BackLive Music

Whenever I produced a new book of dances, people would ask “Is there music with it?” and it was no use me saying “Yes, it's printed with the dance instructions”.  What they meant was recorded  music, and without it some would say there was no point in buying the book, since their club only used recorded music.

In America things are very different.  Almost always there is live music at a session of English dancing — typically piano, or piano and fiddle.  Why is this?  It's not good enough to say that everyone in the States earns a vast salary and they can therefore afford live music; admission charges to dances aren't any higher than they are in England.  I think it's largely a question of attitude; the basic assumption over there is “Of course we have live music at our weekly or fortnightly dance evening”, whereas the attitude in England tends to be “We couldn't possibly afford a band” or “There just aren't any musicians in our area”.  These are examples of self-fulfilling prophecies; if you don't believe there are any suitable musicians around, you won't bother to look for them, therefore you won't find them.  The country is full of amateur and semi-professional musicians of all styles and standards.  And many of them might be interested in playing for Folk Dancing if they were asked, encouraged and appreciated.  To some musicians who already play traditional or Playford-style music it's a revelation that people actually dance to this, and they will probably feel great satisfaction in providing the music for dancers.  Gene Murrow, a first-rate caller and musician from New York State, says that Early Music organisations are a great place to find potential players for English Country Dance.  Of course, playing for dancing is quite different from a concert or a jam session; the musicians will need to learn how to start and finish, how to set (and keep) a reasonable tempo, how to give the “lift” that encourages dancers to get up off the floor rather than pushing them down into it.  But these things can be taught; interested musicians can go to a Folk Camp, Folk Festival or Musicians Band session and pick up a lot of useful information.  Experienced Band musicians are often very willing to come along and pass on advice to new musicians.  The most important thing is that the club is actively encouraging new musicians, giving them pointers on how to improve, and appreciating them at whatever level they have reached.  They could start by playing for just one or two dances per evening, just as you might have a guest spot for an inexperienced caller.

But — you may say — what's wrong with recorded music?  Some recorded music is indeed wonderful — I love the EFDSS Playford recordings by the Orange and Blue (now available on CD) and the first two recordings by Bare Necessities, for instance.  I've produced six recordings of music for my dances, and I'm very proud of them.  But in my opinion, no matter how good a recording is it doesn't compare with live music.  I'd much rather dance to one reasonably good musician (an accordionist for instance) than the best recorded band.  And when I'm calling, the distinction is even more clear-cut; I very seldom work with recorded music, and when I do I usually don't get any satisfaction from it.  And it's such hard work!  With live music I can just say “Indian Queen” or “32-bar American reels” and then concentrate on teaching the dance rather than searching for the correct tape/CD and track.  It gives me the flexibility to change my programme if the level of dancers is different from what I expected, and it means I'm not limited to the recordings I happen to own.  Of course, I'm not advocating throwing fistfuls of new music at musicians and expecting them to sight-read it, and if you're training up new musicians you may need to stick exactly to the programme they've been practicing for weeks, but gradually their repertoire, skill and confidence will increase.

I realise there are callers who are scared off by the thought of communicating with (let alone controlling) a band.  “I know where I am with my records — I know it's going to be the right speed, the right number of A's and B's, and it will go seven times through and then stop without me having to do anything!”  Certainly I sympathise with this, and I dare say if I practiced I'd become better at calling to recorded music — but I still wouldn't enjoy it nearly as much.  I admit I was very lucky; I started my calling career with Kafoozalum and learnt a great deal about calling from their leader Peter Jenkins; working with live music has always seemed perfectly natural to me.  And I don't necessarily want the music to go through the set number of times.  If it's a longways dance which people are obviously enjoying, or a dance where each couple has led the figure and feel they've just got the hang of it, it's so easy to tell the band to keep playing.  I suppose it does thrust extra responsibility on the caller — but isn't a caller supposed  to be responsible?!

If you work at building up a group of regular musicians, I predict that the standard of dancing will improve, that the dancers will become more responsive to the music, that there will be a better atmosphere at your club nights (provided the callers treat the musicians as human beings contributing to everyone's enjoyment rather than a tape recorder to be turned on and off) and that you will get more people turning up to dance when the word gets around that you actually have live music at your club.

This was first published in English Dance and Song Magazine in 1999, and I asked people to write in and let me know if they were rising to the challenge, and tell us all how they were getting on.  I had three letters on the subject, two agreeing with me and one disagreeing.

Barbara and Gavin Martin from Skipton, North Yorkshire, said:

Well done your article on the benefits of live music.  This was a main reason why we gave up Scottish (as practiced in England at any rate) to concentrate on English folk dancing.  Additional benefits to those you mention are:

  1. For teaching, being able to call up 8 or 16 bars music at a time.  An enormous advantage for teaching a group meeting a dance for the first time, though some teachers don't seem to realise this (very annoying too, when the dancers are struggling and the musicians are just sitting there twiddling their thumbs).
  2. Where a longways dance has its own traditional tune and is done a relatively large number of times through, it makes it much more refreshing and less monotonous if the musician is accomplished enough to transpose into a new key after every two or three turns.  Martin Dews and his accomplices are experts at this.
  3. The scope for three-way banter between dancers, caller and musicians.  Ian Jones has a session on the Sunday morning of the Casterton Weekend which has one's ribs aching before we are half-way through.

I can remember talking to musicians after a classical concert who on hearing that we did folk dancing said they'd love to have a go at playing for that.

Jennie Wilcox from Derby said:

Having just read your article about live music versus recorded music, I think it is the right time to extoll the virtues of our musicians in our two Derby clubs.  David, Dave, Caroline and Alan on accordion, Jack with his guitar and Mike with his concertina do us proud.  I don't think there has ever been a time when they were 'stumped'.  We callers who take our turn never worry; whatever dance we say we are going to do, has beautiful music the moment after we have walked the dance through.

We have just mourned the loss of Margot Adams who died a short time ago.  She also was an accomplished accordionist who built up a band or musicians.  I was very fortunate to call for several charity barn dances, some in a huge barn where the platform was a couple of farm carts with 8-10 musicians on it.  No recorded music could have added such atmosphere.

The 'Run of the Mill' Club at Holloway has to rely mostly on records and tapes.  There are the problems of getting the needle at the beginning of the track or the correct part of the tape.  Sometimes it is necessary to change one's plans, to avoid people sitting out.  I always have a selection of dances with the tapes at the ready, to suit various levels of dancers, and this adds to the preparation time.

We always make a point of thanking the band.  Without them our evenings would be so much the poorer.

Now some praise for all the technicians and musicians who make it possible to have dancing when no band is available.  Our car journeys too would be so much duller without lively music bringing back memories of happy dancing evenings.  It also helps familiarise us with new dances at home beforehand.

I agree with all of that, but I also have to agree with an anonymous letter (possibly the only one I have ever received) — the writer would hate to be quoted with enough identification to upset his (or her) club musicians:

I understand and agree with your points in favour of live music, but you are speaking from a privileged (?) position as a top class caller who is employed to call with top class musicians.  There are many more club callers, such as myself, who call only on club nights, and have to make do with such musical talent as the club has (if any).  We cannot turn round to our players and tell them they aren't good enough, though this may be the brutal truth.  Instead I tailor my programme to their ability, which often means omitting certain dances with set tunes (because the band can't play them, or play them so badly there's no pleasure for the dancers) or fall back on those needing 'any 32-bar reel or jig' and let the band choose something they can play.  Consequently it's an absolute joy to do an occasional evening's calling to recorded music — I spend quite a long time choosing appropriate tunes for those dances without their own, and finding the right track in advance so the cassette is ready to play.  It's the only way I can call to the very best musicians, and give our dancers a wider choice of the best dances which I hope gives them an evening of delight.

It's easy to talk about helping musicians to improve: this implies a superior knowledge on the part of the helper, and a possibility of improvement by the musician.  In my club's case, none of the club callers is himself a musician (though that doesn't mean a lack of musical ability).  Our leading musician has been playing for very many years and his ability is actually declining through age and infirmity.  I refuse to feel I must be waiting to fill dead men's shoes!

Yes, of course I sympathise with this point of view.  I agree that I'm not in the situation, and it's easy to say that musicians should be helped to improve.  Some musicians are capable of a lot more than they are giving, and only need a sympathetic teacher to unleash their potential.  Some have got as far as they're going!  And of course the same is true of dancers and callers.