Mark Fry, Dave Wilmshurst and Ian Wheeler met through dancing with Oxford City Morris Men, and started learning each other’s repertoire (i.e. pinching each other’s best songs) at the pub sessions that often follow City performances. Rather than argue about it, they started singing together. Mark and Ian are well known performers at folk clubs and festivals in the Oxford district, and previously played in other bands: Mark in the duet Faux Pas with Terri Butler, Ian with the dance band Phungus. Dave used to work in Hong Kong, where he was a member of the local morris team. When he returned to Blighty in 1992 to study at Oxford University, he also joined Oxford City Morris. He once described himself as a “morris tart”, being a member of 5 teams at the same time!
In October 1998, having been awarded a doctorate, Dave decided to move back to south-east Asia, so we “pressed” Dick Wolff to take his place. Since Dave didn’t actually leave until October 1999, we had the pleasure of a year with this expanded sound.
Dick is an experienced solo performer and has played in several dance bands, including Aardvark, The Aldbrickham Band and, currently, Traction and The Chameleons. He has brought with him a wealth of new ideas, further enriching our sound. Dave now resides in Hong Kong, but returns to England from time to time.
What do we play? Our usual answer is “mostly English, mostly traditional”. When we started performing together, Irish, Scottish, Breton, Swedish, Cajun and a dozen other different folk styles were receiving lots of attention, which was very exciting and interesting, but it seemed that the English tradition was being ignored. English music has always been at the heart of our individual repertoires, and so we decided to make a virtue of it. Then we realised that quite a lot of other people, such as Waterson:Carthy and Show Of Hands, felt the same, and English folk music is now as respectable as Scottish or Irish.
Of course, we like to play music from other styles and traditions as well, but we can’t help playing it with a trace of an English accent. Equally, our playing of “foreign” styles rubs off on the way we play English music. In truth, the boundaries between the various folk styles get fuzzier all the time. These days, we are all aware of a vast spectrum of music, from Hildegard of Bingen, through Bach and Beethoven, to the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Steve Reich and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which previous generations who played what we call “folk” music never were.
Dick has got through quite a few melodeons in recent years. On Plain English he uses a Castagnari “Lilly” and a Saltarelle Connemara III (put in order by Nils Nielsen and Pete Grassby – to whom, thanks). The Lilly was traded in for something else long ago, and the Saltarelle was recently replaced by a new 2-and-a-half row Beltuna. He also acquired a 3-row Catagnari a few years ago, but that has since been replaced by a Pagini piano accordion. His loudest instruments are a pair of genuine cajun 1-row instruments made by Marc Savoy, one in C, the other in D. He also plays a D/G anglo concertina (C&R Dipper, 1986), Crane duet concertina (Wheatstone, 1922), a Martin OO-18 guitar, various whistles (including an Overton tenor whistle in G, 1976), Lee Oscar harmonicas and a hammer dulcimer by Oakwood (1993).
Ian plays anglo concertinas in C/G by Jeffries and in G/D by Lachenal. He has a Saltarelle melodeon which the rest of us are trying to persuade him to use more often. He’s also expert with various percussion instruments, including a pair of soup spoons and a long stick with beer-bottle tops nailed to it known as a “lager-phone”!
Mark plays a “dreadnought” style guitar by Robin Greenwood (1989), mandolin by Kai Tönjes, octave mandola by Button (1999, completed and set up by Tim Howes), treble and baritone English concertinas by C. Wheatstone, and a Dipper bass English concertina called Max. On Plain English he used an Aria Pro II bass, but subsequently replaced it with Rickenbacker and Ashbory electric and Heartwood acoustic bass guitars.