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PETER SHEPHEARD - Traditional Fiddle Music Of The Scottish Borders: From The Playing Of Tom Hughes Of Jedburgh

PETER SHEPHEARD - Traditional Fiddle Music Of The Scottish Borders: From The Playing Of Tom Hughes Of Jedburgh
Taigh Na Teud ISBN: 9781906804787

In 1978, Peter Shepheard was attending the traditional music festival at Newcastleton when he ventured into the Grapes Hotel in the village square.  Several sessions were in full swing in different areas of the courtyard, but his ear was caught by a 70-year old fiddle player who had a very distinctive and unusual, but very obviously traditional style. The fiddler was Tom Hughes and so began his recording project which resulted in over 100 sets of tunes played by Hughes and other border fiddlers being taped. It needs to be stated straight away, and loudly, that as well as being an interesting fiddler, Hughes is a superb musician and well worth listening to.

Tom Hughes was born near St. Boswells in 1908 into a musical family with a family band actively playing and gigging.  His grandfather made his first small fiddle for him at the age of 7 and he immediately worked out his first composition on it (The High Road To Linton).  After marriage he started his own band and continued playing until the Folk Revival, which opened up a new wealth of performance opportunities at festivals, clubs and competitions.

The first result of this was the issue, in 1981, of an LP of Hughes's playing with extensive sleeve notes and transcriptions and it was quite an ear-opener at that time, alerting people to the unusual and attractive style in which tunes were played in the border area. Hughes’ version of Morpeth Rant (the ‘old’ Morpeth Rant), although appearing in other English manuscripts, is the main source of its popularity in English sessions nowadays.

Those LP transcriptions have now been reworked and extensively added to, taking advantage of modern software which allows a much more detailed assessment of what is actually going on in Hughes’ performance than was previously possible.  The result is a fascinating document of the tunes, which are rendered in a direct, danceable and recognisable Scottish idiom - and for those who baulk at the intricacies of the music notation, there is the extended CD of recordings which can be used, either on its own, or with the transcriptions. The CD has both solo and band recordings, where Hughes is joined by fiddlers Wattie Robson, Robbie Hopkirk and Tom Scott, plus whistle and guitar.

There is a fascinating oral history of the musical life of the Hughes family and Tom's place within it - both as regards solo playing and the more usual bands, but this could have been even more valuable if compared and contrasted with the musical experiences of nearby equivalent performers slightly further into Scotland, or, indeed with his friends over the border in Northumberland.  Additional sections have very useful and well considered sections on traditional fiddle style, traditional dancing and types of tunes.

My only disappointment is the Scottish rather than Border focus.  We are told that Northumbrian mouth-organ player Will Atkinson was “a good friend of Tom's”, indeed, two of his tunes are featured here, but whilst Hughes' style is compared to other Scottish styles, nowhere is there any consideration that there may be any influence from the English side of the border.  Perhaps this could be a project for students at Newcastle's Folk Degree course: using similar methods as here to transcribe tunes which Atkinson and Hughes had in common and comparing them. It certainly worked in reverse, with Northumbrian players listening to Scottish dance bands on the radio to get new material.

My other gripe is much more personal! As a user of the single bowing style (or “Rule of down bow” as it was described in the Baroque) I dislike the use of Scott Skinner's pejorative (rather than accurate) term “hack” bowing.  Scott Skinner railed against “country fiddlers” in his writing (he wasn't keen on folk music!) but I think it does it an injustice.

Follow this up by getting the CD Border Fiddles: Border Traditions Volume 1 (SBT001D) from the Jedburgh record label which, as well as featuring superb recordings of Bob (Robbie) Hopkirk (who Mike Yates has described as “one of the all-time greats of Scottish music”), also displays Tom Hughes's grandson, Jimmy Nagle.

All in all, an important issue – a book bursting with interesting and useful information and a smashing CD to listen to. What’s not to like?

Paul Burgess

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This album was reviewed in Issue 117 of The Living Tradition magazine.