‘In Step’ with the music of the past

stepdancing at MEAL during Traditional Music Day

My favourite event in the museum’s calendar is Traditional Music Day. Its organised by the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust (who are based at MEAL) and brings together performers of traditional songs and dances from around the UK. Past performers have included The Copper Family, the Devils Interval and Sam Lee as well as a host of musicians who take the opportunity to play their melodeons, dulcimers and fiddles in impromptu fashion around the nooks and crannies of the museum. I especially like the day because the museum resonates with tunes and songs which have survived hundreds of years of social change, each generation adding their own interpretations. Most of the songs appeal to the most universal of issues, as one visitor said to me “ well… they’re all about, sex, death, class or fighting”.

What makes this event particular to East Anglia is the presence of step dancers. Stepdancing is a vernacular form of tap dancing, where individual dancers improvise a sequence of steps, most frequently to a hornpipe tune. The sound of the steps is probably the most important aspect, and the dance, although energetic is not particularly dramatic. Dancers are usually self-taught, and dance in informal settings mostly in pubs and other social gatherings where there is a suitable atmosphere and music. These days, stepdancers often carry a wooden board with them, as so many floors are carpeted. Some dancers add ‘blakeys’ (Steel plates) to their shoes to enhance the sound; others prefer a pair of leather-soled shoes

This year Rachel and Rebecca Unthank came to the museum, not to perform, but to make a segment of a forthcoming BBC4 documentary about Traditional English Dancing. They interviewed several generations of the Gypsy Traveller West/Temple family who talked about life on the road and the importance of step dancing gatherings. Young Leo, who could charm the birds from the trees, is 22 but is committed to preserving this long lived tradition. This year he was one of the youngest winners of the Steve Monk step dance completion, a coveted title. He was inspired by his great uncle Percy West, nicknamed ‘Flying Feet’ who is perhaps the finest exponent of the art in the region. The Unthanks not unsuccessfully tried to teach the West family Northumbrian clog dancing. The programme will be broadcast later in the year.

It was with Traditional Music Day in mind that I continued to dip into Rob Young’s Electric Eden, Unearthing Britains Visonary Music (and listen to him interviewed on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on 6music on Sunday 5 September). This fascinating book describes the artists who were inspired by traditional rural songs and poems, from, Cecil Sharp and Peter Warlock through to Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band and Nick Drake and right up to the ambient house of the Aphex Twin. Inspiring all these musicians was a fascination with an oral tradition that was intrinsically linked to the land. Notwithstanding a changing society and landscape, memories and customs, passed down through generations as though they were a valuable heirlooms, still clearly resonates with the connoisseurs of Traditional Music Day.

Postscript: Katie and John Howson who run the East Anglian Music Trust were recently awarded the English Folk Dance and Song Society prestigious gold medal.

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