The baggage that comes with the diatonic accordion in the UK

I’ve come back from Burwell Bash having had a hugely enjoyable week. I feel I engaged with things much more this year than I did last year. I’ve grown quite a bit over the last year, so coming back to Burwell is a good way of comparing things annually.

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Don’t call me a melodeon player!

 

 

My playing still has a long way to go, and I know what things I want to work on over the coming year so that I’m still more prepared for next year and hopefully I’ll continue to develop musically. That sounds awfully pretentious doesn’t it? It’s not meant to be. I picked up on something of a theme at Burwell this year, something which I hadn’t picked up on last year, and something which I want to explain.

It struck me that our instrument comes with so much baggage. Even its name is controversial. Is it an accordion? Is it a melodeon? Even such a facile thing as deciding what to call it can spark furious rage! I’ve decided to move away from calling it a melodeon, and I call it an accordion. Sometimes I’ll call my D/G boxes English Accordions while my G/C is a French Accordion. Sometimes I’ll just call them diatonic accordions or maybe Dias. Why should this matter?

To my mind, the Melodeon is an instrument used by Morris Musicians. Here’s where I need to be careful… There are many exceptional musicians who play for Morris Dancing. They have their own style of playing and consider what they want to do with a tune. They are experienced at both leading the music and following the lead of others. They can play collaboratively and will do their best to give you a part in the music. They are sensitive to the strengths and subtleties of other instruments and will adapt their playing to the instruments they’re playing with and the abilities of the people they’re playing with. They’re flexible, open-minded and generous as musicians. Like I say – exceptional musicians. Sadly, many people don’t come into contact with these people because they are the exception.

The perception of the majority of Melodeon players is very different to those exceptional players. They may or may not have excellent technique, but there’s an arrogance, inflexibility and selfishness about them as musicians. The idea of not leading a tune is one that is alien to them, as is the idea of being sensitive to other instruments that they play with. So many times I’ve been around them when they gather in large numbers (say at Melodeons At Whitney) it’s like being in a room full of soloists. There is no attempt to play generously and share their music. This idea gets lost as the melodeon players play more obscure tunes faster and faster. Try to join in with some rhythmic chording or a countermelody and you get shot looks like daggers.

This is just a tiny part of the picture when I look at the perception of melodeon players. How do I, as a diatonic accordion player, begin to show other musicians that I’m not like that? That I actually care about sharing music? That I can adapt my playing to be as sympathetic as possible to the other instruments in the group? That I’m not going to stomp all over the tune? How do I show other musicians that there are other accordionists who can do the same? And how do I fit what I can do as an accordionist into the wider culture of folk musicians in a way that is not just as an accompanist, but that I am happy to fulfil that role too?

This is the baggage that we, as diatonic accordion players, have to deal with. I’m not sure how to approach getting away from the perceptions of melodeonists, but I suspect that the old adage “show, don’t tell” is going to be my first route. I’m fairly sure that the Melodeon Stasi will be livid at me for criticising them. That’s fine and I’ll just leave them be. I’m not after reassurance or acceptance from them. Authenticity has always been an important thing for me, and I can’t be authentic if I’m not free to explore different ideas or ways of playing.

Anyway, lots of things to think about.  Maybe I’ll have a chance to reflect and see if anything presents itself as a solution…

Accordions, concertinas, Burwell Bash and the occasional banjo thrown in for good measure…

I always start blogs thinking that I’ll update them regularly, then I find myself distracted, too busy, or just too lazy… Anyway, I’ll try to revive this one and see where I get.

Accordions

A selection of the Reluctant Folkie accordions…

The last year has seen lots of musical developments for me. I’ve started playing more seriously and expanded my range of instruments which now feature four D/G Accordions, one G/C Accordion (for playing French tunes), a C#/D Accordion (for playing Irish tunes), a G/C/+ Anglo Concertina, Irish Tenor Banjo, Vintage Button Accordion and Viola. That’s quite a lot really isn’t it? I’ve not really done anything at all with the viola or button accordion, so I should probably work on those in the next year or so, if I get time… The Banjo (it’s a Clareen Clarenbridge model if you’re interested) is huge amounts of fun to play, but progress is really slow and I don’t think I’ll be using it for anything other than my own enjoyment in the foreseeable future. I was inspired to buy a banjo after listening to Julien Cartonnet playing with Topette! – just fantastic! Oh, I’ve got a couple of little organettos as well, but I’ve not really done much with those either!

 

On the accordion side of things, I’m very much moving away from playing for morris dancing and am beginning to discover something of a style of my own. It’s funny when I hear myself play a tune in that old oompah style – I can’t help but cringe! I’m trying to play a bit more fluidly and with more interest, expression and variation. I put a lot of that down to going to the Burwell Bash summerschool last year. I came back ruined! Anything I tried to play sounded really lumpy and awful, so I started playing around with the accordion, learning new bass styles, thinking about different and more expressive ways of playing tunes. I think my playing has developed quite a lot since then. I’m bringing new influences in too – like the G/C French style of playing. I always thought that there was not much point in buying a G/C instrument as all I would do is play the same tunes in a different key – how wrong I was! The style is very different to playing the English D/G, with many of the tunes played in the higher octave at the top end (or bottom end depending on how you look at it) of the keyboard. Anyway, that’s all very technical – French tunes are lots of fun! Well the two or three that I’ve learned are fun anyway!

Burwell was definitely the highlight of 2015 for me. I got to spend a week learning tunes from Andy Cutting (he won the BBC2 Folk Awards Best Folk Musician for the third time this year!) and got to play with some fantastic musicians – there were violins, flutes, whistles, guitars, saxophones and even a euphonium! A lot of the week was taken up with single instrument classes, but there were also two mixed band groups – one large group led by the tutors and one small group of about 4 or 5 musicians. I think I enjoyed those the most as there’s so much scope for interesting arrangements and a chance to play with people you wouldn’t usually have the chance to.

I’m really looking forward to going to Burwell again this year – a little over a week to go! There are lots of other developments which have taken place over the last year, but I need to write a separate post for them – they’re really big, life-changing developments and deserve their own post. In the meantime, you can find some of the tunes which I’ve recorded on the Reluctant Folkie Soundcloud page – The version of Morning Star was the first tune which I played around with after coming back from Burwell last year!

 

 

New squeezebox is on its way!

It’s not long until my birthday, and I’m getting quite excited…. My wonderful wife has bought me a new box. It’s described as a 1¼ – row melodeon in the key of G. A little bit of research has had some interesting results….

It’s actually an Italian Organetto and is used for Southern Italian folk tunes! Tarantellas seem to be very popular to play on the organetto. There’s a lot of fast playing across the quarter row,and there are only two bass buttons to play with.

Superficially, it looks like a pared-down row-and-a-bit melodeon. I think this is where some English folk musicians (with the exception of professional players) might get confused. You probably can play a limited number of English tunes on it, but that would be missing the point. I’ve got D/G melodeons for English tunes, so I’m going to be learning a few tarantellas on the new box when it arrives….

It’s going to be an interesting expansion to my instrument collection, and if I can learn to play it correctly, should be lots of fun! I’ve had a look on YouTube for some videos and found lots of very fast tunes… There’s one player called Luca Rossi who is astounding!

I’ll take some photos and maybe even record a tune or two when I’m good enough! I keep threatening to make some YouTube videograms, but never seem to get round to it. As soon as I get the camera running, I completely freeze!

In the meantime, here’s a link to Luca Rossi playing… https://youtu.be/hxyrpbdH5OA

(I’m scribbling this on my phone, and I’ve not yet worked out how to embed YouTube clips….)

May is one of the busiest months for a Morris Musician!

Well, I can include April in there too! The season started off with a melodeon workshop run by John Spiers (he of Bellowhead fame…) in April. It was organised by the Lewes Folk Club who have regular workshops on a really broad range of folk music techniques. This one was about using treble chords on the melodeon in tunes, and it was brilliant!

There were about 20 of us on the workshop, so quite a decent number. We had been given two tunes to learn in advance, one jig and one hornpipe. Both were really nice tunes, but not what I’d call easy. Definitely not beginner ones. We went through the scales of chords on the right hand in the first session and then quickly ran through the tunes before lunch. The afternoon was all about putting the chords into the two tunes.

I can’t really recall everything that we did during the day as it was about a month ago and I can never remember everything that goes on when I’m in an intense workshop. I remember putting my melodeon down and taking lots of notes – there were so many people noodling away that it was impossible to hear what I was doing anyway. All I would have achieved is adding to the cacophony!

One thing that I had expected the workshop to focus on was how to play chords as accompaniment to other instruments. I hadn’t actually thought about adding chords in to tunes that you play without any other accompaniment, which was what this workshop was aiming for. More like accompanying yourself I suppose? Although I haven’t used the chords when I’m just playing on my own, I’ve taken a lot away from the workshop and started experimenting with the new techniques. I’m now playing chord accompaniment to the accordion on some of the tunes in the ceilidh band and it feels like the sound has definitely rounded out and become more expressive.

It’s a very exciting time for me and I’m looking forward to messing around with some more tunes to find out what sort of sounds we can achieve. For the moment though, I’m going to have to concentrate on music for the morris sides – that’s another blog to come soon!

North Wood Morris Tunes

I’m off out to a non-folk gig tonight, in Camden (London). I’m meeting one of my oldest friends from school and we’re going to go to see the industrial weirdness that is Laibach. Not wanting to lose my reluctant folkie credentials, I thought I’d publish another post.

I’ve written the list of tunes for the Roosters, so I thought I should probably do the same for North Wood Morris, which is my other side. These ones are listed by the traditions, rather than by set. North Wood take a different approach to their repertoire, so basically everything is listed , whether we currently dance it or not!

Adderbury:

  • Beaux of London City (Shooting)
  • Buffoon
  • Black Joke
  • Bluebells of Scotland
  • Constant Billy
  • Lads-a-Bunchum
  • Landlord
  • Shepherd’s Hey

Addington Quarry:

  • Therapia Lane

Ascot-Under-Wychwood

  • Valentine

Bampton

  • Banbury Bill
  • Bobbing Around
  • Bonny Green Garters
  • Glorishears
  • Highland Mary
  • Step & Fetch Her

Bledington

  • Bold Arethusa
  • Morning Star
  • Three Musketeers (British Grenadiers)
  • William & Nancy
  • Young Collins

Brackley

  • Jockie to the Fair
  • Where’s Collingwood

Bucknell

  • Saturday night

Ducklington

  • Lollipop Man
  • Old Taylor

Fieldtown

  • Balance the Straw
  • Banks of the Dee
  • Country Gardens
  • Dearest Dickie
  • Shepherd’s Hey, sighpost
  • The Forester

Headington Quarry

  • Bean Setting

Lichfield

  • Jenny Lind
  • Ring O’ Bells
  • Vandals of Hammerwich

Sherbourne

  • Monck’s March

Upton-Upon-Severn

  • Stick Dance

Jigs

  • Nutting Girl
  • Molly Oxford
  • Princess Royal

As you can see, this is quite an extensive list and I by no means know all of the tunes! I’ve only been with North Wood for a few months, whereas I’ve been with the Roosters for just over 3 years. I’ve learned a few of the tunes which the Roosters don’t use at the moment, and I’m enjoying playing some more than others. The great thing is that with a couple of different sides, I get to play different tunes which require different techniques. That means that I’m continually learning new ways of playing things, which feeds between the two sets of tunes.

I’m sure there’s a bit more to write about that, but I should probably have a bit of a think about it. Anyway, at least that’s a bit more background to the tunes. I’ll scribble down my (very vague) practice plans which are based on the tune lists at some point….

Andy

Rampant Rooster Ale – March 2015

It’s been a busy couple of weeks since my last post – I hope I won’t have to write that sentence too often! My old car died, so I had to find a replacement, I’ve been off to a Blowzabella day of workshops at Cecil Sharp House in London, and Rampant Rooster had their (our?) scratch ale on Saturday, so that’s where I’m going to begin.

We held our first scratch ale last year, to celebrate the Rooster’s 21st Birthday. This year we invited a few sides and got full sets from Ewell St Mary, Thames Valley and Shoreham Bucaneers. There were also single dancers from Hexadaisy, Ducklington, Broadwood and Invicta Morris sides, and a few friends who want to give dancing a go, but who haven’t joined a side yet.. Quite a good representation of sides, all dancing Cotswold morris.

The idea of the scratch ale is to get a variety of sides together and dance a wider range of dances than you would normally do at the usual stands. Each of the sides get to take turns to decide which dance they’d like to do and write them down on a whiteboard / a-board. As each side usually have different dances in their repertoire to each of the other sides, you get to try out different and new dances.They’re usually private events, so we’re not dancing in front of the public – there’s a very good reason for that…. What with dancing new and sometimes unfamiliar dances, the standard of the dancing can be a bit patchy!

But that’s most of the fun of the ale! I used to dance with White Rose Morris in Huddersfield, doing Bampton and Fieldtown dances, but now I’m with Rampant Rooster and we dance Bledington, Adderbury, Oddington and a few border dances too. I do miss doing some of the old Bampton dances, so it’s great to have a chance to have a go at them in a mixed set of dancers from lots of different sides. It’s also an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new ones!

Sadly I wasn’t dancing on Saturday, as I’m still recovering from a dancing injury from last June (Insertional Achilles Tendonitis) and I’m taking the year off dancing. I decided not to do much on the music side either – there were lots of melodeons playing together and I didn’t feel I would add much to the sound but would probably be competing with the rest of the musicians. It’s often useful to know when you can add something to the music and when you’re just going to muddy it up. Of course, not doing much playing meant I wasn’t going to be criticised for speeding anything up or not paying attention to the slows!

All in all it was a great night and I think most of the people enjoyed themselves. I couldn’t sign off the blog without mentioning the delicious veggie chilli which our Squire, Amanda made for everyone. Epic! And a big thank you goes to all the Roosters who helped set up and break down the hall, all the dancers and musicians who came along and made it a great night, and of course the helpers who ran the tombola. I should also give a mention to Denbies Wine Estate who donated tickets for two tours around their vineyard just outside Dorking.

Thank you all!

Rampant Rooster Tunes – 2015 Dance Season

I thought I’d give a bit of background into the tunes that I’m learning for various projects. I play for Rampant Rooster Morris as my first side, the Jubjub Ceilidh Band as a second project (with two of the Rooster Musicians and two of the dancers calling the ceilidh) and North Wood Morris as my second side.

I’ll get to listing the tunes for Jubjub and North Wood in due course, but for now, here’s a list of the tunes for Rampant Rooster’s 2015 Season. We change our dances around every year, so tunes get changed every year.

Set 1:

  • Highland Mary
  • Worcester Monkey
  • Day Trip to Dublin (Click Go The Shears)
  • Ruby Rooster (to The Archers theme tune)
  • Lollipop Man
  • Cuckoo’s Nest (Bledington Dance)
  • Shepherd’s Wedding
  • Milly’s Bequest
  • Jockey to the Fair
  • Postman’s Knock
  • Young Collins

Set 2:

  • Upton-Upon-Severn Stick Dance
  • Jubilee Juggle (Weasel’s Revenge)
  • ‘Allo Vera (Kerry Polka / Egan’s Polka)
  • Cuckoo’s Nest (Border dance)
  • Paint it Rooster (Paint it Black)
  • Shooting (Beaux of London City)
  • William & Nancy
  • Old Dan Roberts
  • Vandals of Hammerwich
  • Constant Billy

Set 3:

  • Monck’s March
  • Our Henry (Enrico)
  • Tide
  • Jenny Jones
  • Three Musketeers (British Grenadiers)
  • Tinsley Ring
  • Jenny Lind
  • Maid of the Mill
  • Jimmy Brooks (tune with kind permission of Wytchwood Morris)

We’ve separated the dances into three sets so that we get to dance them all regularly throughout the season. As you can see, there are quite a lot of dances / tunes. I can play most of them with varying degrees of accuracy, but a few of them are pretty difficult on the melodeon.