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Britain's Brass Bands: A Working-Class Tradition On The Wane


By Christopher Werth

Listen Now:
Thursday, March 7, 2013

The world often feels full of fading traditions, from drive-in movie theaters to the dying art of good old-fashioned letter writing.

For the British, add brass bands to that list. Traditional brass bands have played an important cultural role in working-class British communities for centuries. But some warn that without funding, they could become a thing of the past.

Take the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in South Yorkshire. The band was originally formed in 1917, and nearly 100 years later, a group of tuba, euphonium and other horn players still bears the band's name.

They gather every week inside a crowded practice room in Grimethorpe. It's an old coal-mining village of fewer than 2,000 people, but the band is considered one of the best in England. The walls inside the rehearsal space are cluttered with photos and memorabilia from national competitions the band has won regularly.

A Little History

In the 19th and 20th centuries, nearly every colliery, or coal mine, in the U.K. had a brass band. They kept workers out of trouble, and were a matter of civic pride for local communities.

"That's what our job was: to be ambassadors for the coal industry, and to provide really top-class concerts," says Ray Farr, a stand-in conductor with the band.

As a result of that long history, Farr says the players in this part of Britain have brass-band music in their blood. "These guys, they're almost naturally born to it," Farr says.

Grimethorpe plays close to 60 shows a year, but even with the revenue from ticket sales, the band's manager, Nigel Dixon, says it struggles to pay bills and buy instruments.

"We simply can't make ends meet at the moment," Dixon says. "Now, we have something that is quintessentially British here, and we have an obligation to keep the band in existence."

Grimethorpe survives with sponsorships from local businesses, but many of the U.K.'s remaining brass bands aren't so lucky. To understand why, you don't have to look back too far in Britain's past.

In the 1980s, miners' strikes paralyzed the country as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began to close the U.K.'s government-run coal mines, often amid violent clashes with police.

An Existential Crisis

This left colliery bands with an existential crisis. Trevor Herbert, a professor at The Open University who's written about the social history of British brass bands, says that in the past, bands were financed in part through mandatory contributions from fellow coal miners.

"My own father was a coal miner," Herbert says. "And on a Friday, he and my mother would sit at the kitchen table and check the money that he'd been paid. And I can remember that 2 pence would have been subtracted every week to support the band. Now, this was when my father's wage was about 3 pounds a week."

Under that old system, musicians like Farr — who first joined the Grimethorpe band in 1979 — were on the payroll as miners but spent their workdays playing music.

"But then, of course, the government decided that it was not economic to mine coal," Farr says. "And lots of jobs were taken away, including my own."

With the coal mines closing, colliery bands either called it quits or did their best to keep going. The Grimethorpe band's own struggle for survival was famously depicted in the 1996 film Brassed Off, starring Ewan McGregor and Pete Postlethwaite.

Preserving Brass-Band Culture

Today, Grimethorpe's member of Parliament, Michael Dugher, says the government neglects this important part of Britain's working-class culture in favor of more high-society art forms.

"When you look at the central government funding, there is a pot of money there that rightly goes to support the arts in the United Kingdom," Dugher says. "And something like $40 million goes just to the Royal Opera House."

Compare that, he says, with the mere tens of thousands of dollars divided among countless brass bands all over the country. Dugher says he wants the government to increase funding before more bands go under.

Phil Watson, national development officer of the advocacy group Brass Bands England, lays out what's at stake.

"If you lose part of your culture, you lose part of your heritage," Watson says. "Your country is much more poorer for that."

Money alone won't save this British tradition, however. Most of Britain's brass bands find it increasingly difficult to attract a younger generation of musicians to replace the old.

Tom Greatorex is the charismatic leader of a youth band in the village of Horbury, not far from Grimethorpe.

"If you haven't got a strong youth policy, you're going to go into decline, because you're not going to get the players," Greatorex says.

His students probably don't listen to brass-band music on their smartphones, but many of them play it because they come from families with a long history performing in brass bands.

"My mom always played in this brass band, and my uncle did, as well," teenager Breda Elliott says. "So even when I have my own family, I'd encourage them to get into brass banding."

As Ray Farr says, brass-band music — at least in this part of Britain — is in the blood.

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