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Benjamin's Book

The Complete Country Dance Manuscript of Benjamin Rose, Farmer, Alehouse Keeper and Musician of Belchalwell Dorset, 1820. Integral CD. Facsimile plates of the manuscript. Introduction and notes by Colin Thompson and Tim Laycock. Published by the authors. 2011. 76pp .
ISBN 978-0-9571059-0-4
£20 + p&p.

Review by Chris Partington for Folk Music Journal

Writing this in May 2012 I have a database containing over three hundred fiddler's tune books [i], forty of which are available as transcriptions on the Village Music Project website [ii]. The conviction that these manuscripts are interesting in their own right is recent. Frank Kidson and Anne Gilchrist were interested, but few others. Kidson amassed over forty, most apparently now missing. In the list 'Books - published since about 1900 containing mainly tunes from the English repertoire' [iii], which I compiled for the EFDSS Folkopedia website, there are one hundred and thirty two entries, where a series like Sharps Country Dance Tunes (1909) [iv] counts as a single entry; all but twenty one of them have been published since 1980. Of the twenty three books concerning manuscripts only "Five Country Dances" (1927) [v] which is extracts from the Ashover MS, "The Sussex Tune Book" (1982) [vi] which is a selection from a number of MSS, and "The Great Northern Tune Book" (1986) [vii], which is the complete Vickers MS, were published before 1990. To date the "Thurston MS" (2007) [viii] is the only complete manuscript other than the volume reviewed here to have been published in facsimile.

The Rose manuscript of the title, dated 1820, was discovered by Vic Thomas and drawn to the attention of Colin Thompson and Tim Laycock. They chose to plant the work as an entire collection back into the village of Belchalwell and the surrounding community from which it arose. They have done this in a number of ways. Around the village halls of Dorset they perform 'Benjamin's Book, a Play with Music',  based on the life and music of Mr Rose, and this has reached audiences beyond what one might expect for a fiddler's two hundred-year-old tune book. They have incorporated some of the material into their various other musical activities. For this review I have another part of the process, the book of the MS in facsimile and the CD.

The book, 21cm x 23cm, being spiral bound lies easily on the table or music stand. It is nicely produced on high quality paper. The text and illustrations are clear and well laid out by designer Michelle Tilly. Neal Grundy's five photographs are appropriate, well executed and give a real feel for the physical presence of the manuscript.

The introduction gives biographical details of Rose, his family and circumstances, describes the village of Belchalwell and surroundings, outlines the probable circumstances of Rose's music making, and gives a very good short account of what the music is and where it came from. The manuscript is clear even though the facsimiles are reproduced at four fifths of full size, two plates per page. The plates are accompanied by occasional comments on the tunes, extracts from dialect poems, alternative titles and other titbits. Further notes on some of the tunes are provided at the back of the book.

There is an accompanying MP3 CD, not available separately, of all 133 tunes led by fiddle and accompanied by flute, concertina and melodeon.  These are played at a pace chosen to allow learning of the tunes by ear.

This exploration of one English fiddler and his tunes is of interest to tune collectors of course, but it is such a gorgeous piece of work that it should also prove attractive to non-specialists.

I ought to quit while I'm ahead, except that I will make an observation on the use of space in the book. In a book of only seventy six pages, and at such cost, in my opinion not all of those pages are used to best effect. Three are effectively blank, and of the remaining seventy three no fewer than nine claim to be indices, which unfortunately none of them are. In fact there is no alphabetical index. There is a table of contents of the tunes, an appendix containing an attempt to sort the tunes into twenty one categories, and five pages 'Listing Inclusions in other Fiddler's Tune Books and contemporary collections'. I feel that this sort of detail could have accompanied the tunes, since some of it already does.

What is missing and might have replaced those twelve pages is an alphabetical index, an expansion of the very good introduction to include mention of other local manuscripts and their place in the national picture, and some guidance as to how the general reader might progress her new-found interest by providing a list of resources, like where to find some of the material that is referred to, for example books, websites and institutions such as the EFDSS.  However, my nitpicking does not much detract from a very good book.

Village Music Project
Sowerby Bridge

iv Sharp,Cecil, 1909 onwards, Country Dance Tunes, vols. I - VI. Novello & Co, London
v EFDS Sheffield, 1927, Five Country Dances (Ashover), English Folk Dance Society, Sheffield       
vi Loughran, Anne & Vic Gammon, 1982, A Sussex Tune Book, London, EFDSS, London
vii Seattle, Matt, 1986, The Great Northern Tune Book, Dragonfly Music, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea
viii Challen, Christopher, 2007, The John & Mary Thurston Music Book, Vox Humana Press, Thornbury   

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