A New Brass Band Publication: Music-Making and the Invention of Northernness

A Northern Stereotype?


The brass band movement is a national movement. Yet, in the popular imagination, brass bands are considered working class and northern. My latest article published in the journal Northern History examines the roots of this cliché. The link to the full article can be found here:  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0078172X.2016.1254379

The abstract and opening paragraph of the article are shown below.


In spite of being a national form of music-making, the brass band movement is accepted — almost without question in the popular imagination — as working class and northern. Hence, in 1974, Peter Hennessy described a band contest at the Albert Hall: ‘A roll call of the bands is like an evocation of industrial history. From Wingates Temperance and Black Dyke Mills to more modern conglomerates …. Grown men, old bandsmen say, have been known to cry at the beauty of it all …. Of all the manifestations of working-class culture, nothing is more certain than a brass band to bring on an attack of the George Orwells. Even the most hardened bourgeois cannot resist romanticising the proletariat a little when faced with one. (The Times, 11 Oct. 1974) This stereotype, which emerged in the nineteenth century, generated the following questions about northern identity: what elements in the brass band movement created this reportage of northern bandsmen and how did bands, which thrived in large numbers in the Southern Pennines, emerge as a musical and cultural metonym of the industrial landscape? This article explores notions of music-making and the creation of a musical space, place and region through the reporting of brass bands c. 1840–1914.

Opening Paragraph (Copyright University of Leeds)


In spite of being a national movement brass bands have become a clichéd representation of northern working-class identity.[i] Writing in the Daily Herald in 1963, Dennis Potter wrote a review of a play by Ron Watson called Man of Brass. The play starred Jimmy Edwards, who played Ernie Briggs, a B-flat bass player, who preferred playing in brass bands to staying at home with his wife. Potter captured the tone of the play by writing, ‘this “northern saga” grimly celebrating slate-grey rain and polished euphoniums was firmly in the eh-bah-goom heritage of North Country humour.’[ii] As Dave Russell maintains, this image of the northern working-class brass band ‘has become so taken for granted in the national comic grammar that it is easy to smile (or wince) and move on.’[iii] The aim this article is not to move on but to pause and ask questions about these assumptions. When and how did Southern Pennine Brass Bands become a metonym for the industrial north? What elements combined to create this clichéd identity? Through an examination of the brass band movement’s journals and external commentary I will show that the origin of the brass bands’ cliché of ‘northernness’ was a construction that grew from the reporting of bands c. 1840-1914. In spite of the national nature of brass bands commentators singled out the Southern Pennine bands as a symbol of not only northern music-making, but also a representation of northern industry and production over, and in contrast to, what reporters saw, however fancifully, as the unmusical and unproductive south.


Notes and References:

[i] The British Bandsman’s Easter Contest listing from 1903 is indicative of the high amount of national brass band activity. Contests were held, for example, at: Mountain Ash, Carlisle, Abergavenny, Compstall, Stourbridge, Senghenyyd, Barnet, Wigan, Rugby, Lewisham, Colne, South Hetton, Elsecar, Ilkley, Lindley, Pwlleheli and Rotherham. Source: British Bandsman, 18 Apr. 1903, pp. 124-127.

[ii] Quoted in the British Bandsman, 7 Dec. 1963, cited in, D. Russell, Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination (Manchester, 2004), p. 2.

[iii] Ibid., p. 2.

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