Music never leaves you

Since I’m still a bit peaky, David Evans has been busy writing and supplying material to fill the gaps, for which I ‘m very grateful indeed. David has written a great piece here about Walsall Wood and its musical history. I hope you guys love it as much as I do…

David has this to say:

One of the most interesting facets of Walsall Wood’s recorded history in the last century is the surprising degree and variety of musical talent that emerges in the published documents, and from other sources. The five main places of worship each had, at one time or another, a piano, or a choir, or an organ of one kind or another. The local pubs had a piano on the premises. Victorian homes’ prize possession was the upright piano in the parlour.

The early churches in the village initially only had a single violin player, or even a brass instrumentalist to lead the hymn singing. Sometimes the priest himself would be the only ‘lead’ in the hymn singing. Yet, as more and more miners moved into the village from other established mining villages, they would bring with them, firstly, the ability to read music, and frequently their own instrument, a well-worn fiddle, or cello, flue or trumpet that they had played in their previous church or village ensemble or choir.

They could teach, encourage and build up singing groups into choirs, or fiddlers into string quartets. They could play the piano in church. They could earn a few bob playing the latest hits of the day in the local pubs. They could earn a few more bob teaching other people’s children to play an instrument. The village even had a business which made church pipe organs. Good organs, well made and soon in high demand as local church congregations scrimped and saved, worked and busied themselves over years to be able to buy the New Organ.

This collective enterprise and endeavour helped to further build up the social cohesion and engagement in these churches. Church organs were very expensive instruments in their day. They still are! Organs manufacturers faced the challenge of increasing both the quantity or organs they produced, and the sound output of each instrument. A small church which moved into a bigger building would need another, much more powerful church organ This was the case when the Wesley Church moving from its little church near Hall Lane to their bigger building inthe High Street, and when the Ebenezer Primitive Church moved from its first small building to the larger church, in Lichfield Road.

There was a brass band in Walsall Wood in the early 20th century. This was a common feature of many a coal-mining village and Musical festivals, and competitions, were well-known. Sadly, there seem to be few written records easily accessible of the Walsall Wood’s Brass Band, or of the competitions, the Galas it entered. I hope that families’ own records, photos, certificates or diplomas have not been lost for ever.

As the family piano in the parlour was an important treasure, there grew up a well-known group of piano teachers, whose names are well known to this day. Family sing-songs around the piano were a common delight and pastime. Friends would join to ‘have a sing together’ in the evenings. The popular tunes of the day, in sheet music form, can occasionally be found for sale in car boots, in antique shops, in second-hand bric-a-brac shops. These printed sheets give a twinkling and captivating glimpse into a long-gone age and its music, and, in a way, into the language of the day. ‘My Old Man said…’ may be one easily recognised pop tune of the days. ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’, when seen in sheet music, immediately brings to mind another image of different times. ‘Charleston’, ‘Black Bottom’, ‘Old man River’ may mean nothing to today’s grown-ups and youngsters, but, in their own times, they certainly did… and the tunes and lyrics were known by heart.

Budding pianists of every age have struggled with scales, with hitting the right key with the right finger pressure, and the correct finger; then adding different intricacies to complete a whole musical chord and progression. The battle with solfa, sharps, flats, treble and bass clefs, key signatures, crescendo, piano and forte, pianissimo, diminuendo. Three to the bar, four, Turning the page, one page at a time.

Walsall Wood neighbours were patient, up to a point, but a sharp rap on the partition wall with grandma’s heavy, old steel-tipped walking stick would bring instant calm and tranquillity, and a sigh from the family pet.

Primary schools encouraged the development of their pupils’ hidden musical talent. From hitting a wooden block with a mallet, and not fracturing your own kneecap, to shaking a tambourine only when you had to, and keeping the jangling beast quiet at other times, to hitting a triangular piece of steel with another straight piece of steel without poking your own eye out, to whirling a rattle using the appropriate measure of force whilst balancing with a semi-protruding tongue, all these were deemed to be encouraging pupils’ hidden musical talents. Blowing a referee’s whistle in the group was not accepted! Rehearsal and school performances were always preceded by a necessary visit to the ‘little rooms’, as nerves and performance could result in unexpected visual effects for the radiantly smiling parents, bespectacled grandparents, and others who had been volunteered into swelling the numbers. It was, in every sense, a Primary Experience.

Marching bands - like the Brownhills Starlites or Chase Royals were always, and still remain popular. Picture taken from ‘Memories of Old Walsall Wood’ by Bill Mayo & John Sale.

But, music never leaves you. The same gangly but highly enthusiastic children progressed. The basics had been covered well. Young pianists improved through their persistence and with the help of their teachers. Other instrumentalist showed that they could master their own choice of instruments. Groups developed. Piano accordionists got together to form Musical Ensembles, bands, orchestras, rehearsing for many hours, and playing for dances locally and elsewhere. Somebody could muster up a sort of drum kit, if not, a tea chest and string would suffice, and a scrubbing-board would give the complete rhythm section. Innovation and simple but effective improvisation .

Marching bands with their kazoos and simple drums, or even a glockenspiel were popular in Walsall Wood. A coach is still often seen in the village, Marching Band written on the boot panel. The unforgettable sounds of the Boys’ Brigade in action, some called it ‘combat action’, their trumpets, horns, drums and howitzer, as they marched down the High Street and Lichfield Road still bring tears to the eyes of some who experienced this spectacle, and to others no doubt.

Grown-ups enjoyed singing in the various choirs in the district. There were ladies choirs, men’s choirs, Wednesday choirs, Friendly choirs, Barber shop choirs, men’s quartets, Musical Comedy groups, light operatic groups, G&S Appreciation groups and celebrated soloists of every voice range.

The advent of the electric musical instruments in the 1950s and 1960s brought a major increase and involvement in the creation and performance of music, and a major change, too. Taylors’ Music shop in Walsall suddenly had these new electric and acoustic guitars on display in the shop window. Drum kits and accessories of every colour and price-range tempted local teenagers. The age of the big band was beginning to draw to a close, the popularity of live radio band shows and their singers Vince Hill, Lita Rosa, Alma Cogan, et al was slowly being challenged by local home-grown groups in Walsall Wood, as everywhere else, as they brought their own styles to popular music. Folk singers of every kind and background were to be heard in local venues. Late-night street yodelling had always been popular, it should be noted.

The increasing accessibility of the major concert venues in Birmingham, and the choice of music concert available to local music addicts and enthusiasts became more and more apparent. Not only would local football fans travel with their friends to soccer matches, local music fans travelled to hear their own groups, or to appreciate the sounds of other musicians performing. The local secondary schools thriving music departments are witness to today’s younger generation’s musical talent and young people’s increasing participation in, and appreciation of, music of all kinds. Walsall Wood has changed in many ways over the last century; its love for music has remained.

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13 Responses to Music never leaves you

  1. David Oakley says:

    Brilliant piece of writing, David, and very much appreciated. It’s contributions like this that make this blog so unique and so rewarding. Loved the videos, particularly the Paul Robeson and the organ building, am really getting into the latter, commencing with the tools needed video, so should know a little about organ building some time in the future. I remember Hawkins taking over the old chapel many years ago to build organs and would have loved a look around. I well remember the Red Caps jazz band and their leader at the time, Mr. Scott and the brass band that used to practice in the top room of the Royal Exchange. On summer evenings with the windows open, the music would drift along Lichfield Road and oratorios were not unknown at both the Methodist and Wesleyan chapels. Yes, Walsall Wood had a fine musical tradition. Happy days !

  2. Ian says:

    My dear granddad was Walsall’s own George Formby/Django Rheinhardt, and ran The Crown as a music pub for many years.

  3. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    and a big thank you for finding and including the super videos. There are several privately homed pipe organs hereabouts..some locals have made their own hand-pumped box pipe organs…some home made violins make super mellow sounds, local school brass bands equal the best, computer generated synthesisers create wonderful sounds, The spirit of artistic and musical creativity is alive and flourishing in the locality!..and this is most encouraging and a delight to hear and enjoy.

  4. David Oakley says:

    Hi David.
    Do you remember the singing lessons at school ?, not “music”, but “singing”. The boys would belt out “One Friday morn when we set sail”,with the chorus “and the landlubbers lying down below, below, below” and the girls would warble “lass with the delicate air,” then we would perhaps all sing “My grandfather’s clock” while the teacher would walk round listening for the “growler”.
    Every school had at least one piano and many teachers were quite passable pianists. I have a Technics organ which I play for my own pleasure, and many old school songs are included in my little sessions.
    I remember with grateful thanks Miss Powell, Mrs. Hitchen and Mrs Fenn, Walsal Wood teachers from the ’30’s who enriched my life in this way.

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