The Living Tradition
- by Mel Howley Issue 31 February/March '99
He started out in the folk world with Hammersmith Morris at the age of twelve "still wearing short trousers" with the side under the tutorage of Hugh Rippon, "Hugh was in his early twenties, very enthusiastic, very inspiring, very dynamic, and a great teacher". It was Hugh that lent John a melodeon "He said you get a different note when you pull and push and that was my first melodeon lesson!" John seemed to take to the melodeon, and later anglo concertina, becoming one of the best known and influential squeezers around. He played on "Morris On" with Ashley Hutchings, at the cutting edge of the new 'folk-rock', then later he played on "The Compleat Dancing Master", before doing his own totally acoustic "Plain Capers" with Sue Harris, Martin Carthy, Martin Brinsford and Fi Fraser. All classics from a very productive and influential period in the 'folk revival'.
Later John worked with Richard Thompson (who he met initially when doing "Morris On"), playing on his first record, "Henry the Human Fly", and playing on nearly all his records since. "Working with Richard has done more to expand my playing than anything else I've done. Exhilarating, mind-stretching and fantastically liberating".
A move to South Shropshire in the early seventies meant that he was ideally placed at a crucial time and in '75 John founded the Shropshire Bedlams, probably the most original, influential, and innovative Morris side to appear for years. "I love dancing. I adore English country dancing, especially Morris dancing, it is the most exhilarating thing I could ever imagine, and the local school's sixth formers had seen Gloucestershire Old Spot Morris dancing and wanted to try it. What a great opportunity! So I found out about Border Morris, which was difficult because the information was fairly scanty in terms of style, just a few notations with notes on different numbers and different shaped sets, and so I thought I'd just make it up! I used all the original notations and figures, and then made up a style of dance that was basically just the way I liked to dance, dancing at a slow lolloping pace, and being fairly exuberant and flamboyant, but also I was very keen with the Bedlams to do everything as differently as possible from what other Morris teams were doing. That was a very deliberate move". And it worked! John once said, quite provocatively that, "Good Morris is very sexy and powerful", but that was certainly the case with the Bedlams, and their unique style spawned a host of imitators. The Bedlams stopped Morris being silly and the butt of jokes, and they demonstrated the relevance and power of ritual dance. It was by any measure a remarkable achievement.
Then there was the innovative and very distinctive Brass Monkey - a superb band which captured the feel of the times with its blend of traditional music. However, tempis fugit and the original Bedlams are into middle age and John's sons are now dancing out, Benji (his second oldest) just having complete a stint as squire of the side. So where is John K up to now? I met him just before he set off on tour with 'Wassail!' (a Christmas celebration and performance in the traditional vein with an excellent accompanying CD, tons better than yer 'traditional' Christmas carols) to get up to date.
The last time I talked seriously with John about his career was at Beverley Festival in the Summer of '92, where the much vaunted super-group Band of Hope was launched with much hype, and they played their first gig at the Playhouse there. Unfortunately it wasn't the resounding success that everyone had been hoping for, and it received very mixed reviews. Despite all its promise the band seemed to lack real direction with the whole being much less than the sum of its, not inconsiderable, parts! Bailey, Carthy, Swarbrick, Kirkpatrick ("It was the first time that I'd played with Dave Swarbrick and I was really thrilled because he had been a major influence on my approach to music to start with through his work with Ian Campbell and then Martin Carthy"), and Hannigan, a dream team which sadly never gelled, looking from the outside to be a band suffering from a major clash of egos. "Everyone seemed to have different ideas of what the band was about, and it was an un-fulfilling band for me". Also, for John K this project coincided with a period when his personal life was going through changes. Naturally this affected his work, and prompted him to a review of his career.
John left Band of Hope (being replaced by Chris Parkinson, although the band still faltered to an early demise), but he continues to work with members of the band in other formats. He is currently involved with Martin Carthy in Brass Monkey, and he is about to go on gigs with Roy Bailey, "Yeah, I'm happy about working with Roy again, it'll be great, and we've done some really good stuff together in the past". After Band of Hope John withdrew into a period of re-assessment and re-evaluation, which led to a new start with a re-defined emphasis, and a discarding of some of the plethora of projects he had been involved in. He recorded the CD "Earthling", made with friends, neighbours and loved ones: Greta Howell, Sally Turner (now Sally Kirkpatrick), Richard Beaumond (a founder Bedlam), Michael Gregory, and sons Benji and Jobie Kirkpatrick, most of whom had never been in a recording studio before. "I was aiming for a freshness, an innocence, with an unpolished effect. It was a record I was very happy with, it was a new start, I was back on track again".
It was a sort of declaration of intent, he was very much back on track and the newly re-focussed JK soon went on to form the impressive John Kirkpatrick Band, again a re-commitment to the music and a very positive move. The band - Graeme Taylor and Mike Gregory, both ex-Albion (in its best incarnation) and Home Service, Paul Burgess who was with Old Swan and Mellstock, and Dave Berry, a session musician and theatre player. So, it is not entirely surprising that the band gelled, and they produced a magnificent sound which was recorded live on "Force of Habit" showing remarkable verve and vitality.
Many of John's songs were completely transformed, with the band allowing a restructuring, the emphasis shifting, and the band lending such a power of fullness ... fabulous. The band members got on so well together and they all had such versatility, which gave scope for a wide range of musical styles. I was just so happy with that band". They went to record a second, studio based, album, "Welcome to Hell" with an excellent version of "On the Road to Freedom", the anthemic, triumphal march written for a production at the Vic in Stoke, which is filled out by some glorious tuba from Dave Berry. There is also a super set of two fine step dance tunes, the first from the playing of Scan Tester and the second from Bob Cann's repertoire - both absolutely brilliant, with John K, leading his band in what he does best, English dance tunes. I could listen to him all day on this stuff! However, despite extensive touring and issuing two CDs, work for the band seemed to run out - sadly, in the folk world it is very expensive and difficult to run a band of any size economically. "I do hope we can play together again, 'cos we've all got lots of ideas for what to go onto next, and everyone's very enthusiastic about following it up".
A band that has successfully re-emerged, without re-inventing itself, is Brass Monkey, that quite remarkable and innovative brainchild of John K and Martin Carthy. They teamed up with trumpeter Howard Evans, percussionist Martin Brinsford, and Roger Williams on trombone, and the brass gave the band the bass which combined with Brinsford's percussion to successfully avoid the inflexibility often found in folk-rock bands, to give scope for experimentation with fresh and exciting arrangements of traditional songs and tunes. They were the folk supergroup of the eighties, but despite critical appraise the band appeared only sporadically, due to both the work schedules of the component members, and the difficulty of finding venues capable of generating suitable fees. Touring a five piece band don't come cheap! However, before financial constraints saw the band off in '87 they had produced two albums.
The first, "Brass Monkey", was recorded in '83 being essentially the band's live set, and the second, "See How it Runs", three years later, had Richard Cheetham taking over from Roger Williams. They reformed in '95 to do Sidmouth Festival, appearing at a ceilidh and a concert, and enjoyed themselves so much they decided to do a tour. "When we stopped playing in 1987 we still had plenty of life left in us, and when we played Sidmouth Festival eight years later, it felt as though we'd never been away". - Martin Carthy. Unfortunately it wasn't until Easter '97 that they managed to fit in around the commitments of all the band members, but the tour was a great success and they went on to release a new CD in '98, "Sound and Rumour". The blend on this new album is much as you might expect; traditional song, Morris tunes, and some contemporary material, with the band naturally drawing deeply from the song repertoires of Kirkpatrick and Carthy. But with their distinctive and immediately recognisable sound blasting-out right from the opening bars of the first rack they show that they are back - and back with a vengeance! "We rehearsed up quite a lot of new material for the tour and we decided to do the record and follow it with another tour". That should have also been in '98 but it didn't happen, largely due to Howard Evans becoming a staff member of the musicians union, which strangely means he's now allowed to play music! The logic runs that he is in possession of insider knowledge on where all the best paid gigs are - in folk music! Really? However, "It looks like Howard will be able to have a few forays, like the odd festival gig, and it's nice to be with Brass Monkey again, there's nothing quite like them. It doesn't sound like anyone else". Rumour has it that you may catch them at Towersey in '99.
An aspect of John's career which is rather less well-known than his work with bands is his long involvement in the theatre, which started way back in '76, with a BBC TV play, before he moved on to the National Theatre production of "Lark Rise" and its sequel "Candleford". He's also had a long-standing working relationship with the Victoria Theatre (now the New Vic) in North Staffs in Stoke-on-Trent, which started in 1980 with Bert Lloyd. "The Vic's director was Peter Cheeseman and he was very keen on folk music, and he asked Bert to do a concert, and I was one of several people Bert asked to play in it. We did a spot and introduced and playing a traditional Staffordshire tune. You could see this light bulb appear over Peter Cheeseman's head! He was just about to do a play, in the style of the radio ballads, about Joshua Wedgwood and he asked if it was possible to have some 18th century Staffordshire songs and dances to go with the play. I said yes - and worried about it afterwards, as usual! It was a huge amount of work, delving and digging stuff out, but it worked and I found I could convey what was needed to the actors (like how to do a Lichfield Morris dance), and I enjoyed it".
It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with that theatre, writing songs or tunes and arranging dances on more than thirty productions! He's also worked extensively with The Orchard Theatre Touring Company. All this was obviously good grounding when John got involved in a conversation with Steve Heap about Sidmouth Festival! "We were at Martin (Brinsford)'s house near Stroud rehearsing Brass Monkey, and Steve who was organising the BM tour) said he wanted a chat with me. He was showing me these photos of the arena at Sidmouth and asking if I had any suggestings on how to improve the stage, or the staging of events, or the presentation, and so on ... and it was only very gradually that I realised he was asking me to do the director's job!" He became Arena Theatre Director for Sidmouth Festival in '97. "It's the biggest Folk Festival in Europe, and it's been going forty years! I've been there as dancer, musician, singer, ceilidh band, workshops leader - I've never been on holiday there, I've always been doing something!"
John was involved in the selection of the performers, the scheduling of the events, and he made several changes to the arena presentation, with the most obvious being the addition of wings to the stage, which opened up a range of new possibilities. "I agreed that I'd do it once and see how we both felt". However '97 was not a good summer, "There was only one day during the festival that it didn't actually rain, it was just bucketing down all week and the water was just not quite on top of the stage". The natural amphitheatre of the arena was awash with the ground being unable to soak up any more water. Seating on the hillside was virtually impossible, and back-stage there was standing water with artistes balancing along planks to get on for their sets. "It was such an effort just to get the shows on that I wasn't able to judge how things were going, what to tickle-up next time, what did or didn't work, it was just such an epic effort to get it all on. After a lot of hard work I copped for the wettest Sidmouth known!" The Festival lost an awful lot of money. However, undaunted John agreed to do it again in '98, "I felt it went great, I felt that I knew exactly what was happening, and it really felt like the first time that I had done it, although because of the money lost in '97 we had to pull in our horns a bit. Sidmouth has been a big part of my life and it was a privilege to actually be part of the team that ran it - but it really is hard work, it's a bloody hard week!"
This year sees JK venturing into another new area, a new medium, the video cassette, to produce a melodeon tutor, "I'd thought of doing a tutor for some time because at the workshops I've run over the years I often get the same questions and I thought it would be nice to provide some answers in tutor form. I think the melodeon is an instrument that you can't actually write about how to play, but you can easily show someone how do to it, and I think that a video is the perfect way of teaching it". Produced by Steve Heap's Mrs Casey Music, the tutor starts right from scratch, assuming that you've never even seen a melodeon before, and then works through playing the one row, showing what the notes are; then onto the two row, playing across the rows; playing in minors; playing counter-melodies; and more. Visually, all you are seeing is me standing there playing, but the whole things is divided up into sections with titles on the screen so that you can fast forward to the bits you want, and the titles of the tunes are there as well". But do you need to read music (a major stumbling block for many beginners)? "There's no emphasis on music at all, it's just playing by ear, or playing by sight - watching what I'm doing and following it".
The style throughout is distinctly English, not surprising really consider its title, "It's called 'How to Play the English Melodeon'. It used English tunes played in what I consider to be a traditional English style. One of the reasons that I was very keen to do the tutor was that the current preference for dry tunes melodeons doesn't sound English to me. I've used Hohners on it, 'cos I just love the sound, the tremeloe tuning is there so that the sound carries, and I think they are unbeatable for playing straight-down-the-line English dance music. I've always loved English music and dance and it seems a shame that so many players start off with English Morris style but then leave it behind and move into something else. I think it's tragic that English music is so often undervalued". The tutor will probably appear as two tapes in its final version, although there may possibly be scope for a third, "Unfortunately I didn't realise what a chatty soul I am when it comes to talking about melodeons, so it's miles too long and I've had to go through it and edit it down". It's due for release in April and I expect it will sell like the proverbial hot-cakes. Who could possibly be a better tutor!
All this talk of English music leads us quite naturally on to John's latest CD, "One Man and His Box". Solo work has been the constant thread through his career, but despite carrying a range of recordings for sale at his gigs it was all work in duos, trios, and bands, plus solo instrumentals, but no solo "club set". A regular question at gigs returned - which was like the stuff he'd done that night? "And I had to say, well none of them really! So I decided it was time to do a solo album. It's ridiculous that I'd never done it before!" The recording covers the whole of his playing career, from the oddly entitled "Do Me Ama" which he learned in the Folk Camps in the '60s, right up to date with lots of fine tunes, some trad, and some penned by John, but all played with his love of the music.
"The record is mostly English music, that's what I'm passionate about. This is the kind of thing that I would do at a gig, and played in the order that I might do it. There's a mix of accordion, concertina, and single-row melodeon, with more songs than tunes. Some of them I've been doing a very long time and I've just never tired of doing them, but I've never recorded them like this, and Paul Adams at Fellside set-up the mikes really well to catch that essence of a live gig". It is, in fact, a very representative selection of his repertoire, and includes a particular favourite of mine, "The Bells", where he flings the concertina around at arms length for quite some time and the circular motion produces a Doppler effect, generating a sound very much like church bells. John did this the very first time I saw him perform, and I've never, ever, forgotten it! "It's an old music-hall act, I've been doing it forever, since before I had a concertina - I used to borrow from two blokes in the Hammersmith Morris! The late Father Kenneth Loveless (the rural dean of Hackney) used to do it, as did Brian Hayden (who has now invented a new concertina system, the Hayden duet system), they both played "The Bells". It's quite spectacular, and very strenuous, and I really have to concentrate, but it somehow increases the volume of the concertina".
There is also a very distinctive treatment of "Bogie's Bonnie Belle", a song that is usually done quite softly and romantically, but here it's much more robust. "It's a version by Davy Stewart and he's a busker, and whenever he sang he always just stood there and sang as loudly as he could and flattened people against the wall. I just like that approach. I like to make a lot of noise myself. I try to grab people by the scruff of the neck and say listen to this! Listen to this! I like to play with a lot of energy and I think an audience deserves that I give a performance everything I've got".
The CD cover has an amusing drawing of JK by Phil Seaman, "I wanted to get away from the current coffee-table style, I wanted something with a lighter touch". The CD is very much what you get at a JK gig - pure John K magic, the stuff that pulls people like myself back to his club sets time after time after time. Songs and tunes of an English nature spanning the years that John has been playing, on single-row melodeon, button accordion, and anglo concertina, with all the vibrancy and excitement of a live set, brilliantly captured by Paul Adams at Fellside. "I like to have fun when I'm doing my music and I hope that comes across". Yep, I think it does John.
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