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Concertinas At Sea: A History Of A Nautical Icon


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All,

 

At long last, my latest little history is available online: The Concertina at Sea: A History of a Nautical Icon. It rests in a new personal website ( www.angloconcertina.org ) where I have also loaded several of my previous articles (including a large part of my 2005 book The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber, which I will announce in another thread).

 

I became interested in the sailor’s concertina when it suffered the pronouncements by many, both here and in print and on the airwaves elsewhere, that it was merely a figment of Hollywood’s imagination…an urban myth. Some of these pronouncements were by fairly prominent figures in the concertina and traditional music world, like Stuart Frank of the Kendall Institute (New Bedford Whaling Museum), and John Kirkpatrick in a BBC interview in May of last year (both reported previously in this Forum). From mostly digital sources (archives, books, newspapers etc) I’ve gathered scores of first hand accounts of its playing on all sorts of ships from the 1850s to the 1920s….tall ships, whaling ships, ships of the Royal and American Navies, and passenger ships of all sorts, both sailing and steam. I've also included some nice photos, both of sailors playing them and of the ships on which they were played. There can no longer be any doubt that the concertina was quite a popular accessory of Jack Tar’s ditty bag. There are enough sightings to do a bit of statistical analysis as well, the results of which may offer a few surprises on the type of music played then vs how it is typically played by re-enactors today.

 

There are also some fascinating yarns, pieced together from old accounts. Of the blossoming of an Inuit (Eskimo) tradition of concertina (and, yes, accordion) playing in villages across the North American Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, caused by the visits of the concertina-playing crews of whaling ships. That tradition, along with ‘round’ dances of British/American origin, is still strong there to this day, although it is mostly an accordion-accompanied one these days. While on the subject of the Arctic, who was the first person to get to the North Pole? Peary? No way. Try an African-American concertina-playing ex-ship’s cabin boy of the sailing ship Katie Hinds, who later was an all-round sailor.

 

One other thing to mention is the extent to which concertinas as played at sea figure into both fiction and non-fiction literature of the day. It turns out--and thanks to Google we can check these things these days--there was more written then about the concertina in its nautical setting than in all of its many other guises combined--classical, Irish, street music, morris dancing, whatever. For the most part, these were Anglo-German and Anglo concertinas, although a few English system ones have surfaced, too. And no, they didn’t commonly disintegrate in the damp salt air, at least when taken care of; those on display in several museums in both the UK and US attest to that. I hope you enjoy the tales…please let me know what you think of them.

 

Back to my new website. There is another treat there, for those interested in that sort of thing. I’ve often wanted a shirt or a coffee mug or whatever that related to my hobby….but most of these available today are just modern advertisements. So, I’ve started a little webshop, using the images from out-of-copyright late 19th and early 20th century books to grace t-shirts and the like, with no ads. It is all for charity; the profits all go to my favorite concertina-themed charity, the Salvation Army.

 

The site is new (as are my html skills), so please let me know if your browser has any issues with it (Please note in particular that the Concertinas at Sea article is a 9 MB pdf download...so be patient). Many thanks to Bob Gaskins, who guided me through the website-building maze.

 

All the best,

Dan

Edited by Dan Worrall
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Very good - I have just finished reading it.

 

Well researched and presented. Are you planning on submitting it for publication in a more permanent form?

 

Some points I particularly found interesting:

 

The concertina player being chosen as official shipboard "fiddler" in preference to the violinist!

 

The price of concertinas - from $3 to $7 as quoted. It would be interesting to research prices at different times.

 

Your analysis of the "concertinas as nautical chiche" idea.

 

 

Well done!

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Well done, comprehensive and delightful site. However, you might want to back off the North Pole discovery claim for a concertina player - Henson and Peary's "discovery" of the North Pole has been widely debunked. :rolleyes:

 

I'll give you that it is controversial! Due to cloudy weather, they got there primarily on the dead reckoning skills of trained mariner Henson (the debunkers claim that there was not a true navigator on board). Peary claimed to have taken a sun bearing during a brief opening in the sky while Henson slept. The National Geographic looked at shadow angles on their photos and concluded they were within five miles of the pole...but not everyone believes that either. Certainly Peary and Henson thought they made it....Peary got so angry at Henson for getting there first that he never spoke to him for the rest of that arduous trip.

 

This expedition will always be one that elicits controversy, and many will never believe it, of course, especially the rate of speed claimed with the dog sleds. I do enjoy reading Tom Avery's account in this regard. Avery is a British explorer ( http://www.tomavery.net/gallery_np2005.html ) who set out in 2005 to see if Peary's speeds on the ice were possible, and ended up beating Peary's time. Here's his take on it, and again not everyone agrees with him either:

 

(We) finally reached the top of the world on April 26th 2005, after a gruelling journey of 36 days and 22 hours, beating Peary's time by a couple of hours. ....The admiration and respect which I hold for Robert Peary, Matthew Henson and the four Inuit men who ventured North in 1909, has grown enormously since we set out from Cape Columbia. Having now seen for myself how he travelled across the pack ice, I am more convinced than ever that Peary did indeed discover the North Pole. Driving dogs is the most efficient way to travel up there and the travel speeds that Peary claimed to have achieved seem highly reasonable. Whilst there will always be those who set out to discredit Peary, we believe that our expedition has swung the argument very much in his favour. I hope that we have finally brought an end to the debate and that Peary's name will be restored to where it belongs in the pantheon of the great polar explorers.

 

As for me, I'll go with the opinion of one who as actually done it, with dog sleds, rather than go with the legions of armchair debunkers. But that is just my opinion. One thing is absolutely clear, however. There is absolutely no truth in the rumor that Henson played the Sailor's Hornpipe on his concertina whilst at the pole! :D

 

Thanks, all, for the kind words...

Edited by Dan Worrall
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Well done again, Dan.I look forward to further articles from you.The concertina in Inuit communities sounds a fascinating line of research.There is still a strong Metis fiddling tradition in Canada...wonder if they ever played concertina.

BTW;did you ever come across any of these in your research? Fourth picture down.Great in fog, I would imagine!!

Hohner Echophone

Regards Robin

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Well done again, Dan.I look forward to further articles from you.The concertina in Inuit communities sounds a fascinating line of research.There is still a strong Metis fiddling tradition in Canada...wonder if they ever played concertina.

BTW;did you ever come across any of these in your research? Fourth picture down.Great in fog, I would imagine!!

Hohner Echophone

Regards Robin

Robin,

 

Thanks! Especially for the Hohner picture. It is on the same theme as the postcard Stepen Chambers once posted of French sailors dancing, which I nabbed for my sea article as you know. The sailors in your picture are dancing a little close for my taste, though! I found an actual photo of sailors dancing with each other at sea, this on an American naval vessel before WWII, in the middle of the Pacific. In the very old days, dancing was an aerobic exercise for sailors living in cramped quarters, as I mentioned. Captain Cook ordered his men to dance the hornpipe for this reason, for example.

 

As far as Inuits go, I've put nearly everything in the article that I know. I tried contacting people in some of these villages, but as you can imagine it is difficult as few would know computers. Some do...but their websites didn't have linkable contacts. Probably the best way is to fly up to Nunavut with a camera and a recorder. Interested? BTW, I did find a long article on the Inuit accordion and squaredance tradition, and contacted the author. He hasn't seen concertinas in use there now, but was convinced by my old newspaper articles and of course by the photos. I think any remaining players will be quite old, as most have by now been beguiled by the easier to play melodeon. Also BTW, apparently they not only play tunes taught by the sailors, they also compose dance tunes of their own that follow the meter of Anglo-American-Scottish tunes...it would be fascinating to hear some of that!

 

Best,

Dan

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Dan

 

A fascinating study! And for those of us with an interest in seafaring, it was excellent to see the whole question of concertinas at sea placed in the context of the ships themselves.

 

It also sheds a great deal of light on instrumental song accompaniment, another area of uncertainty and denial. There seems to be a presumption that traditional folk song was always unaccompanied and that instruments were only used for dance music. Perhaps this is a subject for another study?

 

Richard

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Did you look at the Metis tradition,Dan ?

I confess to knowing next to nothing about their fiddling tradition or music except to know it is alive and vibrant still. From time to time players come to Toronto .

I did one web search and the first site to come up was this.

Metis fiddling

 

............................and there is the concertina mentioned after the fiddle.

Robin

 

 

 

 

 

 

mé·tis [mey-tees, -tee]

–noun

Canadian. the offspring of an American Indian and a white person, esp. one of French ancestry.

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Did you look at the Metis tradition,Dan ?

I confess to knowing next to nothing about their fiddling tradition or music except to know it is alive and vibrant still. From time to time players come to Toronto .

I did one web search and the first site to come up was this.

Metis fiddling

 

............................and there is the concertina mentioned after the fiddle.

Robin

 

Robin,

 

Never did; they live inland for the most part, and my target was sailors (the Inuit got my attention because they learned concertina from sailors on whaling vessels). I do know that concertinas go back some time there. In the big Metis rebellion of 1885 (in Canada), the Metis leader Gabriel Dumont's home seems to have been raided; all I know of the details is that they retrieved two fiddles, a concertina, and a book of Shakespeare's plays. I think the Metis would be a great place for a Canadian like you to do some research!

 

Richard,

 

Thanks for the nice words. You are not the first to point out that business about there being a lot of song accompaniment going on when conventional wisdom suggests it should have been absent. I had not seen these references to the 'tina's prior use in song accompaniment as anything exceptional, but Roger Digby pointed out to me that it had been assumed by some folk revivalists in Britain that real folk singers always sang unaccompanied back in the day ...and hence that the idea of nautical singing with concertinas was a product of the 1960s-1970s A L Lloyd recordings with Alf Edwards. Among those with that perception is John Kirkpatrick, as he states in a 2007 interview with BBC, quoted in the article. That may be a mistaken notion about concertinas from the 1970s (and later) revival.....after two generations of virtual disuse of the instrument, not many of the revival players knew very many details about what was going on with this instrument in the 19th century, at least at sea. Assumptions seem to have been made that can now be shown to be erroneous (or perhaps, I guess, you could say these sailors were not 'true' folk singers-- but that is a very slippery slope).

 

It may be of interest in this regard that the Salvation Army was printing anglo tutors in 1888 that show how to accompany hymns with the anglo.

 

Cheers,

Dan

Edited by Dan Worrall
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Richard,

 

Thanks for the nice words. You are not the first to point out that business about there being a lot of song accompaniment going on when conventional wisdom suggests it should have been absent. I had not seen these references to the 'tina's prior use in song accompaniment as anything exceptional, but Roger Digby pointed out to me that it had been assumed by some folk revivalists in Britain that real folk singers always sang unaccompanied back in the day ...and hence that the idea of nautical singing with concertinas was a product of the 1960s-1970s A L Lloyd recordings with Alf Edwards. Among those with that perception is John Kirkpatrick, as he states in a 2007 interview with BBC, quoted in the article. That may be a mistaken notion about concertinas from the 1970s (and later) revival.....after two generations of virtual disuse of the instrument, not many of the revival players knew very many details about what was going on with this instrument in the 19th century, at least at sea. Assumptions seem to have been made that can now be shown to be erroneous (or perhaps, I guess, you could say these sailors were not 'true' folk singers-- but that is a very slippery slope).

 

It may be of interest in this regard that the Salvation Army was printing anglo tutors in 1888 that show how to accompany hymns with the anglo.

 

Cheers,

Dan

 

Dan

 

I'm a bit of a folk song purist myself, and the question of historical accompaniment has been irking me for some time. I raised the subject on Mudcat (http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=94608). It didn't arouse much interest, but the responses are probably fairly typical.

 

I expect the circumstances of English folk song collection are fundamentally responsible for the scepticism about accompaniment, but I dare say that the scepticism is also fuelled by a reaction against the dominance of accompaniment in the folk song revival which, arguably, has more to do with pop influence and an attempt to make folk music more palatable, than it does with the continuation of a tradition.

 

On balance, I would like to see more tolerance of unaccompanied singing (and this is what I do myself), but I have always felt that if instruments were around historically – which they were - then they would have been used.

 

 

Richard

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Richard,

 

One way to think of this is that concertinas were, along with accordions and banjos, the first harbingers of the now global wave of popular music. Free reed instruments, and especially the anglo concertina, were among the first inexpensive mass-produced musical instruments to be marketed globally, and that is why they were such a fad in the late 19th century; they were the combination boom box and electric guitar of their day. Along with banjos, these rode the very first wave of global pop music forms coming out of the US....the minstrel shows, which like later ragtime, jazz, blues, tin pan alley and the like blended European and African musical forms. The instruments and the minstrel shows with which they were associated showed up all over the place....Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa, you name it. While we think of concertinas today as a traditional instrument in 'traditional' music, back then anglo players thought they were being very edgy and groovy playing it...and traditionalists of the era (not just classical music types) hated it at first, for the most part, be it morris folk (see Chandler's book) or Irish (see the Gaelic League denunciations I quote in my Irish article), etc.

 

Thus this seemingly traditional instrument, in the hands of sailors, could be thought of as a pop intrument at the time, so you English 'moss-backs' (on the subject of unaccompanied singing as the 'true' form) have a clear point.....global pop music has adulterated the real stuff, which should be unaccompanied. But like you, I think that even cave men would have played a concertina while they were singing, had they had one. Would have scared off the sabre-toothed cats, perhaps.

 

Cheers,

Dan

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your article is really well done, I like the way you provided so many examples that had been missed in the past verifying the use of the concertina by sailors.

 

When reading it, I could imagine a video documentary, that would be great: maybe you can shop it around as a potential manuscript.

 

Its too bad however that for the most part the observers have no idea what kind of concertina is being played: you do have some examples of the actaul instruments which helps, but a break down of type of concertina would be a nice chart too. maybe there isn't enough data to make such a chart.

 

So, armed with new knowledge I can return to the Celtic festival and if anybody says cocnertinas were'nt used on ships, I can smugly interject that the urban myth of the concertina at sea is actaully that it wasn't there, not that it was.

 

I also feel safer about taking my concertina around the horn.

Edited by Hooves
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When reading it, I could imagine a video documentary, that would be great: maybe you can shop it around as a potential manuscript.

 

Its too bad however that for the most part the observers have no idea what kind of concertina is being played: you do have some examples of the actaul instruments which helps, but a break down of type of concertina would be a nice chart too. maybe there isn't enough data to make such a chart.

 

Glad you liked it.

 

Video. Well, it is a visual report....had to be, since there is no audio! No recordings of old players. Irish, Morris and Australians have much better luck than sailors in this regard.

 

I put in all the information I had on types of concertinas used...see Table 2. It is dominated by anglos, and I suspect that was the case at sea. What really surprised me was that some higher quality anglo instruments made it to sea, even quite early....they weren't all German ones. The Jones anglo that made it to sea in the 1860s is a very well made instrument, and Jones himself spoke about having traded with sailors for years. Just goes to show, we need to watch our assumptions, and keep them separate from facts! The Jeffries anglo examples appear later, in the early 1900s, as did the two English system instruments. By this time, I would assume that either there were lots of used instruments on the market (especially English system, as the bloom was well off the rose on their use by the aristocracy), or sailors were earning more money, or both. No duets yet seen...but I'm keeping an eye out...

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When reading it, I could imagine a video documentary, that would be great: maybe you can shop it around as a potential manuscript.

 

Its too bad however that for the most part the observers have no idea what kind of concertina is being played: you do have some examples of the actaul instruments which helps, but a break down of type of concertina would be a nice chart too. maybe there isn't enough data to make such a chart.

 

Glad you liked it.

 

Video. Well, it is a visual report....had to be, since there is no audio! No recordings of old players. Irish, Morris and Australians have much better luck than sailors in this regard.

 

I put in all the information I had on types of concertinas used...see Table 2. It is dominated by anglos, and I suspect that was the case at sea. What really surprised me was that some higher quality anglo instruments made it to sea, even quite early....they weren't all German ones. The Jones anglo that made it to sea in the 1860s is a very well made instrument, and Jones himself spoke about having traded with sailors for years. Just goes to show, we need to watch our assumptions, and keep them separate from facts! The Jeffries anglo examples appear later, in the early 1900s, as did the two English system instruments. By this time, I would assume that either there were lots of used instruments on the market (especially English system, as the bloom was well off the rose on their use by the aristocracy), or sailors were earning more money, or both. No duets yet seen...but I'm keeping an eye out...

 

 

oops sorry! missed that table, searched 3 times too, oh well thanks for letting me know.

 

Still, I think a narrated documentary, with the photos (which you could pan and zoom), interviews with current players/builders/restorers, and of course a sound track of nautical themed music would be fantastic.

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All,

 

At long last, my latest little history is available online: The Concertina at Sea: A History of a Nautical Icon. It rests in a new personal website ( www.angloconcertina.org ) where I have also loaded several of my previous articles (including a large part of my 2005 book The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber, which I will announce in another thread).

 

I became interested in the sailor’s concertina when it suffered the pronouncements by many, both here and in print and on the airwaves elsewhere, that it was merely a figment of Hollywood’s imagination…an urban myth. Some of these pronouncements were by fairly prominent figures in the concertina and traditional music world, like Stuart Frank of the Kendall Institute (New Bedford Whaling Museum), and John Kirkpatrick in a BBC interview in May of last year (both reported previously in this Forum). From mostly digital sources (archives, books, newspapers etc) I’ve gathered scores of first hand accounts of its playing on all sorts of ships from the 1850s to the 1920s….tall ships, whaling ships, ships of the Royal and American Navies, and passenger ships of all sorts, both sailing and steam. I've also included some nice photos, both of sailors playing them and of the ships on which they were played. There can no longer be any doubt that the concertina was quite a popular accessory of Jack Tar’s ditty bag. There are enough sightings to do a bit of statistical analysis as well, the results of which may offer a few surprises on the type of music played then vs how it is typically played by re-enactors today.

 

There are also some fascinating yarns, pieced together from old accounts. Of the blossoming of an Inuit (Eskimo) tradition of concertina (and, yes, accordion) playing in villages across the North American Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, caused by the visits of the concertina-playing crews of whaling ships. That tradition, along with ‘round’ dances of British/American origin, is still strong there to this day, although it is mostly an accordion-accompanied one these days. While on the subject of the Arctic, who was the first person to get to the North Pole? Peary? No way. Try an African-American concertina-playing ex-ship’s cabin boy of the sailing ship Katie Hinds, who later was an all-round sailor.

 

One other thing to mention is the extent to which concertinas as played at sea figure into both fiction and non-fiction literature of the day. It turns out--and thanks to Google we can check these things these days--there was more written then about the concertina in its nautical setting than in all of its many other guises combined--classical, Irish, street music, morris dancing, whatever. For the most part, these were Anglo-German and Anglo concertinas, although a few English system ones have surfaced, too. And no, they didn’t commonly disintegrate in the damp salt air, at least when taken care of; those on display in several museums in both the UK and US attest to that. I hope you enjoy the tales…please let me know what you think of them.

 

Back to my new website. There is another treat there, for those interested in that sort of thing. I’ve often wanted a shirt or a coffee mug or whatever that related to my hobby….but most of these available today are just modern advertisements. So, I’ve started a little webshop, using the images from out-of-copyright late 19th and early 20th century books to grace t-shirts and the like, with no ads. It is all for charity; the profits all go to my favorite concertina-themed charity, the Salvation Army.

 

The site is new (as are my html skills), so please let me know if your browser has any issues with it (Please note in particular that the Concertinas at Sea article is a 9 MB pdf download...so be patient). Many thanks to Bob Gaskins, who guided me through the website-building maze.

 

All the best,

Dan

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All,

 

To add a bit to the ongoing story of nautical concertinas: I have a modest Lachenal English learners concertina that went into the French nuclear test zone around Mururoa Atoll about 25 years ago on board the protest ship R.Tucker Thompson. The ship sailed from New Zealand with a fairly international crew; the concertina then was owned by an English chap who was crew and musical entertainment . . . Cheers, Jackie D

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What really surprised me was that some higher quality anglo instruments made it to sea, even quite early....they weren't all German ones.

 

I don't think this is so surprising. A sailor arriving in Europe after a voyage to Australia and back would have nearly a year's wages in his pocket.

Allowing for the advances, money spent on the way and on drink in Australia and general rip-offs - say three months. ;)

Although they weren't well paid, this would be a considerable amount of money.

As long as the concertina seller (chandlery) was closer than the bar, it is possibile that someone whose cheap concer blew out on the voyage would buy a good quality one for the next trip.

(Now if he can only get it back aboard intact after the trip to the bar).

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