English Traditional Harmonica Players

Whilst there is a lot of information on the use of the harmonica in Scottish and Irish Traditional music, little has been written about its use in England. This reflects the lower profile of traditional music in England and the relative isolation of most of the harmonica/mouth organ players. Musicians usually use tremolo or diatonic harmonicas. Here is a brief summary of what we could find. More details will follow about specific players from England. This is work in progress.

This review was written by Roger Trobridge and Katie Howson.

Will Atkinson (1908-2003) from Northumberland is the best known traditional harmonica player. Will came from a musical family and was a shepherd for most of his life. He played mouthorgan and melodeon as a child before moving to the accordion and playing in a local group. Later in his life he returned to the tremolo harmonica. Will knew and played with many of the musicians like Jimmy Shand at musical festivals in the Scottish Borders. His repertoire included a very large number of local and Scottish tunes and he was renowned for precision of his playing. There are several CDs of him playing solo or with The Shepherds (Joe Hutton and Willie Taylor).

Other English Traditional Performers

From about 1970 there was a huge revival of interest in traditional dance band music – often called the English Country Music Revival. These new groups provided an opportunity for new harmonica players.

Martin Brinsford started playing drums in 1962 and then discovered traditional English dance and music and took up playing tremolo harmonica. He was a founder member of Old Swan Band, England’s premier country dance band, and Brass Monkey with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick. He has played in many other bands and recording sessions He plays a wide range of music drawn from around the world as well as England. currently plays vintage Québécois dance music with The Pigeon Swing. He has played at HarmonicaUK festivals.

Terry Potter is another tremolo player who has been active since the 1960s with the modern tradition musicians like Ashley Hutchings (‘The Compleat Dancing Master‘, ‘Kicking Up The Sawdust‘) as well as playing with the Etchingham Steam Band, Potters Wheel and his family group, Cousins and Sons.

Players in English Ceilidh and Morris bands

Katie Howson (b.1956) is known mainly for playing the English melodeon/ diatonic accordion but has in fact played tremolo harmonica for nearly as long. A member of several English ceilidh bands, including PolkaWorks, whose 2014 CD “Borrowed Shoes” features her harmonica playing.

Chris Taylor from Kent, played in the Oyster Ceilidh Band, Gas Mark V and Polkabilly. Gas Mark V released a number of recordings featuring his harmonica playing.

Simon Booth from Lancashire, plays tremolo harmonica and recorded with the Ran Tan Band.

Barry Parkes Shropshire, plays tremolo harmonica and recorded with Dr Sunshine’s Pavement Show, All Blacked Up and The Ironmasters.

Des Miller whilst living in Norfolk played and recorded with the Old Hat Concert Party and Rig-a-Jig, both bands specialising in localised repertoire.

Jaime Gill was featured in “Harmonica World” playing his large Hohner “683” double sider with the Clog Morris Band. He plays in “The Bicton Inn” in Exmouth.

Steve Harrison played mouth organ (and melodeon) in a couple of barn dance bands around Halifax (Yorkshire) and occasionally further afield. He was a member of HarmonicaUK and played tremolo and later diatonic until his death in 2016.

Eddie Upton took up harmonica more seriously in the 1970s. He played and recorded with The Pump and Pluck Band and toured Internationally. He set up Folk South West in 1992 and he appeared at a HarmonicaUK festival.

The Northumberland Moothie Tradition

Northumberland shares a border and many cultural links with Scotland, especially musical ones. It’s mainly rural location in the North of England has helped it to retain its musical traditions when other regions have struggled to do so. Will Atkinson grew up surrounded by traditional musicians who played fiddles, pipes and concertinas and his harmonica playing inspired another generation of players.

Ernie Gordon (The Geordie Jock) from Alnwick was a friend of Will’s and spent a lot of time with him, learning many of Will’s tunes. He is a fine musician who also plays the pipes and drums as well as music from countries like Greece where he lived for a few years. Ernie has been a big supporter of HarmonicaUK for 20 years which has help to raise the profile of the moothie. He has recorded one CD.

Roy Hugman is another Geordie moothie player from Morpeth, who has promoted music from Northumberland and taught tremolo for HarmonicaUK is . He plays locally with his band and has an active YouTube and Facebook page.

Jimmy Little is a prominent from the Alnwick area who has released a couple of CDs.

Other Geordie moothie players include Anita James and Rob Say.

Other English Regional Traditional Players.

Some other areas like East Anglia and the West Country also held onto their traditional music but not with the same social involvement seen in Northumberland. Harmonica players seem to have been individuals without much contact between them. Here are some who have been picked up by collectors and local clubs.

Jim Small lived in Cheddar near Bristol and was the musician for the local Morris and Country Dance Team. He was interviewed and recorded some local tunes in 1949 which were released on cassette and then CD.

Jimmy Hunter with harmonica, is pictured on the occasion of a BBC recording session outside his home at Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, England, in 1954 (Peter Kennedy),

Albert Smith played in Suffolk.

Peter Roud, from Hampshire, was the subject of an article in EDS Spring 2011. He made a few recordings which are held by his family.

Alfie Butler was a Gloucestershire gypsy who played harmonica as well as piano accordion.

Bill Train of Teignmouth recorded a selection of old song tunes, polkas hornpipes and a nice jig.

Sam Bond played polkas, step dances, marches, singalong tunes etc, and recorded a cassette on the Forest Tracks label.

Stan Seaman was, a Hampshire melodeon player who also plays harmonica who made some recordings..

John Cole played chromatic with a few of the folk song and skiffle groups in the London area in the 1950s before moving to Spain.

West Country players Jack Rice, Bob Cann and Steve Verges (Totnes) were mentioned by Phillip Henry/Sam Richards and two Southern English travellers, Bill Elsom and Jasper Smith were mentioned by Dave Arthur in 1993.

The new generation

Will Pound and Phillip Henry are very talented, original International performers who include traditional music in their compositions and performances.

Sean Spicer and Simon Joy are two younger players who are continuing in the tradition. Sean played recently in the National Youth Folk Ensemble – probably the first harmonica player to do so – and Simon looks after traditional music within HarmonicaUK.

Scottish Traditional Harmonica Players

Nigel Gatherer has a list of Scottish traditional recordings and musicians including moothie players

George Current has more background on the Scottish moothie players.

Irish Traditional Harmonica Players

Don Meade has written a very detailed document about The Harmonica and Irish Traditional Music which includes a Irish/Scottish/Quebecois Harmonica Discography.

Geoff Wallis’The Irish Music Review has a slightly updated version of the list of players.

Dave Hynes has assembled a large gallery of images of Irish traditional harmonica players, as well as a list of the All Ireland Champions and BDs and DVDs of harmonica music.

Additional Information

Will Atkinson – 3 CDs (2 were LPs) have been released – Mouth Organ (Solo), Harthorpe Burn (Joe Hutton, Willy Taylor and Will Atkinson), An Audience with the Shepherds (Joe Hutton, Willy Taylor and Will Atkinson). Will also plays on several CDs of Northumberland Traditional music. Here is a video from a concert at Morpeth Town Hall.

Martin Brinsford – He has recorded one CD under his own name, Next Slide Please (Keith Ryan with Gareth Kiddier) and he is present on several recordings with Brass Monkey. He has several videos on YouTube from the HarmonicaUK festivals.

Ernie Gordon – He has a privately recorded CD, The Geordie Jock and several YouTube videos including this Tribute to Will Atkinson from an HarmonicaUK concert.in 2003.

Roy Hugman – Has several videos on Youtube including a moothie workshop for HarmonicaUK.

Jim Small released a cassette of his recordings which was available on CD from Folktrax. Unfortunately FolkTrax is no longer in business. There may be second-hand copies.