Brian Peters checks out an exciting new face in English traditional music… Mossy Christian.
The fateful year of 2020 didn’t present many opportunities to discover unfamiliar live acts, but nonetheless one bright new talent did cross my radar. Like many in the folk world I’ve been finding the technological wonders of the Zoom app a flawed but valuable substitute for the kind of music sharing that’s so important to many of us, and the sessions run by Ken Hall and Peta Webb under the banner of London’s Musical Traditions club, involving many top-notch singers from England, Scotland and Ireland, have been amongst the most enjoyable. In its normal pub setting the club always opens with some instrumental music, and for a young musician unknown to many of those present to be invited regularly to kick off the online events represents quite an accolade. Thus did I first come across Mossy Christian’s driving and precise one-row melodeon playing, which proves to be only one of an array of talents, also spanning fiddle, Anglo concertina and singing. The fact that Pete Coe picked Mossy as guest for one of the Ryburn Folk Club’s online concerts towards the end of last year was another testament to his abilities, and an opportunity for me to hear more. It was clearly time to talk.
“It all started when I was three or four years old; my parents took me along to Whitby Folk Week, and I was hooked. I asked to go back every year, and when I was about seven or eight, I went along to a workshop called ‘Longsword for Children’ and first met Sue Coe.” Sue, one of the best and most experienced dancers and teachers around, was immediately impressed: “I saw immediately that Mossy was a skilful and musical dancer, and since then he’s attended every one of my Longsword workshops at Whitby and become my official co-tutor and musician. He’s been a brilliant role model to the younger participants, an excellent support in sharing his increasing knowledge of longsword, and I’ve appreciated every minute of his help. He’s also led his own junior teams and written quite a number of new dances.” Mossy remains very happy to attend Sue’s Whitby workshop: “It’s been a pleasure over the past few years to come back and teach in the place where it all started - passing it on to the next generation, as it was passed down to me.”
Learning from Mossy that he was interested in forming a longsword team in his home of Lincoln, Sue recommended him to contact Liam Robinson, a wonderful box player, dance caller and longsword enthusiast in the area, and a strong believer in a ‘do it yourself’ ethos. It was a felicitous piece of advice. Liam, after welcoming Mossy into his sword team and encouraging him to start up his own, became a vital musical mentor: “As a musician, singer and dancer, I owe it all to Liam,” says Mossy with some feeling. “I played in his dance band for some time, and it was he who taught me Anglo concertina; it’s one of my regrets that by the time I took up one-row melodeon, Liam wasn’t around to teach me that too. So, for that I turned to old vinyl records for inspiration, and Tufty Swift became a particular favourite.” Aha, there’s another good name to drop… Tufty Swift, the Derbyshire melodeon player who died way too early, father of Benammi Swift and a fine role model for any aspiring box player. No wonder Mossy is so impressive on the one-row.
It’s playing fiddle, though, that’s probably the most notable of his present skills, blending superb pace and rhythm with lyricism or crunch, as the situation demands: “He’s got a lovely touch,” enthuses Pete Coe. Mossy expands: “I’ve always been drawn to the fiddle. At first I was self-taught, picking up what I could from musicians in local sessions, then I began to develop my own style, listening critically to fiddlers I liked - and those I didn’t! Later on, Stewart Hardy became a key mentor, and helped me refine my technical skills. Although I play a range of material, in a range of styles, it’s all English. One of the brilliant things about the fiddle is, it’s so versatile: in English repertoire there’s everything from the showy and virtuosic material of somebody like James Hill in the north, to the no-nonsense tunes of Stephen Baldwin further south. I think rhythm is really important, and that the best dance musicians are those who dance themselves. When people listen to my music, I want them to get up and dance - or at least get their feet tapping!”
Mossy’s playing is already so accomplished that he will surely become a significant figure in the continuing development of a distinctly English fiddle style, as discussed recently in this very magazine, and in the heated social media exchanges that followed Chris Haigh’s article. He’s in no doubt that the sound of traditional musicians is key to his style: “I think by far the most significant resources available to us are the field recordings. By listening to them we can hear, firsthand, the music of the past, the music of the people: labourers, blacksmiths, bargees, fishermen and farmers, recorded by enthusiasts for posterity. Of course, a professionally recorded, professional musician is going to be more palatable to listen to, but these field recordings are all we have of the English fiddlers, and that’s why they should be cherished, valued, and investigated to reveal the gems they contain. Just look at the photographs taken by Peter Kennedy of Billy Pennock, posing proudly with his fiddle in the front room of a cottage in his home village of Goathland: the homemade tailpiece is attached upside-down, meaning one end will be in constant contact with the body of the fiddle and possibly even dig in to the player’s neck; the tailon that once attached the tailpiece to the saddle at the bottom of the fiddle has been lost, and replaced with a piece of string; the strings are in the ‘wrong’ position on the bridge, leaving an enormous gap between the D and A strings; the fiddle is clasped in the big, muscular, work-worn hands of a 66 year old blacksmith. Clearly, he’s not going to sound like a professional. But what I love is his beaming smile, as he shares the music he loves with a new audience.”
An analysis like that demonstrates a striking depth of musical knowledge and curiosity, and goes to show how an understanding of stylistic detail can inform a young musician’s performance. Mossy is in his element now. “You can find clues to the English style from recordings like Billy Pennock’s. A key element is drive and groove, but without speed. Lots of players these days race ahead with English tunes, and play them like Scottish or Irish reels, but as a rule I like to hold back and let the tunes breathe – that’s when they really start to come alive. So, it’s the music of Pennock, Stephen Baldwin, Jinky Wells, and others that’s been most influential on me. When I play, I don’t try to recreate the sound they made when they were recorded, but I try to imagine what their tunes might have sounded like, had they been in their prime, playing instruments set up to produce the best sound. I’d also say that the manuscript tune books left behind by many fiddlers in the early 19th century give me a lot of information on old playing styles – and, for the period before the invention of the wax cylinder, that’s all we have to go on! Put those elements together with my own pinch of stylistic licence and that’s the basis of my sound.”
For all the instrumental excellence, Mossy sees himself as a singer as much as a musician, and well over half the tracks on his newly-released solo album Come Nobles And Heroes (a title drawn from the opening line of the broadside ballad, Lincoln Races) are songs. Here, again, he’s not afraid to draw from source recordings that show a commendable dedication to his locality, a trait also reflected in the tunes he’s chosen. Lincolnshire singers such as the renowned Joseph Taylor and the less celebrated Grimsby ‘Catapult Crackshot’ Jack Holden feature in the credits, as well as performers from greater East Anglia, like Bob Roberts and Harry Cox. His singing style, though, owes more to the folk revival, with Mike Waterson and Peter Bellamy coming at the top of his list of influences; it’s clearly no coincidence that there are two Bellamy compositions amongst the album’s otherwise traditional selection, while The Thresher’s Daughter – which he sings unaccompanied – owes more to Bellamy than Cox, and there’s a smidgeon of Mr. B. about his concertina playing too. “I like listening to people who put the songs first, and aren’t overly concerned with themselves, but with the music they’re sharing. Yes, admittedly some do have their idiosyncrasies as performers - and none more so than Bellamy - but it’s their motivations that matter to me. I think the job of performers is often to act as a bridge from the material to the audience. If they add a few stylistic quirks in the process - then so be it!”
There are some interesting arrangement ideas on the album, notably on William Taylor, which is underpinned by a rhythmic, droning and harmonically dissonant fiddle scrub, and punctuated with bursts of an undefined reel on the melodeon. His own overdubs apart, Mossy has enlisted the aid of quality musicians like Gina Le Faux, Johnny Adams, Jon Loomes and Tim Walker, former percussionist of Liam Robinson’s dance band, and created on a couple of cuts an ensemble sound that recalls the influential 1970s outfit, The New Victory Band - which included both Johnny Adams and Pete Coe. Is the lure of forming a live band tempting, or does Mossy see himself more as a solo performer? “I enjoy performing solo and with groups, for listening or for dancing. Obviously, 2020 has been a strange year, and I think the move to online performance proved quite a change for everyone, but I’m enjoying it; there are downsides, but it also has some wonderful benefits. The next project may be a dance band, once we’re all allowed out again, but quite how or when that will manifest itself, I can’t be sure…”
Mossy is already involved in a collaboration that provides another example of his preference for earthy, honest music: a duo with fiddler Jim Eldon - performer, collector, cult figure and house musician on the pleasure boats at Bridlington, with a style that’s attractively rough and idiosyncratic. “Jim plays off the arm,” Mossy explains, “resting the fiddle in the crook of the arm, rather than tucked under the chin, which gives our fiddles a very different sound, raucous and scratchy, but a whole lot of fun! We made an album together called Fiddle Duets in 2019.” The duo album includes a number of tunes collected by Jim Eldon in his native Yorkshire, including such exotic titles as Battle Of The Boiling Water, plus a smattering of Eldon compositions, a piece that Mossy found in a Lincolnshire manuscript and “a sneaky song – but only one!” All are furnished with harmony lines – known in the trade as ‘seconds’ – written by the duo. Jim also has a connection with the final track on Mossy’s solo album, a rollicking song about the celebrated Victorian music hall comic and clog dancer Dan Leno, composed by collier Jim Elwood and collected from his son by Lynette Eldon. “As far as I’m aware this is the first time the song has been recorded,” Mossy declares, “and it was great to be able to include the dancing of a current champion clog dancer, Ruth Bibby.”
Which brings us full circle, and back to dancing. Another important element in Mossy’s musical life, again with a Whitby connection, is his involvement with the Plough Stots sword dancers from Goathland, a village a little way inland from the seaside town, where an old tradition going back at least to the early 1800s was revived from dormancy in 1922 partly as a result of interest from folklorist Frank Kidson. “I was invited by Jim Eldon to play for a workshop they were running, and by the end of the week I seemed to have joined the team! On the last Sunday before Plough Monday, we go to St Mary’s Church in the village to perform a dance and to have the plough and swords blessed by the vicar, after which Jim and I sing The Merry Ploughboy, a seasonal visiting song he collected in Whitby. The following Saturday, the team assembles to dance round every house in the village; it’s a mammoth task, but we can usually raise sufficient sets of dancers to achieve it, then it all ends with a final massed dance and a black-tie dinner for members of the team and their guests. Back in the 1800s the team would process all the way to Whitby, dancing at every house along the way – it took them a week!” Sadly, Plough Monday in 2021 fell in the midst of the peak of the pandemic and lockdown, so there was no dancing this year, and Mossy has no arguments: “I think it was the right, responsible and the only thing to do. Far better to have a year off and come back all the stronger next year.”
Mossy is also a member of Flamborough Traditional Longsword Dancers, who dance out on Boxing Day every year, and were photographed by Cecil Sharp in 1912. “The one change from Sharp’s day,” he says, “is that both the Flamborough and Goathland teams are now mixed gender: a move I think is a wonderful development, and essential to their survival. It’s always a joy to play for traditional teams, especially in their home villages.”
Mossy Christian is certainly an all-rounder, as Pete Coe’s awed description of him dancing the tricky ‘Bacca Pipes Jig’, whilst accompanying himself on the concertina, amply testifies. Neither is he a slouch on the business side of things, with his own label, One Row Records, releasing not only his own music, but set to take over the series of valuable and hard-to-find source recordings put out under the Musical Traditions imprint, following the retirement of founder Rod Stradling. Building a career in music, however, is no easy task for even the most talented performer, particularly at this time of uncertainty. “I think it would be naïve to expect to make a living solely from performing, but I’ve several strings to my metaphorical bow, one of which is working with children in primary schools, teaching Longsword dancing, songs and music. I think ‘folk music’, however we choose to define it, will always be relevant. It recounts the experiences of our ancestors, both remarkable and routine and, if we turn our backs on the stories they have to tell, we risk losing the knowledge they have to share. This is the music I love, so I hope it will always be part of my life.”
Photo: Phil Crow
Published in Issue 137 of The Living Tradition – February 2021.