Right hand stars, circles, arches and baskets

Featured in:
May 2019

Allan Johnson recalls that it was 20 years ago today that well-known and recently retired county ceilidh band Ploughmen’s Bunch began to play.
When we arrived in Lincolnshire from Yorkshire thirty-five years ago, barn dances were a new experience for us. Held in village halls all over the county, these were lively occasions where you bumped into people and made lots of new friends. There was always plenty of food and drink – then there was the dancing; never my best move. The caller’s instructions would create confusion in my brain, and I would head for the bar. There was only one solution: get off the floor and join the band.

Fortunately, we had a group of friends in Nettleham village planning to form a band of their own – Ploughmen’s Bunch. This was no ordinary ceilidh outfit. Between dances we would play and sing a variety of covers, together with our own songs based on a long musical heritage reaching back to the early 1960s.

Our blend of folk meets blues and country dancing quickly caught the attention of the local musical press and an early photo shoot saw us in among the agricultural vehicles in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. Relics of a bygone era, it was suggested.

Back in harness, we set about cutting our first CD In a Field of our Own launched in 1999 with a concert inside the Victorian prison of Lincoln Castle, where we posed for a picture behind bars. In addition to traditional material, there were nine original titles to be heard including a stunning harmonica solo played by guest Billie Whitehead – all the more notable because he’d had all his teeth out the day before.

Suddenly, we were a band on the run as bookings arrived from all over Lincolnshire. Founder member and mandolin player Paul Stephenson should take a lot of credit for propelling the “Bunch” onward and upward in the late 1990s. Supported by bass player Colin Holland, vocalist/guitarist Steve Jackson, drummer Malcolm Mawer, fiddle player Nicky Robson and myself on lead guitar, our early bookings saw us learning the ropes in village halls and pubs throughout the county.

To create the right atmosphere at a ceilidh is not easy. The caller needs to be both engaging and yet persuasive. Anne Jackson did a superb job with even the most reluctant dancers. “I can see we’re going to have trouble with you,” she would joke from the stage, adding “but I’m up for a challenge…”

The release of Ploughing On in 2001 provided seven more original titles followed by a further twelve on Hat Trick (2006). Favourite tracks of mine include ‘Mavis Enderby’, a poignant tribute written by bass player Colin Holland, together with Steve Jackson’s timely and reflective ‘Even the Best Grow Old’, performed at many a birthday celebration.

Not that we were the youngest band on the block when we started out in 1997. Sadly, years of lugging equipment in and out of village halls brought on several bad backs, arthritis in various joints and not least a pacemaker, all of which forced us into semi-retirement in 2018.

The origins of the ceilidh lie in the Celtic tradition of folk dancing, going back many centuries. It all started with stone circles and sun worship but now you can really let your hair down and enjoy yourself. Some of the music has been around a long time. Titles such as ‘Old Mole’ and ‘Soldier’s Joy’ hark back to the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. Throw in ‘Lark in the Morning’ (1778) and ‘Hen’s March in the Midden’, first performed in pantomime in 1753 and you get the picture.

Good interaction between a ceilidh band and audience is crucial, but not always easy. Weddings would run way behind schedule, and a free bar could quickly sabotage proceedings. We had to remain above the alcoholic haze, as the dancers gradually lost the plot, leaving Anne to untangle the mess.

Technical problems would often threaten our set list. Dodgy generators, draughty marquees and difficult acoustics were routine hazards. Fuses would blow on and off the stage requiring last-minute improvisation and nerves of steel. In this respect we were fortunate to take on board Dave Pape, retired firearms expert, whose list of talents also included playing double bass and harmonica. With Mel Howell as first fiddle and Richard Silvester as reserve, we were now an established five-piece band ready to hit the road strumming.

The most memorable gig? I recall playing to an appreciative and hungry audience at the Australian Big Breakfast in Lincoln, an annual celebration and major fundraiser for the Mayor’s charity. Then there was Lincoln Christmas Market which offered us freezing conditions but by far the biggest audience, courtesy of an archaic Tannoy system, which screeched our festive set list all over town and eventually onto Yorkshire’s Calendar news.

Despite a few potholes and diversions along the way, we never stopped having fun. Ploughmen’s Bunch created a fresh and unique sound and shared it generously with the wider community. If at the same time we raised funds for local charities, helped you celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and weddings in village halls around Lincolnshire and beyond, then as they say in these parts, “the job’s a good ‘un.”

Ploughmen’s Bunch CDs are still available for sale. Email Allan at johnsonad@talk21.com or text 07713245297.

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