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The Almost Forgotten Musical Heritage...


By Dr S.T.Chapman

[Transcribed by Chris Partington, 2005.  All the tunes mentioned can be found in the Village Music Project files..C.G.P.]

From the Westmorland Gazette, May 8th, 1987

"While the literature and art of the region have been fairly well documented, very little attention has been given to its musical heritage. This is due, in part, to the scarcity of surviving manuscripts and copy books, and for this reason the tunes preserved among some papers which belonged to the Browne family of Townend, Troutbeck and part of the Armitt Trust Collection in Ambleside are all the more important.

Here we have good evidence of a vigorous vernacular musical tradition in the Lakes, which appears to have survived until the turn of the last century. The books contain about 200 jiggs, reels, hornpipes and airs, pieces which were played at social events in the village and  further afield. This accounts for some of the place names which appear as titles in the repertoire of Troutbeck tunes. Here as elsewhere the village did not always rely upon its own band for musical entertainment but would on occasion welcome players from other parts of the county. Perhaps this system of tune naming also reflects that indepenence of character associated with the old Cumrian dalesmen, for north of the border tunes such as these were traditionally named after the ladies and gentlemen of the nobility.

Typical titles include "Hawkshead Rant" "Appleby Election Hornpipe" "Ullswater Regatta" "Gilsland Hornpipe" "Dalton Watches" and "Lord Brougham's Hornpipe". The latter could well have enlivened the memorable 1818 election, for the copy-books date from the early years of the eighteenth century.

The fiddle was the main instrument used, though occasionally a band would have formed comprising two fiddles, a whistle, flute or recorder, (a fingering chart for which has survived with the manuscripts) and a drum to cut through the noise of the dance.

Some pieces appear to have been composed by an individual, others to have been collected from a local repertoire. There are influences detectable from other parts of England and at times an Irish sound can be heard.

The Irish workers came to make hay and get the harvest in, landing at Holyhead and moving north as the season advanced. They would stay for up to a fortnight, scything and housing the hay before moving on to the next farm, much as Allison Uttley has described in her accounts of rural Derbyshire. The tunes were adapted here as elsewhere by the local musicians.

It is to our very good fortune, or rather the habit of the Browne family of Troutbeck of recording meticulously all manner of information, that these tunes were written down at all. They belong to what would otherwise be an aural tradition - just as in Ireland today where it is not uncommon to find  a player with a repertoire of two thousand tunes but unable to read or write music. It is reassuring to find that one of the tunes, "The Rose Tree", is still in use for the dancing of the Cumberland Square Eight; a less worthy tradition is commemorated in a long set dance called "Drunk At Night And Dry In The Morning". Some of the fiddle airs sound distinctly quaint to the modern ear; for example "The Trip To Cartmell".

The "Hawkshead Rant" is typical (also of many which are evidence of thriving home grown invention) and similarly "Keswick Bonny Lasses".
The institution of the village fiddler and music making in the Lake District obviously deserves more attention. Correspondence such as that of the Browne family themselves can be a fruitful source; in 1719 Benjamin Browne, then aged 27, wrote from London to his father of the same name in Townend, Troutbeck.
Young Benjamin had gone up to London to be clerk to one Richard Rowlandson, lawyer in the Temple, brother of a Kendal wool draper. He requests that his wig, three pairs of new stockings and his violin be sent to London via Mr Greenhow the Kendal carrier.

Six weeks later he writes "You give account you have sold honest Bob the violin and flute for us, the best bargain he ever made in that kind for the flute would have cost him 8s". He also describes a violin purchase "There was such that Robin The Fiddler bought of you and he (the dealer) would abate anything of 1 5s for one of them but he swore he never sold such a one as this I have got under 30s. It is the same colour as Coz. Mary's".

Even accounts can inform; from those of Sir Daniel Le Fleming we learn that the fiddler was certainly in favour with his household in Rydal. When his daughter Catherine (who was devoted to harpsichord playing) was married in 1663 we find one "Renny the Fidler" receiving 2s 6d for providing music at the wedding.
In February 1669/70 he had attended a wedding at Esthwaite at which he gave a fiddler 1s 6d for his accompaniment., and in July 1671 the accounts reveal that his son James was christened to the tune of a fiddler.

The use of a violin in churches without an organ, sometimes as part of a small band, is further suggested by an entry in the Grasmere church records for the neighbouring Langdale chapel, where violin strings were itemised in the expenses, and the Troutbeck records indicate that a band including fiddlers played in the gallery in the early part of the seventeenth century. The Rydal squire sometimes payed for the musical entertainment of his shearers while they worked - one entry stating "Given to George Benson, piper, for playing to my shearers when they got the churne" and "Given to Renny Fidler for playing this day to my clippers".
Other interesting disbursements for his own entertainment include payment to a harper at Crook, a piper at Calgarth and the piper and Lord of Misrule's men at Hutton over Christmas; regarding the latter it is probable that a form of bagpipes was the instrument in question and one is reminded of the patronage extended to pipers by Scots Lairds and the Duke of Northumberland in our own day.

There may be some relevence in an entry in the Ambleside parish register for 1688 recording the death of the son of "George Benson, piper"; this notice of his occupation implies that local demand was sufficient to have provided him a living.

Furthermore, such retaining is suggested by some verse of the Westmorland born Richard Braithwaite ("Dapper Dick"). His poetry often has a north-country setting, and in his "Whimzies, or a New Cast of Characters"(1631) he characterised a piper, kept in an official capacity "injoyned by his place, to rise early, rore highly and rouze the whole family".

There are several references to the popularity of the Lancashire bagpipes in the north west as late as the eighteenth century. The Yorkshire antiquary Ralph Thoresby, for instance, was present at a guild pageant in Preston in 1702 and noted: "Got little rest, the music and Lancashire bagpipes having continued the whole night."

A local custom which was also the occasion for the services of the local fiddler was the "barring out", the ancient ritual whereby the schoolmaster was denied entry to the school until he had settled the matter of Christmas holidays. T.W.Thompson, the Hawkshead historian, found a reference to a fiddler engaged for this purpose by the Hawkshead Grammar School boys. We know that Sir Daniel Le Fleming gave money to his children to celebrate the event in November 1670, and we can surmise that a fiddler's fee was called for.

About 50 years ago Anne Gilchrist, who had a strong interest in the heritage of Cumbrian music and dialect, interviewed a descendent of William Irwin of Elterwater, one of the last of these fiddlers, who was born in 1822 and died in 1889. He had been a cooper by trade and had worked for the Elterwater Gunpowder Company. A self-educated man, he collected his own library of books from the proceeds of his playing. A pupil of the Keswick fiddler Gillespie  in the 1840's, he was connected with the King's Arms in Hawkshead. Some titles from his repertoire include the "Elterwater Quickstep" "Raughton Head" "Dalston Forge" and "Windermere Regatta". There is also "Miss Greenop's Reel"; the flattery of this dedication seems to have had the desired effect, for the lady shortly afterwards became his wife.
His own pupil was Henry Stables of Walthwaite who died in 1906.

The fact that the tune "Keswick Bonny Lasses" survives in both collections with the same title suggests a vernacular repertoire surviving at least 30 years and probably much longer; here also is an example of how modern taste can prejudice authenticity, for Gilchrist had transcribed the sixth note of this tune in Irwin's collection as an E, suspecting the D in the Manuscript - whereas the script of the tune in the Browne collection confirms that D was intended.

Historically there were several types of social event at which fiddler and band would perform. The "Merry Nights" celebrated throughout the Christmas season drew most attention in the early literature, but similar festivities held impromptu in the warmer months were popular. These were known as "Upshots", and were described by Thomas Sanderson in his preface to Robert Andersons "Poems" of 1820, in which he writes about the character, manners and customs of the rural folk of Cumberland. "It is a meeting" he says "among a number of merry-hearted swains and nymphs.. It generally takes place in a barn during the summer season when there are no Merry Nights to animate the dragging moments of a leisure hour. The humble assembly room is commonly well illuminated by a number of tallow lights stuck in tins or iron sockets and sometimes in cloven sticks and excavated turnips or potatoes. The dance is kept up to the witching time of night... each rustic lover accompanying his fair one to her own habitation."

The poet Mark Lonsdale described such an event vividly in verse. The dancing routines were taught at an early stage to children in groups by itinerant teachers; the lessons were in themselves a social event, the villagers turning out en masse to view the spectacle.

A good account stems from a chance encounter; it occurs in "A Fortnight's Ramble To The Lakes" written by Captain Budworth, alias Joseph Palmer, in 1792. He and his colleague describe how they visited Heversham and while staying at the Eagle and Child they were induced, from seeing a number of boy's shoes and hearing the sound of the fiddle in the barn, to become spectators. About thirty boys and girls were assembled. "The master", noted the writer, "had more the appearance of a man than a dancing master, although he was well qualified for the latter in the opinion of the children's parents. One of the boys danced a hornpipe with hat aside, and stick under his arm, tipping most vehemently with head and toe but in very good time".

Budworth continues "As I wished to take in all I could, I observed a wooden hoop with three tin sockets hanging in the centre of the barn to be ready any evening for a village dance". Following the boy, nine girls danced a Cottillon, and - what Budworth thought had a singular rustic effect - while they were going in pairs the odd number stepped into the centre, pulled a red rose from her breast, which she held up as she danced.

Sanderson in his "Preface" already mentioned, is critical of the great expense and time spent by parents in having their children taught country dances, hornpipes, jiggs and reels. Travelling professors, he claims, have more merit in their feet than in their heads.

From old advertisements we know that the classes of Mr Casson, held twice weekly in the 1840's "at Mr Cape's, Innkeeper, Crosthwaite" were very popular.
The skills and steps acquired were put to the fullest use during the twelve nights of Christmas, which used to be celebrated much more fully than nowadays. These were Merry Nights writ large, with dancing at a public house with fiddler for orchestra. There were several accounts of dalesmen throwing off their coats, rolling up their trousers, and going for it till they had to desist from shear exhaustion, the women entering into the contest with equal vigour. There may be some truth in H.S.Cowper's comment that the "Merry Nights" originally took place in the barn, but with the decline in the weaving trade which turned two thirds of the people into farm hands, the better-off yeomen did not care any longer to entertain their neighbours in this way.

A description of a fiddler's calling at this time of year occurs in a letter written by Dorothy Wordsworth to Lady Beaumont in December 1805: "According to local custom" she writes "our Grasmere fiddler is going his rounds, and all the children of the neighbouring houses are assembled in the kitchen to dance... It is a pleasant sound they make with their little feet pattering upon the stone floor". Another detail is given in a lecture published a century ago. It was pointed out by a Mr Wilson in Keswick,  that the air "St Dunstan's Hunt's Up", said by Sir Walter Scott to be long lost and forgotten, was still being played on the fiddle from house to house every Christmas Eve in some vales in our region. At each household the fiddler would bid goodnight to every member by name, and after greeting each, played his tune. The same tradition is described at some length by Wordsworth in the 13 stanzas which preface the "Duddon Sonnets" of 1820. Composition of these verses was begun about Christmas and the music of the strings left a vivid impression; it was for him a never-failing rite, symbolic of the traditions and way of life of the Lakes counties.

    The decline of this institution seems to have coincided with that of the "estatesman" in Cumbria, and sadly S.H.Scott in his book "A Westmorland Village" published in 1904, referred to one old James Airey, the last of the Troutbeck fiddlers, who had forsaken his art and could be seen sitting in Holbeck Lane beside a pile of rocks breaking stones for a living.

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