Dance Tunes in Britain and Ireland: Where Did “Traditional” Begin? (Celia Pendlebury Thesis Review)
Forgive me but the subject of this post predates the advent of the accordion and European free-reeds, but the impact on the music is foundational. Basically this long piece stemmed from me trying to write a paragraph in my accordion research. Forgive me also for trawling the net for the illustrations. They are intended to as a pleasant breather for the long text, not as well-considered support for the issues under consideration. Aren’t they fun though?
– That intro is from Bruce, your humble Accordion Upriser.
Let me introduce you to Celia Pendlebury and her (successful, 2015!) master’s thesis which I’m pretty sure challenges much of what people have said and written about the origins of “traditional” instrumental/dance music in the former British Empire for the last one-hundred years. I am writing as an outsider to these traditions and an amateur so maybe this is all common knowlege, but it was new to me. I stumbled on her work while researching Inuit accordionists in the Arctic. Old time “Eskimo music” (as its traditionally called) consists of accordion led jigs, reels and square-dances brought to the North by over-wintering whalers in the 1800s.
In my investigations I assumed that Inuit tunes were influenced by Irish fishermen from Newfoundland – who I’d just been studying down south there – but most sources said they came instead from Scottish sailors. Increasing my confusion though, I kept reading that mostly English and American whalers were in the area with only a minority of Scots. I wanted to find out if jigs and such could have come from English and American whalers rather than from Ireland or Scotland. Seeking answers to this question led me to Pendlebury’s remarkable thesis at the University of Shefield’s website.
Pendlebury’s thesis, Jigs, Reels and Hornpipes, a History of “Traditional” Dance Tunes in Britain and Ireland, is available here: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/8262/
Pendlebury is a Northumbrian small pipes player and began her historical investigations when a teacher said she wasn’t playing a tune (“The Peacock Follows the Hen”) the correct way as it was printed in a book. Pendlebury knew that the tune was played differently by other Northumbrian artists and that there were variants in other areas and even countries, so she naturally began to question how one version could be “correct.” The different versions must have been created through changes at some point in the past, so why are variations from the tradition frowned upon today? Finally she asked how these related tunes got to different areas in the first place without changing even more? This led to deep questions about the origins of the whole dance-tune system. (Pendlebury, Pg 6.)
A century’s worth of folk music orthodoxy rests on the answers to these questions and her conclusions. Pendlebury proposes that Irish, Scottish, and English folk dance music originated from the same upper-class dance tunes in the 1600s and 1700s (think Jane Austin characters in fancy ball dresses) Pendlebury respectfully contradicts most scholarship about “traditional” Irish/UK folk dance music seemingly going back to at least Cecil Sharp.
Pendlebury’s is a long work (300 pages), but the writing is clear and accessible. It almost humbly posits that most of the folk dance tunes claimed by Ireland, Scotland, England, etc are not unique to any one area and that they did not originally develop from folk traditions rooted in the local cultures where they’re played. Instead her finding is that they often spread as written-down notated tunes, and that written notation may have been more important than oral tradition in maintaining the music even after it moved beyond the gentry (which may have happened as late as 1800). That is not the story told in any folk-music book I have read.
The music she is considering includes much of Irish Traditional instrumental music, English Folk dance (including Morris Dancing I believe), Scottish Country dance, and jigs and reels pretty much everywhere. See discussion below on the term, “Country Dance.”
The evidence for this revisioning begins from the fact that the same tunes have been collected and played very similarly over wide distances and national boundaries. Pendlebury concludes that they were likely spread with the help of written texts, not only by oral tradition. She argues that if they had only been spread orally, then there would probably have been much greater change in these simple wordless tunes after hundreds of years. She provides examples of exactly this kind of change due to improvisation and idiosyncratic playing not corrected by written standardization. Recall that even her original question stemmed from a traditional teacher demanding she play the “proper” notes printed in a tune-book. She knew there were other versions, but the “correct” one was in a book, not part of an oral tradition. She comments that some traditions, particularly Irish trad, involve much more flexible improvisation but that this would be expected to lead to even greater change without some written sources at some point.
After debating oral/written tradition in theory, Pendlebury documents dozens and dozens of historical written tune texts that have existed throughout the time when this music spread to all the areas where the tunes became popular. These texts present a very reasonable explanation for the relatively rapid and uniform diffusion of similar tunes across large areas and even oceans. Oral traditionalists need to consider these texts and provide alternative-models for diffusion in order to discount them. Of course oral traditions by definition are not written down, so it is a bit unfair to expect them to provide extensive documentation, but lack of evidence is a poor defence. Some reports should exist to support the presence of the music outside of the elite ballrooms if it was in fact there in the two hundred years prior to the 1800s.
If the tunes were spread in writing this naturally leads to the question of who wrote them down and who were they originally for? Pendlebury’s second major proposal is that the written tunes were originally intended for an elite audience. The innovative system of short, interchangeable, repeatable tunes supported the equivalent of a rather long-lived dance fad – if you will – amongst the gentry, which later trickled down to the lower classes. In the opening Abstract for her work Pendlebury states, “The earliest known publication of English country dances, Playford’s Dancing Master in 1651, was not, as is generally thought, a collection of village customs collected from the field, but an “aide memoire” for professional dancing masters.” This origin was misinterpreted and reversed by “antiquarian” folk music collectors like Cecil Sharp one hundred and fifty years later.
Her argument is that folklorists in the late 1800s and 1900 (and on to today) discovered and documented the dances in use amongst the lower and working classes. When they then uncovered older written records of the same dance tunes they assumed that earlier collectors had gathered them from folk sources as well. Without evidence of an earlier folk tradition, they assumed it was there and did not to consider that upper-class dancers for whom these early tune-books were produced, might have been the original participants in what later became a folk tradition.
If we are to assign credit, according to Pendlebury’s argument, the real creators of the tradition, and the original imaginations behind many of the tunes, were elite dancing masters. These professionals travelled from region to region leading dances for the wealthy and the new middle-classes of England, Scotland, Ireland and beyond. (There were elite dancing masters in France, Germany, Italy as well.) They were responsible for the musical entertainment at events and were expected to know the most popular tunes and to produce new ones for special occasions as required by their patrons. Many traditional tune names can thus be traced to aristocratic inspirations: to foreign dignitaries and diplomatic issues or to birthdays and such for elite family members. It simply makes more sense that the many examples of this sort are reminders of upper-class ballroom commemorations rather than the product of folk-musicians who happened to name a tune “HRH The Princess Charlotte’s Favourite,” or “The Prince of Brunswick” (after a German aristocrat). (Pendlebury, pg 83.)
Pendlebury notes: “The vast majority of the country dances…had names that epitomised the privileged and wealthy gentility who were enthusiasts of racing and hunting…. They administered a unified Great Britain and Ireland, repressed the Jacobite Rebellion, experienced mixed fortunes in the various European conflicts, but achieved outstanding successes with the expansion of Britain’s overseas colonies. I conclude that this was the clientele who attended the society balls for which the country dances were devised. Circumstantial evidence also suggests that society balls were introduced into every significant town in Britain and Ireland…. I suggest this must have been a reason behind why the traditional dance tune genre is now found in all parts of Britain and Ireland.” (Pendlebury, pg 89, and the rest of Section 4.)
In my own research, the connections and overlap between Irish, Scottish and English traditional music has been a question around the travels of the accordion. I continually heard mention of early dancing masters, but got no clear picture of where they came from and how they made a living teaching dances to what would seem to have been rather poor customers. Details were hazy, but dancing Masters were said to have travelled from place to place and taught the dances playing funny little fiddles called “kits. “ Presumably they used the above discussed country-dance books to teach the tunes that became the traditional music we know today.
When encountered later in rural settings they were said to have dressed foppishly and acted posh, as if they considered themselves above most people. This may be explained because they appear to have had a major fall from grace. Around 1800 the upper-classes took up simpler couples-dances like the scandalous waltz and later mazurkas and polkas, and the dancing masters lost their wealthy patrons. With no other prospects – and joined by musicians from the ranks of demobilized bandsmen from the Napoleonic wars (ended 1815) – the masters taught the now déclassé dances to non-elite audiences. The dances became remarkably popular (in all senses of the word) in the territories where once they had been danced in fancy houses. After they had established themselves in these new contexts they were finally “discovered” in the late 1800s by collectors looking for remnants of ancient cultures.
I’m sure I’m simplifying this. Sorry. (Look at this cool violin!)
Pendlebury suggests that part of the mistake antiquarian collectors made stemmed from the titles of tune folios like, “Six New Minuets and Twelve Country Dances for the Year 1788.” The folklorists’ error was the assumption that “country dances” was intended to indicate “folk dances from the countryside,” whereas the original publishers may more accurately have meant something like, “dances from our nation.” So a Scottish country dance was composed for dancing in elite ballrooms in Scotland – in contrast to some imported French or Italian dance. This explanation similarly framed English “country dances” as mildly nationalist entertainment, not celebrations inspired by the life of the peasantry. It seems reasonable that years later when they were only danced by the lower and working classes, this led to confusion on the part of folklorists. (Pendlebury, pg 267.)
Pendlebury’s assertion that the tradition relied significantly on written and printed texts (not oral tradition) conforms with my own research where I kept encountering traditional musicians (beginning in the 1800s) who happily used tune-books and then joyfully took to radios and record players (or even juke boxes, learning by the nickel) and finally personal tape recorders to learn and remember tunes. If Pendlebury is correct, the dance-masters’ original “aide memoire” (“memory aid”) fake-books were passed around and reprinted over several centuries and became the basis for the tunes throughout the British Isles and Ireland and far into the the colonies. If this is true, then learning from books or recordings isn’t an unfortunate deviation from an idealized oral tradition, as some have said, but a part of the tradition from the beginnings. (Not to say that oral tradition cannot be a valid way to pass on music, or even a distinctive part of some branches of this tradition, but it may not have been the only or even the primary way the tradition spread.)
Her proposal is that people with commercial means used the modern technology of the time (print and improved transportation) to spread what amounted to a self-contained (pre-fabricated if you will) system of musical entertainment. The short, repeated and sequenced tunes began as a commercial product supported by the wealthy elite. They were not hewn spontaneously in rural England and simultaneously in Scotland and Ireland and various colonies over the seas. (Pendlebury, pg 10.)
Pendlebury adds details about the influence of tunes that came from English Ballad operas and other popular music of the day and from European sources. She touches on the military’s role in promoting and spreading the tradition, and the differences between the dance masters who created Scotland’s country dances and those of England and Ireland. Her goal is simply to raise the question: if not through these elite texts, how did these same tunes get to be so widespread in so many traditions, when they are supposed to represent homegrown regional styles?
One of the questions I am left with after reading Pendlebury is about what music the lower-classes had before they took up these dances. If much of the dance and tune repertoire came from the elite, I’m very curious to know what rural and working people may have been playing before the dancing-masters’ tradition “trickled-down?” It seems that older traditions like Irish sean nós singing might have filled some of that space, and I’m nowhere near competent to comment on pipes traditions. I have seen descriptions of early “country dances” involving peasants, and of lords inviting their servants to dance with them, but how many of them are romantic accounts constructed years later? We are again limited because only literate classes wrote things down, but I wish there was a way to learn how the lower classes took to these dances, and what they were doing before.
The beginning of Pendlebury’s substantial work was a result of a strict instructor telling her she was playing a piece “wrong.” She has offered her response for thinkers in the tradition to ponder and respond. Did the various folk traditions start with elite masters’ books of tunes? Is there evidence of these dances that predates the dancing masters? Pendlebury presents evidence and conclusions about the various English, Scottish and Irish traditions and how they may be rooted in these common sources. Her hoped-for result is to show how musicians across half the globe have been joyously creative with what could have been a forgotten dance repertoire mentioned only in old Jane Austin novels. It is clearly no discredit at all to discover that there are humbled aristocrats at the foot of the mighty tree of branching traditions that grew above and beyond them. (That was a pretty tall metaphor.)
In closing, it is partially out of self interest that I write this. I very much want to hear more knowledgeable responses than mine to Pendlebury’s thesis. I’m encouraged to hear that she may be considering turning it into a book which might reach a wider audience. For now though I urge anyone interested in the history of dance tunes and the traditions they have sustained to consider how the questions raised here fit with the historical evidence and what new perspectives it offers on these vibrant, living traditions.