Playing the Anglo Concertina in Bush Music Style

 

Bush Music and the Concertina in Australia

The Purpose of the Site

The Instrument

The Tunes

Acknowlegements

Other Snippets of Concertinabilia

What Keys Does My Concertina Have

Comments to

Fred HollandFred Holland (photo John Meredith)

Bush Music and the Concertina in Australia

Dooley Chapman

Dooley Chapman (photo Chris Sullivan)

"Bush Music" is a generic term coined in the early 1950's by one of Australia's foremost folk music collectors, John Meredith, to describe the traditional music that he was recording from elderly folk - shearers, bullockies, drovers, sailors, and housewives. Songs about bushrangers, convicts, working, farming and tunes for dancing played on fiddle, accordion, concertina, penny whistle and mouth organ.

The "concer" popular in the bush was the Anglo-German system, and most commonly a two row 20-button in C/G, though occasionally Bb/F or Ab/Eb. These were imported from makers in Germany and later from English makers in particular Lachenal. There is one early maker of concertinas recorded. John Stanley (1834-1913) of Bathurst was a goldseeker in the rush of 1853. After working at several other jobs, he established himself as a "concertina doctor" and then progressed to manufacturing. He produced about 500 quality concertinas.

There are only a few recordings of the older generation of concertina players, notably Albert "Dooley" Chapman (1892-1982), Clem O'Neal (1912-1980), Fred Holland and Mrs Susan Colley. Often though, the tunes of concertina players were passed to their offspring who played the more modern button accordion. As these instruments share a similar fingering pattern the tunes collected from this later generation often retranslate very comfortably to the concertina.

The current generation of Australian style concertina players includes Dave de Hugard, Peter Ellis, Rob Willis, Gary Lovejoy, Richard Evans, Stuart Leslie, Chris Sullivan, Malcolm Clapp, Mike Martin, David Johnson, Sue McMahon, Bob Bolton, John Harpley, Patrick Walsh, Fred Pribac, Stuart Graham, Patrick Walsh, John Dunn, Scott Fineran, Steve Mills, Jim Dangerfield, Dot Dawson, Chris Ghent, among others.

Concertinas favoured by contemporary players include those made by the English makers Lachenal, Jeffries, and Wheatstone, as well as those made by local instrument makers, such as Richard Evans.

 

The Purpose of This Site

Doddy Murphy

Doddy Murphy (photo John Meredith)

The aim of this site is to provide a series of bush tunes that are well suited to the concertina and to show appropriate fingering to play them well. The layout of the instrument in its main variations is provided and basic scales shown.

The fingering system for the concertina that has been adopted begins simply and is modified for crossrowing and non-home position fingering. Initial tunes in each section are provided with detailed fingering then it is assumed that patterns are established and the trainer wheels are off!

The instrument lends itself to being played by ear so sound files of the tunes in mp3 and/or midi format will eventually be available for download. These can be played with a media player, many of which have a function available which slows the tune without altering pitch to make learning easier.

Tunes are also provided in standard music notation. Liberties are taken with notation to keep the music within the staff so tunes may sound an octave different to the given notes.

Additional sections will cover:

Adding bass and harmony
Singing accompaniment techniques
Chords

 

The Instrument

A Brief History

From the mid 1830's concertinas were being manufactured in Germany and England with two fundamentally different types distinguished from one another by their country of origin. The English system had the same notes in and out for each button, whereas the German system utilised different push/pull notes. The English concertinas were most popular as parlour instruments for classical music, while the German concertinas were more associated with the popular dance music of the day. As the German system became more popular the English makers adapted and began to produce higher quality Anglo-German concertinas.

In Australia the Anglo concertina was a popular instrument during the later part of the 19th century due to its ease of playing, cheapness and portability. The quality of the available German-made instruments was not great, and many a dance was halted while running repairs were done on the "concer". A photo in the Holtermann Collection dated 1872 shows a shop front at Hill End NSW with at least five concertinas in the window. They are identifiably 20 key Anglo-German and from the design probably of European manufacture. Quality concertinas made by Lachenal were imported but were much more expensive to purchase. One local instrument maker John Stanley of Bathurst is known to have produced about 500 good instruments using imported Lachenal reeds.

Henry Lawson's poem "The Good Old Concertina" was penned in 1891 and appeared in the Town and Country Journal.

'Twas merry when the hut was full
Of jolly girls and fellows.
We danced and sang until we burst
The concertina's bellows.
From distant Darling to the sea,
From the Downs to Riverina,
Has e'er a gum in all the west
Not heard the concertina?

'Twas peaceful round the campfire blaze,
The long white branches o'er us;
We'd play the tunes of bygone days,
To some good old bush chorus.
Old Erin's harp may sweeter be,
The Scottish pipes blow keener;
But sing an old bush song for me
To the good old concertina.

'Twas cosy by the hut-fire bright
When the pint pot passed between us;
We drowned the voice of the stormy night
With the good old concertina's.
Though trouble drifts along the years,
And the pangs of care grow keener,
My heart is gladdened when it hears
That good old concertina.

The "good old concertina" became standard for song accompaniment and dance music. But during the 20th century, the concertina's popularity in Australia declined, due to the increasing relative popularity of the louder accordion and later saxophone, and the overall decline of local musical performance due to radio and the phonograph. Bush accordionist and fiddler Harry Cotter in his reminiscences described the effect of the radio dance programmes. "We just stopped playing."

Despite a general decline in mass appeal, in a few country areas the concertina did survive long enough to be recorded by folklorists keen to preserve Australian traditional heritage. The Australian bush music revival of the 1970's led to a modest resurgence in the popularity of the Anglo concertina with players like Dave de Hugard and Jacko Kevans as champions.

At folk festivals the common session tune keys are D and G. This suits the Irish style players who comfortably use the three row Anglo in these keys, but is largely exclusive of the 20 key Anglo players. This has hampered the development of an Australian-style Anglo community. However the Bush Traditions Gathering held annually at Goulburn is redressing this imbalance with Anglo workshops and sessions and has been the inspiration for this website.

 

 

The 20 key instrument

lh20but
Left Hand Notes

lh20

rh20but

Right Hand Notes

rh20

 

 

The 30 key instrument

There are variations in the layout of the accidentals row. This is the Wheatstone version.

 

lh30but
Left Hand Notes

rh30but

Right Hand Notes

rh30

de Hugard

Dave de Hugard 1982 (photo Bob Bolton)

Playing Hold

The fingers of each hand go through the strap while the thumb goes outside it. If the instrument is right way up the right thumb will be next to the air button. Straps need to be suitably adjusted for the size of each players hand. They should allow comfortable support of the instrument without impeding finger movement.

Many players support the concertina with one end resting on the top of one leg and the other end free to move with the bellows action, as shown here by a younger Dave de Hugard.

Some players prefer a standing position with feet set slightly apart and arms bent so that forearms are approximately horizontal. This has the advantage of height for the projection of the sound for a roomful of dancers and would have been an advantage in pre PA performance.

In a session if you have difficulty hearing yourself a useful technique is raising the concertina to about chin level and turning one ear towards it.

Swinging the concertina gives a distinctive sound not available to the heavier accordions. Moving the concertina towards or away from a listener or microphone results in a bending of the notes being played (an example of the Doppler Effect). This can be achieved in a subtle way from the seated position by raising the concertina and moving it forward or backward for effect on particular notes. In the standing position the effect can be quite dramatic when the concer is swung in a wide high arc with arms stretched out.

Fingering

The Home Position for the fingers is over the four top buttons on each side on whichever row is being played. Some players don't use the littlest finger if it is not long enough to reach the key or is not agile enough to press with the required speed and strength. However, if possible, it is worth the effort to make all four fingers work. Finger exercises will build up their effectiveness.

The Left Hand

The Right Hand

 

The Tunes

 

The selection of tunes is based on their suitability for the Anglo and their popularity amongst Australian style players. The collection is unashamedly focused on collected Australian songs and tunes. Those collected from concertina players have been favoured, as have tunes collected from accordion or fiddle players who learnt them from a concertina player, such as a father or older relative or neighbour.

The tunes have been sourced by the following means:
* transcribed directly from a recording of an older traditional player (a primary source) or
* gleaned from other contemporary players (a secondary source) who have learnt from an original recording
* obtained from reliable published transcriptions (a secondary source)
* learnt from recordings of contemporary players who share a passion for the collected tunes (a tertiary source)

Every transcription involves a degree of interpretation. Note for note musicological transcription has it place (in academia's ivory towers) but is useless in making the music accessible and enjoyable to play. Interpreting recordings of older players is a labour of love. In amongst the flow and sweetness of the music there are missed notes, dud notes, mis-timings and memory lapses due to a number of significant factors. The musicians are unfortuneately often past their musical prime. Intonation and timing can be rough and also the habitual trills and decorations that used to come easily previously can falter and distort the flow. Often the tunes haven't been played for many years and the player is not as "in practice" as they would have been when playing regularly. Instruments that have been neglected can be out of tune or adjustment. So it is important to view each transcription with a sceptical respect.

It is important to listen to the primary sources for yourself. The nuances of the style can never be transmitted by written music. All the old concer players were ear players and they learnt by hearing and emulating, asking and trying, and then adding their own personal musical contribution - perhaps the volume or length of particular notes, perhaps decoration that suited their finger agility, perhaps a simplification when a passage didn't flow smoothly. Jacko Kevans remarked once that he knew of about sixteen different versions of the Irish Washerwoman, each adapted to suit a particular instrument, player or learnt in a particular region.

Good tunes are remarkably robust. They survive the contradictory tensions of decoration and simplification and the key and style changes as they move from instrument to instrument. Publication of tunes is a useful means of distribution but unfortunately it can have the effect of ossifying them. This publisher and musician recommends the use of liquid paper and pen to "correct" or "adapt" written music. Obviously this has its limitations when working with other musicians but the principle still holds. "To thine own self be true" (and trust you won't get stabbed in the arras.)

Within each section, tunes are presented in order of increasing difficulty. The tunes are divided into:

In Row Tunes for the 20 or 30 key anglo that are played on one row
Cross Row Tunes for the 20 or 30 key anglo that are played cross row
Three Row Tunes for the 30 key anglo using the accidentals row

Scales and Exercises to improve fluency are included

Click here for the Tune List

 

Acknowledgements

 

The performers who freely shared of their music and experience. Those keepers of the tradition, who rode miles to play for dances in shearing sheds and barns, and sang round drovers campfires and in shearers huts. Who learnt tunes and songs from parents, grandparents, neighbours, fellow workers, itinerants, and played them on concertina, fiddle, accordion, mouth organ, penny whistle, piano, and more.

The collectors who had the insight to perceive the value of recording, preserving and playing the music and songs. Whether driven by political ideology or a perception of historical worth their work underpins any resurgence of interest in our traditional music. To quote C J Dennis "I dips me lid!"

The role of libraries, particularly the National Library of Australia, in housing and preserving the collections is invaluable.

The folk who drive the organisations that foster the ongoing playing of the songs and tunes are doing a grand job. Keep it up.

Finally, thanks to the players who have encouraged this project with practical contributions and with simple appreciation.

 

Other Snippets of Concertinabilia

Edwin Stephenson circa 1890

Rosemary Richardson provided this photo and information about her great great grandfather Edwin Stephenson.

Edwin Stephenson of Lake Gherang (Winchelsea) was a concertina player, who made his own notes (reeds Ed) from the steel ribs of ladies' corsets. He performed at local concerts, weddings and balls. In 1878 he appeared on the same program as Blondin, the tightrope walker.

Edwin is the Pro. E. Stephenson in Part II of the program shown on the right. His item reads

He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland in 1840 and died in Modewarre in 1917. He was a fisherman, fowler and shoemaker.

Source: "The History of the Stephenson Family"
by R.G.W. Stephenson of Modewarre (1984).



What Keys Does My Concertina Have

 

20key

21 button instrument

l20key

Alternative button to use

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am repeatedly asking concertina sellers (eg on eBay) to list the keys of the concertina offered, so that buyers like me, can have a better idea of what they are offering. Here is how it is done.

Firstly determine the main key of the instrument, the top row of a 20 button or the middle row of a 30 button concertina. The button shown with the arrow on the diagrams when played while squeezing the bellows is the tonic of the key eg C note of the C scale. Test this note against an instrument that is in pitch until you find the closest sounding note. Get a musician to help if this is beyond your capability.

If this note is not sounding you can try the button shown on the left side also played when compressing the bellows. It is the same note an octave lower.

When you know what note this is you know the main key
eg G note = Key of G.

The last step is to look at the wheel below to locate the other key of the instrument. Find the main key in the outer circle. The note on the inner circle is the other key.

keywheel

So if the tested note was G then it would be called a G/D concertina. Note that the top row in a three row concertina is accidentals and so it doesn't have a key.

Hope this helps.

30key

31 button instrument


l30key

Alternative button to use