Scan Tester's 'I never played to many posh dances'
By Roger Digby (Roger@hoppits.demon.co.uk), 1991
Photos by Bob Davenport, circa 1967
'I never played to many posh dances' (Topic LPs 2-12T455/6)
'I never played to many posh dances' by Reg Hall (Musical Traditions Supplement No.2)
This review first appeared in 'Musical Traditions No. 9', Autumn 1991 and is reproduced here with the permission of the Editor, Keith Summers. The recordings are no longer available as LPs but are available in cassette form from Veteran Mail Order, 44 Old Street, Haughley, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 3NX. U.K. email: email@example.com. An order form can also be found on the Veteran Website: www.veteran.co.uk)
Reg Hall's desire to make some recordings of Scan Tester commercially available dates from the mid-sixties, when such a record would have followed as an appropriate companion to 'Record No. 1' (English Country Music 12T296)by Reg Hall and Bob Davenport, in 1965. That desire has now been realised in 1990 in the form of a double LP containing 44 tracks of Scan and his musical associates,
recorded between 1957 and 1968, and an illustrated book of 148 pages, which describes Scan's life, and details its social background and the role of music in that broader setting.
It is not - thankfully - relevant to discuss the reasons for te delay of 25 years prior to the release of these recordings, but that passage of time has had inevitable consequences for the final product. One loss is the diminution of the number and the completeness of the reminiscences on which a book of this sort is based, and one gain is the advance in technology which has enabled old home- made recordings to achieve highly satisfactory modern standards in nearly every instance. The years , however, since the death of Scan Tester in 1972 have also seen the revival of interest in English Country Music. Championed by serious, well-informed, and competent enthusiasts,the revival soon lost its original force beneath the weight of bands whose closest links with the English Country Bands often appeared to be the random nature oftheir instrumentation, but throughout all this, the name of Scan Tester was on every tongue, and many who had never heard him play were frustrated by the absence of good available recordings. The recordings released now in 1990 will be greeted by a much wider and more expectant audience than would have received them in, say, 1965. Furthermore the intervening years have seen the decline in the musical credibility and integrity of the 'foIk music revival' together with continuing proof that the real tradition is alive and in good hands. In addition,intelligent and sensitive figures, like John Howson, have ensured that the current bearers of the tradition and the occasions when they come together enjoy a respect and understanding in which noone thinks in terms of 'sources'. In this context, Reg Hall's desire to set Scan Tester in his musical and social context is not as revolutionary as it would have been 20 years ago,although there is still a vast amount to be done in this general area.
Much that is written about 'Folk Music' in England is the work of enthusiastic well-intentioned amateurs, and perhaps because of, but perhaps also contributing to the absence of recognition of these studies at a high acacemic level, much of this writing lacks the methodology and the academic standards which would give it real value. When coupling the music with socio-historical areas, for which there is an existing academic recognition, the pitfalls multiply. Reg Hall has left no stone unturned in ensuring that his study is definitive within its brief, based on exhaustive research, and fully annotated. Much detail (e.g. lists of pub licensees) is tangential to someone whose main interest is in the music but such thoroughness reflects the quality of the research (while increasing the human and personal elements), and details of this sort ensure that the book is useful for the study of local history by those who will possibly never consider listening to the record.
The book is divided into two parts, the first biographical, the second a collection of essays on the nature of the music and its context. Issues such as the origins of the repertoire, the instrumentation, and other contemporary music in the villages are thoroughly discussed and well illustrated, and Appendix A, listing other recorded versions of Scan's tunes is a fascinating adjunct.
The foundation of the research lies in the oral tradition, predominantly in recorded conversations of Scan Tester, and these are quoted at length,many appearing here in print for the first time. Human reminiscence is of course fallible, and many avenues of research are now closed; Scan did sometimes give conflicting versions of events (e.g. the origin of his nickname); younger memories also vary (I've heard Reg Hall say that he and Mervyn Plunkett differed in their memory of Scan's fiddle style), but too often the oral history is all that remains and Scan Tester rightly holds the central place.
The very existence of this book highlights the regrettable absence of much that would be comparable, so the question remains: to what extent was the life and music of Scan Tester typical of much else, or did his quality and enthusiasm create a level of activity which was unusual?
A similar problem attends the record, which must, I think, virtually double the availability of recordings of traditional English players of the Anglo Concertina. Many traditional English musicians have been recorded in recent years, but no presentation has been so thorough nor so coherent across a broad base, which again goes beyond just Scan Tester to indicate the wider musical context. For me, the highlights are the recordings from Shipdam where the expertise of the individuals is still clearly audible within the overall sound, but the solo Tester tracks are equally excellent. Here is the steady sure rhythm, swelling slightly with the bellows after the beat, which is so helpful and invigorating for the dancer, (and here are performances with drive and presence, very unlike the lacklustre recordings previously issued on Folk Tracks).
This is dance music; and popular tunes are all presented for this purpose. The song selections and standards, referred to in print, are not here, but 'Down on the Farm' and 'The Carnival is Over' suggest that these would have been assimilated into the distinctive style with little regard for the 'correct' chords _ the common practice.
The emergence of an extensive selection of Scan Tester's playing presents the opportunity for the inevitable comparison with William Kimber, and an assessment of whether there is an 'English' style of Anglo playing. If Tester does play in imitation of his much older brother Trayton, and Kimber in imitation of his father, as has been said, then both are firmly influenced by pioneer players on a recent instrument. Both also had as their priority the provision of music to dance to. (Interestingly I've heard Reg Hall say that Tester played more slowly in his later life and in these recordings, and I have heard Kenneth Loveless say that Kimber played more quickly in similar circustances), and both maintain excellent rhythm, but in techqique they are very different. Kimber's full chords (so possibly the result of long acquaintance with Sharp*) are completely absent from Tester, who plays largely in octaves with occasional supporting chords at the end of phrases, closer
to some Irish players, - surely an unusual use of the left hand for someone who had begun on the melodeon! Here is an interesting area for future study - and perhaps someone might release some recordings of Fred Kilroy to indicate yet another style and add to the debate, - but for Reg Hall his long project is complete, and it exceeds expectations. If it shows up sad gaps in our knowledge of similar bands and musicians, and reminds us once again of what could have been done if real traditional music had not been swamped and diverted by 'folk' in recent decades, we can also thank providence for the chance meeting that brought together a splendid country musician and a man uniquely equipped to appreciate and perpetuate his true value.
* Postscript. Jan 2000.
I am no longer sure of the validity of this statement. In later conversations with Kenneth Lovelace it became clear to me that Kimber was not a man who would have taken easily to being told what to play, even by Cecil Sharp, and Kimber always maintained that he played the way his father had taught him. Sharp did impose his own musical views on much that he touched but, as someone(I can't remember who!) said to me quite recently, Sharp would probably have been inclined to change some of Kimber's chords into something more 'acceptable'