Report on Concertina Workshop, Old Palestine Old Time Music and Dulcimer Festival
Palestine Texas, March 31-April 2, 2005
Deep in the East Texas pineywoods and across the US South, old time southern fiddle music is much more than a memory. This music has deep roots that stretch back to Irish, Scottish and English forbears. Cecil Sharp was exposed to and noted down a few of these tunes when he collected English ballads in the southern Appalachian mountains during the First World War. This instrumental music was deeply shaped by the frontier conditions early settlers found; old styles of ornamentation were stripped off and the tunes were made rugged. An off-beat rhythm with occasional blue notes shows the strong effects of African-American culture. A lonesome high pitch A part followed by a lower pitch B part in a few old reels is said to show effects of Indian fiddle players of long ago. Fiddle tune names reflect eighteenth and nineteenth century frontier life: “Bull at the Wagon”; “Stranger on a Mule”; “Old Beech Leaves”; “Cackling Old Hen and a Rooster Too”; “Cabin Creek”. It is distinctively different from more sophisticated and modern bluegrass and country western music, and has a much more rural and “homey” feel.
It was this musical setting that we chose for our first concertina workshop for the southwestern US region. Palestine Texas is a small east Texas railroad town, with fine old pine houses set amongst blooming dogwoods and wisteria vines; Faulkner would have felt at home here. The organizers of the small and very friendly Palestine Old Time Music and Dulcimer Festival kindly welcomed us, not knowing much about concertinas other than hearing them on an occasional Irish CD. For our part, we knew very little about old time string band music from the south, so the lack of information was mutual! Concertinas had been played in this region as early as the 1840’s (the accompanying black and white photo shows a girl in rural Kentucky playing one, ca. 1900…thanks are due to Randy Merris for this photo), but playing them all but completely died out after WWI, except among Polish and Czech communities. Most American anglo and English concertina players, myself included, seem to focus strongly on Irish and English repertoires, and tend to all but ignore the vibrant and very much living tradition of the dance music of the old frontier and/or the rural South (one notable exception of course being those who play contra dance music in the northeast). This festival gave us a chance to experiment and broaden our perspectives on traditional music.
For this first workshop we had a group of twelve players, gathered with help from the membership listing of concertina.net. None of us knew more than one other person among our group before this event, so a fair amount of time was spent getting to know each other. We discovered an amazing diversity of styles amongst some very experienced players, on anglo, English, Crane duet, Jeffries duet, and Hayden duet systems. Players came form a very large three state area of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Most told tales of learning and playing in isolation from other concertina players that are would sound familiar to other concertina players in many parts in the world.
• Although only two or three beginners attended, everyone nonetheless attended a beginner’s workshop amiably hosted by Gary Coover, where we had a lively discussion and tune session showing off the merits of the various systems to the newbies (two of whom were “on the bubble” as to which system to choose).
• Mark Gilston hosted a song accompaniment workshop; he is a professional musician from Austin, playing English concertina and mountain dulcimer among other things. He has a rich chording style on the English system, singing while he plays; he also performed during the general festival concerts.
• A good crop of anglo and English system players concentrated on Irish and English music; these able players included Gary Coover, Roy Janik, Nancy Bessent, Stephen Mills, and Dan Worrall. Rodney Farr is a new anglo player who probably got more help and advice getting started than he bargained for!
• The duets were surprisingly well represented. Kurt Braun entertained us all with his richly accompanied popular and semi-classical tunes on the Crane duet; ICA members will see the results of some work he did with Roger Digby on using fake books in the next ICA newsletter. Jim Bayliss has played Hayden duet for decades, and that experience really shows in his beautiful playing. Stephen Mills just missed having his new Hayden arrive in time for the workshop; he is familiar to Forum readers with his membership map. Finally, Gary Coover demonstrated his considerable expertise on the Jeffries duet; he must be one of only a few active players on this rare system.
• We formed an impromptu concertina band consisting of two English tenor/trebles, an English baritone, an English bass, a Crane duet, and a Hayden duet. Feeling plucky, we took our best tune to the festival performance stage. Certainly this was the first concertina band ever heard in this neck of the woods!
• Harold Herrington, the concertina maker from nearby Mesquite Texas, brought his tuning bench and hosted a repair workshop and tuning demonstration. He also kindly volunteered to help one or two players with considerable concertina restoration issues, following the workshop.
• Bob Tedrow, the concertina maker from Homewood Alabama, was not able to attend but sent his touring anglo concertina instead. His and Harold Herrington’s concertinas gave us some excellent examples of new concertina construction, and we were all impressed by them. It was remarked during the workshop that with Wally Carroll now building fine anglos in Kentucky, the greater southern region is now graced by three builders. Add the fine restoration work by Paul Groff, who lives now in Florida, and there is quite a lot of concertina action going on down here these days.
Back at the main festival, there was plenty of other music to hear, and people to play tunes with. Some superb old time musicians both gave concerts and played in the many open jam sessions that were spread out within the large old school building and surrounding grounds. Many of the most advanced of these were from the southeast as well as Texas, and their names would be very familiar to old time enthusiasts; they played fiddle, frailing-style banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, and mountain dulcimer. The music was infectious, and all were all extremely friendly. Musicians were easily approachable, and eager to share skills and tunes. The workshops and concerts included all age groups; quite a few children were playing this type of music, which is an encouraging sign. The laid back and spontaneous festival atmosphere was a lot like I remember from the Willie Clancy week in west Clare some twenty years ago (I haven’t been lately, and hope it still has that small town feel). There were sessions at various levels of play, many of which went late into the night. This being the Bible belt, there were no pubs and no beer on the premises…but the music hardly seemed to notice. Much of the credit for the overall festival is due to the good work of Jerry Wright, who plays old time music with his family band.
It was unanimously agreed amongst the concertina players that this was a perfect venue for us, and we are already starting to plan our workshops for next year. This year many of us were introduced to the living tradition of old time music, and some of us will start to experiment with playing it during the coming year. There certainly is precedent for this; one concertina person with deep old time music roots is of course Bertram Levy; many readers will recall his use of old time fiddle tunes in his anglo tutor from 1985, and as well his frailing banjo playing from his time in the Hollow Rock String Band in the 1960’s. In addition, our concertina band experiment will continue next year, and we plan to arrange some old time waltzes for it. We hope that the wide diversity of concertina music styles that we enjoyed this year…Irish, English, popular, semi-classical, and old time American…will be something we can maintain in the future.
If you are interested in taking part in this workshop and festival next year, you are very welcome. Please send an email to email@example.com, and you will be placed on the email list as plans are made.
A good site for an overview of "old time" music:
There were hundreds of 78rpm recordings made of this music in the early 1900's; many can be found for free here:
In the review here of the new EFDSS book "Dear Companion", which describes Cecil Sharp's time in the southern Appalachians, there is a link to a fascinating article by Mike Yates describing the world of traditional dance music in the southern mountains:
Edited by Dan Worrall, 06 April 2005 - 10:35 PM.