various artists,
English Country Music
(Topic, 2001)

In the 1950s and '60s, two young Englishmen set off on a voyage of discovery. They traveled around the British Isles, armed with musical instruments and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and set about recording as much traditional music as they could find. In doing so, Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett introduced the world to many musicians and styles which might otherwise have been lost, while opening the way for many a young musician to follow.

English Country Music is a revised and remastered album, a vast improvement on its two earlier incarnations. It features a much clearer, cleaner recording, as well as some previously unavailable tracks, along with virtually everything from the 1965 and 1976 releases, as well as a new set of excellent liner notes by Hall.

The hour-and-seven-minute-long CD presents 27 tracks from a number of sessions which included Walter Bulwer on fiddle and mandolin-banjo, his wife Daisy on piano, hammered dulcimer by Billy Cooper, Russell Wortley on pipe-&-tabor, Scan Tester on Anglo-German concertina, and a gentleman by the name of Hawkins on banjo. Plunkett played drums and Hall melodeon and fiddle.

Hall and Plunkett would drive to the Bulwers' home in the rural Norfolk village of Shipdham in East Anglia, their car loaded with equipment, instruments and musicians. Within moments of their arrival, tunes would be flying and Plunkett's recorder would be capturing the magic of the moment.

Polkas such as "Jenny Lind," "The Heel & Toe" and "The Bluebell" are featured, along with such pieces as "In and Out the Windows," "Soldier's Joy" and "The Helston Furry Dance." Some titles are repeated: "Off She Goes" is first presented as a fiddle solo from August '59 and then as a group piece (featuring melodeon, mandolin-banjo, piano, drums and pipe-&-tabor) three years later; similarly, there are two versions of "The Sailor Cut Down in his Prime," "The Irish Washerwoman" and others, each possessing its own distinct character, depending on the musicians involved.

Some tracks are solos, allowing listeners to hone in on the particular characteristics of the playing. Others involve various combinations of instruments, presenting a delightful sound, perfect not only for dancing to, but also for listening to.

Although all the musicians stand out, some of the playing is exceptional. Billy Cooper plays dulcimer with aplomb, whether striking the strings with hammers or plucking with his fingers; he creates a rich sound, all the more fascinating with his sense of rhythm and ornamentation. Daisy Bulwer's piano playing provides the perfect bed for the other musicians to base their tunes. And Reg Hall is, simply put, a wonderful melodeon player.

Reg Hall and the late Mervyn Plunkett, both as a pair and alone, devoted much of their lives to recording and reintroducing the public to the traditional music that thrived almost unseen in England -- not just this Shipdham band, but also of other musicians and other regions, including Hall's essential work with the Irish in London.

This album presents English traditional music at its best. It instigated a new wave of the genre, inspiring musicians to delve deeper into the style and introducing new audiences to the tradition. Although it is heartbreaking to think of all the music that has been lost -- new tapes were expensive, and sometimes old ones were incorrectly labeled and then recorded over -- it is such a pleasure to listen to these recordings. Here are tunes to be learnt, styles to be appreciated and music to be enjoyed.

- Rambles
written by Jamie O'Brien
published 8 January 2005

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