Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yours Merrily, George Young

Among concertina history enthusiasts and post card collectors (admittedly a group slightly smaller than your local branch of the Star Trek fan club), many images pose mysteries that are seemingly unsolvable. In most cases, photos of proud concertinists displaying their instruments or proclaiming their virtuosity go unidentified -- who is that Salvationist? Why did he go to the trouble of having a postcard printed with his image emblazoned on it?
None is more mysterious than the ever-merry George Young, a blind concertinist apparently from the North of England. Young was certainly industrious: there are at least 4 different postcard images of him that were printed, and they must have been printed in good quantities as they turn up more regularly than photo cards of star performers like Alexander Prince. Usually portrayed holding his top-of-the-line Lachenal Edeophone -- that strange 12-sided concertina that has been described as the closest thing to a square circle -- Young's card always feature his trademark greeting, "Yours merrily, George Young."
Despite the profusion of cards, no one has been able to trace a newspaper notice marking a performance by Young, nor is there any sheet music, phonograph recordings, poster or handbill that has survived attesting to his popularity. Maybe he just played for local events or had a relative in the postcard printing business who gave him good rates on cards.
Despite his apparent lack of acclaim, he left his mark, merrily, on many lives who kept his cards as some kind of cherished memorial to a bygone recital, where the blind concertina player amazed with his repertory of the latest popular melodies. Or so we must imagine.
And think also of the countless other George Youngs who played in anonymity, self-proclaimed master entertainers, whose worlds probably extended just a few kilometers from home.
And still stubbornly he remains: Merrily yours, George Young. World's most pictured unknown concertina player. If nothing else, a tireless self-promoter. Long may his fame resound.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


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Monday, August 4, 2008

Morris Dancers or Minstrel Show?

The influence of American minstrel shows on British music has been well documented. Early performers like Joel Walker Sweeney and Dam Emmett toured England to great acclaim, introducing the banjo and blackface humor to British audiences and inspiring homegrown performers to adapt the style. (See my brother's biography of Joel Walker Sweeney publsihed by McFarland as just one of many sources.)

This image, found by my friend Perry Werner, speaks to the influence of blackface and banjos but also to older British entertainments, specifically the Morris Dance and short plays associated with it. In fact, the motley crew here seems to borrow from many different traditions: the clown like figure on the far left playing the fiddle joined with the blackface banjo players, suggesting a circus connection (initially, some blackface banjo players in the US performed as part of traveling circuses, so perhaps the connection is there). On the other hand, the well-dressed bones player (in the rear center) and the top-hatted fiddler on the right seem to be parodies of British upper-crust performers.

Exactly what the occasion was for this photo -- whether this was a regular traveling performing troupe or a one-time gathering perhaps for a local village fundraiser or fair -- is unknown. (At least by me -- anyone out there with thoughts about who these folks might be, please post!) This kind of cross-fertilization--the crazy quilt of traditions that come together through the imaginations of performers uninhibited by any "rules" that might keep different performance styles apart--is to me the truest expression of what happens in traditional settings. Scholars try to categorize and separate but ordinary folks just perform for the fun of it -- and draw on whatever inspirations seem right to them.