Review by Tony Singleton, October, 2006.
Country Books/Ashridge Press is a small independent publisher based in Derbyshire and has produced a good number of reprints of scarce and out-of-print classics on Sussex. Why? Because it is run by Dick Richardson who comes from Sussex and still holds that county close to his heart. The latest book in the series is The CHURCH GALLERY MINSTRELS of OLD SUSSEX which started life as SUSSEX CHURCH MUSIC IN THE PAST by Rev.K.H.MacDermott, published in 1922. Personally, I would have preferred the original title to have been retained, but nevertheless, I am very pleased that the book has been reprinted, bringing its subject matter to a wider audience. Although it concentrates on one county, no other comparable study has been made, and for that the book is hugely important. Moreover, from anecdotal evidence and a number of literary references from other counties, it is clear that the social history chronicled by MacDermott was repeated all over England and probably beyond.
MacDermott started his ordained life as curate of Hurstmoncieux in East Sussex where he first discovered 'gallery music' from an 87 year old parishioner who gave him his manuscript music book dated 1829. Later, when Rector of Selsey in West Sussex, he wrote to 200 church choir masters throughout the county and advertised, seeking more information. As a result, he was put in contact with many of the old singers and musicians, or their descendants. Many were advanced in age but had performed in the church choirs and were only too happy to share their memories and entered into correspondence with him. Consequently, the book is a mine of information and is full of anecdotes, often of less than reverent behaviour of the old performers in the church gallery. In the course of his travelling throughout the county meeting the old 'musicianers' as they called themselves, he was given printed and manuscript music books, hymn books and instruments. Many he returned to the churches where they had been used but many he retained and bequeathed to the Sussex Archaeological Society (of which he was a lifelong member) on his death in 1955.
This reprint by Country Books is an attractive paperback edition in A5 format containing 96 pages with many black and white illustrations of instruments and music, and two early photos of parish clerks, Michael Turner of Warnham - he with the descriptive tombstone inscription (you will have to buy the book to find it out) - and Charles Street of Ferring. The book is divided into chapters on 'The Musicians', 'The Instruments', and 'The Music'. Then follows MacDermott's table of 107 Sussex parishes with the musical instruments used in each (as far as he could ascertain). Several parishes had used drums, and there were single instances of parishes having used a vamp-horn, a seraphim, or a triangle. The book is well indexed.
Additionally, an article published in the late 1950s is reproduced which describes MacDermott's bequest of notebooks, music and instruments to the Sussex Archaeological Society with several more illustrations. Sadly, several of the unique instruments were stolen from Anne of Cleves House Museum in Lewes a few years ago.
As a bonus for purchasers of the book, a CD of thirteen traditional Sussex carols is included, first released in 1983 as a cassette by 'Hope in the Valley' led by Mary Motley. This group was recruited from local folk clubs by Vic Gammon, then living and working in Sussex, with intention initially of illustrating Vic's talks on the subject, but later it was decided to produce the cassette. The recording quality is excellent and the performance is of a good standard with strong clear singing accompanied by a small band of instruments, including Vic on concertina. All carols were researched and some arranged by Vic, mostly from written sources, having been noted down from traditional singers by MacDermott or by collectors such as Lucy Broadwood. Two are from early eighteenth century manuscript books which McDermott collected and 'Shepherds Arise' comes from the Copper Family's singing tradition. Many are undoubtedly of local composition, but I recognised two (maybe there are more) from printed sources, 'Hark, hark what news' by Joseph Stephenson and 'Then let us be merry' by Joseph Key, although both have undergone significant changes through the folk process.
The book is so full of valuable information about the gallery tradition and its social setting as to make it an essential purchase on its own but the inclusion of the CD makes it even better value. Warmly recommended.