Recently I have been going to the Walthamstow tune sessions with my concertina, and learning some of the tunes we play there. (Actually, I record the sessions and learn from the recordings, which is something that people with better memories than me can do internally, so I don’t feel like I’m cheating.)

I bound a bunch of old manuscript exercise books, and as I learn tunes, I’m going to write them into it. Because each tune must be memorized before it can earn its place in the book, the book reflects knowledge rather than replacing it. And compiling it, I feel connected to the acts of playing, memorizing, and passing on, that others have already done before me.

Well, that was the original plan. The tunebook itself still only has two tunes in it, though I can now play a lot more than that, and have even taught one or two to others, which is the best definition of “having learned” that I can come up with.

But there isn’t a single tradition. In truth, every player carries their own personal tradition, with quirks and alterations both deliberate and accidental, which will change, and need to be allowed to change to keep the wider tradition going. This is absolutely understood at sessions, where there is generally a simple rule: you play along with the person who started the tune, so if you start a tune, you can play it your way. This also keeps it interesting for the rest of us, especially when you’re presented with a setting different enough to make you wonder whether it’s actually the tune you know at all.

Since even the identity of a tune is contingent, quite often debates arise about sources and origins. You might want to know if you are playing an English or an Irish tune, but in this environment, it’s not clear what the question means, never mind how to go about answering it. Which is another way of saying, it’s best tackled over a pint or two.

My tunebook can never reflect learned knowledge as such. It was only ever meant to have ceremonial meaning anyway, but it now seems a bit silly to write down the notation as part of it. Better just to inscribe the title, and allow that to carry the entire weight of defining the tune. Or the first few notes, perhaps, for the (several) tunes I have collected without finding out their names, and the (several) tunes which are loosely attached to names in my memory but which go swapping them around while I’m not looking.

I still find notating tunes useful for learning, so I still do it (with the help of ABC, see below.) But I have a personal rule not to bring notation into sessions. I think it’s important to listen to what people are actually playing, because there’s often an interesting surprise to be had, which both adds variety and provides a deeper understanding of the tune. And if you’re leading a tune yourself, if you can’t do it without the dots, you haven’t learned it yet.

For what it’s worth, these are the two tunes currently in the book:

Brighton Camp

aka The Girl I Left Behind (Me); ts

This is the only tune I knew as a folk tune (rather than a carol, children's tune, radio ident, etc.) before I had the concertina. It accompanies the Saddleworth Rushcart for much of its journey. It's played slightly differently in Walthamstow (and also in G)

Winster Gallop


The first tune from the Walthamstow tune book—and possibly the easiest. This tune seems to be widely despised, but everyone knows it anyway.

The Walthamstow tune book

This pdf was compiled some years ago but still mostly reflects what we play. However the differences are enough to make you worry if you’re playing it “right”. Of course, you are, on your terms, and whoever led the tune is also right on theirs. Best to go with the flow: it will happen every time you join in sessions with strangers, and soon enough you will have the pleasure of doing it back to them.

  • Salmon Tails Up The Water
  • Rakes Of Mallow
  • Uncle Bernard’s Polka
  • Rattling Bog
  • Jamie Allen
  • The Princess Royal
  • Jenny Lind Polka
  • The Swiss Boy,
  • The Curly-Headed Ploughboy
  • Donkey Riding
  • Bobby Shaftoe
  • Bear Dance
  • I’ll Go And Enlist For A Sailor
  • Michael Turner’s Waltz

The new tune book

This is based on the full list of the tunes we’ve played at the sessions I’ve attended (up to May 2014), transcribed afresh into ABC. It has three sections

  • 3 of the easiest tunes in our repertoire, with chords, for those just starting out on their instrument
  • Every tune we’ve played at least 6 times, for more confident players who are new to sessions
  • The first 2 bars of every tune we’ve played at least 3 times (A and B parts), for regulars with occasional mental blocks

So if you learn any one of the written-out tunes before coming along, there’s a good chance that someone will lead it during the session, and if they don’t, they will certainly join in if you lead it.

It’s available in 2 formats