Various Artists: The Rough Guide to English Roots Music / A.D. Schofield and J. Say: Billy Pigg: The Border Minstrel

Jo Morrison wrote this review with technical assistance from her husband, bagpiper Wayne Morrison, and it which first ran on Green Man Review.

The Rough Guide to English Roots Music is truly the best of the best in English folk music, collected together on one CD, to create the most comprehensive overview of the roots of English folk available to date. The all-star cast of this collection are well-chosen, showing the compiler had a depth of understanding of the grassroots efforts and innovations made by these artists on the folk world. Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, Billy Pigg, John Kirkpatrick, Louise Fuller: these are the people who have kept the folk traditions alive and well in England, and brought new growth to the sound. These people are responsible for the rise of English folk music in the world today.

The collection suits the title, being a mish-mash of tunes that gives the listener a montage of what’s available, rather than leading them by the hand through a predictable path. The tunes are not chosen for their panache or polish, but rather for their sincerity and depth. This gives the new listener a much better picture of what English folk is all about, and shows the wide kaleidoscope of music available for the choosing.

A must-have for those just sampling the possibilities and those with great love and knowledge of English folk music, this collection will rapidly become a favorite. From the early-rock style of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” to the a capella vocals of Harry Cox on “Bold Fisherman;” from the earthy style of Barely Works harmonies on “Byker Hill” to the the lush modern harmonies of the Hank Dogs on “Lucky Break,” this represents the wide scope of vocal music in English folk.

Equally well-represented is the instrumental component, with the modern style of Eliza Carthy on fiddle (complete with electric bass, drums, and synth effects), a polka set which features Walter Bulwer, Billy Cooper, Reg Hall, Daisy Bulwer, Mervyn Plunkett, and Russel Wortley, displaying an off-the-cuff modern/traditional fusion of sound, and a set of unforgettable tunes played by Billy Pigg on Northumbrian Pipes.

Music lovers will undoubtedly be led to other sources from this CD, including the vast array of source recordings for the various tracks. Another interesting and informative path to follow is to read up on the musicians themselves. One such musician, Billy Pigg, deserves further study. Billy Pigg played the pipes for the love of it, not for fame or fortune, and that seems to be what made him such a great success. His fiery speed and innovative style has greatly shaped the nature of Northumbrian piping today. The recent publication of Billy Pigg: The Border Minstrel, gives us an excellent opportunity to learn about the personality behind the greatest influence on Northumbrian piping.

The research for this book started some 30 years ago, and was passed on from person to person over the years. Julia Say has done an excellent job of sorting through the mass of materials collected, and has compiled it into an enjoyable work. This book has something for everyone from the history buff to the musician looking for new repertoire. The book includes a biography, a series of personal recollections about Mr. Pigg, analysis of his technique and playing style, and a collection of tunes. The section featuring memories of his friends is fascinating, filled with nuggets about Billy Pigg’s personality and sense of humor.

The collection of tunes is a goldmine, containing 38 Billy Pigg originals, and his versions of several traditional tunes as well. The tunes are beautiful, memorable, and evocative of Pigg’s spirit. Northumbrian pipers will especially enjoy this collection, but most musicians will be able to find a number they can play. Despite its small range and lack of chromatic notes, several of the tunes are playable on great highland bagpipes, and a fiddler would have no trouble with any of them. This would be a great collection for any musician to while away the hours with great pleasure on a snowy day.

(World Music Network, 1998)
(Northumbrian Piper’s Society, 1998)

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