Home > Joseph Hornsby – A Musical Biography

Joseph Hornsby – A Musical Biography

Joseph Hornsby--A musical biography

Despite growing up in Hexham, Northumberland, Joseph Hornsby developed a fascination with traditional Scottish dance music at a very early age. Several members of his family were inherently musical, and although their repertoires consisted predominately of “light” classical music, he can distinctly remember his uncle Philip playing a pair of “fast tunes,” which he subsequently discovered were the reel “Soldier’s Joy” and the jig “The Irish Washerwoman.” While neither of these tunes is Scottish in origin, they instilled in Joseph an enthusiasm for dance tunes that would eventually lead him to Scottish repertoire.


Joseph began taking violin lessons from an elderly Miss Kitty Appleby around the time of his ninth birthday, playing a half-size violin he received for Christmas in 1947. His paternal grandparents paid half a crown (2 shillings and sixpence) for each of his lessons, and were displeased with his initial lack of motivation when it came to practicing; Joseph admits to once skipping a lesson in order to watch Newcastle United play an evening football match!


By the time Joseph was 12, Miss Appleby had retired, and his lessons ceased. Regardless, he continued to play fiddle, inspired by BBC Home Service’s thrice-weekly broadcasts of traditional music. After hearing Jimmy Shand’s band play a set of hornpipes (“Harvest Home” and “The Trumpet Hornpipe,”) Joseph began to focus specifically on the Scottish Home Service on Saturday evenings. In 1948 or ‘49 he acquired transcriptions of some Scottish dance tunes and began to devote more time to playing traditional music.


Impressed by his progress, Joseph’s former teacher Miss Appleby briefly came out of retirement and offered him another six months of lessons, during which he made a great deal of improvement. At the age of 13, he was persuaded to join the Tynedale String Orchestra, which helped him develop his sight-reading, bowing, and group playing skills. These would prove invaluable when he began playing with traditional dance bands.


By age 14, Joseph was regularly attending country dance classes at the Hexham Community Centre as well as Irish and Old Time dances at his parish hall. Attendees would generally dance to pre-recorded music, but once a month local accordionist Tommy Robson would play for a dance. Robson’s repertoire was drawn largely from Kerr’s First Collection of Merry Melodies for the Violin, a hugely influential tune book first printed in Glasgow during the mid-1870s (an exact publication date is not specified). Joseph borrowed Robson’s copy of Kerr’s, and soon he was able to play along with the right hand of the accordion.


In 1953, Joseph formed his first band, The Cairn Country Dance Band, alongside John Cockram (chromatic button box), Norman Foster (piano accordion), Bill King (piano) and Bill Smart (drums). Interestingly, “callers” (now a staple of almost all traditional dances) were rarely utilized for non-broadcast purposes; it was assumed that all attendees were familiar with the steps. The Cairn Band progressed and often played “interval music” for Shand dances in the Hexham area. Joseph also occasionally sat in with The Tynesiders Band, who played for the Tynedale Folk Dance Club.


By the mid-fifties, Joseph had become reasonably well acquainted with the members of Jimmy Shand’s band. Despite being a keen dancer (he remains a strong believer that all dance musicians should enjoy and participate in dancing,) Joseph preferred at this time to sit back and watch the band, paying particularly close attention to fiddler Syd Chalmers, who often used higher fingering positions, especially for waltzes. Whenever Joseph had access to a lift, he would go see Shand’s band in action, travelling as far west as Haltwhistle in Northumberland and Nenthead in Cumbria up to Bellingham in the North Tyne Valley. Eventually, the members of Shand’s band came to recognize Joseph by sight, and he would often talk with them during dance intervals. In December 1956, Syd Chalmers invited Joseph to sit in for him during part of the second half of the Tynedale Folk Dance Club’s Annual Ball at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham. Joseph was familiar with the band’s repertoire from their 78-RPM records, and was able to play along to four or five sets without sheet music. After the dance, Chalmers allowed Joseph to play his fiddle and asked him to perform some solo pieces in front of an attentive crowd. This evening would mark the start of a long musical association between Joseph and Jimmy Shand.


Joseph began his tertiary education in the Manchester area in 1957. After a brief period of musical inactivity, he met a handful of Irish traditional musicians, and played in a ceilidh band every other Sunday during his second and third years. Throughout 1958, he also played at fundraisers in aid of the survivors of the Munich air disaster, an event that claimed the lives of many members of Manchester United F.C., as well as team managers and journalists. After receiving his qualification in June 1960, Joseph prepared to move back North. Just a few days before returning home, he played solo fiddle for a small group of Irish dancers demonstrating their style to an audience of Scottish dancers in the Co-op Hall, Platt Lane. Afterwards, two men from Liverpool approached him and invited him to join a Scottish dance band they were establishing. As he had already made arrangements to move, he declined their offer, only to discover subsequently that the band’s accordionist was probably Rob Gordon, a well-known Old Time and Scottish dance band leader.


By 1962, Joseph was married, and family obligations became his primary focus. He was still musically active, however; in 1963 he made a trip to France to accompany solo Irish dancers, and in 1965 he won the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society Fiddle Medal. During that year, he also played with David White’s band, and first met Andrew Rankine, a celebrated box player and bandleader from the Menstrie and Alva area with strong ties to the North East of England. Joseph would play in Rankine’s band from time to time between 1968 and 1973.


1965-1968 was a musically quiet time for Joseph, as his family moved to Blyth with no car or telephone, and his son fell very ill. In 1968, he began playing with Derek Lawrence, as well as Andrew Rankine. In early 1969, he joined the Whitehead Brothers’ Band, which soon transformed into the Danelaw Country Dance Band. The Danelaw consisted of brothers Robert and Jon Whitehead (box and drums, respectively,) Alan Brown (piano), Ray Barker (bass) and Joseph (fiddle). Barker left the band in mid-1969 to pursue further studies in higher education. The rest of this line-up, however, lasted from 1968 until 1992, and in addition to their extensive live work, they did fairly regular broadcasts for BBC Radio Newcastle (some featuring Jimmy Shand as a guest artist,) and Radio Scotland, made television appearances, and also produced studio recordings. For larger dances and most recordings, the band was augmented by second accordion (usually played by Alan Coulson), and a double bass.


In 1979, Joseph was invited to provide music for local sword dancers as part of President Jimmy Carter’s Friendship Force cultural exchange programme. Ironically, the only time he would ever play for traditional Northumbrian Rapper Sword Dancing was during his visit to North Carolina. On this trip to the United States, Joseph met and exchanged tunes with the legendary bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks, and he acquired a Carolina Tar Heels badge that he still keeps in his fiddle case.


In the early 1980s he received a family heirloom in the form of his current fiddle, a Collin-Mezin, with a robust tone ideally suited for dance band music. From the mid-80s into the 90s, Joseph occasionally played as a member of the Glendale Band as well as continuing to work with the Danelaw Band, who would sometimes be joined by the semi-retired Jimmy Shand for charity gigs. The last time Joseph visited Shand’s home in Auchtermuchty during the late 90s, Shand performed a solo version of the waltz “My Home,” and gave Joseph the original manuscript of a 2/4 march that he had recently composed. For one week of each summer between 1997 and 2000, Joseph travelled up to Stirling University to perform with another one of his earliest influences, Ian Powrie, who was greatly responsible for introducing Scottish fiddling to worldwide audiences after first emigrating to Australia in 1966.


To this day, Joseph continues to play and has taken on a few solo gigs for Burns Clubs and charity events. He retains an infectious enthusiasm for traditional Scottish music, and hopes that musicians and scholars of the present and future can easily access and enjoy the remarkable collection of manuscripts and recordings he has amassed over the years.