Andrew Wigglesworth

Why do I play English traditional dance music?

I play dance music that has developed over the last 400 hundred years or so in this country. It is closely related to the traditional dance music in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Sometimes indistinguishable, sometimes in the more “English” versions of this shared tradition.

The core of the music I play is “Country Dance” music; a dance music that has it’s origins somewhere in and before the 15th century. It has gone through its ups and downs over the centuries, from beginnings in working class and peasant communities, to the royal court and a dance craze across Europe. Country Dance declined at the end of the 19th century, but never died out, especially in the local communities that had always been its stronghold.

The music (usually alongside the dances, sometimes not) has travelled the world (especially to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc) and come back again. It has been given to the Irish, Welsh and Scots, mixed up and sent back again, and gifted back again and again too many times to number.

It’s of England, but it is also not a national thing. The music has been and is still recognisably regional. Nationalists have tried to capture it, but folk music is a slippery thing and, thankfully, continually escapes their confines.

So, why do I play English traditional music? Because it is the best traditional music in the world … and so are all the rest.

English folk exists today as act of will. It gets little or no recognition in the media (TV, radio, newspapers, the big well funded corporate websites) and little recognition from government, arts organisations etc.

The fact that it exists today is because of the decisions of hundreds and thousands of ordinary people. Their decision that traditional music has something of worth, that it speaks to them, that it has beauty, use and cultural value.

When looked at upon the stave, English traditional dance music is sometimes dismissed as “simple folk melodies”.

Simple? Doesn’t that make it boring and uninteresting?

Certainly not. English folk dance music has huge variety and interest.

There are single, double and slip jigs, slides, various styles of reels, rants, hornpipes (sailors, dotted and undotted etc), old style “Lancashire” hornpipes, schottishes, polkas, waltzes, marches (both common time and broken time), different styles of step dance and clog dance tunes, different styles of Morris dance music, rapper and long-sword tunes … and that’s just to scratch the surface of the variety.

To play it properly you need to develop an understanding of the idiom and how and why these tunes are played as dance music.

To play English dance music you also have to understand how to play around the tune (it’s never just that “simple folk melody” on the stave), to embed the rhythms and structure of the dance into the way that you play the tune. To give the music life and, since it has a reason to exist, to make people dance.

Having said that. This is music that has survived because it is also great to play and to listen to. A well played tune is a joy to experience, which is why English dance music comes out of the dance hall into the music session, onto the concert stage and numerous recordings.

This is a pursuit of a lifetime, and there are many lifetimes in this music going back over hundreds of years.