Concertina 1903 – 1985
The playing of Edwards as an accomplished session musician on a large number of commercial recordings of folk song in the 1950s and 60s by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, A.L. LLoyd and others, helped cement the image of the English concertina as an instrument of traditional music, including Scottish song.
Stuart Eydmann has explored this in his paper ‘The concertina as an emblem of the folk music revival in the British Isles‘ British Journal of Ethnomusicology Vol. 5 1995 41-49 and in his thesis on the instrument that can be read here.
Alf was the first guy. Alf was restricted. Alf always used music. Alf would not accompany Ewan or anybody without a bit o’ music in front of them and that certainly didnae fit into Ewan’s scheme o’ things or the way he saw music performed.Bob Blair private communication with Stuart Eydmann
Alf’s music inspired many young players to take up the instrument and to explore the folk repertory of the British Isles. on the English concertina.
The following tracks are taken from the LP record Alf Edwards The Art of the Concertina. [Prestige International 13060] released 1964. Recorded City of London Studios. Produced by Kenneth S. Goldstein and Ewan MacColl. Tune names are as given on record. The liner notes, as transcribed by Stephen Chambers, are reproduced below the tracks. We intend to add information on the music and on Alf’s possible sources in due course.
Soldier’s Joy / Blue Bonnets over the Border
Scottish country dances, with Peggy Seeger, banjo.
The Rocky Road / The High Road to Kilkenny / The Galway Jig
Three Irish jigs.
The Shoals of Herrin’
With Ewan MacColl, vocal.
From a radio-ballad about Britain’s herring fishing communities by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger
On Britain’s herring fishing communities this is perhaps the best-remembered and most widely heard of all the BBC radio-ballads. It was broadcast in more than 80 countries, and won the 1960 Prix d’Italia for radio documentary. Several of MacColl’s songs for Singing The Fishing quickly entered the repertoire of a generation of folk singers.
Teviot Bridge / The Stool of Repentence / Lady Nellie Weems
Three Scottish Jigs.
My lodging’s in the cold, cold ground
Go to Berwick, Johnie
Jack a Tar
Miss Wedderburn / The Bridge of Bammor / Earl Gray
Two Scottish reels and a strathspey.
Captain John’s Hornpipe
P.S. Country Dance
Lassie lie near me
A traditional Scottish song, with singer Ewan MacColl, vocal.
Also known as Jacky Latin? Northumbrian.
Cooper’s Hornpipe / Evans’ Hornpipe / Jenkins’ Hornipe
Three Scottish hornpipes.
The Humours of Bandon
Old Jerry Doyle / The Ball at the Hop / The Lady in the Boat / Rosin the Bow
He was born in 1903, a fourth generation-member of a family of itinerant musicians. The family records go back to his maternal-grandfather, a Spanish Jew, who, during the mid-nineteenth century, toured Europe as the leader of a family of musical clowns. Following the tradition of the French ‘Augustes’ they played a variety of musical instruments while performing elaborate mimes and acrobatic feats. Their stage was the circus ring and the popular music hall. His mother who, among other accomplishments, performed dances on the tightrope while accompanying herself on the fiddle, married a musician who had joined the act so as to help out with trombone, piano, great-highland-bagpipe and several other instruments. Alf was their third child, and by the time he arrived, they had deserted the circus for the music-hall and the variety-stage.
“I was born into the act”, says Alf, “and as a kid all I wanted to do was to copy my parents.” Apart from a two-year spell, during the first world war, when the family settled down for a time in Bedford, Alf spent the first twenty years of his life ‘on tour’ with the family; twenty years of of theatrical-boarding houses, rehearsals, early morning calls, railway timetables and the stale daytime smell of theatres. Twenty years of hard practice!
“I was about five years old when I started to learn the concertina. I’d already had a spell on the fiddle, you know … learning the family tricks, playing it on top of your head, behind your back, between your legs … all the tricks that had been in the family for thousands of years … well, four generations anyhow.” He confesses that he never took to the fiddle, maybe it was because his teacher whose methods included corporal chastisement, maybe he thought there were enough fiddlers in the family already. “Actually”, he says, “my mother wanted me to be a ballet-dancer so that I could enhance the family act by dancing on my toes and playing the fiddle at the same time. Fortunately I was a failure as a ballet dancer.” This did not mean, however that that he was exempted from training; the necessity to learn new instruments was always there. “My mother was a hard taskmaster, she never lost the habits of the circus, practice and rehearsal were as important to her as food and drink. She used to give me sixpence to learn a new instrument.”
In 1918 the family act was reformed and they set out on the road again, father, mother, daughter and son (Alf), ‘The Four Toldinos’, “a multi-instrumental act, the finale of which consisted of us all waltzing around and playing fiddles behin each other’s back.” During the next ten years the family toured throughout Gt. Britain and Ireland, working ‘the coal and cotton circuits’, the wool towns, the coastal resorts and the industrial cities like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow. By this time, Alf had added the trombone, ocarina, alto-saxophone, clarinet, piano, great-highland-bagpipe and drums to his repertoire of instruments. “I also did a bit of ‘hoofing’, you know stepdancing. Oh yes, and by this time I was writing out parts for theatre orchestras, you know, simple arrangements.”
In 1926 the family, along with many other people, fell on hard times, or rather on harder times, unemployment was widespread, the ‘talkies’ and canned-music were taking over from the old music-halls, and the outlook for musicians was bleak. During this period Alf and his family were sometimes driven to busking on the beaches at seaside resorts. “I didn’t mind playing but I hated taking the hat round. I always felt that a musician shouldn’t have to beg after working.”
In the early thirties, Alf and his wife, a dancer who had joined the act, abandoned touring and the variety stage and settled in London. In the period which followed, he played in almost every type of orchestral combination, in dance bands playing trombone and alto-sax, in radioorchestras playing concertina, drums and trombone, in film orchestras playing anything that was needed. “I never got around to a string quartet,” he says, somewhat ruefully.
He can still blow a mean trombone but in recent years he has returned more and more to the concertina. “I always come back to it;” he says, “it fascinates me in a way no other instrument has ever done.” It fascinates others too, the young aficionados of the British folkmusic revival who are moved by the simple purity of its voice, and the older generation of professional musicians who say it is “the most versatile instrument of them all”, and others, like the old studio engineer who, after a recent recording session said: “Alf can get more music out of that little squeezebox than most people can get out of an entire bloody orchestra.”