English Country Dance Music

Editor’s Box from fRoots 241 (July 2003)
My box of air last month concerned evolving traditions in the UK. It drew nary a moth in the mailbag, but I shall still persevere on similar lines this issue before I get back to the stuff that obviously winds you all up more!

More than a quarter of a century ago, about the same time that punk hit the UK, a rootsier and far more underground phenomenon emerged which got tagged the ‘new wave of English country music’. Inspired by traditional musicians like Walter Bulwer, Scan Tester, Jimmy Cooper, Oscar Woods and Bob Cann, curated by enthusiasts like Reg Hall and Rod Stradling, and turned into flesh by outfits like the Old Swan Band and the New Victory Band, it swept away the stodgy old image of regimented, schoolroom folk dancing. People discovered that there was something inspiring about English-rooted dance music when they’d never been particularly moved by its Celtic relatives. In its robust, earthy drive and flexible dynamics it somehow joined up the dots with musics from other places and times which excited the same bits of the body and soul.

Its flowering coincided with the roots explosion of the early ’80s, when ears were being opened to all sorts of possibilities out there in the wide world. It spread like crazy, mutated, and made big dances the wildest bits of festivals and the social calendar. It remained staunchly underground, but all over the country you heard of local bands working every weekend of the year playing riotously popular dances for the likes of PTAs and private social events.

In the late ’80s, we compiled an album called Tap Roots to trace the story so far, and it was a strong seller. At the time I imagined that it was just a snapshot on a route to somewhere, but in fact it turned out to neatly document a whole phase of evolution. Riverdance soon came along and ears were again seduced by the high speed diddly-diddly. Intensive workshopping pointed the next generation of players with their new go-faster Euro-melodeons at gifted role models from elsewhere. All of that was more technically demanding but just maybe a little bit too muso for hitting the gut. Music for sitting down. Rather more Yes than Clash.

Lately, though, there are some signs that the English model may be due a comeback. The approval given to Eliza Carthy’s Anglicana and the obvious appeal of the instrumental side of John Spiers & Jon Boden’s repertoire are pointers. The boost to the tune pool from John Adams’ Village Music Project has been remarkable — I was amazed when sitting in at some of the English sessions at last year’s Sidmouth Festival that I hardly recognised anything. And the continuing state of the assembled throng at Sidmouth’s Late Night Extras shows that teenage mayhem and polka craziness have lost no appeal!

Elsewhere in Europe, much more experimentation is being done in mixing up traditional and current music in the live arena — whether it’s a scratching DJ in a wedding band or a hip-hop spin on flamenco. It’s no stretch to imagine a fresh ignition for English dance bands going such a route. Why not a new generation of English dance bands, with a missionary zeal for the old styles and players and an ear for the future? Ready to do what was done in the ’80s when great tunes like Speed The Plough, The Sloe and The Fiery Clockface spread across the land as foundations for explorations into the musical ‘out-there’. Discovering the primeval thrill of roaring out music for the hopping hordes for four hours at a stretch.

If you’re a young English country dance band immersed in the roots but looking forward, let’s be hearing from you.

Ian Anderson


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