English instrumental music is a happening thing with its own distinctive character and roots. Colin Irwin talks to the leading lights of a movement that’s gathering fresh momentum.
England. Funny ol’ place. Field Marshal Montgomery and Monty Python. 1066 and 1966. Carnaby Street and Coronation Street. Peelers and John Peel. Robin redbreast and Robin Hood. Squirrels and Sex Pistols. Suffragettes and Shakespeare. The Archers and archery. Punks and princes. Incest and morris dancing. The Queen and Queen. Tories bloody Tories. Brexit soddin’ Brexit…
Stop a random jogger in the street and ask them to name the quintessential English piece of music and they will say Waterloo Sunset. Or Jerusalem. Or Land Of Hope & Glory. Or White Cliffs Of Dover. Or Pretty Vacant. Or England Swings. Or English Country Garden. Or Wuthering Heights. Or Shipbuilding. Or… ah, you say, but what about instrumental music. Songs without words. English instrumental music…
That stops them in their tracks. Somebody mentions Edward Elgar. And Delius. Britten. Vaughan Williams… ah yes, Vaughan Williams… he who did that English Folk Song Suite in 1923 and has his own library at Cecil Sharp House. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s English music.
Sort of. A teeny weeny part of it. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the tunes Williams utilised in the suite – Seventeen Come Sunday, My Bonny Boy, Dives & Lazarus, High Germany et al, have all acquired a certain place of honour in the rich canon of folk song – but English tune-making for its own sake has been a somewhat lonely by-water in the intervening years.
A thesis might be in order to assess some of the reasons for this, the British Empire very probably being one of them. Old imperial values and their associations with chauvinism, military posturing and pretentions of grandeur have certainly provoked more than a degree of embarrassment and self-consciousness within the national psyche which has initiated widespread aversion to any sort of music that, rightly or wrongly, feels like it might have been embedded within those values. And so the baby and bathwater syndrome came into play.
And when the folk revival began in earnest during the 1950s, it was very much as a song-based form, either as a parallel movement to the American activists who identified folk song as a vehicle of political address; or a faithful bow to the Victorian collectors who’d salvaged vital links to a fading mirror of rural England.
The dance music and instrumental tunes equally key to that age were scarcely accorded the same degree of respect or enthusiasm, mentioned only in dispatches with only a dedicated few determined to seek out the music of the likes of melodeon players Oscar Woods and Bob Cann, fiddlers Stephen Baldwin and Fred Whiting and concertina player Scan Tester.
For those avid disciples, the holy grail was the English Country Music LP of field recordings by Billy Cooper, Daisy Bulwer and Walter Bulwer, original released privately by Reg Hall and Bob Davenport with a print run of 99 copies in 1965. It sold out in a fortnight – mostly to audience members at the Fox in Islington where Hall and Davenport hosted regular sessions – and scattered the seeds for a mini blossoming of interest in English music through the 1970s, with the emergence of outfits like Old Swan Band, Flowers & Frolics, New Victory Band and Umps & Dumps… bands essentially geared to the needs of the dance floor.
Then – much as now – English music was seen as a very poor relation to the vigorous instrumental music flooding out of Ireland and Scotland, as one blast of a jig from the Bothy Band or Silly Wizard or the Tannahill Weavers instantly had swathes of audience members jumping around in excitement, making the tea-dance atmosphere familiar from English dance gatherings seem hopelessly tame. Already long on the receiving end of endless ridicule from the mainstream media about morris dancing and folk traditions, the musicians championing English country music were fighting an uphill battle to shift common perception and present the argument that English music was every bit as skilful, joyous and rewarding as its Celtic cousins. The fact that many English musicians and bands themselves concentrated on Scottish and Irish tunes to ensure a rousing reception didn’t help. Not for nothing did Old Swan Band choose No Reels as the title of their debut album in 1976.
“It’s difficult to be proud of being English for various reasons,” says Sam Sweeney, fiddle player with Leveret. “I remember going to Lithuania when I was about nineteen and going to the university there to look at traditional music and they all knew all the words and the dances to everything and they were all under 30 and they said the reason they all know it is because of the whole Soviet Union thing and they threatened to have their culture taken off them. Nobody has ever threatened to take our culture off us.”
It is also perhaps denigrated by a perception that, because it has fewer notes, English music is easy to play. This sets off Sam big time…
“Well, it’s easy to play badly. If you go back before morris dance music, before the invention of the melodeon you will find tunes in E flat in manuscripts. People say you’re not playing in a very traditional way, you’ve got to be scratchy and rubbish to be an English fiddle player. And you want to say, well, if you go back 150 years before when you’ve drawn your fictitious line in the style sand, people were playing in E flat so you haven’t got a leg to stand on. People think it’s really easy but that’s just not true.”
It is, of course, a very different world now, with every possible piece of audio freely available at the press of a button and Topic’s Voice Of The People series giving due access to the source musicians of old, although stigmas about English instrumental music still linger
Nobody ever truly believes they are, but if the BBC Folk Awards were regarded as a true representation of the state of play in folk music, then English music might now be considered a moribund lump at the bottom of the heap. Indeed English musicians barely got a look-in at this year’s awards as Scots and Irish artists dominated, with just half of Furrow Collective and half of the Songs Of Separation project being the only English members in the winners’ enclosure.
“Isn’t it funny that people get really angry about the Folk Awards being full of Scots?” he muses. “I say good on ’em. At least they can turn out serious players. They have a scene where it’s cool to play traditional music, cool to do it well, and young people want to do it and do it to an incredibly high standard. We don’t have that in England.” Yet.
So is English instrumental music dead and buried, waiting to be excavated in a couple of decades or so time? Not exactly… in fact, not at all. Indeed, right in front of our noses, something stirs. It’s called Leveret. And Spiro. And the Owl Light Trio. And Methera. And the Emily Askew Band. And Three Cane Whale. And Gadarene… and Alma. And lots more besides…
Don’t ask them how it’s all happened or where it’s all leading, but we do seem to be on the cusp of a bit of a sea-change in listening habits with audiences happily prepared to sit in front of a band playing tunes all night and not a singer in sight. We’re not talking about bands playing for ritual dancing or informal sessions in the corner of a pub, but musicians playing English music purely for our – and their own – delight and entertainment.
Not a new concept obviously. The great Alistair Anderson has been doing it on the concertina for approaching 50 years and the High Level Ranters, the band in which he honed his skills, had been sparing in their use of Johnny Handle’s vocals. Kathryn Tickell would even get a bit cross when people asked if her band had a singer, while the Scots and Irish have never had a problem presenting all-instrumental sets.
“There are still lots of people, promoters and concert-goers, who aren’t interested if there isn’t a singer,” says Andy Cutting wryly. “But that hasn’t affected the classical world. People pay a fortune to see a covers band with an orchestra playing other people’s music and someone at the front waving their arms around telling them what to do. But people have always done it – Christ almighty, I was doing tunes with Chris Wood in 1990, it’s just that people seem to be taking more notice of it now.”
Indeed, something does seem to be happening here. Perhaps inspired by a double-header concert at English Folk Expo a few years back that people still talk of in awe, Spiro and Leveret, the two highest profile modern bands in the field, are going off on tour together next spring for one thing. Two instrumental bands playing predominantly English music from the same root. Yet two bands who couldn’t be more different in their approach. Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron sit down together as Leveret and just play, trusting their instincts, playing off one another with no pre-planning or set arrangements. Spiro are the polar opposite, arranging everything to the nth degree in ever more complex patterns. Yet their ideals and aims aren’t a million miles apart and they are both key to listeners’ broadening attitudes.
“In the English folk music scene, instrumental music and tunes are seen as a novelty,” says Sam Sweeney, whose fiddle (and quite a few other instruments) has previously graced the stage with Kerfuffle, Fay Hield’s Hurricane Party and Bellowhead long before Leveret were a twinkle in a daddy hare’s eye. “When you do a gig with your song band, the tunes are seen as a bit of light relief from the songs, yet the tunes are the things that go down the best. That’s happened in every single band I’ve ever been in. That’s not the case in any other country I can think of. In every other folk tradition I’m aware of the instrumental music is taken just as seriously as the singing.”
“We were clueless why that was happening, so we decided what we really needed to do is to take this instrumental music seriously and just do it. We were told by lots of people it wouldn’t work. Quite a few agents and people in the industry said people in the English folk scene love a chorus too much and it wouldn’t work. But it turns out that people really do want to see English instrumental music.”
This was proved conclusively at last year’s sold-out No Voices series at London’s King’s Place, directly inspired by that Expo double-header.
“See, people get the wrong end of the stick with Leveret. The perception is that it’s a band of virtuosos, but that’s genuinely not what we’re about. We’re saying this is what you can do with instrumental music, not many people are doing anything with it… but we’re not going ‘look at that, it’s totally amazing, you should all play like that’. That’s not what we’re about. Jim Moray put it really well when he said we’re a band that listens well… and we do listen, we have to because every night is different.”
“I find it funny when people say we’re progressive when all we’re doing is sitting down playing music to the best of our ability. I really don’t like going to pub sessions and they play something common like Princess Royal really badly. That for me is not good enough. Why are you playing these beautiful melodies and just pissing it out? People believe English music is easy but English tunes are as easy or hard as you want to make them.”
The session syndrome winds up Andy Cutting even more. “People love to play with other people, which is a glorious thing but sessions drive me potty. Most of the sessions I’ve been to in the last 30 years are a roomful of people playing at the same time. It’s like toddlers, parallel play. They’ve all got the same kind of repertoire and start more or less at the same time and end more or less at the same time and in between nobody listens to each other. It’s infuriating. You have to listen to each other and then you start making music and reacting to one another. When we started Leveret it just seemed an obvious thing to do just to play some tunes. It’s a rarity but when you meet other musicians and it just works, it’s magical, it’s amazing. It happened with me and Chris [Wood] when he first asked me to play on his record. He’d sent me a little cassette of the tune he wanted me to play on and he came up to my house. He got his fiddle out and I got me box and we played it for about ten minutes and he said ‘Great, shall we go to the pub?’ Chris and I never talked about music and Sam and Rob and I don’t discuss how we’re going to play something, we just do it. It’s just a great session.”
In less than three years, Leveret have proved a lot of people wrong and are now preparing the release of their third album – the first of entirely self-composed tunes.
Spiro, on the other hand, have been at it for a long time; nearly 25 years of gradually converting people to their left-field methodology. Again, very different from Leveret, their genesis resulted from classically trained violinist Jane Harbour’s desire to do something completely different.
“I wanted to do something that couldn’t be put in a box and was completely unclassifiable, that didn’t fit in anywhere,” says Jane. “Which is suicide in terms of promotion and getting anywhere. People always want to know what something is. But it was so brilliant that Real World took us on because that’s an umbrella for us, it’s something you can say about us. Our aim is that we don’t fit anywhere. We fall between many stools.”
“I was completely unaware of English music but Jon [guitarist Jon Hunt] introduced us to it. We were floundering around thinking about trying to form an avant garde jazz band but thankfully at that point Jon stepped in and said hey, have you heard these tunes from the north of England? They were perfect. People hadn’t heard them and they had a new sound on which you could hang a new sound. I like to create this whole crazy building out of music, but you need a foundation or backbone and a structure going through it and these northern English tunes were so beautiful and strong, but yet so open in what they suggested, so we started building arrangements around them. As the band has evolved we’ve written more original material but that sensibility with the strong chordal structure a strong tune gives has completely influenced our ethos. Our own material is still based on that structure.”
Spiro and Three Cane Whale’s Alex Vann has also come at it from an unusual angle, having in a previous life played drums in a punk band. “The first instrumental music I listened to was the Penguin Café Orchestra. And I listened to De Danann albums which were 90 percent instrumental. I got into English traditional music in my 20s. When Jane formed Spiro and Jon joined he had this great love of northern English tunes. I liked morris tunes and all that stuff but it was discovering the northern three/ two hornpipes and stuff that really chimed. It was a bit of a blank slate – people didn’t have too many preconceptions about it. With Irish music it’s very distinctive, it’s such a strong tradition, everyone knows it, but the hornpipes were a bit unusual. So that was a big pull, being able to do something with those folk tunes we felt could be our own. I think there is more open-mindedness now. Music is less tribal.”
Teaching has helped to inflame the interest of a new generation of musicians, of course. The Folkworks courses in Newcastle were paramount in the development of Leveret concertina player (and Spiro sound engineer) Rob Harbron – and indeed, it was Harbron who sowed the seeds in Alistair Anderson’s mind for the folk degree course that has helped many young musicians.
Yet the more you get into this, the more roads lead – as they so often do – to the door of Chris Wood. He may be better known as a singer-songwriter these days, but Wood’s foresight, vision and violin skills have been a crucial catalyst for the emergence of English instrumentalists.
Wood formed a popular duo with Andy Cutting at the turn of the 1990s, which subsequently expanded into the Two Duos Quartet with Ian Carr and Karen Tweed. Out of that came the English Acoustic Collective, a fluid musical entity which emerged from the influential summer school Wood set up to help develop musicians.
“Now tell me, is this one of those interviews where you want me to say what you’ve already written?” says Wood, as concisely sardonic as ever. No, you say, it’s…
“I know what it is… it’s some madcat revival of a fascination in English traditional music; the shark of the media swims in order to put oxygen in its gills so it doesn’t die and they become interested in something we’ve all been doing for years.”
Something like that, Chris. Tell me about your motivation for putting together the English Acoustic Collective…
“You haven’t got time…”
Typically forthright, he nevertheless offers entertainingly waspish chapter and verse on his road to the EAC. I’ll let him tell you the story without interruption because you should never interrupt Chris Wood.
“It was that time when melodeon was king and oompah-ing its way through the canon, taking no prisoners and the folk police were everywhere. And I just thought I’ve got to learn how to play English music better; the way I think the music wants to be played, not the way some people decided it was going to be played. And I thought there is literally nobody in the British Isles at the time who could teach me that. We had loads of manuscripts, but not enough style bearers.”
“When I first heard the music of Quebec, what I could hear was a really compelling sense of rhythm, which was nothing like the English oompah nonsense and they were playing tunes that were at least bi-rhythmic, at least in two time signatures at the same time, and maybe even poly-rhythmic, which I wasn’t hearing in English music. So I went over and studied with Lisa Ornstein and she introduced me to Denis Fréchette, the piano player who tore apart La Bottine Souriante, that monster band that Bellowhead went on to rip off. We talked about loads of stuff and I came back and thought I need to look at intonation.”
“As a fiddle player I was tired of being stuck with that melodeon intonation, so for the intonation I went to Sweden and Norway and learned loads about intonation. In his last interview when he was a very old man, an interviewer asked Stephane Grappelli if there was anything he was working on and he said ‘Yes, my intonation’. If you’re string people it never stops. Intonation is a form of expression. So I spent a lot of time talking with Scandis about intonation. The polska has a centrifugal force in it. For us English lot it’s just up and down, oompah oompah, up and down, up and down. Lots of dance players talk about getting dancers up and down, but in Scandinavia you have that centrifugal force which is about rolling an egg sideways and is so beautiful.
“And then I went to France because I wanted to learn about the creative interpretation of manuscript as opposed to the authentic interpretation. There were loads of people in England at the time telling us about the authentic interpretation of Thomas Hardy’s manuscript or whoever; they were obsessed with it. And I thought music must be better than that. It might have been authentically accurate but it didn’t convince me or move me. So I went to France and met Frédéric Paris, who is one of the very few living geniuses in his own quiet way. Frédéric taught me to sit down with a manuscript as if it was a recipe so you taste as you go. I read a brilliant bit of writing by Nigel Slater in his book Appetite when he talks about recipes and he says you don’t have to stick slavishly to recipes. Someone wrote down a recipe because they ate this meal and enjoyed it, but if you get to a bit where it says add 500ml of cream and if you taste it and decide you only want half as much cream then only use half as much cream. It may be their recipe but it’s your supper!”
“And that’s what Frédéric Paris was saying. It might say this in the manuscript but it’s your ass on stage or in the studio and it has to go as how you think it should go. But that’s not a reason for learning badly. Whether you are learning from a manuscript or a record or another musician you have to learn as accurately as you can. You have to learn it properly. And only when you’ve learn it as best you can then you start to move on. Tradition must be respected… convention can be broken. But only when you know which is which. If you ignore tradition or piss all over it, you are in trouble. If you are a great jazz trumpeter and get on stage and have never listened to Miles Davis, then we will know.”
“In order to convey some of this research I had to have an approach to English music which was absolutely about you as a player. I’d done a lot of teaching at Folkworks and a lot of people said ‘Why can’t I play as well on stage as I can at home?’ and it seemed to me to be a deep sense of who you are and why you’re there on stage. And there were so many English fiddlers there at the time trying to play Shetland music, or Cajun music, or music from Donegal or bluegrass, trying to play anything except what was their own music. So I set up the English Acoustic Collective. Nobody liked this idea at the time. ‘Oh do you have to show your passport on the door?’ they said. People were very jumpy about ‘English’. Peter Gabriel didn’t include England as part of the world for the first 42 Womads. But people came and realised it’s not about English, it’s about you. It’s about telling your story through music.”
“I’m from Kent! The son of an advertising executive. What can my story possibly be? My first commercial release with Andy [Cutting] was Lisa, after Lisa Ornstein, and it had loads of Québécois stuff on it and that was so I could learn how Québécois music was played; and the second one was Lusignac, the Frenchy one with the Fred Paris tunes. And the point for me was that we were learning how to play English music by playing these other musics. We weren’t playing just because we liked them but because it was all informing how the next album would be, Knock John, which was entirely English music. I had to make those other albums with Andy before I could make my first proper English music album. And that’s got all sorts of stuff on; it’s got pizzicato fiddles on Spencer The Rover, which I learned from Jean-François Vrod; it’s got all sorts of stuff I learned from great musicians who weren’t English, but for me that was the sound of England. For me. I’m not saying for anyone else, though I do know Simon Emmerson creamed himself over that album.”
One of Wood’s most important protegés from the EAC summer courses – and one of the most underrated – is John Dipper, fiddle player with string quartet Methera, a member of the Emily Askew Band and part of an excellent duo with singer/guitarist Dave Malkin.
Wood positively purrs at the mention of his name. “I think John is in a league of his own, an amazing musician, composer and player. When I hear John play, I hear the sound of England. The depth he manages to achieve. The lack of clutter. Every note he puts together, nothing in there detracts from what he is trying to achieve. He’s an astonishing player. If we lived in Japan he’d be a national treasure already. He’d be paid by the State to just do what he does. He’s a very special player. I find his music incredibly moving. For me, it’s the sound of England.”
The newly anointed Sound of England is somewhat astonished to hear about this new boom in English instrumental music.
“Pretend to be a band playing English instrumental music and ring up a few arts centres and see how far you get into the gig-getting process…” says Mr Dipper. “I pretty much guarantee it would be nowhere. If you’re a band from Scotland with two A’s in the name and only four letters you’ll probably get very far!”
Clearly John Dipper – the son of concertina makers (“there are pictures of me at the age of four at the work bench, so childhood slavery from an early age”) also appears to have inherited much of Wood’s irreverence…
“One of the big problems and why English music in general has been overlooked is the back story. Why is it that the English always get blamed for the British Empire? If you look at the people in charge of the British Empire, a lot of them seem to have Scottish names.”
A lovely burst of laughter follows.
“Irish music is beautiful, as is Scottish music. One of the brilliant things about music is that it doesn’t obey political borders, which is great, but they can all start with this downtrodden underdog thing. Not that they all do by any means, but in marketing something, they can all do that. What the English bands seem to do is try and ape that by dressing as tramps. Have you noticed the publicity shots of bands of bored disaffected people holding instruments dressed as tramps? Why do they do that? Is it to look as if you’re downtrodden?”
“So many places I’ve been and you play English music and they come up to you afterwards and say ‘Oh I love that Irish music!’ That’s what’s been marketed and that’s what they are aware of, so I don’t mind. A lot of the tunes come from both traditions anyway. Wherever I’ve played English music in the world, they love it, but they don’t recognise it as English music. And they’re really shocked when you tell them what it is.”
“We have this amazing thing called multiculturalism, which is awesome, but what it has done to a certain degree is meant that every single culture apart from the indigenous culture is valued. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of media interviews with musicians where morris dancing is mentioned in a positive way. You wouldn’t go to Galicia and take the piss out of Galician folk music, or dancing or costumes; you wouldn’t go to France or anywhere else in the world and do that. So why do we have such a downer on our own culture?”
The notion of ‘English’ is, of course, a cloudy concept in the first place. Alma, the band in which Dipper plays with Emily Askew and Adrian Lever, draws on all manner of influences, styles and roots, yet he still regards it as English music.
“We colonised half the world, imposed democracy on them, stole all their minerals and a fair few of their traditional tunes to boot! Talk to people like Roger Watson and they are convinced that the hornpipe rhythm was imported from sailing ships going off round the world. With his project Boko Halat he was looking at all sorts of different rhythms in English music which have come from different places and are identifiable as such.”
Emily Askew’s view of English music also covers broad territories. Her forthcoming new album incorporates mediæval and renaissance tunes alongside French, Italian, Spanish music mixed in with Middle Eastern percussion and all sorts besides. Her parents were morris dancers, so English instrumental music was close to her heart, though very much a poor relation as she grew up.
“When I started playing folk music in the ’90s, the music other people of my generation were playing all seemed Celtic-inspired. Bands like Flook and Blazing Fiddles were around but you didn’t hear English instrumental music. I remember going to the Folkworks summer school in the early 2000s to do fiddle there and they went round my class and said you have the option to do English or Scottish or Irish or Scandinavian music and I was the only person in the class who wanted to do English music. About five people said ‘I don’t mind what we do as long as it’s not English music’.”
“Five years later you’ve got Spiers and Boden, who made a big punch on the scene, and EAC and Dr Faustus. I was a big fan of Dr Faustus. And then suddenly when I went to Folkworks that year there was a shift and you could tell people were suddenly more interested in English music, which came out at the sessions. If you look at bands like Mawkin and Kerfuffle they started off playing Celtic music and then around the mid-2000s there was a shift.”
She talks about doing her work experience at EFDSS in 2000 and being dismayed when she shadowed an educator going around trying to inspire interest in English country dancing by using antiquated cassette tapes. She believes that EFDSS getting its act together on the education side in recent years has played a role in the turnaround, confirmed by the students who now contact her enquiring about lessons in English music.
“Part of the appeal of English music to me is the groove of it, that earthy, stompy groove. In terms of my fiddle playing I feel there is a space to accompany the melody with double strings, playing a sort of rhythmic chordal part, almost like a guitar at the same time, whereas if I’m playing reels I don’t have the space to do that.
“I think when I started I was on a bit of a crusade. I wanted other people to play English music with. I started a band called Rubber Chicken with my sister and we put an advert out to find people to play with and we got a couple of fiddlers and a bodhran player and they all wanted to play Celtic tunes so the mission was to open their eyes how cool English music could be, so that was a bit of a mission.”
A contributor to the Elizabethan Sessions project in 2014, she sees her new album Alchemy (out in September) as the culmination of all her musical experiences and passions, from listening to everything from Jinky Wells to Eliza Carthy and Nancy Kerr, Spiers & Boden and Chris Wood and blending her love of folk music with a passion for Early Music, incorporating a variety of different instruments to do it.
“It’s the culmination of so many years wanting to combine Early Music with folk music. There are so many combinations I want to explore. With the Elizabethan Sessions we had one song where we had electric guitar and tenor recorder and it worked really well. There are so many interesting possibilities I still want to explore.”
BBC Radio 3 Late Junction presenter and fiddle player Verity Sharp is another happy product of the EAC summer school. She sought an escape from the restrictive environment of classical music and had her Road to Damascus moment absorbing a bar session at Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. “That thing of people utterly communicating without saying very much at all.”
“I’d had this classical thing going on and I wanted to get away from printed music and playing the music of other people that was supposed to sound in a particular way which I found really difficult on a creative level. I went up to Celtic Connections and witnessed that thing in the bar and people utterly communicating without saying very much. I was feeding off that feeling.”
So, ignoring Phil Cunningham’s efforts to make her go and get her cello, she resolved to learn to play fiddle and attended Pete Cooper’s classes at Cecil Sharp House.
“He had this thing where you learned tunes by ear and one of the very first he taught me was Enrico, which was supposed to be by Thomas Hardy, though nobody really knows. And then I went to Chris Wood’s summer schools for three years on the trot and that tune came up again. He was very passionate about morris tunes and said you should really take those morris tunes and look deeper and deeper and improvise and all that sort of stuff. So it was a progression of those people helping me to see beyond it being a repetitive short tune, which is the way a lot of people think about it.
“Coming from the classical world where everything is utterly polished and shiny, I don’t want that in folk music. In folk music you need to hear the human. Leveret have got that trance-like thing. I’ve taken people to Leveret concerts who don’t necessarily have an interest in folk and they’ve totally got it. There’s so much in those tunes and it takes real skill to see it and bring it out. Even if you don’t appreciate what traditional music is you can still be blown away by it without necessarily understanding music at all. Rob Harbron is a genius. I don’t think anybody else can physically do what he does on the concertina. Maybe that’s what tune playing needs, to exist in its own bubble. There’s a variation there between the three of them that goes on constantly. And Spiro, too, are utterly extraordinary.”
The ranks of instrumental bands are being swelled further by the emergence – from the ashes of Telling The Bees – of The Owl Light Trio. Fiddler/viola player Jane Griffiths, guitarist Colin Fletcher and concertina player Jim Penny are still in the early stages of their journey, but they are already making good progress.
“We’ve all had experiences when we’ve had gigs where they say ‘Oh you are going to sing aren’t you?’ But that hasn’t happened for a while now, which is encouraging,” says Jane. “I’m not sure if there is a coherent burgeoning English instrumental scene but there are people who are taking tunes in a different way and taking a different approach. For us Spiro are an obvious touchstone. We’ve been massive fans of Spiro for fifteen years, even before they were signed to Real World and became more widely known. And English Acoustic Collective… that was very much about taking tunes and finding your own way with them and creating your own music while respecting the tune. So those two bands were pioneers in that way of thinking about instrumental music and began to free up the approach that people could take to it, showing there are different ways of drawing on traditional music. If the tunes are good and robust you can take that tune and play with it and find other things within it and still retain the essence of the tune. When we are working together, we always start with the tune. We play it and play it and play it until we know it inside out and only then do we start drawing out arrangement ideas, but it’s always about the tune.”
So are we on the cusp of a resurgence in English instrumental music?
“I don’t know but when I was first playing in sessions 20 years ago in Oxford there were no English sessions anywhere, they were all Irish, every single one. But now those sessions in the same pubs, they are all English sessions. That suggests a shift in how people in the folk world value English music and are interested in exploring it.”
If there is a momentum it’s likely to gain further currency with the leading musicians keen to share their enthusiasm and knowledge. Sam Sweeney, who has taken over as artistic director of the National Youth Folk Ensemble and, with the other members of Leveret, Saul Rose, Ben Nicholls and Miranda Rutter among the tutors, is especially bullish about it all.
“My job with the National Youth Folk Ensemble is, I hope, going to lead to an absolute change in perception of that. We are now getting fourteen- to eighteen-year olds not only playing English tunes really well, but writing tunes and looking in old manuscripts for tunes and so we will see a change. It may take ten, fifteen or 20 years but we will see a big change in the uptake of young people in English tunes and playing them really well. I’m massively encouraged. A lot of them have never played English music before. A lot have played Irish or Scottish tunes and we’ve had some jazz players. They’ve surpassed everyone’s expectations and they’re running with it. They’re just as excited as I was at their age that there are these 300 or 400-year old tunes there just waiting to be played.”
“It’s all very well being Bellowhead getting young people coming to your gigs, but the only way to get them to do it is through teaching. It’s great having bands that people look up to, but just being in a band doesn’t make people pick up a fiddle and go through a Playford manuscript. You have to do stuff with kids in order for that to happen, but it’s happening.”
Rob Harbron, too, is doing lots of teaching, having taken over Chris Wood’s role at the English Acoustic Collective summer school.
“I’ve never really claimed my music represents anything but me. It is English because we’re English but I don’t like that one-dimensional view that people sometimes get about not playing stuff because it’s not English. As a player what I really get out of the English thing is possibilities because there aren’t anything like the number of great players recorded in archive form that there are in the Irish tradition, for example.
“Some of the tunes we played on the first couple of Leveret records are quite old ones, from the 1850s and beforehand, but there aren’t recordings of anyone playing anything like those tunes. There’s hundreds of tunes written in books from the 1700s but by the time Cecil Sharp and his mates started going round and later some recordings started to happen, those tunes just aren’t there. The three-time hornpipes, there aren’t any recordings of anyone playing those so it’s a whole open book as far as I’m concerned, stylistically and everything. That for me is the most exciting thing about English music, it’s so open.
“For me the way I learned to play traditional tunes how I want to play them was by writing my own tunes and working out how to play them. It can be hard as a player with traditional tunes deciding how they should go, so if you start with tunes where you have a clear idea because you made them up, and apply that same process to a tune that you’ve found and maybe didn’t find any connection with when you first played it, and then move into it and take ownership of it. For all three of us the writing is just part of being players of traditional. For us, you can’t do one without the other. Because of that perceived thing of people not wanting to listen to instrumental tunes we didn’t expect to get much interest when we started, but we knew we’d enjoy playing together. “
Within the general sphere of this movement – if we can call it a movement – there is certainly no lack of ideas. Jane Harbour of Spiro, for one, has recently written and performed Kynde, commissioned by Radio 3 and performed live with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Cecil Sharp House, the premise of which is the continuing journey of the traumatised anti-heroine of folk song legend, Barbara Allen. Incorporating recordings of traditional singers from the Peter Kennedy archive, it is likely to be the precursor of further exciting groundbreaking adventures from Spiro involving collaborations with top modern classical vocalists. “It should be wordless and word-full, playing with words and sense and nonsense and involving voices in all that crazy system stuff that goes on in Spiro. It’s very exciting. It should be a pretty amazing new sound.”
A new sound that perhaps illustrates the extent to which English folk tunes can be further immersed in wider cultural forms. Even electronica.
“Electronica is a very popular type of music that is instrumental yet people don’t even think of as instrumental, even though it can be quite complex instrumental music. Intelligent techno and electronica is very popular and maybe that’s paving the way. With Spiro I tried to key into that feel of electronica and dance music as much as possible; the ecstasy and intricacy of it that can only be played on a computer but if you try to play it on an acoustic instrument it is hopefully interesting and exciting. Whatever it is about electronica that people like, I try to do that on acoustic instruments.”
“Coming from classical music I thought ‘I know, I’ll form an instrumental band, that won’t be a problem at all!’ Now here we are, 25 years of hard slog later… but hopefully all music is about emotion and it doesn’t matter what instruments you play it on or what your starting point is or what your influences are you want to get to that fundamental truth that moves people.”
First published in fRoots 409, July 2017. Header image: Methera: Miranda Rutter, Emma Reid, Lucy Deakin and John Dipper