Unpacking the Archives for A Seminar

A Nice Find

I am currently leading a series of three adult-education seminars at Heritage Quay Archive Centre, at the University of Huddersfield, called, Slate-Grey Rain and Polished Euphoniums: Brass Bands, the Working Class and the North, c. 1840-1914. The rationale behind the seminars is that we dig deep into the British Music Collection, held at Heritage Quay, in the University of Huddersfield, and examine why brass bands are considered, almost without question, in the popular imagination, a metonym of northern working-class culture. (The link to Heritage Quay and the course is here: http://heritagequay.org/events/1742-2016-02-03/

In the first seminar we explored the North of England as a musical region. In other words we discovered that the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire had long been regarded as a centre of excellence for the amateur performance of instrumental, band, orchestral (of sorts) and choral music since at least the 1820s, and that a long oral tradition of folk music had been known for centuries. Brass bands had a secure foundation on which to build a musical reputation.

The next seminar will examine the elements found in the performance of brass music that  created a recognisable working-class culture. An ‘invention of tradition’ if you like that was created by how bandsmen learnt to play their instruments.

In theoretical terms the seminar shows how novice bandsmen were reliant on skills and methods that were passed down by other bandsmen. Music was taught through a semi-oral transmission of technique which disseminated advice from tutors through a selection of brass band periodicals, band trainers and more experienced bandsmen. As Pierre Bourdieu described wider working-class educational experiences, the educational level and social origin of the bandsmen resulted in bandsmen creating their own cultural preferences.[1] As Bourdieu argued, ‘this predisposes tastes to function as markers of class. The manner in which culture is acquired lives on in the manner of using it.’[2] Therefore, I argue that the novice brass player entered musical education with no other expectation than to be in a band, to become a bandsman. In other words, the culture of the music was there to produce the working-class bandsman. Writing in 1886 an author in the Musical World noticed that:

There are signs, indeed, of a movement, which must someday assume large proportions – a movement for providing good and cheap music for the poorer working classes […]. Now if there is one thing in the way of music that is dear to the heart of a Lancashire artisan, it is a brass band. It is the height of ambition with a lad to play in a band […]. From many a small cottage in country villages, or in the back streets of a Lancashire town, may be heard the mournful sounds of a cornet, or other wind instrument, as the mechanic struggles to make his evenings a preparation for harmonious concerts later on, when he shall have qualified for admission to the nearest amateur band he can find.[3]


In his attempt to ‘join the nearest amateur band he can find’, this novice bandsman was attempting to learn a code of competence that would allow him to understand the styles that were characteristic of the brass band movement.[4] The education that the novice received was central to this understanding

Below are  some archival pieces that will hopefully unpack these notions further. Or perhaps my students will argue against this basic outline?

The first archival piece is Wright and Round’s Amateur Band Teacher’s Guide and Bandsman’s Adviser, published in 1899. It was a collection of advice pieces made up from earlier editions of the Brass Band News. In the early twentieth century it had gone through at least twenty-two editions, and was in use in the 1920s.

The editors advocated the training methods in use among northern bands: theirs was ‘a synthesis of the systems on which the celebrated prize bands of Lancashire and Yorkshire [were] taught.’ How much, I wonder, will they agree that the notion of bands copying the ‘crack’ bands, such as Besses and Black Dyke Mills, created an environment where the oral-transmission of technique became significant when music lessons were out of reach for many bandsmen?




The next collection are brass band contest entry forms from the Belle Vue Contests from 1901-1910. These are representative of many aspects of working-class culture. The social aspects of ‘banding’, the community support, the development of leisure, the link with band contests and sport. In addition many bandsmen were ‘ringers’ for bands, having the ability to earn money. What did this mean for masculinity? The band contest was a place where all working-class life was found, even poverty. How, in other words, did bands become an arena where middle-class commentators could invent a quasi- anthropological reportage of the working class at leisure?

Many questions in one document

Just these two documents, and there are many more to show,  have opened up questions, of class, culture, community, region and gender. It’s a pity we have only got two hours for this session.


[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Paris, 1979, this edition, London, 1994), p. 1.

[2] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 2.

[3] Musical World, 64/46 (3 November, 1886), p. 725.

[4] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 2.


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