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Bill Whaley & Dave Fletcher - Old Men & Love Songs
Issue 44 July/August '01 - by Mel Howley

I heard Bill and Dave singing to, and with, appreciative audiences at this year's Holmfirth Festival (their third visit), and afterwards took the opportunity to find out a little more about them. The sleeve notes on their second album refers, tongue in cheek, to "Bill's doleful lugubrious persona, so effective in projecting the duo's image as the most miserable act on the folk scene!" which can't be denied, but they turned out to be very easy people to get along with, and their dry sense of humour peppered our conversation with much laughter.

There are many fine singers and musicians to be found in clubs and sessions up and down the country, but who, for whatever reason, are seldom heard outside their own area. Bill and Dave have, until recently, been counted amongst them but now things have changed for them. Until quite recently this duo, from the Boston area, were virtually unknown outside their native Lincolnshire.

Dave: "Most people can travel a radius of sort of a hundred miles, but living where we do half that area's water! We'd a set of clubs that would book us once a year and when we'd done them we knew we'd finished for the year." And despite being from Lincolnshire, an area with quite a singing tradition of its own, their material is more broad-based. Bill: "We are not singers of Lincolnshire songs, we are just Lincolnshire singers. We don't really care where a song's come from, or even how many other people are doing it, if we like it we just enjoy singing it."

They have been singing together now for over twenty years, originally as members of a Dubliner's influenced group called Sluice Bridge which worked in and around the East Midlands, and later simply as a duo. They were also members of Kesteven Morris, where Bill was musician and Dave was a dancer, and were both in the Higgledy Piggledy Ceilidh Band, which was an offshoot of the morris side. Bill is still with the band but Dave left in '93 after some 15 years with them, and it was this move that gave the impetus to the growth and development of their duo work. Dave: "Me leaving the band did us a lot of good, 'cos instead of getting together every week with the band, we had to meet to practice as a duo and it made us look at doing new material." It also enabled them to work on developing the wonderfully mellow harmonies which are such a characteristic part of their singing. Bill: "When we started off Dave did the singing and I just accompanied him and kept me mouth shut!" Well that has certainly changed, not only with Bill singing, but also his stage input, but he still provides most of the music, with English and Duet concertina, Harmonium, Accordion and Northumbrian pipes.

The concertina is his main instrument and I asked him what started him on concertina (he originally played melodeon and guitar). Apparently it was after seeing Tony Rose playing at a club in Lincoln, he was so impressed with the flexibility of the English system that he found the address of Crabbe's in London and off he went the following Saturday! Bill: "I'd never been to London before (don't know as I'd want to go again) but old Harry Crabbe was alive then and he'd only got the one English - an old Salvation Army one, a 48 tenor, reconditioned, in a box, 50. Well, I'd took 50 and that was all I'd got! So I brought it home with me - if it had been 60 I'd have been a guitar player!" That would have been a shame, because despite his modesty on the subject, he is a very well-respected player, as is testified by several articles about him in the specialist concertina press. As with his English box the purchase of his duet was largely due to serendipity - he was looking in Exchange and Mart for an accordion and found an ad for an 81 key duet, which he subsequently bought. "They're a bit hard work, a bit confusing, there's so much going on! I basically play it like I would an accordion - melody on the right hand and a few chords and runs on the left." Dave: "It's got a lovely rich sound and suits what we do down to the ground." It does work extremely well, especially when combined with Dave's Melodeon playing, which although not a major part of what they do, is still an important part of their performances. His box is actually a rather fine instrument; "it's a hand-made Jorgina, by Jean Princivalle of Coaraze, France, a three row - G, D, and a full set of accidentals, designed by Roger Watson." It is also tuned a full octave low which gives a very full sound when combined with Bill's duet. Despite that Dave tends to be somewhat dismissive: "I do it, but I prefer to stand and sing, that's what I enjoy."

Their enjoyment of both playing and singing was evident on their first CD, 'Their Fine Array', recorded in '96, with a range of traditional songs, plus others by Tams, Bogle, Peter Bond and Stan Rogers - a prime example of cherry picking! It is a fine debut album sung from the heart, with good harmonies, and a solid feel for traditional singing. When asked why after some twenty years of singing together they recorded it Bill told me: "We'd got a batch of nice songs and thought it was about time that we put something down before one of us snuffed it. We thought at least it would make a nice keepsake!" A nice keepsake indeed, and a thought echoed by people at their gigs, 'cos it's selling out quite nicely.

The CD was also largely responsible for helping the pair, once referred to as "Lincolnshire's best kept secret", to become known to a much wider audience. Martyn Wyndham-Read was playing a Lincolnshire club, and afterwards he heard the recording, with Bill and Dave's version of 'Buncloudy', a song in Martyn's own repertoire. He listened to the rest of the CD and enjoyed it so much that he got in touch with the duo the following day, going on to give them help and encouragement and bringing them to the notice of a few Festival organisers. "Martyn said we needed a kick up the backside, and we did - but he did a lot to help us, telling people and getting them to book us. He's been excellent for us, we can't praise him enough." They soon had a few festival appearances, from which came club bookings, and from those the demand for a second CD.

Dave: "People were asking for a CD with our more recent stuff on, especially 'Lullaby' and 'The Call and The Answer', so we thought we'd better do one." Bill: "We'd never thought we'd do a second one, but the sales from the first have financed it." The new recording, 'Old Men and Love Songs', takes its name from a comment made by Kate Atkinson, organiser of Holmfirth Festival. Bill: "She saw us at Whitby and said, "It's lovely to hear two old men singing love songs." and we just thought what a nice title that would be for a CD." The mix is much as before, although with the inclusion of slightly more contemporary songs, but a difference to the first CD is the addition of guest musicians. "We have used some musicians, but with a very limited input, and only on the odd track. What we work at is getting it to sound as we do live." They have used cello, fiddle, and acoustic guitar, but only one track features all three, and that is on the somewhat unusual, but very effective, choice, the Iris DeMent song, 'Shores of Jordan" Dave: "We adore her." Bill: "We just think she's lovely, we just had to do that one didn't we?" Dave: "Yeah, we felt we could do it, and in a style that wasn't American." They were right, it is a smashing version that they do, and, as with so much of their material, they have combined music and harmonies to make it all their own. Another track which stands out, is Ian Woods' 'Hooks and Nets', an up-tempo treatment, and allegedly one of the jolliest items in their repertoire! Dave: "We've had that song sort of burbling around for a while, and it's a good poaching song for a poaching county." Bill: "I just love it. It's with duet and melodeon, and the two together have a real rich, bassy sound."

So with two albums behind them and a growing demand for their fine singing in the clubs, what plans do they have for the future? Bill: "Oh we'd like to do more clubs. We're getting a good reception where we've been, and it makes you want to do more - besides, we just love singing." The pair have a self-effacing, un-assuming nature and don't take themselves too seriously, but they do take their singing seriously and were nurtured in the folk clubs of the '60s and '70s which obviously colours their views and their performance. Bill: "When people come to the clubs to hear us there are plenty of songs for them to sing and join-in on, and we want them to go away feeling that they've had a good night and a good sing. That's what we used to like to do, and for us that's what the clubs was all about." Dave: "We've always enjoyed singing and the more people that can hear us the better." They have a 'south coast tour', four gigs over weekend in September, that Martyn W-R's helped them to put together, and they are also likely to be working on a recording project with him. "He's hoping to do a double album, with half being English songs sung by English singers, and the other half being the Australian versions of the same songs, performed by Australian singers. There might even be a TV thing on that."

Bill and Dave's flyers exhort you to, 'Hear them while they're still alive!' and despite protestations that the printer was actually responsible for that line after seeing their photograph, they do agree that, "Singers like us are dying out Bill: "Well our health is a bit dubious, you never know do you." Dave: "And I come from a family that doesn't tend to live very long."Perhaps the printer has a point! One thing though is for sure, they are fine traditional singers, and that combined with well-chosen songs, strong on choruses, makes for a duo that is indeed well worth seeking out.

Mel Howley

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