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What does the future hold for English fiddling?

Jon Boden explains the difficulties of finding an authentic playing style for traditional English tunes

May 9, 2014

If you are a violinist living in Scotland, Ireland or Sweden – in fact in most Western countries and a fair few Eastern ones – you’re probably aware of the role that the violin plays in your country’s traditional music. Old-Time, Shetland, West Clare and Klezmer styles are all in the public eye, but what about the English fiddling tradition? For reasons that are both historical and musical, it is less well-defined than many other string styles. However, discovering the many pathways that combine to form ‘English fiddling’ today is a fascinating journey.

If tunes are one of the bedrocks of a musical tradition, then there is no shortage of English ones to get you started. Musician and historical researcher Michael Raven’s ‘One Thousand English Country Dance Tunes’ from 1984 stands shoulder to shoulder with the respected tune compendium ‘O’Neill’s Music of Ireland’, compiled by Francis O’Neill in 1903.

There’s an important distinction to be made here between tunes – melodies independent of words – and songs. The latter combine words with tunes, and in many cases the same words can be used as the basis of many different songs employing different tunes. Most traditional music comprises a mix of instrumental, tune-based material, often used for dancing, and songs in which instruments accompany the voice, occasionally having a moment of glory when they provide an instrumental ‘break’ between verses.

Raven’s work shows that the English tune has as much personality as its Shetland or Cajun equivalent, and stakes its individuality on melodic simplicity, robust tonality and a general belief that crudity is a far lesser crime than musical pretentiousness. However, simplicity of melody in either instrumental pieces or songs does not make a ‘style’. These tunes have been played for hundreds of years, but we need to discover how they were played. Where should one go to find the stylistic magic potion that will breathe life into them?

There is a contradiction at the heart of all present-day traditional music practice. On the one hand musicians seek to continue that which has gone before, but on the other they try to reappraise and even revolutionise that tradition in order to appeal to contemporary listeners. The convenient conceit is that playing style remains the carrier of tradition, while the modes of accompaniment, arrangement and presentation can mutate to cater for contemporary tastes. But style is as much subject to evolution, mutation and reinvention as anything else. Examining some previous interpretations of English style may not give you a starting point for making music today, but it will provide an intriguing glimpse into how the fiddle has been used throughout the history of English music.

Historian Paul Roberts has devoted a great deal of energy to reconstructing pre-Victorian fiddling style in the period 1650 to 1850 by examining the markings which relate to bowing and ornamentation on manuscripts of the time. He concludes that fiddlers used a wide variety of ornamentation, and that the standard bowing pattern in that period was the Nashville Shuffle, as it is now called – two slurred quavers followed by two bowed staccato quavers.

Roberts shows that pre-Victorian fiddlers played very differently from their 20th-century counterparts. However, although his research will appeal to anyone interested in historical reconstruction, it isn’t particularly useful when defining current English style.

Markings in 200-year-old manuscripts are useful as theory, but the actual evolution of the tradition is documented in recordings from across the 20th century. However, the recordings we have of early 20th-century fiddlers do not really appeal to current musical sensibilities. Jinky Wells (1868–1953) cheerfully scrapes, squawks and grunts along, with a cavalier attitude towards intonation and tone. Walter Bulwer (1888–1968) and Stephen Baldwin (1873–1955) are at best casual acquaintances with the well-tempered scale and the soft sonorities of modern violin technique. These three performers and their recordings are fascinating examples of early 20th-century English fiddling, but if anyone were to stand on stage today and play in the same way as Wells, they would be thrown off. Most listeners can no longer cope with that level of musical aggression and dissonance. Fascinating as they are, these recordings offer no more of a firm starting point for the budding present-day English fiddler than do markings on pre-Victorian manuscripts.

Stylistic traditions are often described as rivers, and rightly so; rivers bend and evolve with the landscape and conditions, rather than appearing fully-fledged out of nowhere. Many small tributaries may run alongside each other before eventually converging and forging a broader channel. What marks the English fiddle style is that we are still at that tributary stage. Whereas the Shetland tradition, for example, was taken by the scruff of its neck by Tom Anderson in the mid-20th century and robustly encouraged into its current rude health, the English fiddle has been left trickling along, each player forging their own little rivulet through the mud. The English fiddle tradition hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we have a large and growing number of individual fiddlers, each playing English repertoire with their own ideas of approach. rather than seeking a hidden reservoir of English fiddle styles, all we can do is take a snapshot of where the many tributaries are now.

By ‘now’ I mean the period from the 1960s folk music revival up to the present day. Four decades ago, the English fiddle was most widely heard in the hands of Dave Swarbrick. To this day, Swarbrick baulks at being called an English fiddler, and indeed most of his recorded instrumental output has been Scottish or composed. However, his main presence on the 1960s scene was as an accompanist of English songs, on sea shanty albums and, most notably, through his partnership with guitarist and singer Martin Carthy.

Swarbrick was a perfect foil to the abrasive singing styles of the 60s scene. His wild glissandos and outlandish double-stopped trills thickened and excited the sound, but he never strayed too far from a unison tracking of the melody. Carthy’s staccato guitar style provoked a similar rhythmically jagged response from Swarbrick. Although the two instrumentalists didn’t specialise in playing English tunes per se, through the instrumental breaks for songs such as Jack the Jolly Tar they became the first exponents of a modern English instrumental style.

Swarbrick considered himself a Scottish fiddler, but he also single-handedly defined a new ‘English’ fiddle style through song accompaniment. In the same way, 1970s fiddlers such as Barry Dransfield and Nic Jones played Irish and Scottish repertoire but were primarily concerned with singing English songs with their very English melodies. Certain stylistic traits are common to Dransfield and Jones: both tended not to use slurs but to bow each note; and both employed very firm bow pressure, creating a growling, slightly distorted tone.

Swarbrick, Dransfield and Jones all had a very close relationship with English traditional song, but they chose to play non-English melodic material for most of their instrumental work. Even when the fiddle was used in a particular project (notably Dransfield on the 1972 LP Morris On) it tended to be used more in song settings, taking a back seat in tune sets. However, it wasn’t the case that the English tune repertoire was being ignored by the folk scene at this point: it just didn’t tend to use fiddles. Instead, the melodeon and concertina were used, and John Kirkpatrick, who played both these instruments, was central to its stylistic advancement.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Topic Records began to release source recordings of Baldwin and Bulwer. These imprints of the past inspired groups such as the Old Swan Band to take up the cause of defining an English fiddle style. Stylistically, these groups were more notable for what they didn’t do than for their innovations. Out went the saccharine ‘violin style’ associated with English Folk Dance Society country-dance bands of the 1960s, and Irish or Scottish stylistic traits were also generally avoided. Bowing was simple and uncluttered, notes tended towards staccato, and ornamentation was kept to a minimum. Rhythm and swagger was all. Groups like the Old Swan Band were stylistically similar to Dransfield and Jones, but crucially they were playing English instrumental repertoire on the fiddle.

This model of playing endured for around 20 years, but in the 1990s it began to be tested. Since that time a series of adventurers have been extending the style, generally by attempting to fuse English repertoire with foreign fiddle styles: Chris Wood with Quebecois, Nancy Kerr with Northumbrian, Eliza Carthy with some elements of Irish and Scots fiddle styles (notably bowed triplets), and latterly John Dipper and Emma Reid with Swedish. There have also been attempts, by Pete Cooper and Gina le Faux among others, to draw inspiration from the pre-Victorian fiddle style discussed above.

Each of these fusion movements gathers adherents and creates new rivulets, all running alongside the revivalist tributaries. All refer back to the source fiddlers, for example Baldwin and Bulwer, and all, in their own polite way, claim to be the inheritors of the English tradition. The common ground, if any, between them is the liberal employment of doublestopping and a tendency to allow the bow to lift off the strings, letting air into the tune.

My own approach is different again. I believe that the stylistic tradition of English tune playing now belongs to the melodeon, not the fiddle. Melodeons – button accordians capable of playing the melody notes of a diatonic scale – took over as the main instrument accompanying English Morris dancing 150 years ago, and the most convincing work that has been done with English tunes since the 1960s folk music revival has been melodeon-led.

There are as many English fiddle styles as there are English fiddlers, but the English melodeon style has settled into a consensus. It seems sensible, therefore, that the English fiddle should learn to imitate the English melodeon. Similar models can be found in other forms of traditional music. The Highland fiddle style, for example, is clearly in part designed to imitate the Highland pipes, and many features of Irish fiddle ornamentation are not fiddle-friendly but seem very natural when played on the Uilleann pipes. In fact, in most traditional music cultures the fiddle style can in part be attributed to the imitation of another instrument.

For me, the future of the English fiddle lies in studying the phrasing and emphasis of the Morris dance or country-dance melodeonist: the ‘yup’ sound created by an anticipatory swell of the bellows building to a staccato stab on the beat (not an easy thing to achieve on a fiddle, but quite effective when you get it right; it’s helped by a glissando and left-hand ‘damping’ to stop the note ringing on); the use of double-stopping to create rhythmical swagger rather then sweet harmony; trills; aggression; and air between the notes. Rather than aping the bowing patterns of the pre-Victorian fiddle, we should follow the melodeon patterns.

Using this model, the fiddle can become almost indistinguishable from the melodeon, while simultaneously bringing the ability to glissando, vibrato, growl and more to the limited repertoire of sounds afforded by the free-reed system of the melodeon. This is not really a new approach – fiddlers have been subtly imitating the melodeon since it was invented. All I’m suggesting is that we should approach it a bit more head-on.

But that’s just what I think. The point is that the English fiddle tradition has always existed but has never solidified, never coalesced around a single school of thought. This is in part a strength – English fiddlers are nothing if not individual – but it is also a weakness. Without the solidity witnessed in other traditional styles, the English fiddle is not in a strong position to promote itself. Interested novices will find themselves bewildered by the different styles available for them to emulate. After all, you can always break the rules, but if there are no rules to start with it’s very hard for a beginner to find their way.

Perhaps some day soon the different streams of English fiddling may converge. In the mean time, the journey continues. So, if you have some technical ability already, listen to some of the fiddlers I’ve mentioned, see which ones chime with you, and take the proto-tradition forward. If there are enough of us trying, one of these days we might just push the English fiddle to the next level.

Photo: Cecil Sharp / English Folk Dance and Song Society

This article was published in The Strad’s October 2007 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.

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