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Reviews of VTDC12CD 'I thought I was the only one!'


This new release by the Veteran label gives us access to the rich tradition of hammered dulcimer playing in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex via 30 years of (ongoing) research and meticulous archive work by John and Katie Howson. Important documentation it may be but skilful management of the material allows it to be full of rhythmic joy, warmth and sheer entertainment.

The CD presents nine of the old players with their varied styles and repertory. The instrument and its players seem to have a rhythm that is tight but with fluidity and a sort of looseness. Recording quality is good, using judicial fading when things might become untidy. My favourite players have to be Billy Cooper recorded in the 1960s with his fine, mellow-toned dulcimer, and Reg Reader, a lovely, skilful player and now sorely missed. Both play the older dance tunes plus favourites of the day.

Detailed notes about the players, the East Anglian instruments and playing techniques can be found on the dedicated website www.eastangliandulcimers.org.uk

The package also includes a DVD of the Billy Bennington film made in 1979 by the late Barry Callaghan and produced by Garland Films for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This is the first time that it has been available on DVD and it‘s good to see Barry’s work reaching out again.

It’s a fine, intimate portrait of this master player at the top of his game. Eight tracks –interesting tunes beautifully played and filmed in such a way that we can see how he did it, not just hear what he did – two hammers tapping the wood, one index finger plucking and one hammer, two index fingers plucking, a mandolin effect and all the glorious scales and rolling arpeggios. All this plus warm, Norfolk dialect and a dancing doll that Billy made himself and that dances strict time with all the twiddles in place. This project is an absolute gem.                                                                                                                                                                                    



From 1850-1930, East Anglia boasted a wealth of dulcimer players and makers. Strangely though, many believed themselves to be the only one remaining, hence the title of this release.

Over a period of 30 years, John and Kate Howson conducted research into the tradition of dulcimer playing, identifying more than 100 players and makers in the eastern counties. This culminated in the release of this fascinating CD, featuring nine players from East Anglia, the majority from Norfolk rather than Suffolk and Essex.

Each player had their own distinctive style, having learnt from their own father, grandfather or another player from their home county.

The CD features dance tunes popular in East Anglia for more than a century, and well-loved songs from the music-hall era.

A DVD of Billy Bennington, probably the last of the great dulcimer players of the Norfolk tradition, accompanies the CD; a recording originally made for EFDSS in 1979 by Garland Films.

This package, with excellent sleeve-notes, provides a fascinating Dulcimer playing in East Anglia insight into the East Anglian dulcimer tradition. It also has its own website www.eastanglianduicimers.org.uk

***** English Dance & Song


If ever an album did what it says on the cover, this is it. For reasons unknown, East Anglia probably produced more dulcimer players than any other region of the U.K., and this CD brings together nine players, mostly recorded in the late 50s and early 60s, though with a couple of later offerings, most recently a set of tunes from Reg Reader dating from the late 90s.

The repertoire across the recordings is very much 'popular', both in the sense of traditional tunes, such as 'Soldier's Joy' — performed here by Billy Cooper (1961) and Tommy Sparkes (1963) — or 'Sailor's Hornpipe' — performed by Oswald Stammers (1970) and Billy Bennington (1985)— and music hall and theatrical tunes like 'Two Lovely Black Eyes' and 'Ain't Misbehaving', by Reg Reader (1998). It's a reflection that this is an instrument for entertainment, its bright trills and flurries ideal for cutting through a boisterous crowd

By way of a bonus, an accompanying DVD captures Billy Bennington in 1979 playing a selection of tunes and reminiscing on his early playing days in the 1920s. He may be pushing eighty here, but the hammers are a blur, and the tunes as vigorous as any young player. Sheer delight.

**** R2 - Rock & Reel

This publication from Veteran features archive recordings of 9 different players from East Anglia and a DVD of Billy Bennington playing his favourites. Initially I thought it would have been good to have a booklet to delve into, as the information on the cover is in rather small print, but then I realised that one is directed to their website — www.eastangliandulcimers.org.uk — and it: is very comprehensive, straightforward and simple to navigate. Lots of photos and information about the players, makers, tuning and design make it really interesting; there’s lovely snippets, like the Wilkinson family skating up the frozen Cam from Grantchester to play in Ely in the 1940’s. It’s taken John and Katie Howson years of research to be able to make this website happen and it’s really worth having a good look at it.

There’s 5 players from Norfolk, 3 from Suffolk and 1 from Essex and the styles vary considerably, especially Jimmy Rodger whose family hailed from Glasgow. We get a pretty good idea of repertoire which includes popular songs like Dark Town Strutters Ball, Over the Rainbow, Ain’t Misbehaving and China Doll as well as traditional tunes.

The inclusion of the DVD with Billy Bennington playing make it a great package. There’s some great close-ups of Billy playing which make it very useful and interesting for dulcimer players, especially his demonstration of how he was taught to play scales by Billy Cooper, who also features on the CD. It’s fascinating to watch how he uses a combination of plucking and hammers to create that essentially Norfolk sound. I was mesmerised watching him play ‘My Beloved Cornelia’ on his heavy duty dulcimer with 5 strings per course. This is a lovely bit of filming by the late Barry Callaghan done in 1979 for the EFDSS.

What a rich area East Anglia has been for the dulcimer and traditional music, and now we have a valuable historical resource that is brought alive with delightful recordings and Billy Bennington chatting about playing in the 1920s in between his deft handiwork.

Essex Folk News

Subtitled Dulcimer Playing in East Anglia this is a collection of archive recordings plus a short DVD of Billy Bennington giving detailed close up shots of his playing.

Exceptionally for Veteran this recording lacks the usual detailed booklet with details of both the performers and the recordings. The former is covered on a separate website but we don’t have dates or locations for the recordings. [The reviewer has now realised that the dates and location of the recordings are included on back of the CD cover and this will pointed out in the next edition of the magazine]. These were made at various times and places by John Howson, Russell Wortley, David Kettlewell. Steve Shipley and Neil Lanham. The oldest of the players died in 1965 and the technology for making recordings ¡n the field has improved over the years so, despite re-mastering, the quality of the recordings is variable.

The CD opens with 9 tracks from Norfolk based Billy Bennington (1900— 1986). There are also 8 tracks each from Billy Cooper (1883 — 1964) and Reg Reader (1931 — 2014) who played with Katie’s Quartet. The other six musicians are not so well known and include Oswald Stammers (1904— 2002) from Saffron Walden in Essex, Jimmy Rodger, a Scot about whom little is known who lived in Yarmouth and the only woman on the recording Mollie Whittaker from Wells Next The Sea.

If you play, or want to play, hammer dulcimer then this is essential listening (and viewing) to learn from some of the masters. The casual listener might find it a little much played from start to finish but ripped and shuffled into a larger playlist it will certainly form part of my regular listening.

Background to the artists and the instrument can be found at www.eastangliandulcimers.org.uk

Folk London


The East Anglian hammered dulcimer is a relatively neglected instrument with its own tradition of folk tunes and popular melodies from its heyday (roughly 1850-1930). I Thought I Was The Only One gathers together recordings of nine players, mostly recorded towards the end of their lives, with a wide variety of techniques and instruments. The audio quality is not always high, even for recordings made in the fifties and sixties, but the authenticity is undeniable and there is a lot of material here. In 38 short tracks, this CD covers music hall favourites such as Down At The Old Bull And Bush and Two Lovely Black Eyes, Irish nostalgia such as Peggy O’Neill and The Isle OF Inishfree, traditional dance tunes like Soldier’s Joy or Heel And Toe Polka, and showpieces including The Sailor’s Hornpipe and Devil Among The Tailors.

There’s a DVD too, filmed in 1979 of Billy Bennington from Norfolk, which shows the dulcimer itself and the playing techniques in great detail. Billy talks at some length about his playing and the dulcimer tradition generally, and performs nine pieces. The sound quality and tuning are among the better examples here, and Billy’s skill is exceptional even in his late seventies. The only player with more to offer musically in this collection is Reg Reader, a different generation: born in 1931 , Reg was recorded in 1998 and was greatly influenced by Billy Bennington’s music in the 1970s. He performs the final eight tracks on the CD, a mix of local tunes, American hits, traditional fiddle tunes and popular songs. The versatility of this instrument is much the same as the similar American hammered dulcimer, and ¡t seems the East Anglian players developed a repertoire to please their pub audiences and to appeal to their own eclectic tastes.

Every track is a dulcimer solo, with melody and accompaniment coming from the same instrument. Most of the musicians on I Thought I Was The Only One are only represented on two or three tracks, some of them very brief, but the music can still be fascinating. Listen to the first piece by Oswald Stammers for instance, The other major contributor to this collection is Billy Cooper, born in Norfolk in 1883 and recorded around the age of 80. His eight pieces here may be a snapshot of the older tradition, as he learnt the dulcimer from his father. They include music hall waltzes, dance tunes (The Girl I Left Behind Me, Old Towler, The Perfect Cure, The Post Horn Gallop) and his own Hingham Waltz. More information on this music is available at a special website which is well worth a visit if you have any interest in hammered dulcimers.

The Living Tradition


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