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What are the musical traditions of East Anglia?

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Tuning In

The Tuning In project ran throughout 2002 across Suffolk and included four community-based projects in Orford, Benhall, Lowestoft and Mendlesham.

There were also fiddle and song workshops, and a touring exhibition featuring photographs and information about traditional material and performers from the county, the main panels of which are now housed permanently at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket.

In each area, research was carried out into the traditions of the locality, and artists worked in schools, residential homes, and with interested individuals and groups to put together a concert in each community celebrating local traditions and performers.

The text of the exhibition relating to each community involved in the Tuning In project follows below.

Orford

Benhall

Lowestoft

Mendlesham

Orford

The pubs in the Orford area have, over the years, echoed to many singers and musicians.

Bob Hart was a well-known singer in the area, particularly in the 1970s when he had an LP record issued. Amongst his songs were some very old items such as John Barleycorn and Bold General Wolfe. It is less well-known that Bob also wrote poems on subjects close to his heart, including an acrostic poem inspired by the death of a friend in the First World War. Percy Webb also sang in the local pubs, and his repertoire included old favourites such as Flash Company (also known as The Yellow Handkerchief).

This is still sung by Fred Smy who was born in Orford in 1913, and who still lives there. He has many memories of the village’s musical life in the 1930s when he would sing in the Jolly Sailors with his father Harry Smy, (who taught him his first song The Faithful Sailor Boy). Then there would be other songs from Jim Meadows, Bill Snowden and Arthur Goddard who also played the melodeon, and of course Fred Chambers who was known as a comic who would liven the night up.

At the Kings Head In the Market Square songs would also be sung by Eddie Smy (no relation to Fred), and George Goode and Mrs Backhouse would play the melodeon. In the 1960s the small bar known as the kitchen in The Crown and Castle would ring to the mouthorgan playing of (Ruth?) Rodwell who was always assured of a crowd on a Saturday night as it was said she could make the instrument ‘talk’!

Nowadays Fred has teamed up with Paul Allen and John Oakes who also live in Orford, and carry on the singing tradition with old favourites such as Wheel Your Perambulator and The Blackbird and The Thrush (also known as The Ball of Yarn) as well as songs about the sea such as The Worst Old Ship, which even has a mention of Orford in it!

During renovation work at the stables at Richmond Farm near Orford, some old wainscotting was found with faint pencilled writing across it. It states that a song called ‘Three Jolly Fishermen’ was sung during previous building work, in March 1877. This song has now been revived amongst the local singers and became the theme tune for the concert held in January 2002 as part of the ‘Tuning In’ project.

During the three months work in Orford, EATMT has worked with the primary school, residents and visitors to Esmond House and a number of individuals on songs, music and dances from the area. The Parish Council invited EATMT to put together a celebratory event for the re-opening of the Town Hall, after refurbishment had been carried out. For this event, a tune was composed (’Orford New Town Hall’) by Judy Horne of the band Syzewell Gap, and children from the school made up a traditional-style dance to go with it.

Benhall

The villages around Saxmundham have a strong tradition of stepdancing, singing and music-making,especially on the ‘accordeon’ or melodeon.

Oscar Woods lived all his life in the Benhall area, and is still well-known as a melodeon-player by many people locally, and also, thanks to his recording by the national folk music label Topic Records in the 1970s and subsequent trips away to folk festivals, by musicians all over England. He learned from Tiger Smith, a neighbour, and played with many well-known local musicians such as Ernie Seaman from Darsham and Dolly Curtis from Dennington. In turn, many younger musicians have learned from Oscar, and the tunes he preserved from the older musicians are still played today.

Charlie ‘Tiger’ Smith lived in Sternfield and played many of the old country tunes such as hornpipes and jigs. Oscar Woods used to take Tiger out to play, often to the ‘Fresh’ (Railway Refreshment Rooms) in Saxmundham, and especially anywhere where there might be a stepdancer or two, such as the famed musical pub Blaxhall Ship.

Tiger’s son Alf married Ivy Welton, whose father ‘Sonny’ was also a stepdancer in Snape Plough & Sail and Farnham George, another pub known for its lively music nights. Ivy used to stepdance herself at the Wickham Market Chequers, and now follows in the tradition of community entertainment, contributing monologues to village shows, and still able to rattle a stepdance board.

The tradition of playing the melodeon is still going strong in the villages around Benhall: pictured below are some of a group now named the ‘Benhall Button Bashers’ which includes Graham Smith, Ivy’s son and Tiger’s grandson. This group meets regularly to play together, and also includes Graham’s son, Leo.

A singer who was recorded at the ‘Eel’s Foot, Eastbridge in 1938 by the BBC was Alec Bloomfield. He was again recorded by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s and by Keith Summers in the 1970s

After living in Westleton he moved to Benhall and became was well-known in the area, as he was a gamekeeper on the Benhall Lodge estate. He knew many old songs, such as Bold General Wolfe and The Highwayman Outwitted and used to sing whilst feeding the pheasants he reared up in the woods. Ivy Smith recalls him singing at community events in the Benhall Club, which has been a social centre
for the village for many years.

Other home-grown entertainment from the past includes a minstrel troupe, a mouth-organ band and village shows such as ‘Benhall on Broadway’!

During this project, EATMT has worked with the primary school, the history group, the Good Companions Club and a number of other interested people. The school now has a class set of dancing dolls, which formed a highlight of the final concert, backed by a massed band of musicians playing tunes from Tiger Smith and Oscar Woods.

Lowestoft

A town the size of Lowestoft might be expected to provide fertile ground for folk-song hunting, but the picture that emerges over the twentieth century is one of popular entertainment in the town and holiday camps (which also provided employment for local musicians) and more old-fashioned, traditional music in the surrounding villages. Townspeople travelled out to village hops in the winter, and country people travelled into Lowestoft for work and entertainment.

Amongst the villages, Uggeshall was a popular destination with the public house The Buck providing great fun - the carpet would be rolled back, and stepdancing, singing and music were the order of the night, with sometimes a social dance held in the function room. In Frostenden or Wangford you might find William Langley playing the old-fashioned accordeon and singing ‘The Foggy Dew’; in the Village Maid at Lound Reggie Baker would sing 22 verses of The Titanic, another local fisherman Riley James would play accordeon and Bob Poley would play the concertina, while in The Sailor’s Home pub in Kessingland the fishermen enjoyed many a sing-song.


Pub entertainment in the town centred round the densely populated area between St Margarets Road and Denmark Road in north Lowestoft, with Ted Quantrill being the most well-known performer. Ted (born 1911) progressed from his father’s concertina to a fancy Paolo Soprani chromatic accordeon bought from Morling’s in the High Street. He played in many of the pubs where the landlord would provide free beer and a hat would be passed round. Busking also provided some extra income in the hard years of the nineteen thirties. Pubs where Ted played included the Stone Cottage, which was popular with the fishermen when they came in from sea, the Havelock Tavern, the Clapham Arms and the two Factory Arms (Raglan St and Factory St). Bob Briggs also played melodeon in the Raglan Street pub and a Mr. Cullam played the dulcimer in the other Factory Arms pub in the nineteen twenties. His wife played the concertina, which seems to have been another popular instrument, and charged the children a penny each to come into her house in Thurston Street and listen to the music - the money went to the Lowestoft Hospital.

There was also a strong tradition of family entertainment: several people active in the local folk music scene today recall their parents and grandparents playing and singing, sometimes popular music of the day as with Carole Allen’s father Jimmy Pipe, and sometimes older items such as ‘The Faithful Sailor Boy’ (sung by Ivan Bunn’s grandmother Ethel Bunn) or ‘Squally Old Weather’ otherwise known as ‘Windy Old Weather’ (sung by Ian Prettyman’s father-in-law Barney Smith). In the 1950s, folk-song collector Peter Kennedy recorded Annie Markwell singing ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor’ and other songs. It’s interesting how many of these relate to the sea! Although, when John Howson recorded songs from Ted Quantrill in the 1980s, he remarked ‘When you’ve been out there, in the wind and the squall, that’s the last b***** thing you want to sing about!’ He did however sing ‘Heave on the trawl’.

There are still memories of May Day customs in Lowestoft, and a fascinating link with Padstow in Cornwall, which has a vigorous May custom to this day, which is said by some in Padstow to owe its survival to the support of the Lowestoft fishermen who worked there in the early years of the twentieth century.

May Day in Lowestoft before the Second World War provided fun and a few pennies for the children - after a formal gathering of local schools at the Sparrow’s Nest, the children returned home and the girls dressed up in bits of old curtains and anything else they could find and knocked at neighbours’ doors, singing a rhyme.

Mendlesham

Mendlesham, and in particular the outlying hamlet of Mendlesham Green, was a lively place for traditional music during much of the twentieth century.

The Green Man public house in Mendlesham Green drew in anybody who enjoyed a sing-song, or who could play a tune for a stepdance or a polka.

Gordon Syrett, who came from a long line of Syretts in Mendlesham Green,and was a wonderful singer even in his nineties, recalled: ‘In the Green Man there was music every Friday and Saturday, if you got old Kruger Beaumont up there, and Bung Stannard. Kruger’s song was ‘John Barleycorn’.

One of Gordon’s neighbours was Roy Last, who spent his earlier life in nearby villages, and was a great collector of unusual songs, including the version of John Barleycorn sung by Kruger!

Hack Brundish (formerly of Front Street, Mendlesham) exclaimed: ‘The Green Man, I used to live there! There used to be some good old singers back then- like Dinkie Finbow and Pom Hart - he knew some songs - like ‘The Female Cabin Boy.

Tinker Parker (formerly of Mendlesham Green) remembered: ‘Ted Thorpe, he used to play all them hornpipes, like Jack Robinson, that old man, he knew some hornpipes. He’d say “Come on together, let’s get those feet working.” Of his wife’s brothers, who were reputedly superb stepdancers, Tinker said: ‘Heel and toe I’m talking about … they’d stand on two bricks, and they could double and treble time it. How they learned, they’d get a plank across a ditch with a bit of spring in it, and they’d get on that and go up and down, and learned themselves.’

‘It’s a pity they ever shut that pub’ said Tinker Parker, but not everyone was so keen on music: Roy Colchester recalls the old saying ‘Ringers and singers are no home bringers’!

The community in Mendlesham Green had in fact two strong musical traditions in the early 1900s: apart from the self-made entertainment in the pub, the village carpenter, William Arbon, started up a village band based around cornets, fiddles and drums, which performed at many local functions. Many of the members bore the same family name, Arbon, which is still a common name in the village today.

The Fleece Public house, in Mendlesham itself, was also a popular place for music, and Reg Pyett was one of the regular musicians there. Reg played the melodeon, and as well as many popular song melodies, could also knock out several of the old time hornpipes and polkas that were used for dancing, such as the Sailor’s Hornpipe and Heel & Toe Polka. Reg’s proudest moment was in 1925, when he played at the Hippodrome in London: ‘I had two hours playing and I got £15 for that, and that was when money was money.’ It was certainly better pay than the usual free drink and a collection in a hat, which was a common arrangement locally - not that such payment was to be sniffed at during the hard years of the twenties and thirties.


There was certainly music to be had in Mendlesham in even earlier days. A photograph of an elderly gentlemen playing the fiddle (he holds it in typical country fashion rather than a classical stance) was known only as a Mr Clements. Research in the community has not been able to identify exactly which Mr Clements this was, although it has been suggested it may be ‘Tiddles’ Clements. The photograph dates from around 1900, and through research into census details, it seems most likely to be Samuel Clements who lived on Front Street.

 

During the nineteen eighties both the Fleece and the King’s Head welcomed traditional music, and singers and players from the area frequently congregated there, including Mendlesham’s own David Webb. David also travelled with the Old Hat Concert Party to folk music events in London and elsewhere, where his singing, stepdancing and musical talents were also appreciated. Tony Harvey of Tannington sometimes came to these
sessions, and as well as singing many local songs, might also be prevailed upon to demonstrate the broom dance. Chrissie Carter, former landlady of the Finningham Railway Tavern could also entertain everyone with her high-kicking dance over a broomstick. Lubidy Rice was also a regular on the mouthorgan.


In 1984, a national traditional music event, the English Country Music Weekend, was held in Mendlesham, bringing together enthusiasts from all over the country and local musicians such as Cecil Pearl from Claydon and Dolly Curtis from Dennington.

As part of the Tuning In project, children in the village primary school have learned local songs and dances, some of Gordon Syrett’s favourite songs are being sung again by Linda Davies and Laura Head and the village country dance group, the Mendlesham Mollyckers have taken up the broom dance with great enthusiasm.

For more about Mendlesham, see our Village Portraits page.


Home      News      Diary of events    About EATMT     Friends of EATMT     

What are the musical traditions of East Anglia?

Traditional Music Day     Melodeons & More      Workshops, classes & schools      Community Projects       

          Profiles of traditional musicians        Research         Jig Dolls        Dulcimers     Stepdancing

Resources      Shop        Links      Press Room     Contact Us