“Traditional music isn’t cool and sophisticated, it isn’t easy listening, it isn’t quiet and introspective. It’s simple and straightforward, it’s full of life and lust, it’s dark and dangerous, it’s exotic and mysterious. It addresses the uncivilised part of human nature, it deals with epic themes in a way we can cope with, it channels our excess energy, it makes us feel we belong somewhere.” – John Kirkpatrick

Traditional music making in Sussex reflects the wider position found throughout Southern England. It can be thought of as having three strands, Religious, Military and Dance music. Each of these had the important elements of ­Function and Continuity which have always been essential for the survival of traditional music making.

For nearly 200 years, one way in which village musicians in England could practice their talent was in the band playing the religious music of their local parish church. After the Civil War, the Puritans banned all instruments from church and removed or destroyed all organs. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, and church services returned to how they were before the Civil War, the musical vacuum was filled by local musicians who comprised the church band (or ‘quire’). In many churches, a special gallery was built to accommodate this band, and as this was on the western side of the church, modern enthusiasts often refer to this style of music as ‘West Gallery music’.

West Gallery at Brightling – St Thomas-à-Becket. The usual practice of organ pipes having replaced the church quire area exists here.

There was no fixed instrumentation for these bands, which were made up of whatever local people could play – stringed instruments such as fiddles and viols were common, as were clarinets and flutes, and a large snake-like wind instrument called a serpent often provided a bass line.

In church, their repertoire was relatively small. No hymns were allowed, and they played exclusively metrical psalms (based directly on the words of the Bible). Vicars of the period took little part in the musical parts of the service, which was left to the Parish Clerk to organise. He often ‘lined out’ the psalm, which meant that he read each line out in a sing-song voice, which was then played by the band and sung by the congregation. This practice tended to slow down and elongate the whole procedure.

As the mid nineteenth century approached, the old church bands were caught up in the widespread reforms which were sweeping the Anglican Church, and they came under intense scrutiny and criticism. Their style of singing and playing was ridiculed as uncouth, amateur, and stylised, and their reputation was not helped by the fact that band members (like the bell-ringers) were a law unto themselves and often did not behave themselves in the way that the church authorities thought they should. The Established church itself was also under intense competition from the growing number of non-conformists chapels who deliberately used lively congregational singing to attract church-goers into their services.

In many places quite bitter disputes went on between church band and clergy, but the latter always triumphed, and by the 1850s most bands had been swept away and were replaced by organs, harmoniums, or barrel-organs, and newly-formed vocal choirs which broke with tradition by allowing women and children to take an active role. Hymns were at last admitted into the regular repertoire.

There is plenty of evidence that the church band members were the same musicians as played for other occasions in village life – weddings, Christmas parties, harvest suppers, and any other occasion that called for music and dancing. They were also the carol singers who perambulated the parish on Christmas Eve, serenading the inhabitants. Thomas Hardy looks back with some nostalgia to the time when both his grandfathers played in a church band in his 1872 novel Under The Greenwood Tree.

The Dance Music of the south of England can be divided into three different strands according to its function. These are tunes associated with ritual and display dance (Cotswold Morris, molly, border Morris etc.) step dancing and social dancing. Although there are many morris sides in Sussex today, there are little or no record of ritual dance in Sussex. Maypole dancing is also a relatively modern innovation although it became very widespread and popular in schools.

Step dancing is a vernacular form of tap dancing, where individual dancers improvise a sequence of steps, most frequently to a hornpipe tune played on a solo instrument. Its natural environment was the tap-room of country pubs. In the south of England dancers were largely self-taught and the rhythmic effects that the dancers produced were as important as the visual effect. Typically, a number of dancers would be gathered together and would follow one another in short bursts of displays. It was vitally important that the musician should bring the exact tempo and provide enough lift in their playing to bring the best out of the dancers. It was often present in the streets when a large crowd was gathered together at markets, fairs, hop-picking time etc. and at those times it was used as a form of busking. Several travelling families have reported that as children they were encouraged to practice their steps regularly so that they could become the centre of attention when their parents were playing as buskers.

Playing for social dancing was also often down to a solo musician often a fiddle player but there are a number of records of small (often family) bands playing for dances at harvest homes, for weddings and for other celebrations in Sussex. The best known example was the Tester family of Horsted Keynes who had a number of fine musicians and has music making as one of the many ways in which they earned a living. Lewis ‘Scan’ Tester hired rooms and taught the dances – quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, and the like – before the dance started. His brother Trayton, brought a bandoneon back from Germany after the First World War. It was an oversized concertina, with a full deep sound, excellent for un-amplified playing.

 Testers’ Imperial Jazz Band – Scan Tester with his wife and daughter. “Jazz” does not refer to the sort of music that they played but to the fact that they had a small drum kit which at that time was called a “jazz set”.

The fiddle, the one-row melodeon and the mouth-organ were the dominant instruments in both the bands and for singing / step dancing evenings in pubs often to the accompaniment of tambourines, much larger and deeper sounding than the present instruments found in schools. Scan Tester played various instruments at different times of his life – keyed bugle, fiddle, bandoneon and concertina and it is that last named that he has become best known and the iconic figure amongst English Country Dance musicians. Ironically, the concertina which has become ubiquitous in tune sessions in recent years was not widely played by traditional musicians in Sussex; probably because it was always a relatively expensive instrument. He always talked about his instruments as his ‘musics’. He once said to me in interview, “I take great care of my musics…. clean them… look after them. Not like some….”

There are significantly fewer recordings of traditional musicians in Sussex than there are of singers and it is through studying recordings that we can learn most about style. Dr. Reg Hall considers that in the days before the Gaelic League had a huge influence on the playing of music in Ireland in the late 19th century that there was a geographical arc extending from East Anglia through the southern coastal counties of England through to Cork. Kerry and Clare where musicians from any of that area would have had very little difficulty in playing with others they had not met in terms of style, pace and repertoire.

Village musicians learned their tunes often by ear from one another but from whatever source that they could. In the days before radio and recording this meant learning from touring dancing masters, stage hornpipe dancers, from itinerant musicians or wherever they could. Typically, they would adapt the tunes and rhythms for their own purposes. Always, there was a mixture of musicians who only played by ear and those who were skilled at recording their tunes in hand-written tune books. These have become a strong influence on the playing style and repertoire of folk dance band musicians today. Many of these manuscript books have found their way into county record offices, museums etc. but many are still in private hands. The Village Music Project [] has performed a magnificent job of seeking out these manuscripts, digitising them and making them freely available on the internet. A number of significant manuscripts emerged in Sussex including those of Michael Turner of Warnham, Thomas Shoosmith of Arlington, William Aylmore of West Wittering, The Welch Family of Bosham and William Voice. Some of these manuscripts, particularly the tunes notated by William Mittell, call for considerable musical skill to play successfully.

A co-director of the Village Music Project, John Adams, said to me in interview, “Napoleon called England ‘A Nation of Shopkeepers’ but if you study the music of that era you will find that we were a nation of soldiers.” He was referring to the fact that there is a large crossover between the social dance music and the Military Music of the militia bands. Local militia regiments were organised on a county basis. The system was inaugurated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I for the defence of the realm. It was controlled by the lords-lieutenant of counties who were expected to appoint professional soldiers to drill the militia and teach them to use the pike and musket.

Membership of these bands was compulsory for freeholders, householders and their sons, i.e. men who had a stake in the country and were therefore expected to defend it from foreign invasion or local rebellion. In practice, servants and hired substitutes were often sent to attend the training sessions, which were held once a month during the summer. In this way, many village musicians over the years were given a good grounding in music and instrument playing and the repertoire of tunes that they learned in one of their situations were transferred to others. As well as playing for training drill, militia bands would support recruiting sergeants by playing their stirring music at fairs and other gatherings. These bands were funded by the officers of the regiment (a situation that continued into the 1870s).

Steve Roud and Vic Smith (2017)