Reviews of VT152CD 'The Barford Angel'


 

(reviewed with VT150CD Heel & Toe)

 

Here are a couple of delightful offerings of the traditional music and song from East Anglia; the first doubly so because it is so unexpected.
 

Sam Steele does not enjoy a wide reputation as a recording collector of traditional song and music, but this album shows that in the years around 1960 in Cambridgeshire and the surrounding area, sometimes in the com­pany of Russell Wortley, he was tapping into a very rich vein. Some of the dance tunes with Walter & Daisy Bulwer and the hammer dulcimer of Billy Cooper have the same feeling as the musicians gathered on the classic English Country Music album and were recorded during the same years. There is also some fine melodeon playing, particularly from Percy Brown's wonderfully swinging approach. Anyone seeking to find out about style and repertoire of English dance music would learn a lot from these recordings. The dance music is all well worth a listen but overall, it is the singing that provides the greatest delights; Hockey Feltwell's Lamkin and Reg Bacon's The Banks Of The Sweet Dundee compare with the best of the much better known English song recordings made on behalf of the BBC during roughly the same years. As part of the excellent 24-page booklet, there is regret expressed about the quality of these recordings, but anyone who is used to listening to field recordings will have no problem with the standard of these sounds and indeed there is much to delight in. One thing that we don't learn is just how extensive the Steele recordings are. If this sample is in any way typical, then they deserve to be widely heard.
 

More East Anglian delights with the hammer dulcimer playing of Billy Bennington. Billy's nimble playing has been heard on other releases over the years, but this selection of recordings from a variety of sources show why he is regarded as a master. His playing has a fine sense of dynamic and syncopated swing that is not always there with East Anglian dulcimer players and he varies the tone by plucking chords by hand as well as hammering. The repertoire is what you might expect, with a selection of tunes for stepping and social dancing interspersed with adapted pop songs and other pieces that sound as though they may have come from militia marching bands. An album made up exclusively of solo dulcimer could have palled after a while so it is good to have the tunes broken up by Billy's delightful Norfolk burr and the stories of some of the humorous happenings during his long, playing years. The Barford Angel? No, not a pub name, nor yet a statue at a pub. It was the sight of Billy himself, cycling with his hammer dulcimer in its case strapped to his back.

fRoots
 

Billy Bennington, 1900-1986, played the hammered dulcimer for most of his life, both with beaters and with his fingernails; with an extensive repertoire of tunes, an elaborate style of playing, and a host of stories, he was welcome at festivals as well as his local pub in Norfolk. This is a reissue with extra tracks and a 12-page booklet.

Folk Kernow

 

We should all be familiar with the excellent recordings of traditional music & song from the Veteran label. This CD is no exception, chronicling hammer dulcimer tunes played by one Billy Bennington of Norfolk. Twenty four tunes, many introduced by Billy in his quaint dialect are a perfect record of music gone by ~ unpretentious, uncomplicated, tuneful and unamplified! Many tune has a short story ; attached that adds to the sense of being in the room with Billy as his dulcimer reverberates a rich sound that defies the logic of strings being struck with only two little sticks. Originally released on vinyl this is not just an archive recording but truly pleasurable to listen to and comes with the usual copious sleeve notes expected from Veteran.

Essex Folk News

 

It was with some trepidation that I approached this CD to review. I know now that the hammered dulcimer is a traditional East Anglian instrument but it hasn't been a choice of mine to listen to. I was put off dulcimer music at a Walt Michael concert some years ago, so more than an hour of dulcimer music was a rather daunting prospect. To help people like me cope Veteran have interspersed the music with some bits and pieces of Billy talking. The tunes were a real eye-opener for me - such an amazing diversity - lots of dance tunes and popular tunes from the early decades of the twentieth century.

 

Veteran has been generously supported by several financial sponsors in this project, which is an important recording of traditional East Anglian music. It was originally released on vinyl in 1987. Eight additional tracks from Topic's English Country Music LP are included on this CD along with Billy's bits of Norfolk dialect. Nice to listen to as background music for anybody. Essential listening for anyone with a passion for the music of this region.

Mardles

 

Once very popular as a folk instrument in East Anglia, the hammered dulcimer is still seen and heard in folk clubs & pub sessions, but has probably lost out amongst buskers & folk musi­cians to the more portable melodeon. This 24-track album from Veteran is particularly welcome as it features tunes and anecdotes from the last of the great Norfolk 'dulcimore' players, Billy Bennington It is also quite rare to find a whole album featuring this as a solo instrument. Having learnt to play as a youngster, the lifetime of experience is evident in the quality of the playing and variety of tunes. There are some folk favourites such as Flowers of Edinburgh and The Sailors' Hornpipe, and a wealth of less familiar polkas, hornpipes, etc. that I'd be quite keen to learn. This CD combines both important archival material with enjoyable music for listening.

What's Afoot

 

East Anglian hammer-dulcimer player Billy was born in 1900 and spent most of his life as a gardener. His prowess on the dulcimer was nurtured from an early age, when his father (who kept the old King's Head pub at Barford) gave Billy his first instrument; subsequent years saw him playing in consort with fellow dulcimer player Billy Cooper and fiddle player Walter Baldwin and touring the Norfolk village pubs on a motorbike combination! And Billy B had earned his nickname of The Barford Angel because he used to carry his dulcimer on his back while cycling and its shape made him appear to have angel's wings!… Billy was "discovered" by the folk scene in the 1970s, and gained quite a following through to his death in 1986. Eight tracks of his superbly nimble playing appeared on Topic's 1973 English Country Music Of East Anglia LP' these all appear on this new Veteran CD, along with others whose recorded provenance is not stated although the booklet notes imply that they were first issued on "the original Barford Angel LP" in the 80s. Billy's playing is characterised by a keen sense of swinging rhythm that's wonderfully infectious (it must have inspired latter-day dulcimer players like Chris Coe), while another unusual and interesting feature of his style is his interpolation of hand-plucked notes and chords in between the hammered ones. You might think a whole album of solo hammered-dulcimer would be tedious, but it proves not to be so, largely due to the variety within Billy's technique and the variety of material he plays – as well as plenty of the expected tunes for dancing, there's "novelty" items (The Chicken Reel), adaptations of military marches (J.P. Sousa's On Parade), popular tunes (Lovely Lucerne, from the dance-band repertoire) and songs (Billy Cooper had provided him with music-hall favourites like Obadiah and When Johnny Comes To Town), and musical showpieces (The Bells Of St. Mary's). And many of the selections are introduced with choice wee snippets of Billy recounting funny things that happened at gigs. This is a delightful and charming release (unless you happen to be allergic to the juicy clang of the hammer-dulcimer, of course!).

Folk Roundabout

****

Another essential collection for any fan of traditional music. Billy Bennington (1900-86) of Barford near Norwich was a popular musician for all of his adult life, playing hammered dulcimer. As this collection proves he was not just talented musician but proved to be an inspiration for many modern dulcimer players around the world after his discovery by the folk world in the 1970s. These 24 tunes (including medleys) show his skills on not just dance tunes (especially polkas, schottisches and hornpipes) but also on 'standards' from the first half of the 1900s and music hall tunes. On a few tracks Billy speaks about his escapades as a musician around Norfolk - adding to the portrait of an important folk musician. Norfolk traditional music is currently enjoying a popular revival - thanks a great deal to the standard set by artistes like Billy.  

Eastern Daily Press

 

Billy Bennington was known as the Barford Angel because he carried his dulcimer on his back and it looked like he had wings. This is the first little story that you will hear when you play this CD and there are many more between the dulcimer tunes. I had heard Billy's music before and had always enjoyed it, but on this recording the humour in his playing and his anecdotes shines through. When I first played this CD, I smiled all the way through. To hear someone playing the music and the instrument that he obviously loves is a delight.

There are some old standards including The Bells of Saint Mary's, The Flowers of Edinburgh, and The Sailor's Hornpipe, and some lovely tunes that are new to me - Dulcie Bell, The Gunner's March, and When Johnny Comes To Town were amongst my favourites.

OK, so the dulcimer isn't always perfectly in tune, but it doesn't matter a damn. It's a complicated instrument to tune by ear. The important thing is the vitality of his playing. This is not a CD solely for the purist, it's fine music well played

If you are a player of English traditional music, go and buy it, you won't be disappointed.

The Folk Mag
 

On this charming and highly-recommended CD, well up to Veteran's usual standards, the indefatigable John Howson has brought together recordings of Norfolk 'dulcimore' player Billy Bennington, known as The Barford Angel. With his instrument on his back, he looked like he had wings. The cd contains all of Benningtons's one album, and his tracks from the Topic album English Country Music From East Anglia.

 

I've a soft spot for the hammered dulcimer - like a piano frame played with tyre levers - so an album played by a great player is most welcome. The attractive and well-illustrated booklet explains how Bennington made his beaters, and how he sometimes plucked one part of a tune with his fingernails. (Check out My Beloved Cornelia for an example of 'the sound of a mandolin accompanied by the dulcimer'. On some tunes he plays with his fingernails before switching to beaters.

 

This is, though, social music to listen (and dance!) to. The repertoire is a mix of dance tunes (polkas, hornpipes, schottisches), popular songs and tunes apparently taken from local brass and military bands. Bennington played dance music with marvellous swing and drive; the stepdance tunes are particularly inviting.

 

He was also an entertaining raconteur, so it is pleasing to see his talk given due credit. His anecdotes give valuable context for social dance in Norfolk, and a real flavour of East Anglian pub life. You may also never look at a marrow quite the same way again...

Folk London

 

Here's a real treat! Billy Bennington (Barford, Norfolk 1900-1986) was a virtuoso hammer dulcimer player in the East Anglian style. His nickname of 'The Barford Angel' stems from his habit of carrying the dulcimer on his back while riding his bike: the angles of the instrument stuck out like angel wings. This CD brings together recordings made by John Howson and Mike Yates (issued in 1987 as a vinyl album of the same name) and those made by Tony Engle for Topic's 'English Country Music from East Anglia'. Together they give us a detailed picture of Billy as a player and as an anecdotal storyteller. The mellow tones and rolling style of East Anglian playing matches the pace of the storytelling and warm Norfolk voice. Both are served well by the careful production and excellent overall clarity of sound.
 

John Howson's sleeve notes with their evocative photographs are up to their usual high standard, giving us good information on the instrument itself, local styles of playing, tune repertoire and social background; but more than that, they paint an affectionate picture of a fine musician who loved to perform, loved his audience and especially loved playing with other musicians.
 

Billy learned to play from Old Cooper, father of Billy Cooper, another hammer dulcimer hero. (The fee was sixpence a time and hard discipline.) Eventually he played with other musicians all over the area, servicing dances, church fetes and other community events. The 'folk scene' found him in the 1970s and as new players, we learned so much from listening to the way he used cane hammers and fingernails to vary the texture of sound, and watching how he syncopated tunes and lifted the dancers' feet from the floor. He was always generous with his music and his help.
 

East Anglia is lucky. Billy Bennington's dulcimer is now being played by twelve-year-old Tom Knight, grandson of Reg Reader, yet another excellent player who worked with Billy. A rare and precious continuum.
 

These are important archive recordings, but the CD is first and foremost a parcel of joyful music which doesn't loose its hold on you until the last chord dies away. (That can take quite a while on a dulcimer). Our thanks to Veteran.

English Dance & Song

 

Billy Bennington (whom I was lucky enough to hear at Sidmouth many years ago), got his nickname The Barford Angel from the spread-wing shape his dulcimer suggested when carried on his back while cycling. From Barford in Norfolk, he took lessons from Billy Cooper’s father, and became one of the key role models for many hammered dulcimer players of the folk revival. Listening to this you can see why. He plays with a real swing arising from subtle syncopation, a keen sense of dynamic variation, and sparkling trills. He also uses his fingernails to pick the strings as an occasional alternative to his usual wool-covered beaters. Amongst an eclectic repertoire of tunes familiar (Redwing, Flowers Of Edinburgh) and unfamiliar (Herbert Sadd’s Schottische) had me reaching immediately for my own instrument, while Chicken Reel is one I’ve heard played by American bluegrass fiddlers. Billy also adds entertaining reminiscences between some of the tracks of his days travelling in a motorbike and sidecar with Billy Cooper and a fiddler to play the local pubs—the tale of the pigsty is a little brutal though! Dulcimer fans will buy this without any prompting from me, but it’s a good listen for anyone who likes English music.

Stirrings

 

Billy was one of Norfolk's great dulcimer players. This was a popular instrument in East Anglia - at one time, there were 25 players of the 'Dulcimore' within ten miles of one small parish near Norwich. Hornpipes were the favourite tunes for stepdances while social dances needed polkas, waltzes and schottisches's. Billy will often play a tune as a schottische and then as a stepdance, to illustrate the difference. Many well known tunes - 'Flowers of Edinburgh', 'Yarmouth Hornpipe', 'Gay Ladies Polka', and Sailors Hornpipe' sit alongside 'On the Green', 'Bells of St. Mary's', 'Obidiah' and 'Pony Trot Polka'. Billy became known as the Barford Angel, due to his carrying the dulcimer on his back whilst cycling. The shape of the dulcimer made it look as though he had angel wings. The gods must have known - his playing is angelic. A fine exponent of a fine instrument.

Folk Around Kent

 

This recent release from Veteran was launched at a Dulcimer Day in July 2005 at the Roots of Norfolk Rural Life museum near Dereham. Almost exactly eighteen years ago at a Dulcimer Day in July 1 987 held at the museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, the original LP record with the same title was released. Veteran now brings together on this CD 24 tracks played by Billy Bennington which were originally available on two LP records - 8 tracks from Country Music ¡n East Angila, Topic 1 2TS
(1 973), and 1 6 tracks from Billy Bennington The Barford Angel: 70 years of Dulcimer playing East Anglian Life EAL1 (1 987). In addition to all the music, this new CD also includes a generous helping of Billy’s reminiscences, all recounted ¡n his rapid Norfolk dialect. If you should need an interpreter, parts of this dialogue are transcribed in the excellent and comprehensive 12 page CD booklet.

Back in April 1983 I met Billy at Farnham Folk Day and talked with him prior to a workshop grandly titled “The Ultimate Hammered Dulcimer Workshop”. This featured two traditional players from East Anglia - Billy himself arid Reg Reader, plus English revival players Sue Harris and Chris Coe, and also Jim Couza the American player who had recently made his home in England. Billy, who was 83 at the time, told me that he’d been playing his dulcimore as he called ¡t, for just over 70 years and that he’d spent about 40 years tuning it! I’d had mine for just 18 months! Three and a half years later, Billy died, and although he heard the tracks recorded for the Topic Album, sadly he never heard the LP devoted entirely to his playing.

Billy played by striking the wires with cane beaters covered with Wool, and by Plucking with his fingernails He also created a unique Sound by holding a hammer ¡n his right hand to play accompaniments whilst Plucking the melody with the fingernails of his left hand. (Piano players reading this review might think that I’ve mixed up my lefts and rights, but on the dulcimer the bass notes are on the right hand side of the instrument whilst the trebles are on the left.) Billy worked as a gardener, so he protected his fingernails with the fingers cut off old rubber gloves.

In this wonderfuI collection you can hear his mastery of the instrument, absorb the Sound of the East Anglian style, and enjoy his humorous tales of rural experiences long ago.

Lancashire Wakes

 

With Chris Coe’s long residence in the region. Few Tykes’ have any excuse for not knowing what some thing akin to enthusiastic manual aerobics on a hammered dulcimer looks and sounds like (Some may also have fond memories of Jim Couza’s hammered version of the William Tell Oveture — once seen, never forgotten)

The star of this CD, Billy Bennington. who died in 1986, is widely credited with being an inspiration to hammered dulcimer players both in this country and the USA and this CD demonstrates why. For your money you get 24 tracks covering a wide range of tunes, predominantly for dancing — polkas. schottisches, hornpipes and stepping — but also covering marches and popular tunes of the day and which are interspersed with Billy s (invariably humorous stories and introductions. Mixng music with speech on recordings can often mar repeated listening but I didn’t notice that here because the extracts are short, to the point, fit in well with the tunes and above all give a real flavour of the background, warm sense of humour and personality that underlie Billy’s approach to life and to music. Billy’s pronounced but soft Norfolk accent should also appeal to those who have wondered whether it is only the St Just-near-Trunch dialect that is unique!

The tunes are too many to list but many will be familiar. e.g. Yarmouth Hornpipe, Redwing, Flowers of Edinburgh. Schottische, On Parade, The Bells of St Mary’s and The Chicken Reel. Others are probably much less so and dance musicians might like to check out Herbert Sadd’s Schottische and Gay Ladies Polka.

Irrespective of Billy’s reputation, I doubt that any listener will not immediately enjoy and appreciate his mastery of the degree of ‘attack’ required to get the right combination of sustain, volume and rhythmic emphasis to get the best out of this instrument, His ability to pluck chords with one hand while using a beater with the other also sounds impressive in more than one sense — the equivalent of simultaneous head patting and belly circumnavigation?

(Hammered dulcimer enthusiasts should note that this CD brings together tracks previously released on vinyl and cassette by Topic and Veteran. As habitual with both companies — and where would folk music have been without them and their respective collectors —) the CD includes full notes on the performer, the music and technical matters.

Tykes News

 

Billy Bennington (1900-1986) was the last great ‘dulcimore’ player of Norfolk. He used to cycle to pubs and other engagements with his instrument strapped on his back and the way that the corners stuck out over his shoulders like wings gave rise to his nickname ‘The Barford Angel’.

The hammered dulcimer was once very popular in East Anglia as a folk instrument - both for solo and dance band work and while it is still seen in folk clubs, pub sessions and a few bands it has largely been displaced by the more convenient melodeon.

The 24 tracks on this CD come mostly from the LP of the same name issued in 1986 plus eight from a Topic recording of 1973 (English Music in East Anglia). Like most traditional musicians Billy got his tunes from a variety of sources - Billy Cooper (son of ‘Old Cooper’ who was his (dulcimer teacher), other musicians with whom he worked, records of Music Hall singers, popular dance hand tunes of the 20s and also marches and other popular tunes from the radio. Not only do we have a great selection of very entertaining tunes played using several techniques including plucking the strings with his fingernails, but Billy also tells stories in his rich Norfolk dialect which give valuable background information on social dunce and pub life in East Anglia.

I remember seeing Billy play when he was in his early 80s — he could still give a lovely performance then and this CD captures the magic of such an event. More recently we saw his saw his dulcimer still in use being played by young Tom Knight with the Old Hat concert Party. Tom is the grandson of Reg Reader - another fine dulcimer player who worked with Billy.

Once again Veteran have produced a most informative booklet to accompany their excellent CD.

Puddlestone

 


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