About Our Band

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The Music of Beggars’ Oak

At the heart of our tradition are the processional dances of the Northern mill towns (see Wikipedia) , performed along the streets of the town by the women of the mills, accompanied by the town’s brass band . Although we cannot muster a brass band (The Whit Friday tradition is a good example of this); for our own performances, we get as close as we can to the original tradition by having a ‘wall of music’, with a line of as many instruments as possible, all kept in time with the dancers by a big bass drum. Our present instrumental line-up has, as well as the bass drum, an accordion, a banjo, a pair of bones (see Wikipedia), a bouzouki, a fiddle, a guitar, a mandolin, a melodica (a free reed instrument, blown by mouth, with a keyboard. See Wikipedia), a melodeon, and a six-hole pipe.

Our music is almost entirely traditional tunes that do not have a well-defined composer, but rather, have been passed down the centuries by musicians playing by ear. In keeping with the tradition, the settings are deliberately simple and usually have no more than four chords (tonic, subdominant dominant, and dominant seventh (see Wikipedia). Nowadays we do write the tunes down, and some of our musicians have their music on file cards (or on a tablet) clipped on to their instrument – which is of course in keeping with the brass band tradition. Mostly, however, we play by ear, because the repeat pattern of the music has to be matched to the chorus and figures of the dances, which is easier if we can watch the dancers instead of the music.

At the beginning of Beggars’ Oak the tunes were mainly English, but folk tradition is flexible. As a result, we have one Scandinavian tune, Allemans Marsj, which came into our repertoire when Lichfield Morris Men (which shared some membership with Beggars’ Oak) went to a folk dance convention in Denmark. More recently, we perform several Welsh traditional dances, and for those we use Welsh tunes. An interesting example is the dance called Migldi Magldi, which came into our repertoire through research by one of our dancers. She brought the choreographic script to a practice session, and asked if the band knew the tune. Fortunately the band leader grew up in rural Wales, and knew the tune well.

The survival of traditional music into the 21st century is often attributed to the work of the 19th and early 20th century collectors, the best known being, in England, Cecil Sharpe, and in Ireland, Francis O’Neill (see Wikipedia). While their importance cannot be denied, equally important are the efforts of groups of enthusiasts who have kept their traditions alive, sometimes for close to a millennium . We at Beggars’ Oak are proud to be one of those groups.

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