I play traditional music on the melodeon and harmonica. My musical education took place largely in the pubs of Suffolk as a young adult, where I learned much from an older generation of musicians. Since then I have spent most of my life either playing traditional music or passing it on to others in one way or another.
Seventeen years of work is summed up in a presentation I did for the EFDSS Folk Educators’ Group in June 2017, which you can see here (but there are only a few words of explanation as it was designed as an aide-memoire for me to talk over!): FEG 2017
I am now a freelance performer, tutor, researcher and animateur.
I started playing the melodeon whilst at university, teaching myself to play through listening to others. This was at a time when English traditional music was experiencing a renaissance and there was no shortage of exciting recordings and events to inspire me.
After moving to Suffolk in 1978, I spent many hours in pubs playing alongside traditional musicians and in 2000, with the founding of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, the music of my adopted locality became a huge focus for research and performance.
I play and learn by ear. I love the fact that learning by ear opens up music-making to people from all walks of life and I have taught many people to play instruments and express themselves musically in this way.
You can find out more about tuition opportunities, my music and bands on the relevant pages. There’s also a detailed CV on the biography page.
EFDSS Gold Badge Award
In 2010, my husband John Howson and I were awarded the prestigious Gold Badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. You can read the EFDSS Gold Badge Citation here.
Page updated on 28th August 2023
Here’s some occasional short news items.
News from Hadjukino Productions, who made the superb documentary film All My Life’s Buried Here about the folk song collector and composer George Butterworth came in on 5th August, the anniversary of Butterworth’s death in 1916 – announcing the release of an online streaming/downloadable option.
Thirsty Work – folk songs from the Cotswolds on BBC radio in 1940. This radio series is significant in our understanding of the BBC’s role in defining, communicating and collecting folk song, pre-dating what is generally perceived as the start of their involvement and influence. The two Cotswolds programmes reveal some entertaining and unexpected stories! (Saturday 5th August, 5pm in the Arts Centre)
Grand Ceilidh Night with Friends of Token Women . Core members of Token Women are joined by guest musicians (including me) in a special event in aid of Cancer Research. (Monday 7th August, 7.30-10.30 in the Blackmore Gardens Marquee)
I’m also playing with Roger Digby at the Traditional Night Out in the Arts Centre on Sunday and Thursday nights.
Very busy throughout the week, including concert spots on Taffy’s Tunes & Tales, Traditional Song Forum Concert, Traditional Nights Out and the Irish Hoolie with Michael Sheehy, Roger Digby, Alan Block and Gareth Kiddier (but no dog!). Also a different take on the Thirsty Work radio programmes, with a focus on the Yorkshire programmes from the series, at the Coliseum (Sunday 20th August, 12-1.30).
There will again be a Veteran Mail Order CD stall in the Craft Fair, thanks to the lovely organisers!
I shall also be at the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust’s relaunched Traditional Music Day on 2nd September – see Gigs for details.
We unveiled the Julia Clifford Memorial Bench in Knocknagree, Co. Cork on Friady 16th June. A wonderful meeting of family, friends and community. Fortunately the speeches were outnumbered by the tunes played! If you visit, you can scan the QR code on the bench and listen to Julia playing Bridgie Con Matt’s Polka. As her grandson Denis Clifford said, you can sit in beautiful Co. Cork whilst looking at beautiful Co. Kerry!
And here’s a little video of Billy Clifford, Matt Cranitch, Bryan O’Leary and myself playing two of Julia’s polkas, “I Looked East and I Looked West ” and “The Five Servants” (bit of a surprise to me, that one!)
You can click on the photo to go straight to the video clip.
Some summer outings coming up, playing with Roger Digby at Sidmouth and Whitby Folk Festivals in August, and at the latter we are joined by Michael Sheehy.
Also a permanent tribute to Julia Clifford is being installed in Co. Kerry in June, and I am going over to support the launch event, and also attend the Ballydehob Maritime Festival in Cork.
I’m sorry not to have kept this page up-to-date over the last six months: I have taken over the running of the Veteran record label and the Veteran Mail Order website, following the death of my husband John a year ago, and all that stuff has been keeping me occupied in various ways.
PolkaWorks had a couple of special gigs in the Spring. In February we ran music workshops for the Lancashire Wallopers (clog dancers) 40th anniversary weekend. This involved us dressing up for the ceilidh with a 1980s theme; I took the Boy George option! Then in March we were very privileged to be asked to play for Lawrence Heath’s EFDSS Gold Badge Award event. Lawrence actually gave PolkaWorks their first ever booking and continued to book us regularly during his long tenure running Borough Ceilidhs in Surrey.
My work on the innovative 1940s radio programmes “Thirsty Work” (see below) is now published by The Ballad Partners, in a collection entitled: “Thirsty Work and Other Legacies of Folk Song”. The book contains many other interesting essays and is very reasonably priced at only £13! It may be bought from the Ballad Partners website. The cover photo comes from my article (kindly supplied by the Dales Countryside Museum) and is from a pub in the Yorkshire Dales, where coincidentally I shall be visiting for another purpose next year … April 21st- 23rd 2023: Melodeons in Wensleydale I will be teaching two workshops at different levels alongside John Kirkpatrick, John Spiers and Pascale Rubens & Toon van Mierlo (Naragonia). Places appear to be booking up fast!
Also coming up is a folk song conference in Suffolk, run by the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, entitled Vaughan Williams in East Anglia. This is an overview of Vaughan Williams’ song collecting in the region in the early 20th century, and includes presentations from all the researchers on the subject in recent years. I will be giving an overview of the EATMT projects I ran from 2003-2009 on the songs, and presenting research updates from more recent years.
The lack of news earlier in 2022 is down to the fact that my husband, John Howson, was extremely ill, and sadly he passed away in June. John was a force of nature: a musician, researcher, writer, fieldworker, archivist, recording engineer, designer, woodworker, and a host of other things. He founded and ran the Veteran recording label and together we founded the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust. His loss of course leaves a gaping hole in my life, and there is much for me to deal with. I have taken over the running of the Veteran recording label and associated mail order business, so if you’re interested in rare recordings of traditional music and singing from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, do have a look at the Veteran website.
A couple of years ago, I took on the role of UK agent for Jackie Daly & Matt Cranitch and looked forward to bringing them to more British audiences. We had a couple of tours set up for 2020 and we all know how things have gone since then! I’m pleased that we are gradually managing to reschedule some of them, and am beyond delighted to confirm that they are booked for the 2022 Sidmouth Folk Festival in Devon, which runs during the first week of August. Exact dates for their appearances to be confirmed.
My presentation for the Traditional Song Forum about the Thirsty Work radio programmes from the 1940s may now be seen on the TSF’s YouTube channel, and it has some soundclips of the singers in it! Mine is the second talk in, but the preceding one is also very well worth listening to and is about the Lake District, leading very neatly into the first pub mentioned in my talk. TSF Thirsty Work presentation
Witney Supersqueeze in November was a wonderful weekend of music, with real people, and a real live concert, during which Brian Peters and I played the tune Trip to Stowmarket as a tribute to our late friend, Steve Dumpleton, who composed it. It’s on Facebook video if you’d like to see it.
I’ve got another presentation in the pipeline for the Traditional Song Forum, for the 28th November. This one is about a series of wartime radio programmes featuring traditional singing, called Thirsty Work. As ever, there are some fascinating stories to tell. The illustration here is from the Radio Times, for a slightly earlier programme, from 29th July 1939, when Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot was broadcast, featuring singers from a tiny hamlet on the Suffolk coast. These recordings can be heard on the CD Good Order on the Veteran label.
The Traditional Song Forum is a great organisation, light on admin and high on interest! They’ve been running regular Zoom/YouTube broadcasts featuring three or four short talks each time on a broad range of subjects, with contributors from across the world and approaches from the academic to the anecdotal. Do have a look at their website, where there is a programme for future events and details about how to sign up for free.
Hoorah! Witney Supersqueeze is going ahead on the weekend of 19th-21st November 2021.
It’s a weekend music course for players of concertinas, melodeons and accordions: musical traditions from all over the world, ranging from 18th century dances to rock’n’roll , with tutors Alistair Anderson, Iris Bishop, Paul Hutchinson, Brian Peters, Sam Pirt, Dave Townsend, Doug Watt and myself. It’s also the 30th Anniversary Celebration for these music workshop events (which used to be called Hands On Music Weekends), so there’s even more likelihood of it being really good fun as well as an opportunity to learn new stuff!
I’m doing workshops on Classic Tunes from Suffolk [All Boxes, Level B/I], Polkas from Sliabh Luachra [All Boxes, Level I/H] and “A La Mode” (tunes in the key of A Dorian) [D/G Melodeon, Level I/H].
It’s so good to be playing music with other people again! This was the first time in eighteen months that our little group of Sliabh Luachra enthusiasts had got together. The polkas and slides flowed just like old times thanks to Michael Sheehy (piano accordion). Here’s a video of two polkas, Glin Cottage and Bridgie Con Matt’s.
This website is going to have a bit of an overhaul, as more of my research is published on Unsung Histories – the latest is a two-part article on Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe. There’s now a contents page on that website to enable you to explore a bit better, as it is heading towards twenty articles on there.
At last, a bit of social music! PolkaWorks had a holiday together in the Welsh borders which included music, tea, gin and tonic and walks up a steep hillside! We were all relieved to find that we hadn’t forgotten the tunes and arrangements, and we even played some new tunes including a lovely lilting hornpipe, Traveller’s Joy, written by Janet May of Martha Rhoden’s Tuppenny Dish. There’s a video of it, but it’s only on Facebook at the moment, hope you’re able to watch it … PolkaWorks play Traveller’s Joy for the first time.
During the last eighteen months I have been writing up some of my research and publishing it as a series of articles on my new website, Unsung Histories. This website focuses on the stories behind the tunes and songs, in particular, on the performers and the social contexts.
There is a whole series about King’s Lynn, which although it mentions the collector Ralph Vaughan Williams, is more about the singers in the town, both those he met in 1905, but much about other traditional singers between 1870 and 1970. The stories of Vaughan Williams’ visits to King’s Lynn, Diss and Southwold remain on this website, but there are other Southwold stories on Unsung Histories too, including the role of artists in recording the fishing community, and singers whom Vaughan Williams never met on his very brief visit there with George Butterworth in 1910.
Newly published is the story of the barrel-organ taken by William Edward Parry on his Arctic explorations in the 1820s and one of the tunes on it, Paddy O’Rafferty. Another tune from the same source, Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, has prompted an exploration into who exactly “Miss Gayton” was.
Other stories in the pipeline are very varied, from photographers on the Norfolk Broads collecting folksong along the way, to 1940s radio programmes featuring country songs from around England, to singing and stories from the banks of the River Orwell in Suffolk and stepdancing competitions in Somerset.
Teaching melodeon students on Zoom has been a really interesting experience. Yes, there’s the occasional inevitable technical glitch and trying to find a decent background has made me realise how few bare walls there are in my house and made me wonder about buying a nice folding screen …
It has been great working with people with a variety of capabilities and interests. I am working with people aged 10 to 70, with experiences ranging from no musical background to people looking to improve their musicality / playing by ear / repertoire of tunes and embellishments. I take an individualised approach using my own strengths as a dance musician, an ear player and someone who grew up, musically speaking, with many of the iconic East Anglian musicians. I may have some space in the Autumn for new students – if you’re interested – see my Private Tuition page.
My talk, “100 years of singing in a fishing community: King’s Lynn 1870-1970” for the Traditional Song Forum’s “Folk Voice” conference on 18th April is now available on the TSF YouTube channel. I’ve set the link for my talk, which lasts 20 minutes, but you can easily go back and see the previous items – the one immediately before mine is a fascinating story told by Bruce Lindsay about Norfolk singer Sam Larner winning singing competitions in the Shetlands! Here is the full programme with details of the other interesting presentations.
To tidy up all this work on King’s Lynn, I have now updated my webpages , and you can read all about Vaughan Williams’ 1905 singers and find out what songs they sang on the King’s Lynn Singers in 1905 page on this website.
Further items about King’s Lynn are now on my other website Unsung Histories. Look out for: “Henry Flanders Songbook”, “The Herring Singers”, “The fishermen that got away”, “The other Mrs Benefer” and “The self-sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith”. Now you can see what I meant in my previous news post about the subjects multiplying!
I have been trying to catch up with writing up some of my research during this winter lockdown. However, the subjects seem to keep multiplying!
A long-term project has been investigating the areas visited by the folk-song collector Ralph Vaughan Williams in the early 1900s, and I have lately been thinking about some different aspects of two of these areas – Southwold and King’s Lynn, for talks for the Traditional Song Forum.
The Southwold talk included some of the songs collected by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth in 1910, but also took a broader look at singing since that period and the contributions made by other visiting musicians and artists such as Joseph Southall, who painted this wonderful image, from which I took my title – ‘Up from the Sea’.
The talk is available on the TSF Youtube channel. I’ve scheduled the link for my own talk, but there were four in total on this session, the other three excellent talks being mostly about sea shanties.
Meanwhile, I have a busy couple of weeks ahead finalising lots of new material for my talk about the fishing community in the North End of King’s Lynn for the upcoming TSF conference on ‘The Folk Voice’. This again takes its starting point from Vaughan Williams’ collecting there in 1905, but thanks to a recent discovery, I now know more about singing in the nineteenth century. Using this new find and also using some mid-twentieth century recordings, means that we can look at singing in a small community over the course of a hundred years.
The conference is spread out over three Sunday afternoons and my talk is on Sunday 18th April. You can register for it on Zoom at the TSF website or you can watch it on their Youtube channel – either live, or later on. The links for that are on their website too, and I’ll post them here later.
In the meantime, I’ve just added a article about singer Lol Benefer to a new venture of mine a separate website called Unsung Histories. This is very much in development, with only a few posts there at the moment (“bear with!”), but this is where I intend adding all those miscellaneous bits of research I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Finally, both these projects have benefited from two wonderful local museums which each aim to provide research facilities as well as displays. Please consider supporting them in these difficult economic times:
I’m thrilled that dancer Simon Harmer used some of my research into the tune Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe in his community dance project “Step Your Way”, a superb exploration of traditional hornpipe steps and street dance traditions. A short video of this truly inspiring project is here.
I have finally succumbed to the Zoom revolution!
From the New Year I am offering online one-to-one tuition on the D/G melodeon or one-row melodeon, tailored to the individual’s needs.
Any level from beginner upwards welcome – see my updated tuition page for details and send me an email if you’re interested.
They say no news is good news, but 2020 doesn’t really feel like that.
Like many others, in this extended period of isolation, I’ve had time to go through some old photos: here’s an old one of socially-distanced playing on Sherkin Island, Co. Cork in 1995. We’d hoped to revisit this summer, but still looking forward to getting back there one day.
Good news is that two major workshop bookings that should have taken place in 2020 are confirmed for 2021 (pending you-know-what, of course): Melodeons in Wensleydale on 23rd-25th April [update: cancelled again!] and Witney Supersqueeze on 19th-21st November. Looking for the silver linings: over the summer I’ve been able to meet up with a handful of musical friends, and we’ve been enjoying the opportunity to explore the dustier corners of our repertoires, something you can’t often do in bigger gatherings.
The third Traditional Tunes and Popular Airs Conference is being hosted virtually by the EFDSS over the weekend of 10th and 11th October and has some interesting papers about various aspects of traditional music which are available to read (for ticket-holders) from 1st October.
One way or another, July and August are usually full of festivals, and so they have been this year, but virtually of course. As well as my own band bookings, running the Veteran CD stall and attending as a ‘punter,’ this summer’s festival activities should also have included two appearances by Irish legends Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, for whom I had recently become UK agent. Hopefully these appearances will be rescheduled for 2021 when we all trust that more live music will be possible. In the meantime, if you would like to buy any CDs (mine, or Jackie & Matt’s, or any number of other wonderful traditional singers and musicians!) do head over to the Veteran CD website which has a new browsing section designed to replicate a real festival stall. The photo below is us at the Dartmoor Folk Festival, and you can see how long our involvement is there from the ticket here! Click on the image below to browse the CD stall – orders within the UK are post free until the end of September.
As with most of us now, music revolves around recordings and virtual performances at the moment. As well as playing for a couple of Zoom “clubs”, I am doing a short presentation for the Traditional Song Forum ( a research group of which I have been a member for many years).
My contribution is called “Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up!” and is about my investigations into the music and songs on a barrel-organ taken by Sir William Edward Parry on his polar expeditions in 1819-1825.
This will go out live on Sunday 14th June at 4pm. Here’s a link to find out more about the Traditional Song Forum and how to join their Zoom meetings.
Like everyone else involved in music, life has just got unexpectedly un-busy in terms of gigs, sessions and festivals. A time to get on further with research projects instead.
I have taken the opportunity to upload the photographic exhibition I created for last year’s ‘I Looked East and I Looked West’ festival celebrating the life and music of Irish fiddler Julia Clifford: please visit The Julia Clifford Projectsection of this website. If you have any comments, information or further photos, please do get in touch.
Coincidentally, at the same time, the RTÉ radio programme ‘The Rolling Wave’ is broadcasting two programmes dedicated to Julia Clifford. The first of the two programmes, about ‘The Star Above the Garter’ album is archived here and the second, focussing on Julia herself, is scheduled to be broadcast at 9pm on Sunday 3rd May and will be available on ‘The Rolling Wave’ archive after that. The second programme includes an interview with me, carried out at the 2019 Willie Clancy Summer School – here’s the link to that programme.
The writing and research continue. I’ve been following the adventures of a well-known tune, Paddy Carey which will eventually be posted here, and I’ve revised two other tune histories I wrote some years ago – about The Perfect Cure and Starry Night for a Ramble – these two are now available on my new Tune Histories page. I’ve also added some brief descriptions of my current research projects – you see, they are real, not just something I mention on here every now and again! Have a browse through the Projects / Research drop down menu at the top of any page to read about Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, barrel organs on Polar explorations and stepdancing competitions in Somerset.
I’ve also been digitising some superb quality photos we were given. Some of these and others from our personal archive have been making there way into the public domain through the new Facebook page for Veteran Records – I have recently written a piece about fiddle-player Lucy Farr for the page. Here’s one of my personal favourites from the collection, of The Rakes (minus Lucy Farr on this occasion) – Paul Gross, Michael Plunkett and Reg Hall with Derek Schofield, far left, taken at the National Folk Festival at Sutton Bonington in the 1990s.
I’ve left some 2019 announcements here, as there’s not much in 2020 of course! Older news is archived here: News Archive.
You may have read earlier posts about my involvement in this superb film about the life of composer and folksong collector George Butterworth. It has been shown at a number of public screenings and it’s now available to buy on DVD or Blu-Ray. All My Life’s Buried Here includes an informative booklet with a series of specially-commissioned essays as well as extra filmic material.
After our wonderful “I Looked East and I Looked West” event in April 2019, I gaily said to Matt Cranitch, “If I can do anything to bring you over to the UK more often, just let me know …” So, I am pleased to tell you, that as of 1st November I am acting as UK agent for Jackie Daly & Matt Cranitch! I look forward to bringing them to more British audiences.
I am very sad to say that my co-author of this book, Pat Pickles, died this month. Pat had suffered from dementia for the past couple of years, but will be fondly remembered by all whose paths she crossed over the previous decades, particularly through her many interests in folklore. The timing was particularly poignant, as I had just heard that our book had been short-listed by The Folklore Society for the Katharine Briggs Award 2019. You can buy the book here: East Anglian Traditional Music Trust’s shop.
Click on the thumbnail to see the whole image.
You can email me at katie.howsonatgmail.com (just change the word at for the symbol @).