from English Dance & Song Vol 43 No 2 1981
Several years ago there was a period when I quite often used to find myself leading musicians' workshops at EFDSS festivals and courses. At that time I had a passion for encouraging people to try out melodic variations on any given tune. The art of variation occurs in every form of music that I know, and just because it is not an explicit feature of traditional English playing, that seemed no reason not to have a bash and possibly broaden a few horizons. I would take an example, suggest different ways of approaching it, and sometimes even write out a few variations as a basis for later exploration. The resulting blank looks and sideways glances led me finally to abandon this procedure, and I drew the conclusion that the whole exercise was a complete waste of time.
I still have serious doubts about the effectiveness of music workshops of this or any other kind, but I feel now that I was tackling the subject in the wrong way altogether. I was dealing with the symptom of a condition rather than its cause. A related malady occurs among certain folk dancers, but when found in modern country dance musicians it is known as "Medley Mania". The prescribed cure is to play only one tune for the entire duration of any one country dance. To explain why, let's first go back to those variations.
Spontaneous improvisation over a set chordal sequence only comes after a tune has become absolutely automatic, and perhaps been played many, many times. It's wrong to try and force it by writing out contrived parts, even if they're only intended as a guide. You have to allow a tune time to sink in before you can open yourself up to its inherent possibilities. Then, gradually, you can find all sorts of turns and twiddles, all kinds of ways of bringing out the different aspects of a tune to best advantage.
Musical ability doesn't come into it. Every performance can become rather a voyage of discovery. But this approach will not work if you only run through the tune a couple of times before casting it aside in favour of the next item in your selection. You have to play it ten, or fifteen, or twenty times, before you really get inside it and can feel the full extent of its diversity. These tunes were built for constant repetition. They have been played an infinite number of times by an infinite number of people. If they did not hold many secrets and yield something new each time round they would not have survived. They demand to be cherished. They certainly deserve better treatment than that afforded them by the Medley Maniacs.
"MEDLEY: a mingled and confused mass; a miscellany; a piece of music made up of bits from various sources continuously." Thus Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary. Our age is full of it - switch on, switch off - this week's exciting new offer - you need only add water - pick up and drop - it's instant, it's superficial, and it's disposable! Medleys MAY have made a fortune for Max Bygraves but they only serve to cheapen and dilute our national heritage. We ought to know better. The constant hysterical desire to grab attention and stimulate the senses has no place in a folk music revival. We should be looking to escape from all that, not be part of it. As guardians of a most precious commodity we ought to allow our charge a dignified passage through our hands, display our pride in it, treat it with joy and affection - not squeeze it and sling it out with the tea bags.
The intellectual approach adopted by some EFDSS dancers doesn't help much. There is a great fear of boredom, of monotony, of letting yourself go. It is very sophisticated to walk through dance figures instead of stepping through them. It is very sophisticated to be aware of the impact each new tune gives during the course of a dance. Come to that, it is very sophisticated to work through complicated medleys of dances in soppy costumes (God knows where this idea came from - other countries don't do it). However, back to the dictionary. "SOPHISTICATED: adulterated, impure, not genuine, rendered unsound, corrupted by mixture".
In some societies less "sophisticated" than ours, a trance - like state is achieved after dancing for a long time to a constantly repetitive accompaniment. Dancers and musicians unite in building up the hypnotic effect to eventually transcend the usual limitations of the five senses. They don't plod around to endless medleys. They throw themselves into it as though their life depended on it. For them it is a profound spiritual experience. Their life probably does depend on it.
I would not dare to suggest to readers of English Dance and Song that we should expect to attain this level of surrender overnight (it wouldn't half be good though, I reckon). But I do believe that there is an opportunity for passing beyond the level of conscious thought into a more relaxed state than is otherwise available to us in our complicated twentieth century lives. You get there through a gradual dulling of the senses by means of prolonged, repeated physical activity and its appropriate accompaniment. Every change of tune, giving a "lift" to the dance, is in fact an interruption of this process and a source of denial and deprivation. It switches on the brain at a time when we were just beginning to manage without it.
Cosmic claptrap? Well, that's up to you, but there is another, more acceptable justification for all this - it's traditional! In a longways set, for example, it used to be the custom to perform the dance until each couple had been in every position up and down the set and ended up where they started. And they only played one tune for all of that time, which must sometimes have been half an hour or more. If they knew the proper set tune, they would play that. If not, they'd have something else up their sleeves which would do perfectly well. But from Playford's time onwards country dances were published with just one tune, no question about it. In the field that we are working in you don't get four pages of medleys to match one dance. Leave that bland, anonymous, mish-mash stuff to Radio 2 where it belongs. We are dealing with tunes.
So, next time I am invited to lead a musicians' workshop, I shall pick a tune and play it for a whole hour. We'll all be exhausted at the end of it, and I'm sure speech will only return slowly, but we'll all have shared a wonderfully exhilarating experience. If a tune's worth playing once it's worth playing a hundred times. Try it and see.