Monday, 13 June 2011

Tom-toms in Treharris

I am aware that when I write about folk traditions and working-class traditions in the UK they may seem, to my American readers who are used to the highly-polished razzamatazz of majorettes, cheerleaders, and college marching bands, somewhat clodhopping and unsophisticated. This could well be due to the occasional synchronicity of the costumes adopted by each. Indeed I have speculated before that influence one way of the other is not impossible, although generally I come down on the side of seeing a mainly separate development. My American readers may tend to expect a different kind of élan from that which British traditional troupes and bands display.

If you have watched the film Get Carter* – and by the way if you haven’t watched it then make a point of doing so – you will have watched a scene where a juvenile band playing drums and kazoos march along a street. This band is known as the Pelaw Hussars and is typical of the juvenile marching bands, known perhaps confusingly as jazz bands, that flourished in the mining and industrial areas of the North and Midlands of England and the valleys of Wales.
* The original British movie from 1971, not the 2000 US remake.

 The Pelaw Hussars

Such bands were formed to give youngsters the opportunity to take part in urban parades, particularly those associated with Trades Unions and mineworkers. Typical instruments used were drums and kazoos, the latter probably influenced by children’s impromptu comb-and-paper bands, with the occasional addition of glockenspiel. The kazoos would be amplified by the addition of something like a trumpet bell so that the instrument would look like a miniature bugle. In some cases bands were formed with adult members who lacked formal musical training and therefore could not play in brass bands, but mainly bands were made up of youngsters or young women.

Gresham Viennese Officers Jazz Band

Originally costumes were fancy dress of any themed style. Bands tended – mainly in the North of England – to adopt a rather Ruritanian military uniform with frogging and some sort of busby or shako (costumes which might lead to the comparison with majorettes). The Pelaw Hussars from Gateshead in N E England were one such, as were the bands from Stourport and Sandwell both in the Midlands, and the Gresham Viennese Officers from Treharris in Wales. There are some fascinating pictures from Carmarthen in Wales but they are all watermarked so I haven’t copied them in this entry; if you follow this link you will see for yourself. I particularly like the band dressed as Toreros.

a jazz band from Stourport, Worcestershire

Friar Park Supremes, Sandwell, West Midlands

Interestingly (and here we return to our old favourite topic – blackface) juvenile jazz bands that wore ‘fancy dress’ would deliberately dress as members of another race and culture. Take the gleeful Indians…

… and the stoic Zulus, both from Treharris…

… and both posing with hardly a kazoo or drum in sight. In the latter case I will grant you that the blackness is a deliberate depiction of another race. There is always an exception to test the rule!


  1. Not all U.S. bands are "razzamatazz." There are some very traditional ones, more similar to these pictures than you may expect. There is, of course, difference between tradition and "trendy" - you will hardly see bands today with the outfits/decor of the psychedellic 60s/70s, for example, outside of a period-themed show.


  2. In referring to "highly polished razzamatazz" I was referring to the showmanship, professionalism, and 'finish' of the American outfits, compared to which the examples above might seem naif and amateurish. Nice to know you're still dropping by, Eilidh. I appreciate your comments.


  3. any got photos of the turks jazz band from quakers yard