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The Abbots Bromley Tune

Italicized notes by David Parr, Artistic Director, California Revels

In response to what seems to me a great deal of misunderstanding and invented fact that swirls around the “authenticity” of music played for the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, I thought it might be good to present some original source material to help inform the discussion. The first quote presented here is from Cecil Sharp, and probably engendered much of the opinion that since the quest to find the proper traditional music at the time of his original documentation of the dance had “failed”, no tune, including the popular “Wheelwright Robinson's Tune” has any particular claim to “authenticity”.

Sword Dances of Northern England

by Cecil Sharp

The Music

There is no special or traditional tune for the dance. The musician told me that any country dance air would serve, provided that it was played in the proper time (in Common Time of quarter note equals 108). When I saw the dance performed two tunes only were played, “Yankee Doodle“ and the following simple little melody:
Listen in MIDI View in SCORCH

In a letter written in 1893 by the vicar of the parish (see “Folklore Journal,” vol. iv, pg. 172), it is stated that a special tune used to be played for the horn dance by a man with a fiddle and within the memory of some men living, but that all efforts to recover it had failed.

Chapter 3 - The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

While it is certainly true that the dancers in Abbots Bromley, England have generally ignored the “Wheelwright Robinson's Tune” in favor of a wide variety of other pieces, it is equally apparent that the “Robinson's” tune was played regularly for the dance for at least eighty years before it was supplanted by other tunes in the late nineteenth century. Marcia Ellis Rice was a resident and chronicler of Abbots Bromley. A member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, she wrote several books and monographs of the culture of Abbots Bromley and Staffordshire. In this excerpt, she documents the various songs attached to the dance at the turn of the 20th century, and the emergence of the “Wheelwright Robinson's Tune” as, if not the true “Old Tune”, at least the oldest tune that could be recalled by anyone living in the village at the time of her research.

Abbots Bromley

by Marcia Ellis Rice Headmistress of the School of St. Mary and St. Anne 1900 – 31

So much for the dance. We now pass to the somewhat complicated subject of the music. It would seem that it should be simple enough to produce the dance music, for within the memory of the oldest inhabitants there have only been four musicians. Mrs. Bentley tells us that the musician of her early childhood was a fiddler, she has forgotten his name. After him came “old Mr. Fenton“ who introduced the concertina. “He went from village to village playing the concertina and he used to play with the Horns sometimes.” This was in the 80s when Mrs. Bentley was a little girl. After him came Mrs. Bentley's brother, Rock (not the Shoemaker), and from him, her nephew Tom Sammons, son of our Mrs. Sammons who worked for St. Anne's practically all her life, inherited the position. Tom died in 1933 and the concertina is now in the abeyance. There is no one in the village forthcoming. The leader has to “borrow“ a musician from wherever he can. But in spite of the fact that the musicians have been few the dancers can produce no written music. There was once an old score. Miss Alice Lowe can vouch for that. But it has long been lost. The Bentley family who are in charge of such properties as are not kept in the church, do not remember it. “The concertina has always been played by ear,” says Mrs. Bentley; and for this reason the old tunes that for long were handed down, either with or without a score, are now in danger of being forgotten. The modern musician plays “Yankee Doodle“ or any other popular air of the day, and the dancers seem content. In all probability the score was lost when the fiddler of Mrs. Bentley's childhood died, and the concertina replaced the fiddle.

We can, however, produce four old tunes, and it is much to be hoped that the Horn dancers will be grateful for their rescue, will cherish them and return to them. Here is the story of the rescue. There is one tune which is well known to our readers, whether villagers or Old Girls. It was always played in the early years of this century; then as time went on it became noticeable that “Yankee Doodle” was too often substituted. In our ignorance we called it “ the old tune“ unaware of any older one. Consequently when the Horns, of their courtesy, “came out” for our Jubilee in 1924 we begged for the simple haunting tune we associated with the dance. The answer was that it was “forgotten“. Entreaty and some persistence, however, produced it from the memory of the players. And in time to this music the hobbyhorse snapped its jaws, the boy bate his triangle, and the horns were danced in our hall. This music was not allowed to be forgotten. It was at once written down and is printed in the 1924 number of “the leaflet of St. Mary's and St. Anne's Guild”. We were quite unaware, and so were the horn dancers, that Mr. Cecil Sharp had heard this tune when he visited Abbots Bromley in or about 1910, and that he had printed it in“Sword Dances of Northern Europe”, 1911 – 12 and commented upon it in his chapter on the horn dance. Comparison of the tune as written down by him and by us shows to be the same. So this tune is well identified.

But this is not the tune of the lost score. Miss Lowe tells us that. This written music was in existence in her father's time as vicar. She describes the air as “quaint old music written on a single sheet of paper.“ When it was lost we do not know. The Rev. Stuart Berkley, who became vicar in 1889, became aware of the loss of the old tune and made unavailing efforts to recover it. He mentions this fact in a letter which is quoted in A Folklore Article in 1893. But Mr. Cecil Sharp was far more fortunate than the vicar. After his visit to Abbots Bromley, owing to the publicity he then gave to the horn dance, he received, in 1910, a letter from a Mr. Buckley sending him a tune which he said had given to him in 1857 or 1858 by a wheelwright, Robinson, in Abbots Bromley, who claimed to be the only man in the village who could play the old tune. Mr. Buckley had quote noted down the air from the fiddling of Robinson.” This tune Mr. Cecil Sharp printed his collection of airs for his folk dances, but unfortunately, he took no steps to get the music identified by any of the old inhabitants of Abbots Bromley, and until now the dancers have remained unaware that a tune claiming to be their old horn dance tune had been recovered and printed. It is too late now to get any corroboration of the tune which it would seem was dying out in 1857 or 1858. But inquiries have elicited the following facts, and produced two more old tunes of the later 19th century. Mr. Joseph Salt remembers Robinson, the Wheelwright, well. Mr. Robinson owned the Carpenter’s business carried on in the yard and shed opposite St. Anne's. He sold his business to Mr. George Bradbury's father in 1878, when he was about 80 years old. He was a popular figure in his day. He never “went with the horns“. His social status was above that. But he was musical, Mr.Salt asserts that he was “the only man in Bromley who could play the old tune.” This is important evidence, for Mr. Salt thus confirms Mr. Buckley. There was an old tune which only the Wheelwright, Robinson, could play. We are grateful indeed to Mr. Buckley for having noted it down all these years ago, and Mr. Sharp for having drawn his attention to the horn dance. Whether this is really the music of the old score none are left to say. Only Miss Lowe is aware that there ever was this written sheet of music, and she cannot identify the air after all these long years. Of our other authorities Joseph Salt was only four years old in 1857. William Adie, Mrs. Bentley, Mr. Rock were none of them born. The old tune was lost before their day. But the discussion concerning it that has now arisen has roused both William Adie and Mrs. Bentley's niece, Edie Sammons, sister of Tom, the musician, to search their memories, and they have produced the airs that were played in their young days. Adie’s tune belongs to the 70s and 80s, and is suggestive of the tune of the old song “Going to the Fair.“ Edie's belongs to the 90s into the beginning of this century and it will be seen that it is practically identical with the one produced for our Jubilee. Wheelwright Robinsons is the most original and most akin to dance rhythm. In it we have a tune played for our dance over 100 years old – “old” in 1857. We may certainly hope that it gives us the ancient music of the horn dance.

published by Wilding and Sons limited Shrewsbury, 1939

Here are the tunes referred to in Marcia Rice's article. Note the similarity that Rice mentions between the tune first collected by Sharp and the tune played for the St. Anne's Jubilee, which was taken at the time to be the “Old Tune”.

The Wheelwright Robinson's Tune

Listen in MIDI View in SCORCH

Listen in MIDI View in SCORCH

Listen in MIDI View in SCORCH

Listen in MIDI View in SCORCH

A final note not really bearing upon the music, but rather on the origin of the dance: The “official” version, put forward by the Parish of Abbots Bromley, has it that the dance originated at Bartholomy Fair in Staffordshire in August of 1226. It then was transplanted into September's Wakes Monday due to the shift in dates occasioned by the adoption of the Julian Calendar in the 16th century. I've not seen any research that bears out the 13th century date, but writers generally point to the following work by Dr. Robert Plot to give evidence of the existence of the dance as early as the 17th century, albeit in the Christmas-12th night season (the spellings are Plot's).

“ At Abbots, or now rather Paget's Bromley, they had also, within memory, a sort of sport, which they celebrated at Christmas (on New year and Twelft day) called the Hobbyhorse dance, from a person that carried the image of a horse between his legs, made of thin boards, and in his hand a bow and arrow, which passing through a hole in the bow, and stopping upon a shoulder it had in it, he made a snapping noise as he drew it to and fro, keeping time with the Music: with this man danced six others, carrying on their shoulders as many Rain deer's heads, 3 of them painted white, and 3 red, with the Armes of the chief families (viz. of Padgett, Bagot, and Wells) to whom the revenews of the Town chiefly belonged, depicted on the palms of them, with which they danced the Hays, and other Country dances. To this Hobbyhorse dance are also belong’d a pot, which was kept by turnes, by 4 or 5 of the cheif of the town, whom they call’d Reeves, who provided Cakes and Ale to put in this pot; all people who had any kindness for the good intent of the Institution of the sport, giving pence a piece for themselves and families; and so forraigners too, that came to see it: with which Mony (the charge of the Cakes and Ale being defrayed) they not only repaired their church but kept their poore too: which charges are not now perhaps so cheerfully boarn.“

Dr. Robert Plot, A Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686