A Working-Class Trombone Player’s Moral Dilemma: Faith, or Socializing with Bands?


Clogshop Chronicles is a volume of Lancashire tales that was first published in 1896, by John Ackworth.  This was a pseudonym for the Methodist Preacher, Frederick Robert Smith. Smith was born at Snaith in Yorkshire on April 18th 1854. His family had a long tradition of Methodist preaching.  He was accepted for the Methodist ministry in 1876, and studied for two years at the Headingley Theological Institute, after which he was appointed to his first post at Castletown in the Isle of Man.  Subsequently he travelled in some of the most important circuits in Methodism. Smith gained fame with his first book Clogshop Chronicles in 1896.  From then until 1907 he wrote an almost annual sequence of short stories and novels; also a volume of sermons in 1909. (1)

 The tale of the Knocker-Upper in Clogshop Chronicles expresses the dilemma between the more rowdy elements of brass band contests, that could be found at the Belle Vue Contests in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the trombonist Jethro’s Methodism. He is torn between his love of playing the trombone in secular brass bands and his faith.  As Jethro says himself, “Wot con Aw expect?  Didn’t Aw let th’ trombone tak’ me into a public-haase Mysel’?  Aw never thowt it ‘ud come whoam to me like this, but it hez! it hez!  My sin hez fun’ me aat!”

The Knocker-Upper, Clogshop Chronicles (1896)

THAT all-important event the “Sarmons” was approaching.  The formal rehearsals for it took place in the chapel during the fortnight immediately preceding the great Sunday, but the real hard work of the band was done at the Clog Shop, and woe to the misguided customer who came to do business after the music had commenced.

It was the first practice of the season, and one by one the members of the band entered the shop, most of their faces wearing a caught-in-the-act sort of look, for their instruments had been taken down from their hanging-places on house ceilings to a feminine accompaniment of railing against all bands in general and the Beckside one in particular.

Each player as he arrived and began to tune his instrument, inquired―

“Hasn’t Jethro come yet?” and the later comers exchanged their query into―

“Wheer’s Jethro?”

Jethro, though not the leader of the band, was its moving spirit, and far away the best musician in Beckside.  He was usually the first to arrive; but now, although Nathan, the smith, for whom they always had to wait, had come, there were no signs of Jethro.

At last Sam Speck offered to “goa an’ fotch him,” and whilst he is away on his errand I will tell you about the missing bandsman:―

He was a spare little man of about sixty years of age, and lived in a one-storey cottage, two steps below the level of the road, on the left-hand side as you went down towards the Beck.

He was the village knocker-up, and went his daily rounds with unfailing regularity every morning, except Sunday, between the hours of four and six.  Over his shoulder he carried a long, light pole, with wire prongs at the end, with which he used to rattle at the bedroom windows of the sleepy factory hands until he received some signal from within that he had been heard.

Though employed and paid by the “hands,” Jethro regarded himself as representing the masters’ interests, and if a post was unoccupied or a loom “untented” when the engine started at six o’clock, Jethro felt that it was a reflection on his professional ability, and was ashamed and hurt.

This doubtless accounted for the extraordinary zeal which the old man put into his work.  The knocker-up was expected to go and knock a second time a few minutes before six to stir up any drowsy one who might, peradventure, have fallen asleep again, and into this second round, which was to many the real signal for rising, Jethro put all his resources.  Not only the windows but the doors were assailed, and in addition he would give a word of exhortation in his thin piping voice―

“Bob!  Dust ye’r?  It’s five minutes to six!  Ger up, tha lazy haand (hound).  If tha dusn’t ger up Aw’ll come an poo’ thi aat o’ bed.”

At the next call he would drop into a coaxing tone-

“Lizer!  Jinny!  Come, wenches!  You’ll ne’er ha’ breet een (eyes) if yo’ lie i’ bed like that.”

After his rounds were finished, he would go down to the mill to report “quarterings” and sick cases, and to spend an hour with the fireman.

Jethro was a light-hearted, merry old fellow, who quoted Wesley’s hymns by the yard on all possible occasions, and sang snatches of them in the still mornings as he went his rounds.

The knocker-up began his musical career as a fiddler, but on visiting Manchester on one occasion, and attending a great concert there, he came back bringing a trombone, and though there was considerable murmuring at the incongruity of introducing a brass instrument into a string and reed band, Jethro was so indispensable that nobody openly rebelled.

This trombone was Jethro’s chief earthly pride and glory, and the source of untold pleasure to him.  He was, in fact, often troubled with the fear that the very strength of his affection for the instrument was a sign of its unhallowed nature, and many of his spiritual conflicts were fought about this unfortunate trumpet. In all pulpit utterances, “stumbling-blocks,” “besetting sins,” “spiritual idolatries,” “false gods,” and the like spelt “trombone” to Jethro, and all appeals for self-sacrifice brought up painful visions of a possible parting with that cherished instrument.

Once, indeed, it spent a Sunday night in the back garden, where its owner had thrown it in a fit of self-disgust at having played it in a public-house, where he had substituted for the sick trombonist of the Clough End brass band.

But the conscience-smitten knocker-up could not sleep whilst his beloved instrument lay among the cabbages, and he finally sneaked out about three in the morning, brought in his pet, went to bed again, and slept the sleep of guilty peace.

Now Jethro had an only son, grown up and married, who from the standpoint of the chapel was a very unsatisfactory character.  Every Becksider, as I said before, believed in retribution, and the father was haunted with the suspicion that his son’s prodigalities were judgments upon himself for his idolatrous love of his trombone.

By this time Sam Speck has returned from his search for the missing musician.

“Aw say, chaps,” he cried, “there’s summat up wi’ th’ owd lad; ” and as the fiddle-bows stopped their scraping, he continued―

“He’s sittin’ afoor th’ feire yond’, and staring into’t like sumbry gloppened, an’ Aw couldna get a word aat on him.”

The musicians looked at each other in astonishment.

“Wor he in a fit, dust think?” asked Jonas.

“Aw conna tell thi, but theer’s summat wrung wi’ th’ owd lad.”

Jabe and Long Ben posted off instantly to Jethro’s cottage.  Opening the door—for knocking was a sign of stiffness—they found him seated on a chair before an expired fire, with his feet on the fender and his body bent forward, so that he propped his chin with his arms, which, in their turn, were propped on his knees.  He never moved when the visitors entered.

“Wot’s up wi’ thi, Jethro?” asked Jabe, approaching him with some hesitation.  But the knocker-up neither moved nor spoke.

Long Ben took a careful look round the room, and finding nothing suggestive, he leaned against the mantelpiece so as to get a side light on Jethro’s face, and then he said soothingly―

“Come! come! owd lad, wot’s up?”

Jethro heaved a great sigh, and looked wildly round, whilst Jabe, getting behind the old man’s chair, motioned to Ben not to speak.

“It’s a judgment on me,” cried Jethro at last.  “It’s a judgment on me.”

Ben was about to interrupt him, but Jabe scowlingly motioned him to desist.

“It’s my own doin’.  ‘Be sure your sin ‘ull find yo’ aat!’  An’ it hez done!  It hez done!”

Another pause; during which Jabe was going through every kind of pantomimic gesture he could think of to prevent Ben from speaking.

“Aw carried him to th’ chapel when he wor three wik owd.  He’s been ta’n (taken) theer for twenty ye’r.  When he’d th’ fayver Aw fowt wi’ th’ Lord two neets an’ a day, an’ naa”—and the old man buried his head in his hands and moaned piteously.

Jabe and Ben drew chairs up, and sitting down one on each side of him, Long Ben asked gently―

“Come, owd lad, wot’s it aw abaat?”

Jethro lifted his head out of his hands, and asked, in a voice of tremulous surprise―

“Why, durn’t yo’ knaw?” and Jabe and his companion answered simultaneously, “Neaw!”

“Durn’t yo’?  Why, aar Jethro ta’n th’ alehaase.  O Absalom! my son! my son Absalom!” and the heart-broken old man rose and stamped on the sanded floor in a passion of grief and shame.

The only public-house in Beckside stood on the left, a little below Jethro’s house and close to the Beck-bridge.  The innkeeper had died recently, and Jethro junior, unknown to his father, had got the licence temporarily transferred to himself.  This young man could not have taken a more cruel young means of inflicting pain on his old Methodist father than the one he had adopted, and whilst Jabe and Ben looked at each other with dull sad astonishment, Jethro walked about the house crying―

“Wot con Aw expect?  Didn’t Aw let th’ trombone tak’ me into a public-haase Mysel’?  Aw never thowt it ‘ud come whoam to me like this, but it hez! it hez!  My sin hez fun’ me aat!”

Nothing that could be said or done seemed to pacify the old man, and his visitors felt that to mention the suspended “practice” would be to inflict pain.

For many a day after this Jethro went about disconsolate.  His voice was scarcely ever heard in the silent road on a morning, and when it was it sounded like a sad wail.  In spite of all that could be said, he was firmly convinced that his son’s conduct was a sort of consequence of his own overweening devotion to the trombone, though he was never able quite to demonstrate the connection between the two.  No amount of persuasion would induce him to play the trombone again, and he dared not go near the Clog Shop for fear of falling into temptation.

In a few days young Jethro moved into the Bridge Inn, and the knocker-up spent the whole of the removal day walking about in the road in front of the alehouse, but neither coaxing, nor flattery, nor reasoning, could induce him to step across the threshold.

But when the door closed at night for the first time on the new tenants, a haggard old man might have been seen kneeling on the steps and pouring out his soul in intense and tearful supplication.

Young Jethro’s wife was a bonnie brown-faced lassie, who had been a great favourite with her father-in-law, and she had done everything that woman’s wheedling could do to coax him into the house, but he vowed again and again that he would never cross the threshold.

Great, therefore, was Polly’s astonishment one morning, when old Jethro entered the inn, but walked straight through into the kitchen.

“Hay, fayther, bless yo’!  Aw am fain to see yo’,” she cried, rising from her chair awkwardly; “come an’ sit yo’ daan.”

But the old man did not move.  He stood there in the middle of the room looking at his daughter-in-law with sad solemn eyes.

“Doan’t stop’ theer, fayther; sit yo’ daan an’ Aw’ll make yo’ some tay.”

“But Jethro took a short step backwards, and raising his hand, and looking for the moment not unlike an old Hebrew prophet, he said―

“Polly, if onybody ‘ad towd me as my fast gronchilt ‘ud be born in a alehaase, Aw’d a letten aar Jethro dee when he had th’ fayver; he’d a bin safe then;” and then breaking down into a wail, and crying: “But it’s a judgment on me,” the old man hastened away.

Now the young landlord had not been much disturbed by his father’s protests, for he had not noticed that the circumstance had taken the hold upon him which it had.

But two or three weeks innkeeping had opened his eyes, and so the account his wife gave of Jethro’s visit made a deep impression on him.

Meanwhile the old man’s melancholy seemed to deepen.  All the efforts of his cronies to cheer him were vain, and as he evidently dared not go near the Clog Shop, the practices were seriously interfered with, not only by the absence of the leading spirit, but also by that of those who went to keep their old friend company.

One cold, dull morning—for the spring was late—old Jethro was seen hurrying up the road past the Clog Shop as fast as he could go, with a sack on his back.  The sack might not have attracted any attention, but the suspicious haste with which it was being carried excited great curiosity at the cloggery, and Sam Speck followed very carefully to see what ” th’ owd chap wor up to.”

After passing the chapel, Jethro slackened speed, and having turned the crest of the hill, he sat down on a heap of stones, whilst Sam was crouching behind the hedge and watching him.

The poor fellow looked very miserable, and after sitting for a minute or two he got up, looked stealthily around, then opened the sack, took out of it a long, green baize bag, containing the trombone, and, after concealing the sack in the hedge bottom, started off to Duxbury to sell his idol.

It was a seven-mile walk, and such an instrument was not easy to dispose of, and had to be carried about from place to place before a purchaser could be found.  So terrible was the mental conflict going on within the old man that he forgot to take food, and started the long walk home in a fagged condition.

It was a weary tramp, accompanied by more than one Lot’s-wife-like look behind him.  The wind, strong and heavy, was all against him, the brooding grief of the last few weeks had drained his vitality; he began to feel very fatigued, then giddy; and finally, just as he drew near the place where he had concealed the sack, he staggered to the roadside in a dead swoon.

Luckily, however, Lige, the road-mender, was returning home from his work behind Jethro, and seeing him fall he hurried up, and in a short time the knocker-up was safe in his own bed.  The doctor said it was a slight stroke, and Jethro must have been worrying about something, but as he had an excellent constitution no serious consequences need be apprehended.

Jethro’s walk to Duxbury took place on a Friday, and on the following day young Jethro sat brooding over late events behind his little bar, and it was evident he was very ill at ease.

On the Sunday he went twice to chapel, and after the evening service Jabe gave him that significant jerk of the head Clog Shop-wards which was the recognised form of invitation to its councils.

The ordinary members of the Club treated him with marked coldness, but he sat the session out, and when the others rose to go, Jabe beckoned him back into his seat, and he sat down, knowing full well what was coming.

Long Ben also remained, and when they had gazed into the fire and puffed rather vigorously at their pipes for a little time, Jabe suddenly turned to the young landlord and said―

“Well, wot dust think to thysel’?”

“Wot abaat?”

“Wot abaat!  Abaat aw t’ trouble tha’s geen yond’ owd chap o’ yours.”

“Haa did Aw knaw he’d tak’ it so ill?”

“Neaw ” (very sarcastically); “tha thowt ‘as th’ best owd saint i’ Beckside ‘ud feel a-whoam (at home) among pigeon-flyers an’ cards an’ ale-pot bottoms, didn’t tha?”

The culprit was getting red, and so Long Ben put his hand gently on his shoulder, and said―

“Wot ‘ud thy mother think if hoo saw thi, lad?”

Jethro winced, and Ben proceeded―

“We ne’er thowt as that Bible we gav’ thi at th’ schoo’ ‘ud find its road into a alehaase.”

There was silence; the young man was deeply moved, and began to bite his lips, whilst a heavy sigh broke from him.  In a moment or two Jabe said, very gently for him―

“Kneel thi daan, lad.”

And down the three went, and there they prayed and prayed until the small hours of the morning, when young Jethro “found liberty,” and went home with a new joy in his heart and a new power in his life.  Next week he gave up the inn.

Some ten days after this the old knocker-up sat on a “long settle” which had been pulled up near the fire, though it was late in May.

Aunt Judy, who had installed herself head-nurse, had just been telling him about his son’s conversion, for it had not been deemed prudent to inform him sooner.  The old man’s face was a picture.  Delight, gratitude, and wonder seemed blended in it.

Then Judy excused herself for a moment and went out.  She was soon back, however, carrying a mysterious bundle of clothes.  This she “flopped” suddenly on Jethro’s knee, and, pulling back the outer shawl, disclosed a fine three-days’-old baby.

“Theer!” she cried, “isn’t that a whopper?  It’s th’ pictur of its grondad!  An’ it’s no’ been born in a alehaase, nother.”

What the knocker-up thought as he sat and looked at the wee one will never be known, but as he held his knees together lest the treasure they supported should be disturbed, Judy was startled to hear him burst out in his high piping voice and to a popular local tune―
“God moves in a mysterious way,” etc.
After this the old man “came on” quite rapidly, and as the “Sarmons” were still three weeks off, he began to talk quite eagerly of being present at them “efther aw.”

One evening some of his Clog Shop cronies paid him a visit.  Jethro thought he noticed three of them as the door opened, but when he had made room for them on the long settle he perceived that there were only two—Jabe and Long Ben.

Jethro at once began to inquire eagerly about the practices, and his face became quite clouded as Jabe mentioned with most persistent frequency that they were “ill off for th’ trombone.”

The more the visitors talked the more uncomfortable Jethro got, and every now and again he glanced uneasily up at the empty hooks whereon his instrument used to hang.  Then Jabe, glancing round the house as if making a most unimportant remark, said―

“We’re thinkin of axin’ Traycle Tim to tak’ th’ trombone parts.”

Now this was positively cruel, for Traycle Tim of the Clough End brass band was Jethro’s great rival, and after gasping in a helpless sort of way, and glancing once more at the empty hooks above him, he said with a sigh―

“Ay, well!  But Aw dunno want a trombone on the top o’ me to keep me daan when Gabriel comes to knock us aw up.”

“Gabriel?” cried Jabe; “why, he’s a trumpet hissel’!  Ay, an’ he’ll blow it too o’ th’ resurrection mornin’!”

This was a new idea to Jethro, and it evidently told; but, shaking his head, he replied, though not quite so decidedly as before―

“Ay!  But a trombone isn’t a trumpet, tha knaws.”

“Yi, but it is.  Th’ new schoo’-missis says ‘at trombone’s ony a soart of a frenchified name for a big trumpet.”

The new schoolmistress was a great favourite of Jethro’s, and so, as Jabe expected, the second shot told even more heavily than the first.

Presently he said, “Th’ trombone’s a varry worldly instrument, tha knaws, Jabe.”

“Nowt o’ th’ soart!  They blowed trumpets at aw’ th’ anniversaries i’ th’ wilderness, an’ i’ th’ Temple, an’ th’ owd prophet says ‘at when th’ millenium comes they’ll blow the great trumpet, an’ that means th’ trombone―naa, doesn’t it, Ben?”

“Sartinly!” said Ben, with tremendous emphasis.

Jethro sat a long time in silence; at last he said―

“Aw’ve happen made a mistak’ efther aw.”

“Of course tha hez,” chimed in both his visitors.

“But yo see Aw’m feared o’ lovin’ th’ trombone moar nor Aw love God, and God Gonna abide that.”

“Ger aat, Jethro,” interrupted Jabe; “Aw’m shawmed for thi.  Did thaa iver tak’ owt fra your Jethro for fear he’d like it better nor he liked thee?”

“Neaw,” very slowly and ponderingly.

“Well then, dust think as God’s woss nor us?”

“Aw never seed it like that afore,” said Jethro, and glanced up again at the hooks, and then he went on―

“Aw wish Aw hed mi owd trumpet here!”

At that moment a most mysterious noise came from behind the long settle.  It was intended to have been a royal blast, but Sam Speck’s unaccustomed effort only evoked a gurgling, struggling sound.

It was enough, however.  Old Jethro seized the instrument, and after holding it out to make sure it was really his own, he put it to his lips and sent forth a blast that brought the hands of his comrades to their ears.

It was really the old trombone.  Nearly two days had Sam spent seeking it in Duxbury; and on the anniversary day, Jethro, with visions of tabernacle and temple in his mind, and the figure of the great Archangel in the background, blew away every lingering doubt and fear, and blew himself into contentment and hope and health again.

References: 

  1. http://gerald-massey.org.uk/ackworth/b_biography.htm
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