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A review of "Absolutely Classic. The Music of William Kimber"

By Roger Digby
December 2000

Absolutely Classic. The Music of William Kimber. EFDSS CD 03 (

First things first: William Kimber was a superb dance musician. His music is crisp, precise, controlled, dignified, unmistakable, and unerringly rhythmic. His meeting with Cecil Sharp, the centenary of which this CD celebrates, had a fundamental effect on the development of and attitudes towards what the twentieth century knows as 'folk music'. If you are unaware of this and reasonably distrust such sweeping statements get this CD; hear the music and learn the history from Kimber's own voice and from the extensive documentation. If you know it already, having the two vinyl albums and a basic knowledge of events following the scene at Sandfield Cottage on Boxing Day 1899, then you are forced, as so often recently, to decide whether the better reproduction and convenience of a CD, together with the inevitable 'previously unissued' teaser tracks, make it worth the expense of replacing the old vinyl. An easy question when it's the Drifters' Greatest Hits at 2.99 but harder with a full price product. These facts may help: Four takes from the HMV 78s, rereleased on 'The Art of William Kimber' 12T249, are not here but the tunes are here from other sessions. Much of 'William Kimber' EFDSS LP1001 is here and the absences are descriptions of the Mummers and some country dance tunes, giving the CD a definite Morris bias. Six tracks have also been previously released on Folktrax 083. Other tracks come from private recordings made by Christopher Chaundy, (son of Theo who celebrated the sixty year anniversary of 1899 with a scholarly piece in the 1959 EFDSS Journal). From these recordings comes a magnificent Laudunum Bunches recorded with the dancers in 1957. There is also a recording of the current Headington Quarry Morris made earlier this year, and a track from John Kirkpatrick which is joyous, highly entertaining, and essentially absurd.

The CD also offers some features of the new technology if you have an internet browser. A transcript of Trunkles appears in the booklet and promises three more on the CD; I could only find one. Also over 40 photographs with captions and an interactive painting. I doubt I am alone in preferring this sort of thing in a portable, page-turning, printed format, but the availability of archive film is a very good use of the CD potential. Only one clip has sound; silent film of the Morris reminds me of the old radio variety shows in the fifties when a commentator described the juggler! So much is lost and, even after I downloaded the latest upgrades, reproduction was still jerky.

This CD comes from the EFDSS of which it is usually said that you love it or hate it. Not so; many of us love it and hate it. We love it for what it stands for and despair at what it so often is. Nevertheless, the Library is a national treasure and the difficulty of gaining access to the splendid sound archive has long been a serious bone of contention. This CD is one of a number of indications that attitudes are changing and this doubtless owes a lot to Malcolm Taylor, the society's excellent and imaginative librarian. Of course 'collecting' ossifies while the tradition goes on developing and this is a reality with which the EFDSS has a lot of problems. It is therefore really interesting and provocative that Kimber appears not to have changed with the years; indeed in the disagreements over dance style which Derek Schofield reports in his booklet Kimber was adamant that he and Sharp were 'right' and developments were not acceptable. His much quoted tenet, from his father and passed on to all, was 'These are the notes you play and you don't play any others.' He applied this to himself with equal rigour - surely unusual in a traditional performer.

The other basic difficulty that the EFDSS has always had is the fact that it is a solidly middle class organisation while it champions a tradition of music, dance and song that is working class in origin. Many traditional performers have been treated insensitively by the EFDSS over the years; but Sharp seems always to have shown genuine regard for Kimber's talents and their relationship was a happy one, though I agree with Schofield that Kimber might have welcomed the royalties from Grainger that Sharp turned down!

So... is this the definitive statement on how to play for the Morris? No; though it is for the Headington Quarry Morris. Kimber's clipped, brisk playing is ideal for the quick, short stepping of this tradition, but I am hard pressed to think of another village tradition that it would suit. The dancers and musician in those traditional sides which dance in just one style have a chicken-and-egg interdependence: does the musician follow the dance or the dancers follow the musician? Modern Morris sides which draw from many traditions are too often satisfied with a generic all purpose music which is no more than a bland accompaniment to the dance - a bit of background music. Kimber lead, energised and lifted his men; the film clips show how keenly he watched as he played. This is the vital role of the Morris musician. Kimber is special and not just for historical reasons. Reg Hall, in his beautiful 'Voice of the People' anthology, includes some Kimber and in his accompanying essay writes, 'The EFDS held Bill in special esteem, partly because of his association with Sharp and his roots and authority as a morris dancer and musician, but partly because they knew of so few others. He was thus seen, quite mistakenly but equally understandably, as the standard by which every aspect of the morris should be judged.' The absence of other recordings may distress us but so much the more must we cherish what there is and thank all the agents, from 1899 to 1999, who have made them available for us.

P.S. I have made no mention of the virtues of the Anglo as an instrument for the Morris!! Restraint? No. Listen to this music. Words can add nothing.

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