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Flute

Tin Whistle, Penny Whistle or Flageolet
Tin Whistle, Penny Whistle or Flageolet



The Flute and the whistle in Northumbrian traditional music

There are two kinds of flute: the flûte à bec (beak flute), or direct flute, and the flûte traversière, or cross-flute; the former has a plugged mouthpiece at one end of the tube, the latter is blown through a lateral hole. The flûte à bec is often used by folk musicians and is usually called a flageolet, tin whistle or penny whistle. The instrument understood when we know speak of the flute is the cross-flute also called the German flute. It can be made of wood or metal, and consists of a conical tube, stopped at it's wider end, and provided with six finger-holes and a number of keys. This instrument, which is one of the most important members of the orchestra, is also used by folk musicians and is sometimes used in jazz. A small, or octave flute, the flauto piccolo, is sometimes used by Irish folk musicians. In military bands flutes in E and in F, and small flutes an octave higher are to be met with.




The german Flute in Northumbrian Historical Sources

John Peacock's early 19th century tune collection

Many of the published 18thC and 19thC tune collections contained arrangements for flute. One such publication is A Favourite Collection of Tunes with variations Adapted for the Northumberland Small Pipes Violin or Flute which was compiled by John Peacock (c. 1810). The title page from this collection is pictured above. Similar collections can be found in other areas. For example Wm Mittell's collection of Dancing Tunes for the Flute, Violin, Oboy, etc. (Kent 1799) and John Clark's Flores Musicae, or the Scots Musician. Being a general collection of the most celebrated Scots tunes, reels, minuets & marches adapted for the Violin, Hautboy or German flute (Edinburgh 1773).

(The hautboy or oboy mentioned in the two titles above is an older, now defunct, version of the modern oboe.)



Below you will find biographies of two well known Northumbrian musicians, both of whom played whistle, piccolo or flute.


Billy Conroy - a unique musical talent

Billy Conroy - whistle player

Billy Conroy, was born in 1904, at Crawcrook in Co. Durham. He started working in the pits at the age of 14, first at hauling below ground, and then pony-driving (known as 'putting'), coal-cutting and coal-filling. His father came from Cumberland and his mother from Durham. A remarkable tin whistle player, Billy owned a small pet bird which would sit on the whistle, singing, whilst Billy played. His tin-whistles were always home-made, many from old bicycle pumps.

On this recording we hear whistle player Billy Conroy playing a seies of variations on one of Cumberland's most famous hunting songs - John Peel. Notice the way in which the melody becomes changed and increases in complexity with each repetion. The practice of playing a seies of variations on a given melodic theme, is probably as old as music itself. However, true scientific study of the practice only realy was introduced in the early 16thC. Many of the older manuscripts in the FARNE database contain similar variation sets and the practice is still widely deployed by Northumbrian smallpipe and Border pipers alike.

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John Doonan - All-Ireland and World Piccolo Champion

John Doonan - All-Ireland and World Piccolo Champion

South Tyneside musician John Doonan, All-Ireland and World Piccolo Champion, is often described as the Godfather of Irish Music and, in celebrating fifty years of travelling and playing, it has was said that he has been on the road longer than the white lines. John died on Friday 8th March 2002 aged 80 years old. Along with his two sons, Mick (piccolo, flute, whistles, uilleann pipes and vocals) and Kevin (fiddle and vocals), the Doonan Family have travelled from their base in Hebburn, Tyne and Wear to play all over the world. Affectionately known in the north east as the 'Whistling Welder', he has had an unquestionable and significant influence on music and musicians in, and far beyond, the North of England. His grandfather also called John, played fiddle and accordion and his father George was a fiddler. John played by ear and never learned to read music. His flair saw him win an All-Ireland championship competition in Co. Roscommon playing the piccolo in 1968 and come second in the music section of the Welsh International Eisteddfod in the 1970s. He was also an original member of the High Level Ranters folk band in their early days! He is affectionately remembered by all who knew him and is noted as much for his company as for his music.

A number of recordings of John Doonan playing solo or with Billy Pigg and other musicians can be found in the FARNE database.








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