At last. A journey home with no pressing work for the rest of the day and a seat on the train. Time to get into the discussion on the English way of playing the Anglo.
I have nothing to add to the paragraphs in my article here on English Country Music which contains a section specifically dedicated to the Anglo, so I am going for the other part of the thread - song accompaniment. I’m also leaving aside the whole issue of Peter Bellamy. Free Reed has asked me to write a piece on that very subject for their forthcoming reissue of The Transports (one CD of the original; one of re-recordings) due out in 2004 so I intend to keep my powder dry.
It can be reasonably argued that there is no difference in philosophy whatever the instrument that is being used and that the only real distinction is between accompanying yourself and accompanying someone else. Anglo players will immediately spot one exception to this: the simple physical challenge of not breathing with the bellows. Even if you’ve never tried to sing and play Anglo simultaneously you’ve probably noticed that your chest sometimes feels encased in concrete as your upper body tries to provide a rigid foundation for the arms which control the totally essential bellows work. (Remember that on the Anglo a mistake with the bellows produces a wrong note!) It is also common to find that your breathing as you play is very, very shallow. To sing with any control under these circumstances is impossible and I think it’s a bit like swimming: if you can’t get the hang of it after the first half-dozen attempts then you may eventually keep afloat, but you’re probably never going to be much good at it.
If you can get past this - and I suppose it’s time that I said I don’t play to my own singing, (not in public, anyway) - then the next hurdle is whether you can split your mind in half and sing one tune while playing a counter melody. Again, if you can’t, then the solution is the conventional Anglo approach of tune on the right and chords on the left, or omit the tune altogether and just chord it. With practice you’ll be able to utilise the basic chords in both directions if you stay in the home keys and you’ll also be able to change direction when it suits the song. Of course, if your ambition is to play Gershwin it’s not quite as easy as this!
Give serious thought and practice to the key that is one flat down (i.e. F on a C/G). The F chord is strong in both directions as of course is the C. The B flat is good on the draw but this depends a bit on your layout. You’ll also have the tune on the right hand all the way down to the C. F is, of course,the relative major for D minor which is the key that falls most easily onto the home row. This key allows a very smooth approach and I know that I should use it more. Inevitably 30 + buttons is a great help, but 30 is enough.
Try breaking the chords up. As a former guitar player I would thumb the bottom two strings and pick the other four with two or three fingers. This transfers easily onto the left hand of the Anglo: little finger basing the chord on the far button and moving up to the top row for the subdominant while the other three fingers chose from the notes that fall easily under them.
Another guitar technique that can transfer to Anglo is the use of bass runs - independent patterns that underlay the chord changes.
Of course, all this is general playing technique and not only for use in accompaniment. It is also a basic approach for playing tunes. I think it provides a sound base on which to develop a personal style.
Accompanying another singer obviously involves agreeing a basic starting point that suits what you are hoping to achieve, but again I think there are largely two ways of proceeding. I have been accompanying Bob Davenport for nearly thirty years, originally as part of his partnership with Flowers and Frolics (four songs from him on the reunion CD “Reformed Characters”) and twenty years on my own. He is a superb singer and much, much more subtle than the casual listener might immediately realise. With him there is never any danger of the accompaniment becoming too prominent, but this is an important consideration which must always be at the front of your playing. The song is first, then the singer, then the accompaniment.
The two ways of proceeding are, in my view, these.
If the song is strongly rhythmic then play it dead straight . If you know Bob Davenport’s repertoire from any of his many associations with bands, (The Rakes, The Marsden Rattlers, Flowers, Webbs Wonders to name but a few) you’ll recognise this approach. It has parallels with New Orleans jazz bands: the band lays it down absolutely solidly and the trumpet or the clarinet is then free to express itself against and within that background. The singer is also able to rest for a verse at any point as the band or solo musician automatically goes into an instrumental verse.
The second approach is to let the voice go ahead and trust yourself to follow. This is the way Bob and I approach the quieter songs like Sally Gardens or September Song. It is the way to accompany a singer without imposing any restraints on how they choose to sing the song on any given occasion. I sometimes think of this as being like two friends going on a bike ride. You might be very closely side by side at some points and further apart at others, but you’re going the same route at the same time and you arrive at the same place. The more you travel the route you recognise the twists and turns where it is best to be close together and the parts where you merely have to be in sight of each other. Understanding, practise, and eventually, after thirty years, telepathy! I think it is a serious problem if the accompaniment restricts the singer. S/he must be fully in control, however eccentric or vagarious!
What of the traditional approach? As I have said elsewhere, there is no evidence. The accompanied singer is a rarity in itself in the British Isles though there are some wonderful examples; who can listen to Margaret Barry and her banjo or Davie Stewart and his melodeon without being chilled to their boots? There is no evidence known to me of a traditional Anglo accompanying a traditional singer. I long to be proved wrong!! Those of us ( ? all of us?) who are not traditional musicians in the accepted sense may be seen as the next best thing if the genuine tradition weakens and if it eventually fades away. In that case we have a heavy responsibility and we must learn the traditional integrity as well as the musical styles. A while ago I heard an Anglo-playing singer in a folk club. He sang well, he played well. The song was traditional; the accompaniment was millions of notes all over the place. It sounded like a lost part of a Brandenburgh Concerto. The result was dreadful. A song had been sacrificed to the singers inflated ego. His priorities were ‘Me first, my flashy playing next, the song ---well it’s only there to give me an excuse to show off’. I think I will rail against this attitude until the day I die. I remember how pleased I was many years ago when I struck up a hornpipe in a Suffolk pub and after a few bars the great Font Whatling started to step dance. I thought to myself that I must be playing this correctly if Font wants to step to it. (I later heard from John Howson a wonderful saying of Font’s. He was in a session where a well known Anglo player was playing. Font said to John, ‘The next time he turns up where I am I’m not going to be there!’
My station is approaching. I think what I’m really saying yet again is:
Keep your ears open; keep your mind open. Learn to play as well as you can.... but never stop listening.