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Matt Seattle talks to Jock Agnew on the Dixon manuscript, its tunes and interpretations.

(We met in the Chantry bagpipe Museum, Morpeth, at the time of the annual Northumbrian Pipers’ Society competitions - so we were in the midst of ancient bagpipes and live music; a great atmosphere!)

JOCK. To start with, something about yourself: I first learned of your activities when you were researching and publishing the Great Northern Tune Books. How long, in fact, have you been interested in Traditional Music? And how did you become involved?

MATT. I can see now that it was always there knocking on the door, but I didn’t actively get interested until 1979. I was on a busking trip with a fiddle player in Brittany, and we

were playing kind of ‘hot club’ jazz (I was playing guitar), and we happened on the Lorient             Festival. There I heard a lot of music, and I thought this sounds like interesting stuff and I wanted to find out more.

JOCK. At what stage did you start to become actively interested in Border Pipe music as such? What was the spur?

MATT. Well that was much later. I had already been working on the William Vickers                   Collection which I published, and I had Gordon Mooney’s first books of Border Pipe music. I noticed that there was quite a lot of overlap between these two, and it seemed to me that there were several strands which linked together and led me to Border piping. I must say that Gordon’s work was definitely the spur, and I think it has been the impetus for the whole revival of Border pipe music. I would like to acknowledge that and give him credit for it - I don’t think he gets sufficient credit. I think you can even compare the contents of his books with the contents of William Dixon’s book which we’ll talk about later. He obviously picked up a lot of the right tunes, but what he didn’t pick up, and what nobody could have picked up until we had Dixon, was the specific way in which those tunes were played.

JOCK. I'm glad you mentioned Dixon's book at this stage, because of course that is what we are here to talk about. But before we go on to that, how much do you think musical theory can influence - for good or for bad - the practical aspects of playing an instrument like the Border pipes?

MATT. Well, as I see it, theory is an attempt, more or less adequate, to describe what works. There are many many different types of music in the world, and they all have their own theory. The theory doesn’t dictate how the music works. The Universe was working quite happily before Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking described the theory; but that helps us to understand what’s going on, though not why. So as regards Border pipe theory, if it helps me to understand what is going though not why then it can only be a good thing - but it doesn’t dictate what goes on. Certainly when I found William Dixon I had to revise my theories. The reality is always more interesting than the theory.

JOCK. How has the William Dixon book been received throughout the piping world? I’ve read the quotes of acclaim on the back cover, but have there been any voices of dissent or criticism? Have there been many copies sold beyond the initial subscription copies? Are pipers learning the arrangements? What sort of feedback, if any, have you been getting?

MATT. Very difficult for me to assess. I have encouraging comments but only from a few individuals. I think that at this stage it is very difficult to assess whether there will be any long term impact at all.

JOCK. Finding and then transposing and publishing (some two years ago) the William Dixon Manuscript was a great undertaking. In the process you must have seen and handled the original. Was it charred? Well thumbed as if used for working up tunes? On heavy parchment? What was it like?

MATT. A very little book in very good condition. I didn’t see any traces on it of burning. A very nice thing to hold in one’s hands and realise what it was and the significance of it. I would like to visit it again and again, unfortunately it is in Perth; quite a long way from where I live. Maybe we should have a move to restore it to Northumberland along with the Lindisfarne Gospel.

JOCK. On the cover you have in large letters “NINE NOTES THAT SHOOK THE WORLD”. Was this actually stated in the original MS? What does it mean exactly?

MATT. Not at all. No, that is very much a personal response. ‘World’ of course means anything you want it to mean. I can say with honesty that the book contains nine notes that shook my world.

JOCK. Why, if he was such a good piper/composer/arranger, was he not historically wellknown? Way is this the first we've heard of him?

MATT. I have no answer to that!

JOCK. There is a picture (p.97) of a page inscribed, it seems, with the words: ‘Parcival Dixon; John Dixon: William Dixon His Song Book’. Did this appear in the MS, and would it indicate that the other names were pipers, collaborators, arrangers or just family?

MATT. Yes. It’s at the back of the original manuscript. My interpretation is that they were members of the family. William Dixon is the name found elsewhere in the book, and on the title pages which I reproduce in my edition.

JOCK. Is there any evidence that someone beside William worked on the Tune Book? For instance the change in the spelling of certain tune names (and we'll look at a few of them later on in this interview) - perhaps on the advice of someone else?

MATT. There’s no indication to me. The handwriting changes a bit through the book, but I think within the normal limits. Having it looked at by a handwriting expert might be worth doing at some stage. And I think a variation between spellings is absolutely normal, especially at that time.

JOCK. If, as you surmise, it was a record of the tunes he already knew - why the book? Could the tunes have been written down as an aide-memoire - he would have had to have a prodigious memory to keep that repertoire in his head? For other contemporary pipers? (though presumably a lot/most couldn't read dots). For posterity? Perhaps they were being written out and arranged with a view to publication?

MATT. I think the last suggestion is the most easily dismissed. Because what would have been the market for a book like this in 1733? Traditional musicians - pipers, fiddlers - didn’t read much. Pipers we know were very late in using staff notation. Why did he make the book? So that I could find it and publish it!

JOCK. In your Preamble and Notes you frequently refer to “smallpipes”. These were unkeyed Northumbrian smallpipes I think you explained - but why no reference to Scottish smallpipes?

MATT. As far as we know Scottish smallpipes at this time were identical to Northumbrian smallpipes. There are some examples over here [pointing to a display in the Chantry Bagpipe museum]. The Scottish smallpipe that we have now is a modern invention; I believe it might have a precursor in the 19th century, but as I understand it, they were developed by Northumbrian pipemakers in Whitley Bay as an indoor instrument for Highland pipers. It has, as I see it, no relevance to Border piping.

JOCK. Right; I’m sure we'll receive some correspondence on that point alone! But prior to publication you did some searching and researching to try and find out who exactly was this man William Dixon. Has any further information come to light?

MATT. No. Les Jessop has looked at some more Parish records and come up with some more information, but we don’t have any indication of William’s profession, or his dates of birth and death.

JOCK. Working so long as you have with the MS and with the tunes themselves, have you found you started to know the man himself?

MATT. That’s very hard to say. I can only assume that somebody who would spend the time and trouble to write down that much music: to be so meticulous, so careful, must have had a lot going for him. Obviously he loved the music; that is a point of contact.

JOCK. The music itself now; how much of the tune structures could be put down to pure instinct, and how much to a conscious effort with knowledge of musical theory?

MATT. You don’t have to talk about theory here. What we have got are a set of structures which are common to Northumbrian music, Scottish music, Irish music, English music, to a greater or lesser extent. I’ve analyzed it fairly superficially in the back of my edition of the book. I’ve since developed my understanding much further. Now it’s not necessary to have a knowledge of music theory to write a twelve bar blues, for instance. You’ve heard lots of twelve bar blues. You’ve played them. That’s what people around you are playing. You just come up with it. On the other hand it’s not going to stop you doing it if you understand the structure of 12 bar blues. So it’s a bit chicken and egg I think. If this stuff was being played around all the time, then people would play in that idiom in the way that we have no problem in speaking English because that’s what people are doing all around us. We don’t have to have the knowledge of grammar to make ourselves understood, but the grammar is there as an abstraction if we wish to examine it. So I don’t think they were composed from             theory; no, but I think the structures were ingrained in the way that syntax is ingrained in our speech. And if we depart from it more or less we can still make ourselves understood.

JOCK. You say that you put in repeat signs and phrase endings. So were the tunes like “Little Wee Winking Thing”, “Rattling Roaring Willie”; and “The Black and the Grey” written out in full (i.e. without repeats) in the original MS as they are in your edition?

MATT. That’s my own interpretation, not to put repeat marks. He has only one sign he uses to separate strains and this, as I understand (from other sources) was very common at that time. Not until later did it become standardised into what we now consider double bar marks and repeat marks. So (as I have admitted in the book) this is my interpretation, but he does definitely separate the strains, as I have done.

JOCK. If you remember at last year’s Collogue time caught up with us, and I wasn't able to ask a question which still intrigues me; have you been able to detect if Dixon - or for that matter any other arranger of Border pipe music - had a system or formula that he followed when building up a series of variations on the original theme?

MATT. This is a very, very interesting question; and I think that the simple answer is that there is no formula as such. But there are frequently used strategies. This has an ‘up’ side and a ‘down’ side in that some tunes get very similar to each other but there’s no formula like ‘first you do the arpeggio and then you do the twiddly twiddly bit and then you do the repeated notes’; I can detect nothing like that. I also think some tunes are more fluid than others, the strains don’t seem to occur in any particular sequence. Other tunes seem to me to be more structured as a whole and I think this is a characteristic of individual tunes rather than the tradition as a whole - you have to take each one as it presents itself. Another thing I’ve found; where there is an overall structure then understanding that structure is a great help in memorising that tune.

JOCK. Your extensive notes at the back give fascinating glimpses of the origins and                   subsequent history of some of the tunes. Several (3,4,13,18,22,26,29,35) have been noted as “No concordances found”. Have some of these now been found? And any thoughts on why the remainder did not appear in other repertoires, books etc?

MATT. Yes, some of these have been pinpointed, both by myself and by Roderick Cannon. Roderick has identified WALLY AS THE MARQUES RAN as either a variant of or very very strongly related to the tune we call Sherriffmuir, or Katy Bairdy or Kafoozalum. One which I picked out is HOW SHE’LL NE’ER BE GUIDED is known in Scottish sources as the Far Awa’ Wedding. SAW YE NE’ER A BONNY LASS is possibly an earlier version of Kiss’d Her Under The Coverlet which occurs in William Vickers and my own Border           Bagpipe Book. The other ones - why didn’t they find their way into other repertoires? I haven’t a clue. I can’t understand why a tune like LITTLE WEE WINKING THING could disappear; it’s so damn good.

JOCK. Have Dixon’s Tunes a feature, a signature, a style that makes them different and                 instantly recognisable from other arrangements?

MATT. Yes and no. There are particular sequences which are common to Dixon, Peacock and much Scottish variation writing. He also has a few individual ones, but they are not necessarily as individual as I had at first thought; it’s just that they are more concentrated in his book. I’ve identified one particular figure which he uses in DORRINGTON LADS among other places which also occurs in some Scottish music from earlier than William Dixon. There is also a particular figure where he writes a slur in the manuscript which does seem to be a little trade mark of his own. I don’t regard it as an essential feature of the                 music; it’s there but it would still be what it is without that.

JOCK. Regarding your notes on tune 1, WATTY'S AWAY, you refer to “osmotic leakage”. What does this mean?

MATT. That means the tendency of a strong melodic element of variation to influence the tag at the end of the strain which is usually unchanging but can, as I have indicated be influenced by the melodic element.

JOCK. And which tune did you designate a song air? (P7, nature of tunes).

MATT. That's the air AN THOU WERE MY AIN THING. There are several other texts which indicate that it was a song (or instrumental air) and nothing anywhere to indicate that it was used as a dance. One interesting thing about this tune is that there is absolutely no argument but that it is a Scottish tune. There is also (William Dixon’s version) no argument but that it is also a bagpipe tune. But never, to our knowledge, does it occur as a Scottish bagpipe tune, the Scottish versions all exceed the bagpipe range.

JOCK. Like many other pipers I tend to persevere with tunes that I like, or which give a feeling of satisfaction in the playing. Some of the same tunes, or same-named tunes in other arrangements (such as Peacock’s) often seem insipid in comparison. Is this just me, or did Dixon use a technique or flair denied to others? Perhaps this links up with that earlier question on whether he had an individual style.

MATT. I dunno. On the whole the collection is just the best thing in the world for Border piping, but it doesn’t mean to say I think he had the last word on every tune. There are some tunes which are very similar to Peacock - and by Peacock’s time these tunes are more developed. There are other tunes where I think he has the edge over Peacock (and the edge over anything else) as with DORRINGTON LADS. There are curiosities like his version of BERWICK JOHNNY where he plays it in an unexpected key. So as a whole it’s absolutely marvellous, but taking it one tune at a time I feel you have to use your judgement.

JOCK. I have only mastered (if that isn’t too optimistic an expression) a few of the tunes so far. One of them, COCK ON THE MIDDEN (16) I find very evocative - we can almost hear the cock crowing in the 4th and 8th bar of each strain. Are there any other pieces that I have yet to ‘discover’ that might be similarly descriptive do you think? .

MATT. Well, I don’t know...Breandan Breathnach makes very interesting comments about whether any traditional music is descriptive in a literal way. I do find a certain hidden progression in tune number 5 [HIT HER BETWEEN THE LEGS] which to my senses alludes to the activity mentioned in the title. But readers are of course free to draw their own conclusions about this.

JOCK. You mention that the structure and arrangement of certain other tunes (e.g. some Peacock tunes) were almost identical, When they were transcribed for Northumbrian

smallpipes presumably they ignored the flattened 7th that makes the Border pipes so                       distinctive - and where appropriate, did away with the lower leading note. Is there a case for collecting these tunes and re-setting them purely for Border pipes? Perhaps you are already doing this?

MATT. Yes, I already do this for my own playing. For example I play Bonnie Pit Lad which I’ve learnt essentially from Peacock, but I’ve changed it around a wee bit in order to (what I call) ‘un-adapt’ it back again to what it may have been originally. It’s fairly straight- -forward to work out what Peacock did when he did adapt these tunes. It wasn’t just a question of changing the key signature. Some of the sequences of notes were actually altered because he would have had an exposed F# when he was playing in ‘C’. But I think I know how to do this back again - certainly I can do it and make musical sense; but whether it is historically correct you can never know.

JOCK. Dixon’s collection is a passport to the period, tunes and arrangements of an 18th Century Piper. Part of the pleasure in trying to play them is the feeling that here is a piper from over 250 years ago speaking directly to us through his music. Does this direct line give us an insight - or even a yardstick - on other piping arrangements of that period?

MATT. Absolutely. Of course there aren’t many other piping arrangements of that period. But yes, it’s a passport to that period. This has many ramifications which I mention in my edition of his book. Does that mean we treat it as Early Music? in the way of J.S. Bach, or does it mean that we treat it as something to be done now. All these approaches are possible. But my own personal response is that this was the best stuff at the time. If we want to do anything now we have to take this on board and see what we can do with it. But we ignore it at the risk at losing anything distinctive about the Border tradition. As regards a direct line, this is a very deep and subtle matter. I’ve noted there are tunes which appear in William Dixon’s book which also appear in the manuscripts of the 20th century Northumbrian smallpiper Tom Clough without any visible intervening evidence. So there was a current which flowed directly across time and which is still flowing in the present day and it is           possible to gain access to this current.

JOCK. Coming down to specifics; in the tune HAVE A CARE OF HER JOHNNY (3), the fast four bars of the first two strains are identical; So are the last four bars of the remaining 3 strains - though different from the first two. It’s almost like playing a separate tune. Is there a reason, or come to that, a precedent for this?

MATT. I think that’s a structural thing to do with the sequence of notes which precedes those four bars. If you notice the first line of strains 1 and 2 ends on an ‘E’ and wants to go back to the ‘F#’. It’s difficult to explain in words, but if you play the tune you get the                 feeling about where it wants to go and why it goes in that particular direction.

JOCK. In GINGLING GEORDIE (31) strain 6 doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the tune pattern which is built up in a discernible sequence (to me anyway). Is there a musical reason for this?

MATT. I’d love you to tell me what the pattern is, because I’ve been trying to find one!

JOCK. Well, if you discount the 6th, each alternate strain seems to want to have the ‘CDE’

run as a feature early in the 2nd bar.

MATT. There [looking at the appropriate page] you can see I’ve already pencilled a little arrow in before strain 6 meaning that something else should have gone in. An interesting tune; it’s worth comparing that with the Northumbrian and Scottish versions which also   exist. It seems to be a fluid tune - there doesn’t seem to be, as far as I can tell, a definite   sequence. I’ve noticed in SOUTERS OF SELKIRK (in William Dixon) there is almost a   sequence and then - there’s not....Is there a bit of unfinished work here, or does it mean it doesn’t really matter? I think it’s a great un-answered question which can’t really be                       resolved in theory; you have to resolve it in practice.

JOCK. You suggest, in the write-up in the Border Bagpipe Book, that a tune might be neatly rounded off by playing the first strain again at the finish, But when a tune consists of an uneven number of strains (e.g. Gingling Geordie; Have a Care of her Johnny; Cock On the Midden, Lads of Alnwick etc), does it perhaps indicate the final strain was intended in lieu of repeating the first strain at the finish? (GINGLING GEORDIE (31) in particular seems to have a definite feeling of finality in its last strain).

MATT. I don’t know that you can make rules about that. In some of these tunes I’ve found ‘holes’ where I can put something in that seems to me to complete something. It has been suggested to me that if a tune has got seven strains it means you've got to go and play the first one again - but I don’t actually agree with that. But as I said, you can’t make a simple rule and apply it to all tunes.

JOCK. Initially I found the book a little daunting - all these tunes with apparently interminable variations. Have you any advice for those pipers starting out to sample Dixon’s tunes? For instance which ones might be the more easy to finger and to appreciate - perhaps leading on to others of a more complicated or sophisticated arrangement?

MATT. I always direct people to start off with the tune DIXON’S HIGHLAND LADDIE, because to me it’s just the most approachable tune if you’ve never played anything like this before. Between that and DORRINGTON LADS there’s a whole spectrum of difficulty. The 4/4 tunes are the more straightforward in my experience.

JOCK. And at what sort of speed do you think William Dixon (and come to that William and James Allan as well as other contemporary pipers) performed these pieces?

MATT. We've got to go back there with a tape recorder, haven't we!! Most people in my opinion are trying to play them far too slowly. Having said which I don’t pretend that I can play them at the speed I think they should go. I think they should go at quite a lick; if you hear Tom Clough’s playing of Holey Ha’penny - he’s no slouch.

JOCK. In your introduction to the Border Bagpipe Book - to which you refer on occasion in the William Dixon Book - you say “Much music, especially pipe music, is constructed on simple chord sequences. On the pipes, although no chords are played as such, the ear and brain pick out the shifts in harmony against the drones. In the most characteristic of pipe tune structures, the double tonic sequence, the chord on which the melody is built is at any moment ‘in’ or ‘out’ with the drones.” Could you perhaps explain this further, looking at it from the practical point of view of actually playing the tune (as opposed to analysing it).

MATT. Yes. When we play the pipes we play the tune, but what we should be trying to do, and I speak for myself as much as directing other people, we should be trying also to play the drones. On the few occasions when I feel I’ve managed to give as much attention to the drones as to the tune, something happens.

JOCK. One of the problems I find with the right hand is keeping the pinkie down when playing ‘C#’ in some of the variations. As you may know there has recently been a re-write in The Piping Times of a previous debate concerning the need to keep the pinkie down to achieve a true ‘C#’ on the Highland pipes - yet I am informed by a well-known maker of Border pipes that the chanter may easily be constructed to suit either requirement. In Dixon’s day did they play an open ‘C#’ do you think?

MATT. I really would not know. I mean if you are going to have a Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society you are interested in reviving the tradition. You should be paying expert pipe-makers to actually go round and measure these chanters - put reeds in them and see what they did. As far as I’m concerned it’s the crucial thing which the Society should be doing, because we now have the music and this is the big mystery about how it was played; what fingering was used. Personally I find that having to use that little finger to keep the note in tune makes the music more difficult than it otherwise would be. On the other hand it gives you a stable reference when you bring the rest of the fingers of the lower hand down. So it’s not a simple matter; but I would be very, very interested to know what the situation was and whether there was a uniform position. Certainly on my bagpipes if I don’t have the pinkie down the note [‘C#’] is out of tune.

JOCK. Now I’d like to turn to the names of the tunes - and tune names fascinate me. In your edition you kept them more or less as written by Dixon. This isn’t intended to take you to task in any way, but I was slightly surprised that you changed DORRINGTON to DORRINGTON LADS (2) because of present day popular usage, yet left THE APPRENTICE LADS OF ALNWICK (33) unchanged.

MATT. Yes - but when you say present day usage you are including the whole of the 19th century! To me, this tune is IT. Certainly I could have just called it DORRINGTON but there’s such a lot of lore attached to it as DORRINGTON LADS that I couldn’t resist the temptation - and I have owned up!  

JOCK. Now BOWDEN. Does “Bowden” (NEW WAY TO BOWDEN 37) have to be a

place? In my old Scots Dictionary BOUDEN is given as a verb to “swell from overeating; swell from wrath or courage”. And in any event, why change the spelling to BOWDEN?

MATT. Well, because there are a couple of places called that - yes, is it a verb? The NEW

WAY TO MORPETH!? Show me how to Morpeth and I’ll show you how to Rock and Roll!

JOCK. Yes, I suppose I asked for that! But the spelling of Sowter - why change it to Souter (SOUTERS OF SELKIRK 27); Sowter was, I think, a valid spelling of the word at that time.

MATT. Fair point.

JOCK. And WATTY'S AWAY (1). What is Watty - a person?

MATT. Watty is Walter.

JOCK. HAY FOR NEWBIGGIN (17)? Could it not have been Hay as in Straw?

MATT. When I moved to Newbiggin the Vicar was the Reverend Hay - maybe it was him!

JOCK. Now on a more sober note - and hardly a question: Hacky, you have previously told me, is a Northumbrian term for ‘Dirty’, My trusty Scots dictionary says Hawky could mean Whore. Either way I’m sorry to learn that the title of one of my favourite tunes (HACKY HONEY 4) could have such connotations!

You say in the notes that one tune title has defeated your attempts to make any sense of it; which one was that?


JOCK. Again turning to my trusty ancient Scots Dictionary, ‘Wally’ could mean beautiful, thriving. ‘Ran’ might mean hem, heel?! So perhaps WALLY AS THE MARQUES RAN (22) may have meant “Beautiful as the Marques’ hem”? There's a thought for you!

MATT. It’s a thought.

JOCK. Many thanks for your time and (most of) your answers and comments! I’m sure others will wish to have their views known on some of the points raised, so I'll reserve plenty of space in the forthcoming “Letters” columns!

FOOTNOTE. Matt has since phoned me to say that although he may or may not have changed his mind on some of the aspects of this interview since the Peebles Collogue, his heart has certainly changed!