Thus Spake Stradling
The melodeon guru talks with Brian Peters
Rod Stradling has been described in the pages of Folk Roots magazine as "melodeon guru." I suspect it's not an epithet he'd have chosen for himself, since he's disarmingly modest about his playing and, though he does have strong opinions on a variety of musical issues, he's not a man to lay down the law. His influence on English melodeon playing, however, is considerable. In the mid-seventies, as the melodeon craze on the English folk scene saw every pub in a festival-hosting town become a sea of jostling black-and-gold Hohners, so the fledging players turned to Stradling's pioneering Old Swan Band in their search for repertoire. Sure "Morris On" turned many on to the squeezebox, but John Kirkpatrick played Anglo-concertina and button accordion on that record; Old Swan had a good old two-row pokerwork, the same as you or I could afford. When I met Rod at his home in the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, the first thing I asked him was how he had got started on melodeon, in those pioneering days of the early seventies.
"I got interested in folk music when I was in my late teens; I'd been in a skiffle group like all my generation were, then I discovered folk clubs, starting with the Singers Club, run by Ewan McColl. I got involved with running a club in Kingston, and one night a young Geordie chap walked into the club, clutching this small square suitcase, and when we asked him if he'd give us a song he brought out this strange instrument, which was the first time I ever seen, heard, or even heard of, a melodeon. He was Jim Bainbridge, and I was very impressed. The melodeon appealed to me in a way that no other tune instrument had."
Jim Bainbridge, I should add, is now based in Ireland and still tours regularly. But back to Rod, now bitten by the melodeon bug, and strolling through London's Portobello Road market with Danny (Old Swan percussionist and Rod's wife of many years) ..
"I saw this melodeon for a fiver, so I bought it! It was a little old wooden German affair, 1920s I guess, paper bellows and stuff, and I'll always remember when I first tried to play it I was holding it the wrong way round, playing the tune with my left hand, because with a guitar you make the notes with your left hand, and I assumed that's what you did. I soon got put right! I had that for 6 or 9 months then I was bought, for a wedding present, a second-hand one-row Hohner pokerwork, which you could actually play, it was a proper musical instrument. I started playing that, found I enjoyed it, and I bought myself a red mother-of-toilet-seat Erica for my next birthday. I never really looked back from that moment."
And what, I asked, would Rod's repertoire have been in those days was he always interested in English music?
"I wanted to play Irish music, of course; in those in days all the people of my age in London were playing it. I see now that Irish music is much easier to play badly, and that although English music is ostensibly simpler, it's very difficult to play well. You have to get a line on it somehow, and until you've understood what makes it exciting, it just sounds boring and simplistic. I suppose it was the "English Country Music" record with Walter and Daisy Bulwer, Reg Hall, and Mervyn Plunkett, that really got me interested in English stuff. There's nothing startling there in terms of repertoire it's just what they were playing in the pubs - or technical skill, it just swings like crazy, and it struck a chord that music hadn't done before."
As organisers of Islington's King's Head Folk Club, notable for the inclusion of social dancing as part of the evening's entertainment ("It gave everybody in the club the opportunity to participate in some way, which was really nice"), Rod and friends travelled to East Anglia, a relatively rural part of England in which traditional music flourished - and indeed still does. There the Stradlings got to know many musicians including the great Oscar Woods, a fine one-row melodeon player whose distinctive style was important in shaping Rod's own playing. You can hear him on the double cassette, "English Melodeon Players" (Veteran .). And, at the same time, the Stradlings were travelling to Sussex to see the fine Anglo-concertina player Scan Tester and to Devon to meet the Dartmoor melodeon player Bob Cann. "Those three musicians were the ones I heard most and played most with," says Rod.
After a couple of frenetic years playing both folk clubs and dances in the band "Oak" the Stradlings moved to Wiltshire, where they soon became involved with a music session in a pub called the Old Swan, in Cheltenham. Amongst the regulars were Fi and Jo Fraser, Martin Brinsford and Ken Langsbury, a singer who one day suggested that the session crowd accompany him on a folk club booking. The evening was a storming success, and thus was the Old Swan Band born. They soon realised that to work regularly they would have to play dances, not folk clubs, and it wasn't long before the band had a full diary and a record deal. The album title, "No Reels" reflected the rhythms of the Southern English music the band played, and deliberately distanced the band from the then-popular English Folk Dance & Song Society style of dance music, which Rod describes scornfully as "a narrow range of English tunes, mixed with a huge amount of modern tunes, plus American, Scottish, Irish, all played in that strict tempo, on the beat, sort of way, with lots of notes signifying nothing for the most part". So "No Reels" was part of a mission? "Yes it was definitely a crusade, and the title was meant to get up people's noses. It was a reaction to the Celtic and other stuff the EFDSS-type bands were doing, and the style they played in. Why were English people playing this stuff not very well, when there was all this wonderful English music they could be playing?"
There was, however, a price. The very accessibility of Old Swan's tunes attracted some poor players who went on to dominate music sessions, giving English music in general and the melodeon specifically a reputation for being dull and plodding in certain sections of the folk music press. Did this distress Rod?
"The thing that upset me was that a lot of people weren't listening to even the levels of subtlety that we were capable of putting into our playing, and secondly, that they were learning from us and not from our traditional sources, even though we were very careful to put in the notes of the record where this stuff was available. But I was pleased that there were so many people playing this stuff and excited by it, and I realised that after 10 or 20 years the dross would have fallen away and we'd be left with a core of people that were really doing it well."
At the time, I told Rod, I felt that the melodeon had a session reputation a bit like the bodhran there were always too many of them, they weren't usually played well, and they made too much noise. "I think that more than two melodeons in a session is pointless," came the reply.
Fast-forwarding a few years, the Old Swan Band ran its course, and Rod began to get involved with bands working outside the narrow remit of English dance music. The English Country Blues Band formed around the former Hot Vultures Ian A. Anderson (now editor of Folk Roots) and Maggie Holland, with Rod on melodeon and Chris Coe on hammered dulcimer, with a brief to play "blues with an English accent". ECB expanded in turn to the larger and wildly eclectic dance band Tiger Moth, while in the eighties both Rod and Danny joined what was then Edward II and the Red-Hot Polkas, which mixed English dance music with Reggae rhythms and eventually metamorphosed into the outfit now known simply as EII ("It's a totally different band now, but I love what they do"). So how did an apparent musical purist get mixed up with all this eclecticism?
"It all seemed perfectly natural to me," explains Rod, "I was excited by all kinds of music, I'd heard the record Ian and Maggie did, thought it was very interesting, and the next thing I knew was they said, 'do you want to be in the band?' I said, 'yeah, I can do that' . then I spent about a year learning that a melodeon is not a guitar, and that everything I had learned up to that point didn't apply any more. It was a wonderful experience coming to grips with playing a completely different music on the instrument. Rather than doing what a blues or Cajun musician would do, playing it backwards so you have all the notes, I played it frontwards - like I play it - and had to find a way of playing it that would work. That was what the band was about taking this stuff and playing it as English people. The idea of playing the instrument backwards was pointless, that's not what the exercise was."
I wondered whether working in other styles influenced the way Rod now plays English music; there seems to be more swing and syncopation there now than on the old records. He denies that he picked up other influences deliberately:
"You hear all these fusions of various sorts, and I've never heard one that was half as good as the two things they were trying to fuse. The stuff that I've heard and liked does gradually come in to my music, but not in hideously obvious ways, it becomes a natural element of the way in which I play. The one thing that typifies all the traditional performers I've ever known is that they're quite unselfconscious about the music that they play. They don't rationalise and I am precisely the same in my melodeon playing. What I do is what I am, nothing's been put there, it's happened unselfconsciously. I know the way I play is different from the way I played ten years ago, but precisely how, I don't know or care."
On a technical level, though, there have been changes in the way Rod approaches melodeon-playing: "Over the last few years I've been rediscovering the instrument. For years I looked at it as basically two one-row melodeons stuck together, but of course when you consider the possibilities in a bit more depth you've got a lot more potential than that. So for instance, if you're playing in D on the outer row and need to play a section of the melody against a G chord, you can shift the melody onto the G row and regard that section as if you'd actually changed key, rather than just changing chords. Or you can be playing in G and shift to the D row, rather than just find the D chord on the pull. I discovered that a few years ago and it opened up a whole lot of new possibilities, so that's the sort of thing I try and put across if I'm doing a workshop or something."
One foreign style that Rod has taken a lot of interest in over the years is Italian melodeon music, to the extent that he's helped to bring bands like I Tre Martelli and La Ciapa Rusa over to Britain. Italian button-box playing seems quite accessible to English ears in a way that other European musics don't, but on a technical level it operates rather differently. Over to Rod ..
"I'm drawn to it because at first hearing it sounds accessible familiar but a little bit exotic - and you think, 'I can understand that'. But when you start trying to play it, it's as different as English country music is from American country music. If we start getting techy, the prime difference (apart from the melodic and chordal structures which are different though not hideously so) is that they all play G/C boxes whereas we play D/G, and they play in the top octave where we play in the bottom octave. So the compass of the tunes is exactly the same, but the arrangement of the notes is different in the top octave from that in the bottom octave, so all the little frilly bits and accidentals and ornamentation that an English player would put in naturally is going to be different from what an Italian would put in . And of course I don't try to play it like an Italian; what I do is play a few Italian tunes in my own natural way in the bottom octave."
These days, though, more and more English melodeon players are not just lifting tunes from elsewhere, they're exploring other playing styles too. They're listening particularly to French squeezebox music, and the young box-playing stars on the English scene prefer to play across the rows instead of the old push-pull style, to syncopate everything, to play jazzy chords, and so on. The melodeon is becoming a creature of the concert platform rather than the dance hall - does Rod feel that something is being lost along the way?
"Absolutely. I find that so uninteresting - it doesn't speak to me at all. I can marvel at the technical skill, but the music just goes straight past me. I think a huge amount has been lost, or is being missed. I can't imagine how those young musicians, with good musical brains, have missed what is so wonderful about English dance music. But despite all the sparkle and the flash of these other musics there is this solid strength in English music that pulls you back. OK, you can only be drawn back to something if you've been off somewhere else, so I think it's absolutely right that these kids are doing other sorts of stuff. But I hope that when they're older and wiser and calmer, they will find how wonderful our music is."
"No, honestly, that isn't true. We did a tour in Italy 6 or 7 years ago as a scratch band; we didn't have a name so we became known as "The English", which struck me as rather a nice name, but Paul Burgess - whose band it is came up with the present name. We certainly don't say: 'this is how it should be played'. The statement that Paul wrote everyone thinks it was me, but it isn't my band means what it says: that there's a lot of music being played that is ostensibly based in the tradition, by people who haven't bothered to look at the tradition or listen to the music at all, so in the face of that we'd like to play some music that is. No more than that."
The band has made a recording of dance standards, to order for a specialist company, but I get the impression that Rod isn't overjoyed with the results and would like the band to make a record of their own musical choices. Let's hope they do. And what are the remaining plans and ambitions of Rod Stradling, Melodeon Guru extraordinaire?
"I now edit Musical Traditions magazine on the Internet and I want to try and make it the best magazine in the world for the sort of music I love. We also publish short-run CDs of traditional performers whose stuff would never be published commercially. I've got about 15 of those in the pipeline and would very much like to see most of them published before too long. I still play for Bampton Morris, which is very important to me, as is the band. And I still play in sessions, whenever I can, wherever I can, for as long as possible!" "
Brian Peters is a melodeon and concertina player from England, and writes occasionally for RootsWorld and Folk Roots.