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Village band music,

Beautiful Jo    BEJOCD-28

The Dance at the Phoenix - The Mellstock Band (c) 1999 Beautiful Jo Records


Now here's a rare delight for winter eves. Mellstock, like Christminster, was one of the names in which Thomas Hardy cloaked his native Dorset places. The Mellstock Band, a colourful period ensemble of folk enthusiasts led by the able scholar, fiddler and concertina player Dave Townsend, regularly trundles its paraphernalia -- fiddles, woodwind, melodion -- along the English rural rides, bringing mainly l8th and l9th century fare (though often its roots reach back much further) to set village greens and byways a-singing and -dancing.

So what did Tom Gardiner of Blackwell, near Stratford-on-Avon, sing to Cecil Sharp? What links the poet John Clare to 'Artichokes and Cauliflowers'? Ever heard 'The Foggy Foggy Dew' as a solo for serpent? What did the Hardy family waltz to, and what nasal West Gallery twist did they give to 'While Shepherds Watched' in rural Stinsford?

Hardy's favourite tune, 'Enrico' [listen -- track 10, 0:00-0:52], is a fiddler's ideal; it used to make the four year old Hardy cry, though whether from pain or joy I ken not. Peter Cooper's playing of Norfolk singer Harry Cox's Irish-sounding tune 'The Ploughboy' is likeways enough to jerk a tear; 'The Ruined Maid' is a neat fitting of a Hardy poem to a traditional tune, 'The Bold Grenadier'. A plain, wistful clarinet, later tupped by oboe, produces a lovely wan sound for 'Rosline Castle', a melting traditional melody in a setting by the ever-reliable Jeremiah Ingalls, famed for his hymn-writing; while another master, William Knapp, supplies 'Winterbourne Tune', a tune that surely harks back to Tallis.

Dorsetman Phil Humphries sets aside his sackbut to read William Barnes, and Charle Spicer adds Hardy's touching tale 'The Dance at the Phoenix'. 'Harvest Home' reflects the positive, gleeful side of country life; the ballad-like 'The Sheep Stealer' [listen -- track 19, 1:39-2:33], a beautifully touching modal monody sung with lightly chorded concertina, the down side. The John Clare tune, 'Peggy Band', is profoundly beautiful. 'The Soldier's Joy' is as vital as Hardy recalled in Far From the Madding Crowd; The Girl I Left Behind Me' ('Brighton Camp') is the quickstep by which they marched away en route to battle Boney. It's rough and ready stuff -- if this isn't authentic I doubt if anything is -- but there's a curious polish too.


Copyright © 21 March 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK






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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews