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Dancing English

"I do think we're rebelling against the old stereotypes," he says. "Some aspects of the ceilidh thing are a bit cliquey and closed and we wanted to get away from that. We knew what we didn't want to do, more than what we did want to do. We definitely didn't want to do anything cheesy or have drums and we always had strong ideas about what is good and bad to dance to... We've tried to get rid of the stock stuff and we've had people coming up to us at weddings, complaining that we've played the wrong tunes. We don't do too many weddings now. Luckily we can pick and choose our gigs a bit more. We'll pick a good dance over money any time ... we like a big crowd and a nightclub feel."

You wonder what Scan Tester would have made of it all. The son of a fishseller and publican, Tester was raised at The Green Man, Horsted Keynes, Sussex in the late 19th century and was familiar in the locality as a step-dancer, concertina and fiddle player. He had the type of informal family band that epitomised the community music that so inspired a later generation to rediscover the heart of English country music, a music rooted in social occasions, impromptu gatherings, special events and local pubs. But Tester wasn't unique, and recordings made by Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett in Norfolk in 1962 had profound, far-reaching results. Featuring Walter & Daisy Bulwer and Billy Cooper, and initially released as English Country Music with just 99 pressings in 1965, the LP became the holy grail for young musicians hungry for the distinctive repertoire of polkas, jigs, hornpipes and step-dance tunes.

Among those devouring the tunes and what they represented as a rapidly disappearing part of England was Rod Stradling. Rod, his wife Danny, Tony Engle and Peta Webb formed Oak, and the roots of a determined revival of dance music were laid. Stradling and his melodeon, of course, went on to play a central role in many pivotal bands operating in and around English dance music - Old Swan Band, English Country Blues Band, Tiger Moth, Edward II & The Red Hot Polkas - and the importance of Oak is often forgotten.

He has reason to reflect on those days now as English dance music bares its teeth again. Way back then the norm for English dance music was tortuously correct dances at London's Cecil Sharp House, populated by ancient creatures sedately perambulating to plodding strict tempo rhythms. Oak and their dance band spin-off Webb's Wonders weren't exclusively responsible for changing that - the ever-reliable Rakes, featuring the wonderful Reg Hall, were prominent long before them - but they certainly lit a generous chunk of the blue touchpaper for all manner of fireworks that followed.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 250, April 2004


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