The Lads Like Beer
The Fiddle Music of James Hill’s Tyneside (Book)
by Graham Dixon
Review by Chris Partington
Published on https://www.mustrad.org.uk/ (Jan 2014)
“This is an excellent, well structured and researched book, deserving of a place on the reading lists and music stands of anyone interested in traditional music making. The first edition has always been one of my favourites. So if you’ve already got the first edition, you might ask, what’s different with this one? (apart from the surprisingly lurid orange background colour for many of the pages!) Well, it’s not a mere reprint, it’s a new book, and the text is revised and expanded. The tunes, hand-written in the first edition (not unattractively), are now freshly typeset by computer and consequently more legible. Some new information has been added to the tunes, and there are the ‘Waifs and Strays’ mentioned above, plus three newly found Hill tunes. Stewart Hardy’s analysis, the discography and similar ancillary parts are all renewed. The many atmospheric photographs are a new selection. If you’re a fiddler you need this book, for the tunes, and not least for the introduction to the life of the urban fiddler.”
James Hill (1811-1853), the subject of the book under review, occupied yet another part of the spectrum. He was born in Scotland and immigrated to the fast expanding industrial conurbation of Tyneside sometime before 1841, by which time he was recorded in the census as a professional musician, married to the daughter, and living in the household, of William Hunter, the proprietor of the Hawk public house, Bottle Bank, Gateshead.
“Industrial Britain in the 1840s is well documented for the inability of its infrastructure to keep up with its rapidly expanding urban population. Newcastle grew from 65,000 to 87,000 souls in the ten years 1841 to 1851, when Hill was most active. Gateshead went from 19,000 to 25,000, and outbreaks of cholera were frequent. Hill lived a very urban life, as one of a number of professional fiddlers working in Tyneside pubs and race meetings, with the industrial working class of Gateshead and Newcastle as his audience. He was said to be the best of them, the Paganini of fiddlers, and his hornpipes remain some of the finest examples of the art, yet he lived the same squalid urban life as his neighbours, in and out of court for debt, when debtors could be, and were, imprisoned until the debt was discharged. He died of consumption in 1853.
Dixon gives his reasons and methodology for writing the book and proceeds to relay what is known of Hill’s life, including extra information that has emerged since the first, 1987, edition. He places the man in his time with an illuminating and very interesting discourse on 1840s Britain, and Hill’s Tyneside within it. He goes on to describe the music and entertainment on offer to the urban working class, and the role of fiddlers such as Hill.
Accompanying this are maps, and a good number very atmospheric old photographs of the urban scene, which leave the reader very aware of what city life in mid-Victorian times must have been like.”
Hill is best known for his hornpipes, so Dixon devotes a chapter to the hornpipe, and James Hill’s hornpipes in particular, followed in this new edition by Stewart Hardy’s intelligent analysis, from a fiddler’s perspective, of the melodic and harmonic structure of the tunes, and what is known of the bowing patterns thought to have been used. He concludes – ‘It would seem … that the ‘Hill hornpipes’ were by no means unique either in their harmonic or melodic structure, or in the bowing patterns associated with them…'( but )’… may be considered as prime examples of such an idiom.’