Reviews of VT159CD 'An audience with the Shepherds'
When Northumbrian fiddler Willie Taylor died in
2000 it felt like the end of an era. He was the last surviving member of ‘The
Shepherds’, who delighted audiences with their wonderfully rhythmic, tight
playing, born of decades of playing together and an encyclopedic knowledge of
the particular and specific requirements of playing for dances in North
Kathryn Tickell - Folk Music Journal
Compared with her Celtic neighbours, England has relatively few recorded dance
tune musicians who learned their tunes and style before the folk revival.
Recordings of three such musicians playing together are even less frequently
heard. Hearing a trio of English traditional musicians playing functional
dance tunes at this high standard makes this album even more rare and more of
a delight. The three are a fiddler, a mouth-organ player and a Northumbrian
piper – Willie Taylor, Will Atkinson and Joe Hutton. The two Wills are cousins
and Joe is related to them through marriage.
The main part of their repertoire is from their native Northumberland, traditional or composed locally including some of their own tunes. A good sprinkling of Scottish tunes has also been chosen but characteristically, they are played in the manner and style which the musicians find comfortable.
The sixteen tracks are mainly of tight ensemble playing but solos of all three
are also included. Some tracks include their straightforward, no-nonsense
We owe a great debt to Alistair Anderson as the prime advocate for these three musicians. Once he had introduced them to a wider audience in the 1980s, they became
much busier and more widely travelled in their retirements than they might otherwise have been. Great thanks are also due to John Howson for seeking out these private recordings, selecting these gems from them and then releasing them in a manner so well designed, well programmed and informative.
The album serves as a reminder to those us who were privileged to hear them playing together live, of what a privilege it was to be in their company.
Northumbrian shepherds Will Atkinson (mouth organ), Willie Taylor (fiddle) and
Joe Hutton (smalipipes) were three of the finest traditional musicians I have
ever had the good fortune to encounter. Individually, all three had featured
on 1 970s compilations of field recordIngs on Topic. Then in 1983 they
recorded a studio album, Harthope Burn, which I consider easily the most
accessible recording ever made by English traditional performers. By rights,
it should have done for Northumberland what Buena Vista Social Club did for
Cuba. In practice, it probably sold just a few hundred copies, and has not, as
far as I know, ever appeared on CD. Which makes this new disc all the more
The CD is drawn from live recordings made at festivals and concerts in the eighties and nineties; the sound quality is good throughout, and it’s worth emphasising that these are not field recordings. but recordings of concert performances. After a lifetime of playing for dancing, the trio’s playing, of course, is superb. Jigs and reels are played at a lovely steady pace, with that ever-present hint of notes being dotted, and the most incredible swing. This danceability is achieved on melody instruments alone, without the need for accompanists to provide rhythm and chords. Players of any instrument, who want to study the way traditional dance music should be played, should get hold of this record.
In terms of repertoire, there’s some overlap with Harthope Burn, but plenty that’s new. I particularly like the opening set of 6/8 tunes, and the rather cheeky ‘Patchwork Polka’ played by Willie. And it’s a treat, finally, to have a recording of Willie’s own composition, ‘Alistair J. Sim’. there are some lovely slow airs, which highlight in particular Joe’s skills as a piper.If you’ve ever heard the Shepherds, you will want this CD. If you haven’t, then you need this CD. My record of the year so far.
English, Dance & Song
Veteran have gained a well-deserved reputation for
producing CDs of field and concert recordings of traditional singers and
musicians. This latest release featuring three accomplished Northumbrian
musicians in concert is an absolute gem.
Joe Hutton (Northumbrian smallpipes), Will Atkinson (mouthorgan) and Willie Taylor (Fiddle) all worked as shepherds in Northumberland. They had known each other over many years through their work, their music, and indeed through family connections. Will and Willie were first cousins, and Joe was related indirectly through marriage. The comprehensive sleeve notes compiled by John Howson give much more detail about their lives and their music. At this year’s Sidmouth festival they were also the subject of a very interesting talk given by Alastair Anderson. He was often with them when, after their retirement from shepherding, they joined together to play at festivals, clubs and concerts all over the country as ‘The Shepherds’ during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sadly, Joe died in 1995.
Their music is very pleasing to the ear – melodic, tuneful, bouncy, clear and precise phrasing, all guaranteed to get your feet tapping. No wonder they were so popular in playing for dances. The tunes are not all Northumbrian in origin – the opening track features two French Canadian tunes, Danse de Chez Nous and Aunt Mary’s Canadian Jig , and there are popular Scottish tunes, such as Cadham Woods. Nor are the tunes necessarily traditional. Many are of much more recent composition, with some written by Willie Taylor. No matter – the provenance of each tune is clearly given in the sleeve notes. Most tunes, apart from Roxburgh Castle and Morpeth Rant and those mentioned above were unfamiliar to me, but I’m pretty sure I shall be adding to my repertoire from these recordings.