Notes from VT152CD 'The Barford Angel'
Billy was born in 1900 and spent most of his life as a gardener. His father kept the old King’s Head public house at Barford and it was he who gave Billy his first dulcimer. Billy remembered, "When I first started learning I had a glockenspiel first and I had another that was called a 'Metalicphone' and they were steel keys played with little wooden hammers. It was 3/6d and made in Germany. That was about 1908. Now father always had a mind for a dulcimore because he'd heard old Herbert Sadd playing. Mother played the button accordeon and she could play, but my father, who had got hold of a dulcimer, had made up his mind that she should play the dulcimer. Any rate she didn't take it up, I got it going. Now Hingham was always a place for sports on an August Monday and this particular one in 1911 we went over there and old Cooper was the bandmaster of Hingham and Watton Band and they had been playing all afternoon. Then later on at eight o'clock at night they had the wagon up and Billy Cooper (old Cooper's son) Walter Baldwin, Jack Bond and Billy's brother George and the Felthams, they played on the wagon. I can remember them playing When Father Papered the Parlour. Then my father approached the old man Cooper and asked him if he would teach me to play the dulcimer and he said he would if I had any playing in me. He charged sixpence a time and that was three pints in those days you know."
Billy took lessons from ‘Old
Cooper’ and his rigid discipline made Billy practise hard. In his words, "I
bike to Hingham and I was so afraid I was going to make a mistake, I used to get off about a mile before I got
there and get into a gateway, take the dulcimer off my back and have a tune at the side of the road to get myself ready before I got there. Well then he got me going, but you know he wouldn't let me play a tune until I could play all the scales. Anyway there was a flower show at Wicklewood, this was 1913, and I could play a tune or two. I could play a polka and a waltz. Anyway there was a village band playing and the old boy said that we'd play one together and give the band a rest. So we played away and I was proud of myself, with me playing and them dancing. Unbeknown to me the old man left off, I started to pull up so he started up again. Then we had another go and we played Dulcie Bell. Any rate we were both playing and he left off again and I played it right through. When we'd finished he said, “There you are, you've done that very well, from now on you're on your own’ and that's how I got started."
After the First World War Billy Bennington teamed up with Billy Cooper and they played in Barford Kings Head where they palled up with fiddle player Walter Baldwin. On Saturday nights they would play in village pubs all over Norfolk, travelling on a motorbike combination which had a basket on the front, where they would carry the two dulcimers and the fiddle. They also played for dances and harvest suppers as well as in church. Billy played occasionally with the Cooper family as a band in Hingham church with the old man playing euphonium, Walter on fiddle, Billy Cooper on dulcimer and his sister on autoharp or zither.
Billy Bennington had a great memory and was always keen to tell a tale about local characters.
“There was this old boy in
Barnham Broom Horseshoes and they accused him of being drunk and he says,
"I'll tell if I'm drunk. I'll go ask the old parson!". Well the parson he
was one of the magistrates and old Buzzy Martin he went over and woke the
old Parson up, at midnight. Got him down and when he come down asked him,
"Am I drunk?". Of course the cops had him and that cost him five bob".
"Then there was old Lobby. They moved him out of his house because he hadn't paid his rent. Any rate his house was owned by the Earl of Kimberley. Old Lobby hadn't paid his rent so what he did on the Saturday afternoon, he went down to Barnham Broom church and he had all his things in the porch. Put them in the porch and when they went to church on Sunday morning, there was the old girl in bed in the porch and there was old Lobby outside. He'd got the oil stove going, cooking a couple of bloaters. Well of course they couldn't have the service. They tried to stop him but that didn't work so the old parson had to go down to see the old Earl. When he heard about it he gave them the order to move them back again and old Lobby lived down there until he died. All they used to pay was a shilling a year rent. And they used to have a big do down at Kimberley Hall when they used to pay the rent. They used to have a booze up and he would perhaps take the money off the old man, turn round and give it to the old girl on the other side. They didn't get a better one than him when the old Earl died!"
Another story Billy would often tell was about the Fufu -"This was down at Coney Hall when Miss Buckley got married. Any rate they had Paul Whiteman's band down from London to the Hall to the real wedding and
that was held in the afternoon and they went back after that had finished. I went and played at night, that was at Home Farm and there was a lovely barn there.
Coney, Bawburgh and Little
Melton was the estate, so they gave all the estateemployees a meal. We’re
playing there and they had a barrel of beer at this end and a barrel of beer
at the other end and the old boys were having a pint at a time. So we all
stood round there having a lovely drink and up came this posh bloke from the
band who'd got some relations in Norwich and he'd stayed back.
So he comes across and he said to me,
"I say old boy," he said, "You're no musician!"
I said, " I never said I was."
He said, "Well I am. I'm a musician to my finger tips."
So I said, "Oh, self praise is no man's recommendation."
He said, "Did you know my father is band master to the Grenadier Guards?"
I said, " I don't give a bugger who he is!"
And he said, "And he can play every instrument under the sun."
I said, "Well he's lucky. So can your father play the Fufu?"
He said, "A what?"
I said, "A Fufu."
He said, “There isn't such a thing."
I said, "Oh yes there is. It's a small instrument and its often played about here, and your father's a band master and can't even play one!"
He said, "There's the flute, the flageolet, the flugel horn."
He started running off all these instruments and I said, "Don't forget the Fufu, that's the chief one."
My mates all stood around looking - we'd had a drink or two!
"Well how do you play the blasted thing?" He said. "Do you blow it or do you suck it. What do you do with it?"
I said, " You can do what you like with it. You can get the same sort of tune out of it."
He said, What is the blasted Fufu then?"
I said, "That's a band master’s tool stuffed with straw!"
And I didn't get a very warm reception. I still see old boys in Wymondham and meet them in the street and they say, "Hello Billy are you still playing the Fufu?"
In the 1970s Billy was 'discovered' by the folk scene and eight tracks of his playing were included on the 1973 Topic LP record 12TS229 'English Country Music In East Anglia'. (These are now included on this CD). From then until shortly before his death in 1986 he appeared at festivals and clubs all over the country and built up a strong following of admirers both here and in America.
Billy’s dulcimer originally
had 22 bridges but after a motorcycle accident it was cut down to 20
bridges. Billy bought the dulcimer played here in 1922 from an 85 year old
'professional' player called John Rose who played in the Pigeon pub (now
long gone) in St. Benedicts, Norwich. The instrument had been played by
Rose's father before him, who was a sailor and it was thought that he had
bought it abroad, although it is now thought of as a classic example of an
East Anglian dulcimer. It is tuned in what Billy called the Norfolk tuning
which he got from Mr Cooper. This allows all the sharp keys to be played. He
also added a thick bass string (from a piano) to his dulcimer which gave a
deep drone note on some tunes. When Billy died his wife Iris moved to
Cleveland and that's where the dulcimer was kept until recently when it was
brought back to Norfolk by Billy's step-son.
Billy's elaborate playing style is produced by playing an accompaniment with his right hand while maintaining the melody with his left. In East Anglia the dulcimer is usually played with beaters made from cane which are bent into a loop at the end and then covered with wool. Billy was an expert at making them, usually from rattan which he got from North Norfolk fishermen who used it to make lobster pots.
These wool covered beaters give the mellow sound characteristic of the East Anglian dulcimer, but Billy also played with his fingernails, which not only produced a crisper sound, bit also allowed for chords to be played. Whilst gardening, Billy was always careful to look after his long nails and used the fingers cut off old rubber gloves to protect them. On this CD he plays with both beaters and his fingernails and on Dulcie Bell and The Bells of St. Mary's he begins by using his fingernails and then continues with the beaters. Both Lovely Lucerne and My Beloved Cornelia were what Billy called 'party pieces' and he plays these tunes using the fingernails of one hand and with a beater in the other. Of My Beloved Cornelia he would say, "The aim is to produce the sound of a mandolin accompanied by the dulcimer." At one time Billy played with a banjo player and busked at Great Yarmouth which he described as "The best paid game going!' After the second world war he entered a national talent competition and reached the Eastern Region final. Unfortunately he caught a beater on a bridge and it landed in a judge's lap, thus preventing him winning.
Billy's repertoire was garnered from several sources. Billy Cooper provided many song tunes like When Johnny Comes to Town, / Like to Say Good Morning and Obidiah, which was recorded by the Music Hall singer Whit Cunliffe c.1912 on Columbia 2094 and Regal G.6419. Going to The Derby was another Music Hall song and a version sung by Roy Last, a Suffolk singer, can be heard on the album 'Who Owns the Game' (VT130CD).
Dance tunes were of course an important part of his repertoire. Hornpipes were the favourite tunes for stepdances while social dances required polkas, schottisches and waltzes. On track 9, Billy plays the same tune firstly as a schottische and then as a stepdance, in order to show the difference. Herbert Sadd's Schottische, better known as The Mountain Bell Schottische, came from a contemporary of Billy's father, the dulcimer player Herbert Sadd whose mother once kept the Marlingford Bell. Rose Cottage, Billy's own title, was, according to Billy, once used for the Norfolk Long Dance. Dulcie Bell was said to have been written by Billy Cooper's father and Billy Cooper can be heard playing it on the VT150CD ‘Heel & Toe’ and on TSCD607 'English Country Music'. Billy Bennington plays another tune which was one of the Topic Records recordings which was also entitled Dulcie Bell (we have called it Dulcie Bell 2 on this CD) but this is a different tune. When we mentioned this to Billy he said that he had no idea what this tune was really called!
The Bells of St. Mary's has long been a popular tune with dulcimer players. The Glasgow player Jimmy Cooper played it as does the West Midlands player Fred Woodley. It was written by A. Emmett Adams and Douglas Furber during the closing years of the Great War. The Chicken Reel is also popular with instrumentalists both in Britain and in the United States. Now performed as a
'novelty' it may be based on earlier Scots /Irish tunes.
Like most traditional players Billy would play the new tunes of the day and in1922 a Felix Godin composition, Lovely Lucerne became a popular tune with dance bands, with many of them recording it on 78 rpm records in that year.
Finally Billy always loved marches and he said that he often learned them from military bands on the radio. The Gunner's March was written in the early 1920s by Joe Morley and became associated with the Artillery regiment. While On Parade came from the famed composer of marches John Philip Sousa.
Billy Bennington died on 18th October, 1986, just before the original ‘Barford Angel’ LP was released although he did get to hear the Topic recordings. All these recordings were enabled by the hospitality of Billy's wife, Iris, who allowed her home to be used as a recording studio and the original ‘Barford Angel’ LP was dedicated to her memory.
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