During the summer my wife and I visited Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire. It is one of those English stately homes maintained by the National Trust, who do an excellent job in preserving these old buildings for the general public to enjoy. Amidst the antique furniture and classical paintings I came upon a program of entertainment put on by the younger members of the Dawnay family who owned the Hall, dated Tuesday January 7th 1896. Listed in the Varieties section were performances by Mr Guy Dawnay on banjo, Miss Vere Dawnay on mandolin and Miss Margaret Dawnay on guitar. A British string band no less, at the end of the 19th century, in a very well-to-do family with connections to the aristocracy!
Two pieces that caught my eye in this programme were ‘The Wearing of the Green’ (trio) and a mandolin/guitar duet called ‘Black Bess Polka’. A subsequent search on Google turned up a classic banjo tune with the latter name by Herbert J. Ellis, which you can hear played by Marc Dalmasso at http://classic-banjo.ning.com/video/black-bess-herbert-j-ellis It would work very nicely with a string band! Exploring this classic banjo website, I noticed that Jody Stecher is an active member, and I remembered that one of my favorite banjo players, Roger Sprung, is also partial to music of this type, and incorporates classic banjo pieces like ‘Smokey Mokes’ in his repertoire.
Continuing along this eclectic line of thought I was reminded of the wonderfully wide ranging repertoire of Kenny Hall, who sadly died four years ago and is greatly missed. During his lifetime he learned a huge number of tunes from a wide variety of sources. As a Brit I particularly enjoyed his recording of ‘It’s Nice To Get Up In The Morning (But It’s Nicer To Lie In Your Bed)’ by the king of the Scottish music hall, Sir Harry Lauder. This was on Vol 2 of Kenny Hall’s two LPs with the Sweets Mill String Band, from the 1970s. These discs together with Kenny’s LP on Philo from the same period are treasured items in my record collection. The popular Irish song ‘The Wearing of The Green’, played by the Dawnay family back in 1896, is also there on Kenny’s first Sweets Mill LP. A good tune has a life of its own!
Much has been written about Kenny Hall, including the excellent ‘Kenny Hall’s Music Book’ published by Mel Bay. If you haven’t heard Kenny’s music before I can only recommend that you scour the internet for his recordings, beg long-time collectors to make copies for you of LPs that are out of print, and check out the videos of Kenny’s performances on YouTube. Oh, and in case you didn’t already know, he had his own highly individual technique of playing the mandolin with the fingers of his right hand. And he achieved all this despite a lifetime of being visually impaired. What a musician, what a man, and what an inspiration to us all!