The post-war folk and traditional music revival in the British Isles was a complex
phenomenon which involved more than just the simple rediscovery and promotion of
neglected music and song. The ideology of key individuals was important in
determining the scope and subsequent diction of the revival including the sources of
the revived repertory and how it should be re-packaged. The selection and use of
appropriate musical instruments was a major issue and, for a time at least, the
concertina family was endorsed by the revivalists to the extent that it could act as a
symbol of the revival itself. This paper identifies and discusses the processes involved.
The concertina enjoyed considerable popularity throughout the British
Isles in the hundred years following its first commercial production around
At first the instrument was expensive and exclusive and was heard only
playing "art" music in the upper-class drawing room and fashionable London
concert hall. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, the
concertina was available in a range of forms and prices which allowed it to be
taken up by the middle and working classes who, owing to increased leisure
time, increased disposable income and low prices through mass production, were
able to indulge in the widespread ownership of musical instruments for the first
time. The concertina found favour with both urban and rural musicians and
gained a place in evangelistic activities, concertina bands, the music hall, dance
music and domestic music making. Only rareIy was it found as an instrument
used solely for the performance of traditional music.
The purchase and use of musical instruments of all types by amateurs declined
rapidly between the wars due to competition from other attractions including
modern dance, the gramophone, radio and the cinema. Furthermore, the effects of
the Second World War and the subsequent comprehensive redevelopment of the
cities and towns broke up social structures with drastic consequences for their
musical activities. There were survivals of concertina use in English folk dance, in
the traditional music of the West of Ireland and in South Africa, but by the 1950s
it was mainly restricted to a residual number of individuals playing in the mission
halls, Salvation Army, variety theatre and in the home.
Despite this pattern of popularity followed by decline, the late 1960s found
the concertina once more in great demand among young people. Instruments
were being reclaimed from dusty cupboards and junk shops, and pawnbrokers
were scoured for "boxes".2
In a short time the instrument was being heard on
folk song records, in concerts and in folk clubs, achieving endorsement as one of
the principal instruments for accompanying traditional song. For many adherents
of the revival, ownership of a concertina became de rigueur. New makers arose
to meet the demand, and several players became professional concertinists
playing the international folk music circuit and making commercial recordings.
Taking Scotland as a sample, we find many of the most popular revival singers,
such as Archie Fisher and Ian MacKintosh, using the concertina as well as the
guitar and banjo to accompany their songs. Later it found a place in many of the
emerging folk groups (e.g. The Conies, Tbe Clutha, The McAlmans, The Boys of
the Lough, The Gaugers, The Whistlebinkies and The Battlefield Band) where it
was used for the performance of fiddle and bagpipe music as well as for song
accompaniment. Solo concertina competitions were established by the
Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland at its festivals from 1974
In the mid-1970s the term
was coined to
describe the fever of interest in the instrument. A gramophone record entitled
The Folk Review Record, issued in 1975, featured a sleeve design made up of a
honeycomb of concertina ends, despite the fact that the instrument was hardly
heard on the disc.4
Some years later, when Virgin Records sought to promote
their folk music issues, they did so by an advertisement showing a woodcut of an
elderly concertina player.5
These examples show that the concertina had become
an emblem of the folk music revival but how did the instrument move from
almost total obscurity to fashion within
only a few years?6
How was an instrument used only occasionally for the performance of traditional music
privileged to the status of a symbol of the tradition itself? To answer these
questions we must, first of all, look to turn of the century England and the
foundations of the so called "first folk song revival" (LIoyd 1967: 395) there.
Cecil Sharp's first encounter with folk dance was in 1899 through the
performance of a morris dance team at Headington Quarry, Oxfordshire. This
team was led by concertina player William Kimber. Kimber was adopted by
Sharp not only as his major source of information on dance and its music on
which to base his revival but also as a model of the "tradition-bearer", a missing
link with the romantic past of Merrie England. In the words of Douglas
What Kimber had from his father and from his father before him was the experience
and technique of a skilled craft handed down, as if through a guild, from the Middle
Ages, and stretching far back before that to the secret societies which practiced the
medicine religions that conditioned life in England before Christendom. (Kennedy
That Kimber was a most accomplished and sensitive performer of traditional
music is without doubt (as can be heard on
gramophone recordings7) but
adoption by Sharp as his mentor is contradictory on a number of counts.
Firstly, rather than being of ancient pedigree, Kimber's morris side had been
revived only a few months beforehand though the encouragement of a local
antiquarian. Secondly, Kimber was a relatively young man (around 27). Thirdly,
he played a then "trendy" instrument laden with connotations of music hall and
popular dance and song which hardly fitted recognition of the concertina as a
"modern substitute for the one-handed pipe and tabor, the one man band
familiar in Shakespeare's day" (Kennedy 1964: 43). It has also been suggested
by Keith Chandler that, in the late nineteenth century, morris dancing was
encouraged as a form of "rational recreation" designed to occupy workers
during slack periods in their
It is no surprise to find a few years later that Percy Grainger used the
concertina in a number of his works: Shepherd's hey, based on a morris dance
tune collected by Cecil Sharp, Bold William Taylor a traditional song collected
in 1906 and his Scotch strathspey and reel of 1911. Of course, it was a
"classical" rather than a "traditional" concertina player who took part in the
public performances of these
Such examples of middle-class and artistic endorsement were important later.
Despite the discovery of Kimber and other indigenous players, the concertina
remained on the fringe of the subsequent folk dance revival in England, its
musicians preferring the piano, and later, the piano accordion. One good exampIe
of the marginalisation of the instrument is found in the reminiscence of a pupil of
Kimber who joined the English Folk Dance and Song Association in 1936. At
this time, dancing at its London headquarters was accompanied by "an
orchestra" whose members viewed his performance on concertina "with a
horrified stare" (Loveless 1955: 16).
An examination of the large number of discs issued by Topic Records of
London, the principal publishers of the revival, brings us close to an understanding
of the subsequent integration of the concertina into the modem revival.
Of the 248 long-playing discs issued by Topic between the late 1950s and 1978,
around one quarter (68) featured the concertina (see Topic Catalogue 1978).
Highly influential among the early releases from Topic was a series of "theme"
albums covering various aspects of traditional music and song of the British Isles.
For many listeners, these records, which included both traditional and revival
musicians, were a first introduction to a hidden heritage of music and song.
Typical of this series is The iron muse (Topic Records 12T86), published in
part in the late 1950s and reissued (and expanded) in 1963. Like others in the
series, the disc was compiled, arranged and produced by A. L. Lloyd who, as
Artistic Director of the company from 1957, "used this increasingly influential
position … to select what was suitable from his perspective for club performers in
Britain" (Harker 1985: 236). The content of the record reflected Lloyd's interest
in the extractive and manufacturing industries which had found earlier
expression in his influential book Come all ye bold miners (Lloyd 1952) and
Although the method and ideology of Lloyd's reconstnzction of the industrial
musical heritage is controversial, its influence has been great (see Harker 1985,
Shepard 1986, Palmer 1986, Gammon 1986). Harker (1985) has shown how
Lloyd worked within "the folksong consensus" of Cecil Sharp, Vaughan
Williams and others of the first English Folk Song Revival; it is thus no surprise
to find that, at first, Lloyd was adamant that folk song should be performed unaccompanied
(Lloyd & Vaughan Williams 1959: 9). However, he did later come to
accept instrumental backing in the face of the influence of the dominant forms of
youth music: skiffle, rock and roll and American "folk" (Lloyd 1967: 397).
In reluctantfy accepting the instrumental accompaniment of folk song, Lloyd
was obliged to sanction treatment which was appropriate in ideological as well
as musical terms. In doing so he turned to the concertina. The instrument was
small, unobtrusive and portable. It was versatile, with a potential for many
accompaniment styles including melodic, chordal or drone playing. However,
there were other considerations. The instrument already enjoyed endorsement by
Sharp and Grainger, it was British (i.e. non-American) and, most importantly, it
was an instrument born in and of the industrial revolution and came laden with
working class associations.
The iron muse uses the concertina as song accompaniment on 12 out of 17
tracks. On all but one track it is played by Alf Edwards, a professional musician
who learned concertina as he grew up in a music hall family. Edwards brought
accomplished, confident playing and entered into the spirit and character of each
piece with little sign that he was reading directly from sheet music. His
accompaniments include jaunty chordal playing on Matt McGinn's The
Foreman O'Rourke and a "barrel orgm whine" to Come a' ye tramps and
hawkers. But it is the lively heterophony of the fiddle, concertina and voice on
The spinner's wedding and The Dundee lassie which typifies the accompaniment
style on the record. Edwards subsequently appeared on many other
discs produced by Lloyd.
Lloyd's reconstruction and rehabilitation of industrial song was shared by the
singer Ewan MacColl, with whom he cooperated from the late 1940s onwards.
Both toured England and Scotland in tbe 1950s with Alf Edwards as accompanist
and all three worked together with Peggy Seeger and others between
1957 and 1964 an the compilation of The radio ballads, broadcast documentaries
which used actuality material, music and song. MacColl recalls the
musical preparations for these:
Peggy spent a fortnight making and writing out the musical arrangements and
compiling tapes and scores for the musicians. Some of the scores had whole
sections left in them for the musicians to improvise (which baffled Alf Edwards, the
concertina wizard, for the first three or four radio ballads; he afterwards became
quite proficient at, as he put it, surviving without the dots). (MacColl 1990: 324)
Lloyd and MacColl collaborated on several projects, including a number
which featured their mutual interest in shanties and sea songs, Scottish and
English ballads and industrial song. Edwards' involvement in these and on other
records by MacColl helped spread and consolidate the combination of English
concertina and voice as a sound ideal of the revival. The popular image of the
concertina as an instrument of sea shanty accompaniment was largely due to the
influence of these collaborations.
The iron muse also features a young revival singer, Louis Killen of Newcastle,
accompanying himself on English concertina in a new industrial song Farewell
to the Monty. Killen made other recordings for Topic before emigrating to the
United States, where he has contributed greatly to the more recent revival of
interest in the concertina there. In a brief memoir, he describes how he worked
out his accompaniments in isolation by just feeling his way around the
instrument, preserviag what worked and abandoning what did not sound right
to his ear (Killen 1983).
Other young singers adopted the concertina. These included Peggy Seeger,
Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner who were associated with The Critics Group of
London, an association which tackled aspects of repertory, song content,
presentation and accompaniment in a workshop situation. Bob Blair of
Kirkcaldy (now Glasgow) was a member of the group at that time and recalls that
the musical skill and proselytizing zeal of Peggy Seeger was a major force in
spreading the gospel of concertina playing in the revival:
Peggy's theories were quite clear on the use of the concertina. … Peggy had quite, a
quite strong theory of accompaniment, how songs should be accompanied, certainly
how British songs should be accompanied as distinct to American and the concertina
lends itself to the style of accompaniment quite remarkably. Oh, without a doubt!
Alf [Edwards] was the first guy [but] Alf was restricted. Alf always used music. Alf
would not accompany Ewan or anybody without a bit o' music in front of them and
that certainly didnae fit into Ewan's scheme o' things or the way he saw music
As Peggy learned the concertina he stopped using Alf. … Peggy's accompaniments
… fit in with her theory of how songs should be accompanied: never
interfering with the singer, adding to them, lifting the song occasionally, putting a
wee tag in if necessary but never interfering with the song. (interview, iv.94)
Blair remembers how Seeger held weekly concertina classes for members of
the Critics Group and ran accompaniment "workshops" at folk song seminars
throughout England and Scotland during the late 1960s and early 1970s at
which she demonstrated the potential of the instrument.
The modern folk music revival has also involved a rediscovery of instrumental
music played for listening and the concertina is implicated in this too. Turning
again to the influential The Iron Muse we find Lloyd opening and closing each
side of the record with a short selection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
dance tunes from Scotland and Northumberland which, in title at least, have
associations with the extractive and manufacturing industries (The bonnie pit
laddie, The jolly colliers, The weaver's march etc.). The music was played by an
ad hoc group of musicians under the title The Celebrated Working Man's Band.
Of the "miners' tunes" Lloyd (1963) says:
In the past the colliers' tradition of folk dance was strong, and even today some of
the finest sword dance teams in Europe are to be found among the miners of
Tyneside and Yorkshire. … The melodies here are of the kind that the North Eastern
miners enjoyed in the pubs at Pay Week, or at weddings, or on the dusty green of
the pit villages of a Sunday evening … latterly, in the pit villages the dances were
played by small groups comprising, say, fiddle, concertina (melodeon) or pipe and
cello or drum. Our modest band is formed on the model of such humble ensembles.
Colin Ross, who played fiddle on the record, recalled (pers. comm. iv.92) how
the choice of instrumental music was made by Lloyd who drew much of it on the
strength of appropriate titles from John Peacock's collection for the Northumbrian
Pipes (Peacock 1805), James Oswald's books (Oswald 1746-69) or the
antiquarian collection Northumbrian minstrelsy (Bruce & Stokoe 1882). An
examination of the last mentioned collection shows two of the tunes (Keelman
o'er the land and Sma' coals and little money) printed together, exactly as they
are performed on the record
(Stokoe 1882.2: 21).10
Although from northeast
England, Ross had no experience of these tunes before he heard Alf Edwards
play them from the written page during the recording sessions. These and other
Northumbrian tunes achieved great popularity later in the revival through the
playing of Colin Ross and the concertina virtuoso Alistair Anderson.
My own fieldwork has shown that Lloyd's description of pit-village ensembles
was correct; I have confirmed that such bands did exist in the mining areas
of Scotland and northeast EngIand until well into this century. However, writing
in the 1960s, Lloyd was again looking to an idealised past. Although social
dance was still thriving in the mining areas, its accompaniment had been modernised
through the use of the accordion, drum kits, piano, saxophone and trumpet,
and the repertory reflected a wider canon of popular music. Furthermore, Lloyd's
promotion of the model of the older type of ensemble (i.e. ad hoc, informal,
radical and unrestrained) tended to isolate and privilege just one aspect of what
had been an eclectic "plebian tradition" (Gammon & Gammon l991). In doing
so, he ignored the reality of other modern forms of music already highly
integrated into industrial society (such as choirs, amateur orchestras and brass
bands) which in their inherent organisation, patronage, uniformity and control
carried messages which conflicted with his own ideology. Nevertheless, Lloyd's
formula was highIy influential: a similar approach to repertory, instrumentation
and presentation found early expression in emerging groups such as The High
Level Ranters in Newcastle upon Tyne and The Clutha in
This brief examination of just one aspect of the folk music revival iIlustrates how
susceptible to changes in fashion music can be. In fact, the continuing revival
has already moved on, taking new paths and adopting new emblems. It shows
how even that which we like to regard as "the tradition" (with its stable, permanent,
enduring characteristics) is not exempt from such change and can in fact
be, or is constantly, re-constructed by society to suit its own needs. In the case of
the concertina, revival was undertaken in almost total isolation from the past, at
least as far as the conventional source musician—revival musician relationship
is concerned. Few of the revival concertina players I have encountered learned
by working closely with old-time musicians. Given the gulf between older
players and those of the revival, I must conclude that currently popular ideas in
the field of traditional music such as "a living tradition", "a carrying stream" or
"a river of sound" are misleading and of little use in this
My suggestion that a small number of individuals influenced the revival's
early direction through active promotion rather than passive rediscovery tells
only part of the story and ignores the rôle of the non-élite participants in the
revival. The adoption and use of musical instruments within the revival also
relied upon the compliance of the "rank and file" players and their audiences,
and this is a whole area worthy of detailed study. Here it is only possible to
suggest a few key components of this complex process.
The recovery of old instruments from dusty cupboards was an important
process in itself as musicians (or would-be musicians) entered into the same spirit
of "rescue" or "collecting" which drove the gatherers of songs, texts and tunes.
They were collecting material rather than musical items, for surely these too are
an important parts of the "cultural inventory". Although this is a difficult area,
there would also appear to have been some personal drive to recover and revive
something more than just music and instruments. For many players I would
suggest that there was an attempt to regain or maintain links with a past more
recent and personal than the distant "Golden Age" sought by Sharp and Lloyd.
A major motivation behind my own interest in the concertina was the family
folklore that a great-uncle (one whom I remember fondly but never heard play)
was a concertina player. Similarly, Geordie MacIntyre of Glasgow, a prominent
singer in the early days of the revival there, recalled to me how the memories
(and surviving instruments) of deceased relatives who played the concertina
stimulated a degree of responsibility to maintain the family tradition despite the
fact that he had no direct experience of their music. A younger revival player
living in Edinburgh, Tom Ward, told me that an enduring and influential childhood
memory of an elderly concertha player at a Burns Supper in a Fife village
during the 1950s was a major influence on his later adoption of the instrument.
Another young revival player resident in the same city, Norman Chalmers, credits
his interest in the concertina to early pleasant memories of a family friend who
would allow him to play on the instrument when he was on visits to his home.
In conclusion, there is always an ideologica1 basis for musical revival.
Recognition and promotion of the perceived artistic and cultural value of the
music is only part of the process.
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