Jock Wilson of Fenton

Traditional music is a bit of an oddity in the music world in that the authors of tunes are rarely known and seldom recorded. Northumbrian music has long been a semi-literate tradition and composers can often be found for pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. So while ‘Trad’ is still the standard attribution, I prefer ‘Unknown’. Someone came up with the musical idea and it’s always satisfying to find out who. In some cases however authorship can be assigned where in truth the story is perhaps more complicated.

I learnt the rant ‘Jock Wilson of Fenton’ on the concertina many many years ago from the likes of the Shepherds and Andy & Margaret Watchorn. It’s got a great rhythm and structure and I’ve always known it as a Bryce Anderson composition. Bryce was the accordion player with the Cheviot Ranters dance band and composed a great many tunes but it seems that this might not have been composed as much as adapted.

Thanks to the Village Music project, I discovered a much earlier version of the tune. For many years now the VMP has been cataloguing and transcribing all of the english fiddle manuscripts they can find. John Clare was a fiddler in Northamptonshire who wrote down many of his tunes in the first half of the 19th century. One of the many untitled tunes (#170) in the manuscript bears a striking similarity to the modern Jock Wilson. The tune was transcribed by Flos Headford who gave the tune the title ‘Jock Wilson’s Hornpipe’. Here’s the first line:

[audio:|titles=Untitled Hornpipe (John Clare MS #170)]

A bit of further research throws up a very similar tune in Kerr’s Second Collection of Merry Melodies – No. 346 Cooper’s Hornpipe:

Different versions of Cooper’s can be found in a variety of places (it even has a touch of the Old Morpeth Rant in the B part).

[audio:|titles=Coopers Hornpipe (Kerrs 2nd Merry Melodies #348)]

Jock Wilson of Fenton starts in an almost identical fashion:

The B-part diverges a bit more – starting on a minor chord but the structure is still reminiscent of Cooper’s.
[audio:|titles=Jock Wilson of Fenton (Bryce Anderson)]

Here’s the manuscript for all three tunes in full: Jock Wilson of Fenton (PDF)

In times gone by tunes were frequently renamed with local references – Jimmy Allan (Reel of Tullochgorum), Lads of North Tyne (Boys of Bluehill). This may have been to make them memorable, because the original name was unsuitable or because the original name was not known to the player. Deliberate passing off is a possibility but it’s more likely that some musicians quite simply forgot whether or not they wrote a tune. I’ve played composers’ tunes back to them and had them ask where the tune came from. Tunes also evolve when a musician knowingly changes sections of the tune – either due to replacing ‘missing’ pieces or out of musical choice, it’ll get a different name to make the distinction from the original.

So my theory is that Bryce had a bit of a tune going round his head and by the time he filled the gaps in it got recorded as his. Alternatively; somewhere somebody asked what a tune was called and was given the name “Jock Wilson of Fenton” and then further down the line someone called it “one of Bryce’s tunes”. Either way history now has it as his and it’s been distinctive and popular enough to remain in the local repetoire for at least the last 30 years.