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Dance Tunes in Britain and Ireland: Where Did “Traditional” Begin? (Celia Pendlebury Thesis Review)

August 23, 2015

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.

The Five Positions of DancingLet 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:
Peacock Follows the Hen tune notation. From Pendlebury, pg 7.

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.

Grown Ladies Taught to Dance

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.

A country dance in a long hall. Engraving by William Hogarth.

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.

The Dancing Master, John Playford. 1st Ed. 1651

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.)

Princess Ann's Chacone / Hornpipe Dedication (M. Pemberton, 1719)

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.)

 Princess Ann's Chacone / Hornpipe step pattern (M. Pemberton, 1719)

(The fantastic dance pattern is for teaching the above printed Princess Ann hornpipe.)

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!)

“Kit fiddle” (from “pocket fiddle”) used by dance-masters as they gave lessons.

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.)

Fashionable Country Dances for the Year 1799 (London / Boston)

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.)

Art of Dancing (

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 Village Dance, from The Country Marriage, Engraving by Abraham Bosse, France, 1633.

The Village Dance, from The Country Marriage, Engraving by Abraham Bosse, France, 1633.

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.

The dancing master / Le maitre à danser. After Christophe Huet, 1730-1760 (circa)

Portrait of the Author (of this blog here), practicing for the upcoming ball.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2015 1:14 pm

    Thanks for this, it’s very interesting. I’ve downloaded the dissertation, and scan read it – it’ll take a while to digest it properly, but it seems pretty good.

    My interest is in the social dances of the early 19th Century, I’ve written about the Country Dancing industry c.1815 here: (it explores a copyright action from 1818 involving a Country Dance) . I think I agree with the conclusions of the thesis, though I might quibble about some of the contents, and much of it is beyond my area of expertise. It’s an excellent review of material, but one thing that’s missing is a recognition that technology changed over time; publishing became more affordable, and the volume and quality of material therefore changed over time. By the late 18th century many/most of London’s principle music shops were publishing Country Dance collections, many of relatively low quality. So I’m reluctant to treat a collection from the start of the 18th Century in the same way as one from the end… the intended audience might have been quite different.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughtful review. And thanks too to Celia Pendlebury for such a wonderful dissertation. I’ll enjoy rereading it properly. If you’re interested in reading about the transmission and dissemination of Country Dances in the early 19th Century, my article above explores some of those issues.


  2. September 11, 2015 5:52 am

    Thanks Paul,

    I think yours are just the kind of comments Pendlebury was hoping to elicit with her study.

    I’m very interested in the influence of technology on music styles and traditions. The electric guitar didn’t take over the world because people liked the colours. The accordion didn’t get mass produced until they had mass-production (and sheet-metal and tiny screws I think).

    The availablilty of printing technology (who can afford it, how far does it reach) to spread printed dance tunes seems critical. If they started with elite dancing masters, those producers would have had access to print early on. Then the dances would become more widely available as printing spread. That might fit the thesis here I think.

    I’m going to read your work for sure. Thanks for writing!


  3. Celia permalink
    September 22, 2015 12:29 am

    And thanks both for your comments! I take your comments on board, Paul, and will research this with interest.
    My best,
    Celia Pendlebury

  4. November 28, 2018 3:48 pm

    I was innocently looking for Playford tunes to arrange for guitar and lute… and accidentally found Celia’s thesis.

    Further googling led me here. A good clarification, and great pictures, Bruce

    Celia is a disturbing writer!!! I will no longer think in quite the same way, but it makes sense.

    • November 28, 2018 8:23 pm

      Hi Geoffrey,

      I really hope to hear more responses to Pendlebury’s work. I understand she’s working towards publication, but that takes a long time. (Don’t I know it.) Still, great to hear folks are being challenged by what she’s proposing. “Disturbing” may lead to richer understanding. I like the interpretation that regular people can make music valuable and “their own” even if they swiped it out from under the wealthy. It’s sort of a Robin Hood thesis for folk tradition.

  5. Matt permalink
    December 3, 2018 5:17 am

    Hello Bruce

    Thank you for the excellent review, it’s very interesting and sparked off loads of questions in my mind – which I’m going to ask now. I have got to admit two things – I haven’t read the thesis yet, which I will, and secondly I don’t know what I’m talking about.


    Baroque music has gigues, bourees, etc. – i.e. folk dance forms. Which came first and which influenced which? I expect there is research on this. Do the processes at work in seventeenth and early eighteenth century music shed any light on this?

    Am I right in thinking that Scottish, Irish and English songs don’t really sound like Scottish, Irish and English folk dance tunes? If so, could that be a sign of a separate origin? If not, is that a sign of a similar origin or of one set of music influencing the other?

    Am I right in thinking that Scottish, Irish and English folk dance tunes basically sound quite “modern”? If so, is that because they are basically modern?

    Did the non-aristocratic adopters of tunes adapt them / change them? It sounds as though there are many tunes that can be traced to aristocratic sources, but are there also many that are not? If so, does that tell us anything about the music that came before the dance masters, does it show a two-way process of interaction, etc.?

    Can we identify melody elements that were not part of the aristocratic style but are found in local folk dance styles?

    Not all tunes are the same in Scotland, Ireland and England. Many distinctively Scottish tunes we know to have been written by someone in relatively recent times. Do we know where the distinctively Irish tunes that are not found in other repertoires and not in the aristocratic style came from?

    What about style? Can we tell if the style of popular and aristocratic performances was similar or different to what ordinary people did with the material?

    The Wyper brothers recorded a lot of military marches. Did their customers in the West of Scotland 100 years ago really like military marches?

    In trad music circles in these countries, a “tune” is a “tune” and a “song” is a “song”, and even a song played on instruments is a “tune”, and if you get this wrong you will be reprimanded (possibly as a defence against too much influence from pop music). In Italy I think the word “brano” can do for both (I know there are also other words for “song” e.g. “canzone”). In Romania you sing an instrument rather than playing it. In many traditions songs have been dominant over instrumental music, not least because few people could afford instruments. Is there any chance the strictness of the tune/song distinction came from the dancing masters?

    In Southern Italy there are many tunes without names (as far as I can see, most of the old folk dance tunes (as opposed to songs) don’t have names). Some are linked with particular places rather than names. Many traditional waltzes/polkas/mazurkas are nineteenth-century structures filled with traditional material. Many performances consist of a lot of short tunes or tune fragments strung together. In other words, the approach to tunes is not the same as in the 3 countries that this post is about. Is the Scottish/Irish/English approach to tunes shared in other countries? If so were they also exposed to the equivalent of the dancing masters? Did equivalent processes of interaction between aristocratic dancing and the ordinary people operate in other countries?

    Can we draw any parallels to the way European music was adapted/adopted/developed/improved/taken as an influence/taken as raw material/stripped for parts in Africa and the Caribbean? Or in the development of jazz?

    Thanks again for this review, and to Celia Pendlebury for doing such interesting research, and for all the work you do in publicising good stuff.



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