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Article MT284

Harry Cox

"Ain't that beautiful?"

Harry Cox (27 March 1885 - 6 May 1971)

Norfolk fiddler extraordinaire

Harry Cox at the age of 84
[Yarmouth Mercury, 14 Nov 1969]

An appreciation

When, as a relative youngster, I first heard Harry Cox's fiddle-playing (the odd track on the old EFDSS LP), I - like most people, I imagine - found the 'noise' an insurmountable barrier to any musical - as opposed to 'cultural' - appreciation of his playing.  At the time I thought that the 'noise' in question was generated by his lack of ability on the instrument.  I now realise, of course, that this wasn't the case: the 'noise' was itself cultural, inasmuch as at the time it didn't really occur to me - absurd as it may seem in retrospect - that he and I might not subscribe to the same standards as regards intonation, articulation or melody.  He was, after all, one of the most feted traditional singers in the country.

After half a lifetime's immersion in traditional English fiddling, and having been privileged enough to witness what was to prove to be the last hurrah of traditional music in East Anglia - and its echo - I now realise that the many recordings of Harry's fiddling, made at different times during his life, offer a rich feast indeed for anyone interested in traditional music, and that in the 'deep' tradition he exemplifies there are wonders which the tradition in its more accessible manifestations only hints at.  For if there is one thing which Harry's playing is not it is accessible: I don't imagine for one moment that anyone will read this, go away and listen to Harry Cox and say "Oh yes, I see just what he means": that would demand a much more protracted - and single-minded - familiarity with his playing.

The fiddle was not Harry's only instrument: he also played - and was recorded playing - the whistle and the melodeon, over a long period of time and by a number of collectors, notably - but by no means only - Mervyn Plunkett and Frank Purslow, whose recordings from 1959 and 1960/1962 I have used here (though I doubt whether his playing would have received that much attention had he not been, as I have already pointed out, among the most celebrated traditional singers - even beyond his native Norfolk - of the 20th century).

Some of the repertoire he recorded is peculiar (as far as he is concerned) to one of those instruments.  Some of the oldest items in his repertoire, for example, which he apparently acquired from his father - Soldier's Joy, Flowers of Edinburgh, the Railway Hornpipe - seem only to have featured in his (recorded) fiddle repertoire, while other items of similar antiquity which survived into the 20th century as part of the core Norfolk, and for that matter East Anglian, repertoire (though not exclusively, of course) - such as the Manchester (Yarmouth) Hornpipe (fiddle and melodeon), and the Bristol Hornpipe (fiddle, melodeon and whistle) - are common to two of his instruments or all three.  And he would usually play a different version of such tunes according to the instrument he was playing (and, presumably, his source).  In that way his fiddle tunes (and presumably style) may reflect his father's repertoire, while the versions he played on the melodeon may be more a reflection of the (once) contemporary repertoire of north-east Norfolk.  But whichever the version and whatever the instrument he would always play as he sang.  His muse was indivisible.

Modern interest in the context of traditional music has inevitably focused on the role of traditional musicians in their community.  But it should never be forgotten that even traditional musicians also play for themselves: take Stephen Baldwin, for example, espied fiddling away to himself on the back of a wagon until morning long after his proper audience was in bed, or, closer to home, George Craske, another Norfolk musician, playing his melodeon on his allotment, long after he had any other audience.

But unlike such musicians Harry had always been what might be termed a domestic player: he played largely at home for his own amusement.  As his daughter Myrtle remembered: "He'd play anywhere.  It weren't for me or anybody else.  He just used to do it...  He would just sit there in his chair, and, you know, he'd just get his violin, his violin was upstairs.  He'd have that down or he might get the melodeon type thing or he might just sit back and sing."

Harry's father, Bob 'Battler' Cox (1837 - 1928), was evidently a respected singer and fiddler, in much demand on festive occasions and in the local pubs: when money was short he could often earn as much as a day's pay for an evening's playing, with beer thrown in.  Harry recalled how as a boy of four he would accompany his father to the pub: "he had that fiddle and he used to go and play at the pub of Saturday night I used to go along o' him".  There he would "cap round" for coppers.  Harry told Peter Kennedy:

Harry himself started to play the fiddle where he was about eleven, at the same time as he first sang a song in public (at the Union Tavern in Smallburgh).

Most of Harry's repertoire - whatever the instrument - is part of the stock in trade of the traditional East Anglian musician.  Interestingly enough, he seems to have reserved the fiddle for two categories of tune:

On the subject of music and dancing in the pubs in general, Harry suggested that musicians from outside generally did better than local ones, and that some of the travelling fiddle players at that time were comparatively wealthy.  He described the dancing in the pubs as "step-dancing and clog-dancing mixed in with four-hand reels and other country dances".  And to quote Harry: "Polkas?  I never was in that.  These here old women they used to like what they called a jig - a jig-step they called it.  These here old girls they used to come in the pubs and have a spree - used to kind of skip and mess about".

Harry's denial of any involvement with polkas may seem strange, but most of the polka-type tunes played locally were song-tunes and probably thought of as such, or one-offs, like the Heel and Toe Polka (more familiar as 1-2-3-4-5).  And Harry would in any case probably have thought of the polka as a type of dance rather than a type of tune, as he would also a jig.  The 19th century tune-type which most frequently augmented the older hornpipes and "jigs" was the schottische.  (And the wearing of clogs for work was once much more widespread than modern prejudices allow). 

Here's Harry playing a distinctive version of the tune known in Norfolk as the Yarmouth Hornpipe, in Suffolk as Pigeon on the Gate, and to earlier (and later) generations of musicians as the Manchester Hornpipe:

And here is another hornpipe which he may have learnt from his father ("another one they used to dance to"), a version of the Bristol Hornpipe, of which he played quite different versions on the fiddle, whistle and melodeon:

This tune was once as popular as the previous tune in East Anglia, and indeed throughout England and in Wales, but never by that name, and seldom by any name at all.  Every musician seems to have had his or her own quite distinctive variant: Harry had three - one for each of his instruments.  His version on the melodeon is closer to the versions played by other melodeon players in East Anglia.

Here's yet another hornpipe - their popularity was due to their association with step-dancing - which seems to have been known to every fiddler in Victorian England and Wales, as well as in Ireland, which was once known as the Railway or Steampacket Hornpipe.  Harry's version is distinctive, with the variation he plays in the 1st half of the 2nd strain in the 'repeat', but otherwise has a close parallel in the version which Cecil Sharp collected from the (settled) traveller Tom Cave of Evercreech, Somerset, in 1907 (see my article on the Caves in Folk Music Journal 2012 for a transcription).

(For more about the popularity and diffusion of the last two tunes see my Name That Tune and Ceol rince na mBreathnach, Musical Traditions Articles nos. MT251 and MT272 respectively).

And here he is playing a version of the Winter's Night Schottische, which will be familiar from the version played by Stephen Baldwin [MTCD334 Track 41].  Peter Kennedy recorded a 'live' version from Fred Pigeon in Devon [Folktracks FTX087].  Unless Billy Harris's Hornpipe, as recorded by Fred Whiting [MTCD350 Track 23 - MT Article 265 has a sound clip] is a version of this tune, it seems otherwise to be unrecorded in East Anglia.

Here Harry (or his source) seems - not for the only time - to have constructed a new 2nd strain from the 1st strain.

The tunes which he reserved for the melodeon and/or whistle (the Perfect Cure, Old Joe, ...; I wish he'd do it now (aka the Wearing of the Green, and the Captain with his whiskers); the Strand/Belfast Hornpipe (with its the typically British 2nd strain); Woodland Flowers; as well as the schottische which now usually bears his name) seem to represent a newer element in the East Anglian repertoire.  Here, by way of example, he is playing Harry Cox's Schottische on the melodeon.  (Other tunes played by Harry Cox on the melodeon may be heard on the The Bonny Labouring Boy [Topic TSCDS120] and Pigeon on the Gate [Veteran VTDC11CD).

Modern musicians have sought to straighten out Harry's 'crooked' start to the tune, with its extra half-bar, but comparison with other versions - Mrs Crowfoot's as published (for the Norfolk Long Dance) in vol. 7 of the EFDSS's Community Dance Manual for example (1972; reproduced as the Sidestrand Long Dance in Alan Helsdon's Hawk and Harnser) - show they have shortened the wrong note.

In some ways Harry reminds me of Scan Tester, inasmuch as they both seem to deconstruct the raw material of tradition - its tunes - and reassemble them in a form where the conventional rules of (and relationships between) melody and rhythm no longer hold sway.  This is what I mean by 'deep' tradition: the repertoire is internalised, and points of reference to anything else, and in particular to musical norms prevailing outside the internalised repertoire, and even to its own past or origin, are minimised.

It may not be irrelevant that Scan was also originally a fiddler, but his transition to the tempered scale of the concertina means that his music is rather more accessible to the modern ear.  Some idea of what Scan Tester sounded like as a fiddler may perhaps be evident in the playing of his musical associate Bill Gorringe, whom Melvyn Plunkett recorded at Cuckfield in Sussex in 1958.  Compare his rendition of the Manchester Hornpipe with Harry Cox's rendition of the same tune (see the Yarmouth Hornpipe above).

What these two musicians have in common is the way in which they both approach the tune not through the melody but through the rhythm which the melody suggests.  And, as can be heard, the melody clearly suggested much the same rhythm to both musicians.  It is also the rhythm rather than the melody which is the point of departure for variation on, or perhaps rather deviation from, the basic tune.  (And for present purposes by 'tune' I mean [melody + rhythm]).  Elsewhere in East Anglia I detect parallels with Fred Whiting's renditions of the oldest items in his repertoire, such as the Earl Soham Slog (a version - at least in its first strain - of the Four-hand reel tune) and the aforesaid Yarmouth Hornpipe.  While much of Fred Whiting's playing shows the later influence of - presumably - the Irish musicians he met in Australia, his playing of these earlier local items is direct and forceful in the same way as Harry Cox's playing, and seems to observe the same rules of (and exhibit the same relationship between) melody and rhythm.

So what is it that appeals to me about Harry Cox's fiddling?  Like most English fiddling it is obviously extremely powerful and yet - in its way - precise and sophisticated.  That sophistication lies in the way he accents the music, which he does as effectively as any modern virtuoso might (but seldom does).  Rough, it's true, and sometimes inexact, but those characteristics do not in any way detract from its excitement - and it is exciting music.  Nowhere is there the tentativeness or uncertainty which might bewray inexperience: Harry Cox feared neither turn nor triplet, and such devices in fact lard his performances.  I cite this not as an indication of virtuosity (which traditional musicians in 20th-century England - with the possible exception of small-pipers - seem to have eschewed completely in favour of expressiveness) but of confidence, a confidence which lends his music a rough majesty which is utterly convincing once you have learnt the language.

Familiarity with Harry Cox's tunes - and they are most definitely his tunes rather than recitals of standard or even non-standard versions - will reveal that they are as finely-crafted as his songs: indeed, you can almost hear his voice in the mix, and he delivers them in much the same fashion.  But whether his musical voice is an altogether idiosyncratic one, I'm not sure.  Here, for instance, is John Woodrow of Ingham, which forms a triangle with Catfield and Barton Turf just to the south of Happisburgh [pron. Hazeburgh] playing a local stepping tune he called the Yarmouth Hornpipe, which was recorded by a number of collectors, here for once with a regular number of bars.

It strikes me (on the strength of this performance) that John Woodrow's voice is very similar to that of Harry Cox, despite the difference in instrument, as is his approach to melody and rhythm.  As regards the similarity in 'voice', I would tentatively associate this with their common spoken accent (without pursuing that particular Snark any further here, other than to say that a similar voice can be heard in the myriad recordings of Pigeon on the Gate - for example - from Suffolk and Essex which can be heard on the many CDs of traditional music from East Anglia which John Howson has released on the Veteran label).

I realise that many if not most will think me mad to suggest there might be any value in Harry's fiddle playing, but for me he distils the very essence of traditional music as it survived in 20th century England and then serves it up neat.  Heady stuff indeed.

For a more detailed biography - and details of my sources - see Roy Palmer's Article in the Dictionary of National Biography which can be viewed on line at

Appendix 1: James Jimpson

The picture below, which first appeared in The Graphic on 22 October 1887, will already be familiar to many with an interest in traditional music in East Anglia or in 'English Country Music'.  It shows James Jimpson (1818 - 1899), landlord of the King's Head, at Hoveton, near Wroxham, in Norfolk, between 1865 and 1892, but originally of Salhouse, playing the fiddle while his customers step-dance or look on.

This picture depicts a scene similar to and almost contemporary with the occasions Harry Cox describes when he would accompany his father to Barton Turf White Horse, and a stone's throw from Smallburgh, where Harry Cox first sang in public at the Union Tavern and where his mother had been born.

Appendix 2:

The places in the north-east of Norfolk which are associated with Harry Cox - Barton Turf, where he was born, and nearby Catfield, where he lived with his family from the late 1920s until he died, are in an area which provided a wealth of traditional music for collectors throughout the 20th century.  The fact that so many traditional musicians should be found in such a discreet area is not in itself significant: I discovered the same situation in and around the Forest of Dean when researching the notes for the Musical Traditions CD devoted to the Gloucestershire fiddler, Stephen Baldwin (see MT Article 160).

What is unusual - and priceless beyond compare - is the fact that we should have such a unique and comprehensive record, on paper and in the form of sound recordings, of the traditional musicians who flourished there in the 20th century.  As well as Harry Cox at Catfield, the latter include John Woodrow, whom we have already mentioned, at Ingham, Albert Hewitt and Harry Baxter at Southrepps, George Craske at Sustead, Herbert Mallet at Aldborough, Percy Brown at Felmingham and Aylsham, and Charlie Buller at Erpingham, of whom the only other fiddler was Harry Baxter.  And a little further north we have Bob Davies at Cromer (to my mind the most impressive of the traditional East Anglian melodeon players) and at Blakeney a fiddler of quite a different stamp in the form of Herbert Smith.  And on paper we have the many musicians in the same area whose tunes were noted down by Joan Roe in the 1930s (and reproduced by Alan Helsdon in Hawk and Harnser [Quanting, 2nd ed. 2005], as well as George Watson (1859- 1943/4), the brickmaker of Swanton Abbott (or rather, apparently, Skeyton) whose extraordinary tune book was discovered by Victor Bowden.

Phil Heath-Coleman - 13.5.13

Article MT284

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