Alistair Anderson's talk 'History of Northumbrian Music - a lecture illustrated with music' went ahead as planned at 7:30pm at the United Reformed Church in Cheviot Street on 8 December.
The 52 attendees (including 23 visitors) who had been able to brave the sub-zero temperatures and snow drifts were treated to a fascinating and comprehensive talk on the history of Northumberland's traditional music and heard some bravura illustrative performances by
Alistair on the English Concertina and the Northumbrian Pipes. Alistair’s enthusiasm for folk music is unbounded. He is a devotee of the English Concertina and the Northumberland Pipes and has written beautiful haunting music which he performs with a variety of groups and
bands. He set up Folkworks in 1986 working with Northern Arts and was joined by Ros Rigby in 1988, establishing Folkworks as an independent charity that went on to run a huge number of professional tours and education projects. The Summer Schools were great fun, offering workshops for different instruments and for singing and dancing and ending in a big concert. Later Alistair, together with Newcastle University, personally designed and developed the first four year degree course in traditional music in the country.
Alistair made it clear that he was going to concentrate on instrumental folk music and started by telling us about the five generations of Cloughs who were coal miners in the South of the county and all played the pipes. These were the old pipes without keys that would just play one octave. They worked 10 hour shifts, five days a week and an extra half shift on Saturday but were still able to find the time and creativity to make up tunes with intricate variations. He played us a recording of Tom Clough (1881-1964) performing ‘The Keel Row’ that was made in 1929 which had a set of complex variations played with accuracy at breakneck speed. However, in the mainstream of Northumberland folk music, the dominant instrument has always been the fiddle, and the fiddle players have left us their tune books for the dances which go back to the 1690’s. Some of these were in rather strange time signatures such as 3/2 and syncopation was popular as in ‘The Lads of Alnwick’. These books are full of jigs, reels and hornpipes. He explained how the music, the musicians and the dance are linked together and to show this he played the concertina while demonstrating the rant step, making us all want to get up and have a go. Alistair went on to bring to life some of the names on the pages of the Northumberland Piper’s Tune Books such as Jimmy Allen, who it seems was quite a rogue and made his living as he could. Jimmy attracted crowds at fairs with his fiddle playing and got friends to go around their backs picking pockets. He is also said to have fought on both sides in the Napoleonic Wars and to have joined up for the King’s shilling in one town, deserted, then joined up again in another town. Alistair spoke with great affection of Billy Pigg who had been one of his key influences when he first started to play, and, of the three shepherds, Joe Hutton, Will Atkinson and Will Taylor, who played the pipes, mouth organ and fiddle. He ended by playing a beautiful tune he had written in tribute to them called 'Empty Spaces' which evoked the landscape where they were shepherds and also the empty spaces left in the world of Northumbrian music when they died.
Stewart McCormick gave the vote of thanks at the end of Alistair's talk. Stewart recalled how, when he was teaching at Berwick High School, Alistair had contacted him to find if he was willing to co-operate with Folkworks and start up a Ceilidh Band in the school. Classically trained Stewart had been cautious at first but as the project proceeded successfully, he began supporting it enthusiastically. Stewart explained that his conversion was completed when Alistair left a "spare" English Concertina with him over the summer holidays "just in case it was needed".
After dabbling with it a few times he was hooked on the instrument and Alistair had gained another advocate for traditional Northumbrian music.