“It is such an outstanding and major contribution to English fiddle playing that it should be heard throughout the land and considered the high water mark of England’s music.”
In recent times English fiddling has started to revive after so long being submerged underneath concertinas and melodeons. Though Northumberland and the Scottish Borders had a great many fine players, like Bob Hopkirk, true virtuosos and many more like Archie Dagg and Geoff Purvis, all strong traditional players of their native, regional music, and a quite a lot of excellent players generally, the further south one went, the standard of fiddling could be good but rarely English. Ireland, Shetland and Scotland had lots of virtuosi fiddlers, many with regional styles, well worth listening to still, but where were the English fiddlers who reached such heights in style and music?
The question is answered by listening to a few who are both appreciative of their traditions without playing Irish or Scottish music and the techniques of bowing and fingering employed by their Celtic cousins. It takes a bit of doing because some of the best Irish and Scottish traditional players stopped playing for dancing and used ways of making the music zing and be worth listening to in their own right. Often in Ireland, Scotland, Shetland Nova Scotia etc there would be clusters of excellent fiddlers and traditional players within their vicinity who would pass on the techniques and tunes resulting in a very high standard of music. English fiddlers were for far too long, happy to play for dancers who rarely care what they are dancing to as long as the rhythm keeps them shuffling about in 6/8 or 4/4 time.
At last, we are getting English fiddlers who are thinking about their music and employing sound bowing and fingering techniques that are their own and are happy in the tradition. One of the very finest is Bryony Griffith who has made a very important CD that shows what can be done both with playing and a sensitive accompaniment (by Ian Stephenson on guitar and bass) used sparingly and carefully and never distracting the ear from the fiddle playing.
The fiddling, with its enjoyable use of a strong sweet tone, delicate fingering, variations, and skilful changes of tune types, Lancashire hornpipes, Morris tunes, slow waltzes, never tires the ear, never overdoes the little applications that make fiddling a true art form – as it once was. The melodies of the tunes are refined and often repaired to the delights they must have been before the slog of dancing ground them to ordinariness when in fact here we see them revived and a sprinkle of stardust rather than sawdust makes us think ‘ Goodness these tunes have survived for centuries because they are after all lovely, lovely tunes’.
There is a rare finesse in Bryony’s fiddling that I remember from her years in Newcastle when she especially sought out exceptional tunes (and songs) and we could relish hearing tunes like long-dead Ned Pearson’s version of ‘The Morpeth Rant’ and I could tell then that here was a fiddler and a musician who was a cut above the ordinary and would contribute enormously to traditional music in Britain. And so she has done with this sparklingly outstanding CD.
You can tell the research and listening she has done, probably too, quite a lot of playing in all kinds of situations (yes, including for dancing). If she has delved into old manuscripts such as the 1798 collection of Yorkshire fiddler Joshua Jackson and the 19th century Winder Family of Wyresdale in Lancashire, they aren’t dusty old notes on a page anymore, but lovely, lively tunes returned to the tradition for us to enjoy once more. Plenty of musicians from the living tradition have contributed from Bryony’s playing for dancing, including my old job as fiddler for the Newcastle Kingsmen Rapper Sword dance team and their energetic jigs. So many interesting and diverse sources to give us so many fine tunes. The notes are full and informative and add a great deal of context to the music.
There are no ‘buts’ about this album. It is the finest CD of English fiddling I have heard and I enjoyed ALL aspects of it.
It is such an outstanding and major contribution to English fiddle playing that it should be heard throughout the land and considered the high water mark of England’s music.
Joe Crane – Folk radio UK