sessions (not from a discriminatory way, just to set themselves apart from the more common Irish sessions), with a majority English origin tunes, but also a tunes from Scotland, Europe (eg Bear dance!) etc.

In these ones, Irish tunes that have been adopted as English tunes would be played, but the vast majority of tunes would be considered English in origin (particularly Morris music).

A few however have been strictly English only tunes (I’ve found these tend to have an Ideology of reviving English folk music), and in these you wouldn’t hear Irish origin tunes.

Worth knowing there are also regional sessions in England eg in Cornwall (a county in England but not considered a separate country) there are many “Cornish sessions” that will only play Cornish origin music. I’ve been to a few of these and in these you would never hear tunes you’d traditionally consider “English” (would be frowned upon).

Hope that helps, but I’m no expert! 🙂

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They sound very differently because that’s the way Swarbrick played them is the facile answer I suppose but mostly I reckon you wouldn’t find that much of a difference in the way ‘Irish’ tunes are played in an ‘English’ session. If there were stylistic differences it would be mostly down to the musician(s) and local norms. It’s certainly not something that would not bother me or my musician friends particularly in my part of the world.

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Speaking from personal experience (in England), I’ve been to a quite few sessions classed as "English" that really are hybrid English/Irish ones, with many Irish tunes not played in a strictly Irish style.

Also, many people (generally the older ones) will play the Swarbrick version of tunes like "Rakish Paddy", "Lark In The Morning", "Gusty’ Frolics" and many others from the album you (sixholes) mentioned, plus tunes from the Fairport Convention albums, because that’s where they learned them from.

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Swarb was a great and it must be said idiosyncratic fiddler - without getting into the question of what tradition(s) his playing represented, people do play his versions, in his style, and of course plenty don’t.

English sessions tend to be very individual in my limited experience - there is of course a repertoire of common tunes but there is also a lot of individual styles, repertoires, and approaches, and each session tends to have its own way of functioning (or disfunctioning…)

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This is from Suffolk but it’s also typical of what you would find in the sessions around Lewes, Sussex. You wouldn’t find any Swarb sets played. There’s a big repertoire taken from some of the older generation of musicians who were still playing in the 60-70s, such as Scan Tester whose tunes are being played here. Also lots of tunes taken from old manuscripts.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QKp9_ZVP8s

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I’ve downloaded some Morris tunes to learn. But now I’m afraid to get too close! I go visiting close to Lewes each year, but I’d hate to endure a whole night of that gear. I think I’d leap up and start belting out Whiskey in the Jar! Maybe I’d end up as a new effigy for one of the Lewes bonfire societys!

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Some would say (heaven forfend that it should be I) that with Whiskey in the Jar as your sin, your fate would be richly deserved.

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There certainly are English sessions in London. I mean very much English music, not English-Irish hybrids, although they also exist. There is a Tuesday one in Greenwich, which has changed pubs over the years so I can’t tell you exactly which pub at present.
To the best of my knowledge and I’m no expert at all, although those sessions are essentially instrumental music sessions (and singing), the music tradition is quite strongly affiliated to the Morris tradition, which is of course a performance of music and dancing. So I get the feeling that English trad music, like its Irish counterpart, maybe more so, is strongly associated with dance. A nice clip of more East Anglian trad, showing step dancing:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zM9rE4K092k

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There are loads of English tunes, many of them dance tunes, that are not Morris tunes. I have been to English sessions where Morris tunes are deliberately avoided.

Isn’t the Dave Swarbrick style a bit too ‘showy’ for sessions?

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The English sessions that I have attended have had a very strong body of melodeon players usually D/Gs, a fair few concertinas, maybe fewer fiddles and blown instruments, but as usual, it just depends who turns up!

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I stand corrected, David50.
John Offord is yer man to refer to on the matter of English tunes. He collects them and publishes his collections. And plays them.

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The Greenwich session is currently at the River Ale House, Woolwich Road, SE10 0RJ on Tuesdays 8:30pm.

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‘John Offord is yer man to refer to … .’
Well, one of them - but not the only one. His ‘John of the Green’ is an excellent collection, particularly (but not only) of tunes in 3/2 and 9/8. But the variety and amount of English music that’s available is far greater than I suspect a lot people in the country realise. There are the historical collections (Playford, Vickers, Mittel, Wm. Winter, Thompson, Cahusac …) and many more recent ones compiled by Andy Hornby, Dave Townsend, Barry Callaghan, the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society … one could go on. And that’s just the material that’s written down: there’s also a healthy currency in tunes spread through sessions and recordings, and some very fine playing going on.

I take part in sessions around Lewes which, as mentioned above, is rife with the stuff. The focus is generally on English material, but not in a purist or exclusive way. Eclectic is o.k. too - especially over the last year or so as tunes have been shared widely (inc. internationally) via e-sessions. There’s a certain amount of overlap with the Irish repertoire as popular tunes have drifted into both traditions, but ETM is alive and well in its own right.

Of course, the Irish is nice too.

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Thanks for the clarifications, Paul and Bazza. I did say I was no expert!
It possibly comes as a bit of a surprise to many Irish trad afficionados that there is such a very lively and ongoing scene of English trad music…especially on this website!

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Have a look at https://www.village-music-project.org.uk/ to get an another idea of what was about in the past and survived in the repertoire or is being selected from to play now.

Not really answering the OP question though. I suspect most tunes from outside England, and some from elsewhere in England with regional style (e.g. the north-east) are played at English sessions with what would be regarded as a ‘peculiar accent’ by those from where they come from.

There a few tunes I first heard Dave Swarbrick play, in an idiosyncratic style, where I later came across old field recordings on the web and thought ‘I wonder if that’s where he got that from?’.

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Very true about regional variations, David50. Lots of Hornpipes in NE England, the influence of James Hill and others. Then there are also the 3/2 Hornpipes which also seem popular in that area.
At one of Nick and Mary Barber’s festival workshops we did a whole set of tunes by William Irwin - “The Lakeland Fiddler” - so NW England. At one of John Kirkpatrick’s Sidmouth Festival workshops we played a number of tunes by “Mr Rew” who was from the Sid Valley in Devon.
And yes to Scan Tester tunes, and to the East Anglian tradition.

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Mention of the Village Music Project above prompts me to add that there are also a good number of English tune collections online digitised from the library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society at http://www.vwml.org.

There was, and may be again at some point, a project to convert all of these collections into abc; scans of the books are available now. To declare an interest I was/am a transcriber for both The Village Music Project and the VWML Full English project.

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I would be curious as to what brought up ´Dill Pickles´ in reference to English Trad Music Sessions. It would be difficult to be more American than Charles Leslie Johnson, born in Kansas City, unless you were Scott Joplin, born in Texas.

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The Carthy/Swarbrick video wouldn’t play for me, though I remember the tune well enough from Rags Reels and Airs many years ago - curiously enough these stalwarts of the English Folk Scene introduced many of us in England to Irish trad music!

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Ah, @christy taylor, that makes better sense. I am familiar with a number of Continental musicians who play the Classic Rags on guitar. I did as well, but that was ¨A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…¨

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postie, I still do on occasions - but more inspired by people like Stefan Grossman, Doc Watson and Rev Gary Davis. All very non-ITM.

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Some historical context might be helpful. Before the English Country Music revival began round about the mid-70s, a tune session in England would almost always mean Irish music. The "no Irish tunes" rule came about not because of any hostility towards the Irish or a dislike of ITM, but because there were already ample opportunities to play Irish music almost anywhere in England and the sessions wanted to stay focussed.

There is also a stylistic conflict. Irish and English styles are very different, even when playing similar tunes - the "feel" of jigs and hornpipes for example is different, and reels even more so. The styles are not really compatible - you can play the Irish way or the English way, but not both together. The same can be said of Scottish styles of playing. Some European tunes on the other hand, in particular French and Scandinavian, can be more easily assimilated, and modern Balfolk is finding its way in via musicians such as Naragonia. Of course some "Irish" tunes were actually part of a common repertoire shared by the whole of these islands, and distinct English versions existed alongside their relations in Ireland; a few Irish tunes have been adopted where they can be adapted to a more English style of playing.

Morris is not really a core part of the English session repertoire, although you may well hear a few tunes played. Cotswold morris tunes are too closely enmeshed with the dance, and ideally should be left to a solo musician who can respond to the dancers - the subtleties are easily lost in a crowd. The core repertoire is the social dance and step-dance tunes of the 19th and 20th centuries collected from living tradition, and country dance tunes of the 17th and 18th centuries or even earlier, taken from contemporary published sources and fiddlers’ notebooks. There are considerable regional differences in style and repertoire. In addition, you might hear the occasional French, Scandinavian or even Welsh tune, and the occasional Irish tune if it can be adapted to English style without inflicting too much damage. Even the occasional rag - Pig Ankle Rag has recently become popular, perhaps because it is rather fun to play on a D/G melodeon. Of course, there are also a lot of modern composed tunes written in these styles.

Swarb was a brilliant musician, but his style of playing was his own. I don’t think he has had much, if any influence, on the English Country Music revival, although he has undoubtedly been an early inspiration and influence for many aspiring fiddlers. English players look to recordings of traditional players and to other modern fiddlers for their influences.

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"Irish and English styles are very different, even when playing similar tunes - the "feel" of jigs and hornpipes for example is different, and reels even more so."
Can you quickly describe some of basic the differences in style and approach, please? I do realise you may have better things to do, but the above was very informative. 🙂

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OK, here’s Kevin Burke playing a couple of hornpipes "Galway Bay/Drunken Sailor"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgjaf-e8hbE

and Brian Peters playing "Mr Moore’s Hornpipe/Red Otter" (disregard the slow intro, it gets going at around 0:45)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TBKpB1tGwU


Jigs: Here’s Kevin again, with "Morrisons"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3edbzPR4e9o

Andy Cutting playing "Simon and Candy’s"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTWKVV3X1V0


In each case, they’re clearly both the same rhythms but a different "feel". Being the same rhythm, put the two styles together and they’ll fit, but they won’t gel together, and the result is usually unsatisfactory. Add that Irish musicians generally want to play faster, and the two often don’t mix well in a session.

Add also that in my experience English players of Irish music seem to be very focussed on it, and sometimes seem to be unable or unwilling to try anything else; my experience of mixed sessions is that the Irish players often sit around talking among themselves rather than join in, waiting for their chance to play a few reels. That’s a terrible generalisation of course (and usually doesn’t apply to players who are actually Irish), but the unfortunate reality is that mixed sessions often don’t work. Which is a pity.

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I always found it interesting that, off the top of my head, I can think of several English and Northumbrian musicians who have recorded Irish sets, but I can’t think of any Irish musicians who have recorded English or Morris dancing. But Howard Jones’s historical context clears that up. If I understand correctly, Irish dancing was very popular in England, but that never happened the other way around.

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I may be wrong, but I don’t think Irish dancing was particularly strong outside the Irish community. However Irish music was very strong and bands like the Chieftains, Planxty, Bothy Band etc were very popular, and of course there is a large Irish community where music was played. For many, myself included, there was little awareness that England had its own tradition of tunes, apart from Morris and the Northumbrian tradition, but we did have all these wonderful Irish tunes to play.

When the English revival started it had to ring-fence itself from this in order to get established (one of the seminal albums was titled "No Reels"). Now both are strong and the two exist alongside each other.

Many players of English music are also interested in ITM. I’m not sure the reverse is true.

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Thank you, Howard!

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Howard’s clips also illustrate something stylistic that, to me, is more important that any influence Swarbrick may have had.

Irish fiddlers could ask themselves how they would approach playing tunes alongside an English-style D/G melodion player - or more likely half a dozen of them.

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I used to think that I was an Irish fiddler playing English tunes and then I thought that perhaps I was an English fiddler playing Irish tunes. Now I’m not sure when I’m playing where the Irish ends and the English begins or indeed vice versa. Oh dear, such such a hard life ain’t it eh?

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For what it’s worth I think in parts English folk has yet to reconnect with its roots in the way that both Irish and Scottish folk traditions have. There does appear to be a huge repertoire lurking but as is the ways of these things in trying to recreate a tradition certain books, settings and instruments ( mainly the damn melodeon) have been taken to be gospel or at least the remnants of the tablets carried down the mountain and now dominate.

For all the comments regarding Swarbrick’s playing, his style does, to me at least, seem quite typical of, if rarely heard, early 18th century Northumbrian / North Eastern England folk. Variation pieces and lots of arpeggios being 2 of the obvious stylistic features.

I’ll admit to a real love hate with English folk. Mostly I despise it as currently exhumed in folk clubs of pensioners and their melodeons but occasionally I hear something that seems to cut right through the thumping of poorly timed and fingered, bellows blown chords that really touches me. That’s when the English man I am finally falls proud into the embrace of some kind of tradition. Unfortunately it is mostly solo and small ensemble performances that do that. I often find myself heading for the doorway very early on in the greater majority of the English sessions I have in pre pandemic days encountered.

Round my way in Leicestershire their are 2 predominately English folk clubs/sessions and fine jobs they do to of encouraging and supporting the revival of a tradition. I’d possibly be more interested if I had an instrument more suited to the music they play but as I’ve never had an interest in learning one maybe not.

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It’s hardly fair to judge any music based on hearing it played badly. Badly-played Irish music (of which there is plenty) is equally uninspiring. In both genres small ensembles are to be preferred to large sessions.

There is much less of a living tradition in England to connect with, certainly compared with Ireland and Scotland. Even back in the 60s and 70s the number of traditional singers and players was small, and many were elderly and past their best. Inevitably many have now passed on. In many cases there aren’t enough examples of traditional styles to know how they were really played. For example, we don’t really know how anglo concertina was played - only a few were recorded, and they all played in very different styles.

The recorded sources are limited, which perhaps does mean that too much importance is placed on a few issued recordings of traditional players and on a few influential revival bands. Some standard session sets can be traced directly back to records issued in the 1970s (but the same is true in Irish music). However I disagree that too much is taken as gospel - if anything, English music is too open to new ideas and influences. Besides the damned melodeon (guilty as charged!) I commonly come across saxophones of all sizes, clarinets, bassoons, harps, brass and even nykelharpa, while ITM is still arguing about whether to admit guitars. I have shared stages with both a sousaphone and a cello. I’m not sure this is all a good thing, as at times it seems to be straying a long way from the tradition, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

More and more written material is turning up and being made available, and there are some truly splendid tunes. For an example of English music at its best, listen to Leveret
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P36U2v05nk4&list=RDEMkoPSpH8NC0HOUhh1iEv9VA&start_radio=1

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When I posted my previous comment, which I do stand by, I did start to wonder how suited English folk is to session type playing. A lot seems to be based either around very simplified tub thumping for morris or much more complex tunes and song which might have always been "performance" pieces. I don’t know, it’s just a thought, I’m no musicologist and certainly no English folk expert.

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Neither am I (musicologist nor folk expert) but what’s the problem at a session with the tune in the example from Leveret ?

Or even at thesession.org https://thesession.org/tunes/21099

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"… while ITM is still arguing about whether to admit guitars". Don’t think so. Michael Coleman recorded accompanied by a guitar, 1934 according to the caption, and Irish traditional music does not have anyone more accepted than Coleman and his music.
https://youtu.be/8S07WMKxH5A

Don’t you have any recordings featuring Arty McGlynn, Daithi Sproule, John Doyle or Steve Cooney ?

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Doesn’t do anything for me but as they say in such places as these YMMV

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The comment about guitars was intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. However I do feel Irish music is a bit more conservative about what instruments are considered appropriate, and the subject does pop up in discussions fairly regularly, not just guitars and how they should be played but other instruments too. I remember quite heated discussions (I can’t recall on which forum) about whether ITM can be played on an English Concertina - some were very insistent that it could not and that it had to be Anglo, and that EC players shouldn’t even attempt it since they couldn’t create the correct articulations. Of course this is a bit extreme, but I can’t imagine a similar notion ever arising among English players. If it adds something to the music, it’s in. Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing, because it can take you a long way from the tradition.

English music is no less suited to sessions (or more) than ITM. Like ITM, this is dance music, it wasn’t made simply for listening to (and there isn’t the equivalent of the slow air). It might be for a community social dance, for morris, or people might step-dance to it in the pub, but it had a purpose. The problem with sessions is universal - if the musicians aren’t evenly matched and/or don’t listen to one another, then it will sound a mess. I’ve walked out of plenty of sessions like that, in both genres. On the other hand, a good session where the players are working together can take flight - I’ve been in those too, and again in both genres.

One weakness of English sessions is that they are more open to improvisation. There isn’t the expectation that "this is the version of the tune we play here, and you will stick to it", which can be found in some (although not all) Irish sessions. There is more latitude to get creative, and with the right musicians the result can be wonderful, the more so because it is entirely of the moment and can never be recreated. However there is also more scope for it to go wrong, and sometimes to crash and burn.

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I think the problem is that the English "folk / traditional" music scene never had any bands as inspirational as The Bothy Band or De Danann in Ireland, or Silly Wizard or Ossian in Scotland - or did I miss something ?
Our very own "Dr. Dow" and also "brailsford" here are living proof that Irish music can be played on an English concertina, although there are damn few others I’m aware of. "Ptarmigan" probably too, although he would be more likely play Irish music on an Anglo, being well able to handle both types of instrument.

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There have been some great English folk acts who perhaps in a smaller pond might well have lit the blue touch paper so to speak and to horribly mix metaphors to boot. The population density of England compared with Scotland and Ireland does make it harder for folk acts to have the impact that they do in other parts. Historically too things would have been highly local, as they were elsewhere, but I have a suspicion that people once crowded into the new mill & coal towns and cities didn’t often get to stray far.
Of all the English folk traditions the one with which I have anything more than the most passing of familiarities with is the Northumbrian one and there I barely touch the surface, so conjecture this indeed is, but I will stick my neck out and say that I suspect that it is a breadth of regional styles that have been lost. Partly because so many people with so many disparate repertoires didn’t have a critical mass of common shared material to continue a core tradition once the regions had all but declined.

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As well as the size of the pond I wonder if politics come into it. In Scotland could Ossian could be regarded as ‘Scottish’ and in Ireland The Bothy Band as ‘Irish’ ? In England almost all folk acts of the 60s and 70s were too overtly on the left of politics to have such a broad appeal amongst the English as whole. Which I suppose left us with Morris bells jingling on the village green.

There was also a tendency towards folk-rock in many bands in the 70s.

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It’s good to see this informative discussion about English tunes and sessions. In my experience both English and Irish tune sessions can produce wonderful music when played by inspired musicians. There are so many connections between the two traditions, despite their stylistic differences.
Here’s the Kilfenora Ceili Band playing the Primrose Polka, which is an English session favourite.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyXrF3I69VQ

Uncle Bernard’s is a standard English session tune that seminal english players originally learned from the ‘Clare Concertinas’ LP in the 1970s. https://youtu.be/Ss0CDnnlfYA?t=64 (second tune starting at 1.04 min)

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"There are so many connections between the two traditions, despite their stylistic differences". I honestly don’t think so.

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Weren’t the Yetties popular in England during that time period?

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Maybe if Steve T is fortunate enough to stay alive beyond 65 and becomes a pensioner himself he may not then despise himself. Here’s hoping.
As for the bit about population density, yeah, maybe.
As well as that, perhaps in Scotland and Ireland, having their own form of folk music tradition took on a greater importance - with a political dimension - some may say "nationalism" - but I prefer to say something like national identity, through fostering their own musical traditions; especially being in the backyard of a much more populous and powerful neighbour, who had also been the centre of a massive global empire.
I’m glad a number of English people are now rediscovering England’s almost lost instrumental musical traditions. That should give English people pride in who they are. So much better than going along with what Nigel Farage says……

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Perhaps in places such as Liverpool and along the northern border things get a little blurred but mostly I’m in Kenny’s camp on that one. There’s a heck of a lot of French influence in what I hear when "English" sessions are playing for starts.

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Whatever my age "Someone" I’m a long way from despising myself. I have a right to my opinions and as others here agree there’s not much pleasure to be had in any poorly played music, whatever the tradition. Given the state of this damn country and the desire of its political classes to keep bailing out the wealthy at the expense of all there’s very little chance of me being a pensioner at 65 either, so once again I’m glad of the circumstances that conspired to me learning my music at a young age.

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Or maybe the Yetties aren’t the best example of what I mean, because although they sang and played lots of English songs and tunes, there was some Irish and Scottish repertoire as well. Wales had Ar Log during that time period, yet Welsh traditional music does not seem to have the same popularity as Irish and Scottish, either.

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What would count as Welsh trad though, particularly if we are talking late 17th early 18th century? The Welsh population was miniscule until the coal and steel took over. Then it was cart loads from all over, chapel and choir. Undoubtedly there was a folk music but comparatively it must surely have been quite a small scene simply down to numbers.

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The English public lost interest in their folk traditions decades ago. We can speculate on the economic and social reasons for that, but I think a large part was that they didn’t feel the need to assert their cultural identity, and so were happy to leave that old-fashioned stuff behind and adopt modern forms of entertainment. Amongst Irish people, they may not like traditional music much, they may even be dismissive of it as "diddley-dee", but at some level they know it is theirs, and that it is an important part of the Irish identity. The same with the Scots. The English don’t even know they have a folk tradition, and if they hear folk music they usually assume it is Irish. They are embarrassed by morris, and in the media it is usually presented as something to ridicule. The English folk world is a fairly small one which most of the general public are completely unaware of and have no interest in. Only a handful of folk bands have reached the public consciousness, including the Dubliners and Steeleye Span (largely due to Top of the Pops novelty appearances), Fairport Convention and more recently the Pogues. And of course Riverdance.

I’m not in a position to know how influential bands like De Danaan, Bothy Band or Silly Wizard were in their wider communities in Ireland and Scotland beyond those with an active interest in traditional music. I don’t believe they made any significant impact in England outside the folk world. There were English bands who were highly influential, but only within the folk world. I would include Old Swan Band, New Victory Band, Pyewackett among other, and more recently Bellowhead and Leveret. But they certainly didn’t come to the attention of the general public, and unless you’re interested in English music there’s no reason to have heard of them.

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I don’t think Scottish and Irish music was, or even is now, "nationalistic" or particularly political. It’s just that the tradition was that bit stronger in these countries although certain aspects of it did develop further as a result of the "revival" and other influences of the time.

There were some good English bands and musicians too but many of them were also heavily influenced by Scottish and Irish music. Even the likes of Steeleye Span, Fairport, June Tabor and so on who had lots of Scottish and Irish material in their repertoires if not quite "trad music" as we know it.
As has also been mentioned, the Geordie scene had lots of links with Scottish music and there have always been big Irish scenes in The north west of England, London and so on.

However, I agree that English trad itself seemed to have been overshadowed during these years although there was much of it which I enjoyed too.

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In case you missed my point, Steve T, to quote: "Mostly I despise it as currently exhumed in folk clubs of pensioners and their melodeons…"
Neither am I a fan of poorly played music. Pensioners aren’t the only culprits though. Nor melodeon players.

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I did not miss you "someone", just took aim back.

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I’m not sure. I know, from listening to groups such as Ar Log and Crasdant that there are quite a few traditional Welsh tunes, such as Hoffedd ap Hywel, Mopsi Don, Ali Grogan, Cwrw Melyn and others. But I am not sure about their following back then, or how large of a population knew about them.
But I guess what I was trying to get at is that, I’m not sure if the 1970s or 1980s popularity influence sets the scene for what is more well-known today. Scotland had Ossian, the Battlefield Band, the Tannahill Weavers, among others: Ireland had the Chieftains and the Bothy Band, and these traditions are still very widespread. But during that same time period, although Northumberland had the High Level Ranters and Wales had Ar Log, these traditions aren’t anywhere near as popular today.

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I’ve got to give Katherine Tickell an honourable mention here in any discussion of English folk and popular music. I’m not familiar with the Welsh acts but I did spend a few years in the Valleys back in the 90’s and the Irish scene in Cardiff was brilliant at the time.

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I totally agree with that. She is great.

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Even there though in what appears quite a healthy English tradition there is apparently a schism between those who consider the tradition to be differing things. Hey ho, if we can most of us are better playing than getting into such things. All down to the demise of living tradition though really, lack of musical schooling for the young and just the bollox of modern life and its precursors I guess.

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I am interested in Kenny’s comment that he doesn’t see a connection between the Irish and English traditions. I see the complete opposite. For me, all the people of these islands shared a common traditional musical culture, which of course they gave their own distinctive twists to.

They share the same musical scales and the same rhythms, although they may have different importance in different regions. I’m struggling to think of any rhythms which are exclusive to any one of the home countries.

While there are of course exceptions, the majority of tunes are multiples of eight bars. This common structure is found in all the traditions:

The first two bars ask a question
The next two bars give a response
The question is repeated
The response is repeated, perhaps with a small variation

The first two bars of the next part ask a new question
The first response is repeated
The new question is repeated
The second response is repeated.

There are of course different regional playing styles. I think of these as akin to local accents in speech, which allow tunes to be located by the way they sound just as people can be located by the way they speak.

Then there is the fact that there are a number of actual tunes which are shared. People moved around, and because the traditions have so much in common it was easy to swap tunes, in a way which would not have been possible with, say, Balkan or Arab musicians.

Many of these similarities are also found in European traditions, and again there was some sharing of tunes long before the modern folk revival got hold of them. We are actually part of a wider north European traditional culture.

Re: English trad sessions

It may be of some interest that the poet John Clare (born in 1793) collected tunes and songs from the travelling community of his day. These travellers would have been the mobile agricultiural workforce that followed the harvest from south to north, these migrations occurred in England and Ireland ending with harvesting the Scottish barley crop. The collection of 200 folk tunes has about 30% Irish 30% English and the remainder of Scottish and European folk tradition and some from classical music of its day. This would possibly indicate that the mixed session might have older origins that some ITM contributers seem to be assuming.

Re: English trad sessions

David said:
""There’s a heck of a lot of French influence in what I hear when "English" sessions are playing for starts." Blowzabella?"
Andy Cutting, at any rate. Does any supposed French influence extend much beyond the Blowzabella and Leveret zone? I wouldn’t know.

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Re: English trad sessions

Tim Caves, I’d be very interested to see links for that collection of tunes by John Clare. I can find a fair bit about his poetry but nothing about a music collection unfortunately. The gypsy community of the Northern Border certainly had a very strong musical tradition and that did include tunes that were popular in other places in the British Isles but to look at the stuff on the stave and to play it is very different in musical accent to what you might expect to hear of those places.

Another issues arises when comparing these things as well is that the tunes we have now from those days have been collected by interested parties whether then or now. These parties add their own expectations, experiences and in the case of performing musicians, their own abilities into the pot. The "So and So’s collection of Ye Olde English Gypsy tunes" is just a snapshot through a very selective lens and not necessarily an accurate representation at all. The links to a living tradition are dead and gone.

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bex, Frederic Paris tunes like Canal en Octobre , Ganivalle and La Marianne seem to be quite popular at ‘English’ sessions [or they were last time I went pre- Covid] that might be the Cutting/Blowzabella influence or might just be they fit happily on a D/G melodeon

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I think the melodeon has a lot to answer for there personally though it must be said there’s a big Francophile influence amongst bagpipers prone to "medieval" style performance on mouth blown pipes in G. I think some of that was around pre Blowzabella for some reason too.

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Thanks GW. It must be said from a quick read of the notes there that the compiler/publisher appears to think there was a primary source for this collection due to other identical printed scores. He suggests the tunes are a collection from different sources rather than a compendium of tunes from one representative tradition.

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Steve T - I looked at the site too and it seemed to me that Clare may have drawn the actual scores from other written sources, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t trying to capture the tunes that he was hearing around him. Given that he apparently wasn’t good at transcribing songs, I wonder if he wasn’t super-expert at writing music down generally, so found it easier to copy down an existing setting of a good tune if he could find one.
It’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which active musicians used sheet music in those days. There were plenty of collections published and no doubt many more private collections of hand-written versions. Might Clare have asked someone for the name of a tune, to be told, "It’s in Preston’s - the 1793 edition - you can borrow mine if you want to copy it out"?

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At what point is the mash of tunes in circulation a tradition though? If I were to start collecting those in circulation today, well I’d be giving spotify a run for its money. Everything from rap to opera, folk to hardhouse, metal, chamber music, etc.,etc. same goes for this John Clare jobby at first look. Just a collection of tunes and music in circulation in England at the time, not really a tradition more like a collection of scores.

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Oh, thanks for that, Christy. Oddly, La Marianne has been in my repertoire for years, and I’ve just been trying to remember where I got it, and the penny just dropped: it was at a summer school (not a musical one) in Alsace. The guy who ran the site was an accordionist, and one of "us" was a violinist. I had been a key figure organizing the camp, and the two of them played it for me and my then new wife at the "after party" on the evening of the last day, when most people had gone home. So it stuck in my mind!

I’ve come across Canal en Octobre on youtube, but don’t know the other.

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Re: English trad sessions

I guess his notebooks are a snapshot of what one person heard around him and played himself. He travelled around quite a bit and no doubt heard and played music from a whole range of different traditions, so you’re right in that the books can’t be seen as a guide to any specific musical tradition. But then musicians aren’t always (or even often) purely ‘within’ a single tradition or genre. When people hear a tune they like they start playing it, wherever it came from.

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"Might Clare have asked someone for the name of a tune, to be told, "It’s in Preston’s - the 1793 edition - you can borrow mine if you want to copy it out"?" More direct that that maybe:

"It’s said that John Clare used to stand in the bookshop in Stamford copying the latest tunes from published books into his manuscript book." from: https://www.village-music-project.org.uk/?page_id=25

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Joe, your comment regarding musicians belonging to a tradition or not is probably more accurate today than in 17th/18th Century England. Sure there were your music hall, country house and show performers but they are not going to represent an English folk tradition any more than Stormzy does today. Back when I’m guessing most people lived, worked and died within a few miles of their place of birth, unless uprooted by something like enclosure, one of the big factories, mines or some such. Music in a folk tradition was often a family affair and very local, yes tunes did cross counties, families and borders, of course they did but I don’t reckon they did much before the mass circulation of printed music and by then and all the social upheaval that had been going on it seems to me an English folk tradition, if there ever was, was already on its heels.

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Steve - yes, you’re obviously right, especially since the internet…

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These caveats and assumptions could be applied to almost any ‘musical tradition’ however continuous. Do we know, say, the style of fiddling somewhere in Ireland in 1810 any better that we do that of somewhere in England?

If someone is not that interested in English trad music as it is now I doubt many of those who are interested will care. No need to pick holes in it.

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Well we know what was collected and published in certain compendiums of tunes regardless of where they came from but of course, as there is pretty much no unbroken living tradition, what exists is what is being recreated. That is a mélange for sure right now regards an English tradition. Personally I doubt there was ever a unifying English tradition for reasons I have given above and I kind of hope there never is because I think it will be an ersatz affair. Rather I hope regional musical dialects are rediscovered and created expressing both the local and wider musical history of this country and its shires, counties, celebrations and labours. ( and if there’s a few less melodeons around I for one will be up for that ;) )

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I don’t think it’s possible to say a tradition was broken without first defining/describing that tradition. It may always have been an evolving mélange. People never stopped dancing to music.

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It’s not quite true to say there is no unbroken tradition. Certainly it is much diminished, especially in the cities and large urban areas, but in many parts of the country there are still singers and musicians who can be regarded as part of a continuous tradition, including younger generations. In some parts of the country it is much stronger than others, for example Northumberland, Dartmoor and East Anglia.

However by far the majority of people involved in English music do not have this traditional connection and are recreating it. The same of course can be said for Irish music, where many players, especially outside Ireland, have little or no connection with it and are drawn to it for aesthetic reasons. The difference is that Ireland does still have a much stronger living tradition which can be looked to for influences. England does not have this, and English players have to find a balance between imitating a handful of traditional sources (mostly recorded) and making it up for themselves. The important thing is that the music is still being played.

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I think the French influence can be overstated. Certainly a few French tunes have become popular, but they are usually played in a thoroughly English fashion. The greater part of the session repertoire can largely be traced to English sources. I can’t recall ever seeing French bagpipes played in an English session (except by visiting French musicians) and the pipes I come across are modern versions of English bagpipes.

The melodeon is an important instrument in French music and the tunes fit well on it, and are fun to play, but the French style of playing is very different. However those who are serious about it have their own dedicated sessions.

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‘…should I expect the same? I.e., some tunes that I’d know would be played but in such a different style?’

Yes. I personally wouldn’t want a tune to become an authority in itself. (Internet). But then we go back to the question how much variation do we accept in each tune today?

I remember years ago once asking my grandmother what sort of things she would do for fun when she was a teenager. She laughed and said things don’t change very much. But then she added that one time she was really excited because there was going to be a dance in the village and she knew that some boys from the neighbouring village we’re going to try to get in. Excited too because one of the fiddlers had been to London and had learned some French tunes from someone who actually was in fact French. She also said that the Fiddler had said that it was easier to understand the Frenchman than it was to understand the people in the neighboring village!

I think playing the same tunes in a village year after year must’ve been reassuring and comforting but with a limited repertoire sometimes people wanted to hear more.

I have noticed that melodeons here in France have often been modified so that the alternating base is 1,5 rather than 1,3. This may be the issue that some people have commented on.

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Yes, this is nitpicking, I concede, but I think there are indeed one or two nits to pick in Steve T’s post of 20 hours ago (or so it says as I write).

Steve wrote: “…in 17th/18th Century England. Sure there were your music hall, country house and show performers…”
I really want to point out that the music hall only became really significant in the late 19th-century.

Steve also wrote: “… yes tunes did cross counties, families and borders, of course they did but I don’t reckon they did much before the mass circulation of printed music and by then and all the social upheaval that had been going on it seems to me an English folk tradition, if there ever was, was already on its heels.”
I’m not sure what is being counted here as “mass circulation of printed music”, but we know that music printing in London was a significant business by the late 17th century and, according to a blog at the British Library, appears to have been mainly aimed at amateurs. Playford’s “Dancing Master” series is clearly, buys very title, aimed at dancing masters, who would be likely to have taken those books to wherever it was they were making their living. They would have given the dancing masters access to the exciting new tunes being played in London.

The possibility proposed by a number of historians, namely that it was propagation through printed music collections that underlies the close similarity in both melody and name of tunes across large parts of the British Isles, makes a great deal of sense. Yes, there were seasonally migrant workers, but books can travel to a destination and then, instead of moving on, taking a vague memory of a tune picked up somewhere with them (or leaving a vague memory behind), may stay in one set of hands, be played from, copied, and establish the performance a very similar tune in Hampshire, Scotland, and even across the sea. Indeed it is part of what Steve is saying, is it not, that printed music was crucial to the wide spread of particular tunes. I’m just saying that this will be likely to have happened 300 and more years ago, not just 150 or so.

This

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Re: English trad sessions

Village musicians were often musically literate, and didn’t only play for village dances or in the pubs. They also played for town assemblies and for balls in the big houses. Before the fashion for organs put an end to them, they made up the church bands (see "Under the Greenwood Tree" by Thomas Hardy, who was himself a fiddler).

I have beside me a modern collection of tunes from the tunebook of William Winter, who was a shoemaker in Somerset who played fiddle and flute. He was born in 1774 and his book is dated 1850. It contains over 4oo dance tunes in variety of forms, also some song tunes. Thomas Wilson’s publications (1809 and 1816) seem to be the source of a large number of them. Some are from classical or stage sources. It is likely that he obtained tunes from both oral and printed sources, and the introduction to the modern publication says that sheet music was regularly available from mail coach services. He may have played in the church band as there is a record of the parish paying for his violin strings. and probably played for harvest festivals and similar events. He may also have played at the town balls.

He is typical of many of the village musicians we know about. It seems very likely that popular tunes were widely circulated in the form of sheet music. In addition, people travelled around the country for work, in particular gypsies - there are a large number of "Gypsy’s Hornpipes" and other tunes. In the 20th century they may have got tunes from recordings - for example, the Dartmoor melodeon player Bob Cann learned some tunes from records by Jimmy Shand, alongside family tunes and those learned from other musicians, including gypsies. His grandson continues to play.

This is not always welcomed by those who imagine folk music to be the creation of illiterate peasants in some bucolic idyll isolated from the modern world and its influences.

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Howard wrote: "This is not always welcomed by those who imagine folk music to be the creation of illiterate peasants in some bucolic idyll isolated from the modern world and its influences."

But it’s a much richer and more satisfying picture than the dreams cultivated by Cecil Sharp (to name just the most iconic one).

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