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VARIOUS ARTISTS - I Thought I Was The Only One

VARIOUS ARTISTS - I Thought I Was The Only One
Veteran VTDC12CD

The East Anglian hammered dulcimer is a relatively neglected instrument with its own tradition of folk tunes and popular melodies from its heyday (roughly 1850-1930). I Thought I Was The Only One gathers together recordings of nine players, mostly recorded towards the end of their lives, with a wide variety of techniques and instruments. The audio quality is not always high, even for recordings made in the fifties and sixties, but the authenticity is undeniable and there is a lot of material here. In 38 short tracks, this CD covers music hall favourites such as Down At The Old Bull And Bush and Two Lovely Black Eyes, Irish nostalgia such as Peggy O'Neill and The Isle Of Inishfree, traditional dance tunes like Soldier's Joy or Heel And Toe Polka, and showpieces including The Sailor's Hornpipe and Devil Among The Tailors.

There's a DVD too, filmed in 1979 of Billy Bennington from Norfolk, which shows the dulcimer itself and the playing techniques in great detail. Billy talks at some length about his playing and the dulcimer tradition generally, and performs nine pieces. The sound quality and tuning are among the better examples here, and Billy's skill is exceptional even in his late seventies. The only player with more to offer musically in this collection is Reg Reader, a different generation: born in 1931, Reg was recorded in 1998 and was greatly influenced by Billy Bennington's music in the 1970s. He performs the final eight tracks on the CD, a mix of local tunes, American hits, traditional fiddle tunes and popular songs. The versatility of this instrument is much the same as the similar American hammered dulcimer, and it seems the East Anglian players developed a repertoire to please their pub audiences and to appeal to their own eclectic tastes.

Every track is a dulcimer solo, with melody and accompaniment coming from the same instrument. Most of the musicians on I Thought I Was The Only One are only represented on two or three tracks, some of them very brief, but the music can still be fascinating. Listen to the first piece by Oswald Stammers for instance. The other major contributor to this collection is Billy Cooper, born in Norfolk in 1883 and recorded around the age of 80. His eight pieces here may be a snapshot of the older tradition, as he learnt the dulcimer from his father. They include music hall waltzes, dance tunes (The Girl I Left Behind Me, Old Towler, The Perfect Cure, The Post Horn Gallop) and his own Hingham Waltz. More information on this music is available at a special website which is well worth a visit if you have any interest in hammered dulcimers. 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition magazine.