Brass Bands as A Stereotype of the North


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On the 24 February I will be  leading another session of ‘Slate-Grey Rain and Polished Euphoniums’: Brass Bands, the Working Class and the North, ca. 1840-1914, at Heritage Quay Archive Centre, at the University of Huddersfield. This short adult-education course explores why, in the popular imagination, and, almost without question, the brass band movement should be such a powerful symbol of northern working-class identity? This question is all the more surprising when we recognise that the brass band movement was a national movement in this period. Why, in other words, were the brass bands of the Southern Pennines at the centre of this creation of northern working-class culture, ca. 1840-1914? The  Course Handbook can be downloaded and if  you would like to discuss arranging the course for your learning centre email me for more details.

Session one examined how the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire  developed a reputation as a centre of excellence for amateur working-class music making. This gave brass bands a secure foundation to begin a leisure pursuit that would become a highly recognisable working-class hobby. This region was also where influential historians, such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Patrick Joyce,  have turned to understand how labouring people lived their lives during  the ‘classic’ period of class formation. We discovered how the history of labouring people could be understood by the examination and use of local archives. This was an approach advocated by Asa Briggs and the journal Chartist Studies and as such influenced a significant amount of research into working-class identity.

Session two developed this idea further and we examined a significant amount of archival documents and discovered how bandsmen ‘invented a tradition’ of music-making that was self-replicating, mentor driven and spread by a semi-oral transmission of style. This resulted in bandsmen creating their own working-class identity with their own rituals and customs, made up of concerts and in particular a regular contest season.

 

 

Session three will examine how and why brass bands should be considered a northern phenomenon?

In 1907, the popularity of the national brass band contest at London’s Crystal Palace led the Musical Herald to reflect on two of the bands that were taking part in the contest. They were Wingates Temperance Brass Band, formed in 1873, near the north-west town of Westhoughton, in Lancashire, and Goodshaw Brass Band, formed in 1867, at Goodshawfold, in east Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley, an author in the Musical Herald wrote:

 

Where is Wingates? Where is Goodshaw? You don’t know. The same answer might be given regarding scores of villages whence bands came on Sept. 28th to the Crystal Palace […]. We have had bands for a generation past coming out of the unknown and making their villages famous.[1]

Wingates Temperance Band, 1907

 

 

Goodshaw Band, 1903

 

 

Such questions, clearly aimed at a musical audience outside of the region, showed that the industrial north contained communities where brass bands flourished. This session explores how the bandsmen, and the brass bands of the Southern Pennines, influenced the construction of an idea of the north: In spite of being a national movement the bandsmen, through their culture of brass bands, contributed to a clichéd perception of the north that flourished well before 1914.

There were a significant number of ‘crack’ bands that came from the Southern Pennines and these bands were emulated by others. Yet this does not account fully for their distinctiveness, as other areas of the country had equally strong brass band traditions. It is undeniable that the Southern Pennines had a strong tradition of music-making and musical appreciation, but there was a great deal of activity in other areas of the country. By the late nineteenth century virtually every town and village in the country had at least one kind of amateur musical ensemble, and Dave Russell has argued that ‘the brass band was perhaps the most pervasive of all.’[2] Alun Howkins, for example, discovered 148 bands in rural Oxfordshire alone that were active between 1840 and 1914.[3] Brass band periodicals reported on the activities of bands from almost every corner of the country.

 

This session will explore how the brass band did not so much create separate identities for Yorkshire or Lancashire but brought them together as a recognisable ‘north’ that southern readers could identify as a specific industrialised north, often without clear boundaries. Moreover, this north was a place that represented industrial and urban manual labour over commerce and agriculture. The press and brass band periodicals between 1840 and 1914 provided an anthropological view of ‘northernness’ that focussed upon the manufacturing districts of the Southern Pennines. As a result of this reporting, to the northern and the southern Victorian and Edwardian observer, brass bands represented an example of the clash of values between northern and southern identity.

As before we have many archival documents to unpack and analyse.

 

[1] Musical Herald (1 November, 1907), p. 342.

[2] David Russell, The Popular Music Societies of the Yorkshire Textile District, 1850-1914: A Study of the Relationships between Music and Society (PhD Thesis, University of York, 1979), p. 316.(In the south and west of England Russell points out that they are more accurately described as ‘brass and reed’ or ‘military’ bands.)

[3] Alun Howkins, ‘Whitsuntide in Nineteenth-Century Oxfordshire’ History Workshop Pamphlet, No 8 (1973), cited in Russell, The Popular Music Societies of the Yorkshire Textile District, p. 316.

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2 thoughts on “Brass Bands as A Stereotype of the North

  1. Fascinating synopsis of your fine work on this course. If I wasn’t so work ladened I would have loved to attend. I hope you continue to keep this course going.

    Like

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