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JOHN OFFORD  - John Of The Green - The Cheshire Way

JOHN OFFORD  - John Of The Green - The Cheshire Way
Green Man Music ISBN: 9780955632419 

First published in 1985, this collection of tunes has become the main reference work for the old 3/2 hornpipes of North West England - although it includes some which are played in the Northumbrian tradition, the overlap is quite small and largely unintentional. I have not had the pleasure of owning the first or second edition of John Of The Green, so I cannot compare the 2017 third edition with earlier versions: the third edition is beautifully printed on good quality paper, with around 200 carefully typeset tunes, and contains an index of tunes, several interesting notes on individual tunes, a 26-page introduction, and many black and white illustrations from the period.

What is the period? An interesting question. John Offord has drawn mainly from 18th century sources, but there are tunes here from as early as the 16th century, and many may, of course, be older than their first known transcription. Some were used by composers such as Handel or Purcell writing for London audiences, others were distinctly rural in origin and circulation. While the book title refers to Cheshire, the tune titles range across northern England and southern Scotland, and sometimes farther afield. The illustrations depict scenes from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and the general focus seems to be on the middle of that period.

About three quarters of John Of The Green is given over to 3/2 hornpipes and the related forms of tunes in 9/4, 9/8 and 6/4. The rest is a mix of pieces in various time signatures, not really in the hornpipe tradition of North West England, but related either by birth or by association: many of these stragglers and hangers-on appear in the same collections as the 3/2 hornpipes, and most are actually better known, which makes sense as they would not have been adopted by the 18th century musicians if they did not have broad appeal. Thus we find Playford dances, Morris tunes, Celtic borrowings and more: The Rising Sun, Black Joak, Iron Legs, Buttered Peas. But this is only a small part of John Offord's collection.

The great majority of John Of The Green is made up of the rarely-played, little-known, and frankly rather odd, 3/2 hornpipes of Cheshire and surrounding areas. This book is itself responsible for a resurgence in their popularity among English musicians, and Mr Offord includes a handy shortlist of CDs and performers who include 3/2s in their repertoire - strikingly almost all since the publication of John Of The Green. A small number of the old hornpipes here have become well known even beyond England - Battlefield Band included The Presbyterian Hornpipe on an early album, and more recently New York dulcimer player Mark Gilston recorded Dick's Maggot - but mostly this music is waiting to be revitalised and reinterpreted. Some of it is accessible, various maggots and Lancashire hornpipes and a number of tunes which made it into one of John Playford's Dancing Master editions and have therefore been preserved by the country dance community. Much of it (and I have just played through the entire collection myself) is strange to modern ears, in need of updating or simplification, or just plain wrong: I suspect that some of the pieces without a key signature, for instance, may have had assumed sharps and flats in the manner of highland bagpipe notation, and the musicians simply didn't need to write them down. There will also have been a degree of human error in the original notation, of course. Even allowing for this, the general character of the material in John Of The Green is unlike the southern English traditions, or the Celtic traditions (with the possible exception of Wales and Brittany). There are similarities to old Northumbrian melodies, and there may be influences from P-Celtic: there is also a fondness for complex and repeated variations, a trait shared with Northumbrian piping, which may come from the Baroque approach to musical performance which was prevalent when much of this material was first written down.

It's fascinating to speculate on the origins and evolution of the material in this book, and I have only really scratched the surface. I can say that there is no better place to start getting to know the 3/2 hornpipes of North West England, and no more complete and readily available source of this music. Whether to see the well known examples of this tradition in black and white, with chords and other annotations, or to plunge into unknown melodies and make of them what you can, John Of The Green - The Cheshire Way is a superb resource and a very impressive publication.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 122 of The Living Tradition magazine.