‘Play the notes you like’: Lewes Saturday’s lessons for a tune session

Lewes Favourites Dwyle Flunking band
The late Andy Warburton (with banjo) and session regulars playing for dwyle flunking in Lewes

About 25 years ago, Andy Warburton (banjo) Bryan Creer (English concertina, fiddle) and I (English concertina) were enjoying the many lively English tunes sessions in our home range round Lewes, East Sussex, but were finding it difficult to pick up tunes by ear when they were played at full speed as part of a set.

The tunes as printed in various collections weren’t necessarily the versions we were hearing locally. This gave us a healthy lesson that the dots are a useful guide but should never be seen as fixed in a living tradition that is constantly mutating.

Bryan was already running a monthly session called Concertinas Anonymous – he still is – for timid concertina players to get together somewhere they could hear themselves.

Andy turned up with his banjo one night in the hope of picking up some tunes. We spotted that it was a banjo right away, of course, but immediately afterwards both Bryan and I wrote to him – it was just before email became general – offering to help with finding tunes if he wanted to set up a general practice session for any instrument. We wanted to keep the existing session for concertinas only.

We hadn’t conferred, but our letters were almost identical and Andy never really believed he hadn’t been the victim of a conspiracy. The main difference in the letters was that I’d also made inquiries about a pub room that would be available free and provisionally booked it once a month for the rest of that year.

Choosing the tunes

We thought we’d put together the dots for a couple of dozen tunes that we were hearing frequently and invite people to come along, by word of mouth and by leaving home-produced flyers at folk clubs and music shops. People came, including competent players wanting to nail down particular tunes or get to grips with a new instrument in a nursery setting.

None of us was an expert player or a teacher, so from the start this was a self-help group. We would all sit round the table and take it in turns to choose a tune – not necessarily one we had the dots for – noodle though it on our own a few times, and then play it over and over again slowly together.

The very first tune we chose was The Cotillion, which had very recently appeared in local sessions from the manuscript of the Bosham Band (1800) and has now spread all over the country. We were just getting to grips with music software (we used NoteWorthy Composer), which was a huge help. We could type in a tune from a printed source or by ear, listen to it and edit it, after consultation between the three of us, to get it as close as possible to what we were hearing in the wild.

A couple of dozen tunes turned out to be a wild underestimate. We kept hearing more, tracking them down and pinning an edited version to the page. To begin with, Andy produced copies to hand out at the practice sessions. People were encouraged to make more if they had access to cheap or free copying. Andy memorably described this as “furtive reproduction”.
Email was coming in now, and we were able to circulate incoming tunes among us more quickly to agree on the local version.

Bursting into print

The bundles of printed tunes got more and more cumbersome and we were courting ruptures by carting them about. Demand was still growing.

Andy had long wanted to try his hand at desktop publishing, and was also a good photographer. Between us we put together 180 tunes, with photos illustrating the habitats (pubs) where they might be found and some anecdotes about the music and the people who played it.

We also included a list of sets in which many of the tunes were often played, not to cement them together but to make it easier to recognise which tune was likely to follow another in the wild.

The result was The Lewes Favourites. After a first home-assembled version we had it professionally printed and sold it through Lewes Saturday Folk Club’s website. Bryan then had the bright idea of putting all the tunes on the same website in midi for ear players, pdfs and NoteWorthy Composer, for downloading.

The first book was very popular and sold out. It got good reviews and inspired Barry Callaghan to do the same thing on a national scale: the result was the splendid Hardcore English, published by the EFDSS.

Then we offered English practice sessions to Chippenham Folk Festival, where Bryan and I were already running part-playing sessions for concertinas. We thought there might be a bit of interest. Within 10 minutes of starting, the House Full notice was up and I was rushing for a photocopier to get extra copies of the tunes. Those sessions have remained a popular feature at Chippenham and we’ve taken them to other festivals as well.

Lewes Favourites Volume 2

We had almost finished work on Volume 2 of the Lewes Favourites when Andy was struck by an aggressive brain tumour. All the documents were on his computer and no-one else had editing powers. Alas, the tumour progressed so rapidly that, with the help of Andy’s daughter Ruth, it was barely possible to rescue the book in pdf form.

Lewes Saturday Folk Club published this, with a caveat that there are small errors in it, but it remains useful. It includes 23 tunes from the great Sussex concertina player Scan Tester, transcribed by Andy from the playing of Will Duke, and a selection from the Australian fiddler Charlie Batchelor.

Here are some of the lessons we learned from setting up the practice sessions:

• You don’t need to be a stellar musician to run practice sessions unless you intend to teach. Everybody learns together. You need to be able to organise and get publicity round: this doesn’t have to cost money, or no more than you might spend on a few pints of beer.

• Practising with other people is fun and valuable. You can drop in and out of the tune as you recognise bits and then mug them as they come round again. Falling off the tune and clambering back on again is a useful skill.

• It’s good to practice shouting “Change!” and “Out” while playing, as trying to speak or even grunt can make you lose the tune.

• You will never hurt a tune by playing it very slowly, but you can knock all the music out of it by taking it too fast. You have to adapt to the speed of the group.

• Taking time to noodle through a tune before attempting to play it together helps you to concentrate on what you’re playing, because you have to shut out what you’re hearing from the others in the room.

• The dots are a useful aid to memory, but not definitive. Nothing you play is objectively wrong unless it clashes with what the majority are playing. Play the notes you like and let the other ones take a running jump.

Lewes Favourites sessions, organised by Bryan Creer and Valmai Goodyear, will meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month once lockdown lifts. For details, plus downloads of the tunebooks, visit lewessaturdayfolkclub.org/LAFC/Lewesfav.html

This article appeared in Folk London 307, June-July 2020