Keepers of Suffolk's music

PUBLISHED: 11:08 21 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:54 20 February 2013

Keepers of Suffolk's music

Keepers of Suffolk's music

John and Katie Howson have been safeguarding rural Suffolk's musical heritage for more than 30 years.

John and Katie Howson have been safeguarding rural Suffolks musical heritage for more than 30 years an unlikely pastime perhaps for a Liverpool lad and Essex lass. This year sees these Stowmarket-based founders of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust being awarded the highest accolade in English folk music

Many of our readers might not know what to expect from traditional Suffolk music. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Its the songs, tunes and dances handed down informally through families and local communities. From what we know, this took place largely in pubs impromptu, do-it-yourself entertainment with everyone encouraged to join in, if you like. At the turn of the 20th century every village pub in Suffolk would have had a singer, a squeeze box player and someone who would do a stepdance thats like an improvised tap dance. Sing, say, or pay was the local saying, though you could play of course or even dance a jig doll. Everyone got involved or they had to buy the drinks!

Can you tell us about your traditional Suffolk instruments and the type of tunes you play?
Melodeons (sometimes called button accordions) and mouth-organs were the most widely played instruments in Suffolk and banjos make good chording accompaniment. Dulcimers were also very widespread in East Anglia in Ipswich, Woodbridge, Yoxford and Rattlesden. Lively polkas, jigs, hornpipes and waltzes are very typical tunes; the songs vary from traditional ballads to ones with a good chorus and comic songs which might have their roots in musical hall.

How did you come to be interested in traditional Suffolk music?
Topic Records used to issue LPs of traditional singers, some local to East Suffolk like Cyril Poacher and the Ling family. They were captivating even for a teenager back then!

When did it become more than just a hobby?
When we arrived here some 30 years ago and used to travel around by bike and bus, we realised that there were a handful of older generation local characters keeping musical traditions alive in Mid-Suffolk. We began to make field recordings. It wasnt long until John found himself leaving teaching to run his own record label, Veteran Records.

What about the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust where you are both artistic directors?
We founded the charity in 2000 with Katie as part time project manager. It followed some 20 years of informally encouraging Suffolk musicians and singers to share their traditions with a wider audience through Old Hat music nights at Stradbroke and Debenham, and at festivals around the country.

Where can we find you and other traditional Suffolk musicians playing these days?
In an increasing number of pubs and village halls, and places like the Blaxhall Ship which has a long music tradition. The Trust holds an annual Traditional Music Day at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket in September, when everyone can have a go at playing a traditional instrument, or just enjoy the music, singing, dancing and lively atmosphere.

Are the instruments difficult to play?
Both the melodeon and dulcimer lend themselves to being played by ear, so theres no need for any formal musical training, just the time and enthusiasm. Over the last 10 years, weve introduced more than 200 adults to the melodeon, including many retired people, many of who had never played an instrument.

So is Suffolk traditional music just for the older generation?
Absolutely not. Its a friendly, informal environment where families and people of all ages are welcome to watch, have a go and join in the fun. There are stepdancers as young as eight who have picked up their steps by just watching dancers as old as 80. The sessions which the Trust runs in local schools really fire the childrens imagination.

The English Folk Dance & Song Society will be presenting you with their Gold Badge Award in April this year, possibly a first for Suffolk. You must feel very proud.
The notification about the award came right out of the blue. We are thrilled. Its a great honour.

Do you feel that youve put Suffolk on the traditional music map?
People say, weve kept the candle burning. There have been golden moments when weve been a linkspan between the past and present, like teaching Tiger Smiths jig to Tiger Smiths great grandson on the melodeon. Suffolk music is definitely more on the map we get people from Sweden travelling to Mendlesham for the melodeon day and weve taught traditional Suffolk tunes like Dolly Curtiss Dennington Bell in Holland.

Do you have a favourite Suffolk song or tune?
Theres a great popular stepdance tune, Pigeon on the Gate, though melodeon players (Katie!) will argue that it loses its attraction after playing it 20,000 times! Yellow Handkerchief is a real Suffolk anthem. There was an old boy we knew from Dennington way, Stalks Abbot, he sang a wonderful version of it.

What do you like about Suffolk apart from the music?
It is so friendly and quiet. The open spaces and huge skies are very special. Mind you, Greene King beer is too...

Do you have a favourite place?
Definitely Orford for its memorable trips on the Lady Florence with old friends, smoked feasts at Pinneys and that amazing end-of-the-world feeling. Its also where the Trust did its first aural tradition project, Tuning in, back in 2002

What about a favourite pub?
That has to be The Swan at Worlingworth, still a real horsemans haunt, where the Trust holds its annual stepdance competition; though we really like the Royal William in Stowmarket because its like a village pub here in the town.

Whats the best piece of advice you were ever given?
I wouldnt do it that way, boy!

Congratulations on your gold award. So whats next?
A Blue Peter Badge perhaps? No seriously, weve got school singing projects lined up in the Stour Valley, a long-awaited book about jig dolls with a preface by Rolf Harris, a DVD about stepdancing, a website about dulcimers... but the real pleasure is that the future of the Suffolk music tradition is not just in our hands there are so many more people now, young and old, actively taking the tradition forward.

For more information about the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, visit or call 01449 771090.

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