Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Photo courtesy Peter Bolwell

Photo courtesy Peter Bolwell

Master Balladeer – Peter Bolwell

Hot’s Sean O’ Shea talks to Peter Bolwell who is one of the most talented and engaging musicians on the local acoustic session’s circuit; he is also one of the most unassuming. As well as buckets of musicality he has a dry sense of humour, hence his performances are peppered with wry jokes and quirky observations on the human condition. He can be heard playing and singing at sessions and events in and around the Old Town, as well as on Wednesday evenings at Mungo’s Cafe near Hastings pier.


Could tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Clapham, in south London, but my parents moved away from there before I was old enough to remember the place at all. In fact my father’s job required us to move from town to town every three years or so, and we didn’t really settle anywhere until we came to Hastings when I was ten years old. While we were here however, my father was made redundant, so then we stopped moving around!

What have been some of your early musical influences?

I was brought up with music: my mother, who came from a cultured Austrian Jewish family, was a great admirer of Mozart, Beethoven, and especially Schubert. She arranged for me to take piano lessons from the age of four, and at the age of five I was awarded second place in the Brighton piano competition in the under – 7 category. My father on the other hand, was not generally musical, but it was from him I learned to love the anarchic and irreverent humour of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and the comic songs of Flanders and Swann.

I was fortunate to go through primary school in the days before the National Curriculum, which meant that we could learn all sorts of things, including singing. This was in fact my introduction to traditional folk song – not that we thought of it as such; to us they were just songs. We learned for example “The Oak and the Ash”, “Ye Banks and Braes” and “Spanish Ladies”. It makes me sad to think that children today are being brought up – I won’t say “educated” – with no knowledge of their traditional heritage, and without even realising how they have been robbed of what should be their birthright.

Could you say more about your experience of English folk music?

In the mid-1960s the BBC ran a television series called “Dance and Skylark” featuring the Liverpool folk group The Spinners singing sea-shanties, along with one of the last of the real old-time shantymen, Stan Hugill, telling stories about life at sea in the days of sail. I was hooked! It became fashionable in later years among certain “folkie” types to look down on The Spinners – I never understood why, but I suspect it was because they became so popular with the general public that some “precious” souls felt they were somehow desecrating the mystery by letting the uninitiated know about it! Personally I still consider some of The Spinners records such as the “English Collection” and “Songs of the Tall Ships” to be among the best folk albums that had been made up to that time.

I developed my knowledge and love of both classical and folk music in parallel, making much use of the record library in Hastings to discover material for myself (it is from such explorations that I acquired an enduring love for the music of the 20th century composer John Ireland). However my next “light bulb” moment came when I heard the record “Lovely in the dances” by the Quaker singer-songwriter Sydney Carter being reviewed on the radio.  Some of the tunes he had written were in the style of traditional Morris dancing music. At the time I knew very little about the Morris, but the drive and the rhythm of that music left me burning to find out more. I already knew Keith Leech, and being aware that he was involved in the local Morris side Mad Jacks, I went along with him to learn about the dancing and the music.

You and your Serenellini seem pretty inseparable; could you describe how you came to take up the melodeon?

Like most beginners in Morris music, I acquired a cheap Hohner melodeon and found it easy to get simple dance tunes out of it. However I soon developed an interest in the instrument for its own sake and its wider possibilities. It is unfortunately the curse of the melodeon that it is so easy to play badly, and too many players seem content just to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder and stay there! I was however fortunate enough to know the late Dave Roberts, a master of the instrument, and also took every opportunity to listen to other virtuoso players such as Tony Hall and Chris Parkinson, and went to workshops at folk festivals run by players such as Roger Watson and Martin Ellison. Whereas the first thing a beginner notices about the melodeon is its limitations, the fun part is to discover the “workarounds” one can employ to get around these.

Having got myself to a standard where I felt I deserved a better instrument, I traded up my Hohner for a lovely Serenellini, which I have had for twenty years now and it looks and sounds as good as ever. I still like to stretch myself by playing material that one does not normally associate with the melodeon, so that while I often play traditional pieces from Playford’s “Dancing Master”, or the delightful melodeon pieces in the French style by Frederic Paris, I will play Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle just as readily. Much of my repertoire however consists of songs written by my particular favourite singer-songwriters, principally Dougie MacLean, Jez Lowe, and Steve Knightley.

How did you come to play the sax?

It was Dave Roberts who was responsible for setting me on the path to taking up the saxophone. Dave had recently arrived in Hastings from London, and parted from the folk super-group, Blowzabella. He was keen to put a new ceilidh band together here, and recalling the contribution that brass instruments had made to the Blowzabella sound, he asked if I would consider taking up the saxophone: specifically the rather unusual C-melody type, whose tuning was particularly suited to other folk instruments (C-melody saxophones had been popular during the “dance band” era but had then fallen out of fashion and ceased to be manufactured in the 1930s). I have no idea why either of us thought this would be within my capabilities, but I liked the idea and I decided to get one. To this day I am slightly amazed at the way I went about it. I knew nothing about saxophones – I don’t believe I had ever so much as touched one before. I just picked one from the pages of Exchange & Mart, and ordered it by post without even having seen it first – not that I would have been much the wiser if I had, considering how little I knew about them!

Fortunately it turned out to be a decent instrument, and I set about teaching myself and was able to reach an acceptable standard fairly quickly. In fact before long I had purchased two more saxophones: a soprano and an alto. The new band was named Banjax (a pun on its association with Mad Jacks Morris, from whom many of its members were drawn) and once we had settled into our stride and shown what we could do we achieved a certain following, especially in the west country for some reason! We played at folk festivals across the country from Sidmouth to Cleethorps and made two albums together (“Marbles on the Dance Floor” and “Chaos in One”). After Banjax disbanded I played for a while with another local band, Colonel Mustard, and made an album with them called “Relief and Rejoicing”, consisting of material written by the band members themselves. However my next step forward was already forming in my mind.

And the bass guitar?

During my time with Banjax when I was on stage I had usually been stationed next to the bass player and I began to think that the bass sounded like a lot of fun. Cue my next purchase! Unlike the melodeon and the saxophone however, when it came to the bass I was not satisfied with the degree of progress I was able to make on my own (unlike most bass players I had not previously learned guitar) and I decided I needed lessons. An old school friend recommended a local teacher and highly experienced player, Kevin Francis. I have been going to him for lessons once a week ever since, and I am still enjoying it immensely! I find I am particularly attracted to the bass lines that Nathan Watts provided for Stevie Wonder’s songs, and Bruce Thomas for Elvis Costello’s, but also my admiration for Paul McCartney has increased no end since I started learning his bass lines. The man was years ahead of his time!

What are you up to at the moment in the local music scene?

These days I am sometimes invited to play together with my wife Sally to provide entertainment at social events or special occasions, and I can regularly be found at the Wednesday evening acoustic sessions at Mungo’s Cafe on Hastings seafront and at the Fairlight Lodge Hotel, where we meet with a group of friends who gather together to sing and play and enjoy each other’s company. I take along my melodeon, a saxophone, and sometimes a bass guitar – an acoustic one I bought especially for such occasions, since these sessions are strictly acoustic. And that basically is what I do for fun.


Posted 06:25 Wednesday, Apr 18, 2018 In: SOS

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