Fred 'Pip' Whiting was a singer, fiddler, bones player and performer on the dancing dolls. He lived in Kenton which is a small village near Debenham in Suffolk.
Fred's talents were discovered by Keith Summers in 1974 and more can be read about him in Keith's excellent survey of East Suffolk traditional music, 'Sing, Say or Pay' which was published as a double issue of Traditional Music (Vol. 8 and 9) and aIso on the sleeve notes on the Topic record Earl Soham Slog on which Fred plays fiddle.
The following interview was conducted by John Howson in 1982 and published in the Spring 1982 edition of English Dance and Song. The interview is reproduced here with John Howson's kind permission.
John: Tell me something about your early life?
Fred: Well, you're going back a long time now John. When I was a kid the 2 last years I had at school were the most boring of my life. There was no 'Eleven Plus' in those days. 'Standard Six' was as high as you could get. Well the last two years we were going over the same old ground. I got bored stiff. To work on the land they assumed you didn't need any brains, you only needed brute strength and ignorance. To go into a trade you had to go until you were 14. I couldn't bear the thought of that, so I left when I was 13 and I went with a flock of sheep and worked 7 days a week and the only concession I got was I could knock off at half past 3 on a Sunday afternoon. I got 7 bob a week and I paid 6 bob a week board, so I had a shilling a week for myself.
John: When did you first start playing music?
Fred: All my life I've loved music and I bought a mouth-organ first off, anyway the keys in it went wrong and I'd watched an old fella tune a harmonium up, so I took the outside cases off this mouth-organ. Tuned it up again, and got it to go and I thought I'd never need to buy another one again, but two days later they went wrong again and I put them right, but a couple of hours later they went again and I had to ditch it. Anyway I bought another one and in the end I managed to buy 3, but it left me that broke I rattled when I walked. I often have to grin when it comes to mouth-organs, there were 5 or 6 of us on the school corner all playing them and perhaps there weren't more than 2 of us in the same key, but as long as we played the same tune that was all right. Well I couldn't stand the cost of replacing mouth-organs so I bought a tin whistle, well actually it was a brass whistle, but I could only get about seven notes on that, because I didn't know then that by breath control you can get about two and a half octaves on one, and it wasn't until years later that I realised how it was done, but that's another story. Anyway a chap hears me playing in an old rainwater barrel and it rattles in there lovely and he says,'Will you sell that whistle.' I said 'Yes, I'll sell it.' I think I made 3d. profit on it and thought I'd played blazes!
I then saved up until I'd got enough to buy a violin and a bow. I bought this cheap old German factory-made fiddle up in Ipswich for 30/- and what I paid for the bow I forget. It was only just a bow. I didn't know a good bow then. I learned to play a few tunes on this violin and a chap told me that I'd got it strung the wrong way because I was playing it left handed. So I changed the strings over. Well I'd already learned to play a few tunes left-handed with the strings on the conventional way. When I changed them over I had to start learning all over again, and on top of that I didn't know I'd have to have the bass bar and sound post shifted. Well I sat thinking, if I learn to play like this, no-one will be able to play my violin and I won't be able to play theirs, so I put the strings back again and I just carried on playing. Later on I got quite handy at playing by ear and some people down the road called Chappell they asked me to go down to their place. So away I goes and as far as playing quick music and getting around the corners, I could beat them out and out, but when they started to play by music, well I was stumped. I had to sit and listen to them, so I could see the advantage of learning to play by music, and they put me on to a violin tutor called Honeymans. From there on I went ahead like a house on fire and in those days I only had to play through a bit of music two or three times and I'd never want to see it again.
John: Were there many other players around at that time?
Fred: Well there was a piano tuner called Jack Baldwin and Mrs. Chappell, sometimes the pair of them would be on the piano and sometimes she played the piano and he played the violin and also her husband played the violin. Then there was a policeman called Wade, he used to play the violin and a barber from Debenham, he used to play violin. There was a chap who used to play a 'push-me-off-the-pavement', you know a slide trombone and there was Jack Snell he played the trumpet, and you know we used to have some smashing nights down there. But one by one Old Father Time has caught up with them and I suppose I'm lucky to be the last one left. Old Curley Perry, he must have died happy, he loved music, and he was walking along in Mendlesham, playing with the Debenham band and he just went down like that with music in his ears, but he was a smashing violinist.
John: Can you tell me something about the bones you play?
Fred: Yes, I started to rattle bones when I was 13 or 14 and I had a set made out of Poplar and they were really good. What happened to them I don't know. When I was in Cape Town I saw a set of Mahogany ones and I bought them and used them for years, but they're worn now so they won't go properly, so I had to make a set out of Oak and believe you-me, it takes a time to make a pair from Oak. I once had a set made from bone but I didn't like them, you get a click, you don't get a snap like wooden ones. Yes! I've had a lot of fun with a set of bones, and I still do.
John: You sing quite a variety of songs-where did you learn them?
Fred: Well here and there. Years ago you got into a pub and played a stepdance or two, somebody would get up and sing a song. Well in those days I'd got a wonderful memory John. I only had to hear a song about twice and I'd got it and I learned some out of the book. 'The Ship I Love,' that came from Beecham's pills. I heard my dad sing that years ago when I was a kid and I'd forgotten it. Then an old lady that I used to play with, she used to be an organist, she'd got a whole pile of books, that she used to take as a youngster, 1d a week and they were printed by the makers of Beecham's pills and there'd be 4 or 5 songs in each one and between them would be a whole lot of testimonials to Beecham's pills. But I'll tell you what puzzles me. You see some songs in a book and the same songs will turn up again in other collections. Yet other songs never get outside the village they're sung in. Now take 'Enoch Brown', I've never seen that in a song book. Now Sam Gifford's uncle Walter used to sing that. It was his pet song, you might almost say he held the copyright - He's the only fella I ever heard sing that except Harkie Nesling- I first heard Walter sing it when I was 14 or 15 at a smial evening at Monk Soham school. Then there used to be an old boy in Earl Soham beer house he used to sing 'Why Boys it's for Money, isn't it Funny'. He's the only one I ever heard sing that.
Now talking about singing in pubs. I was at Stowmarket Colt Show years ago. and we went into a pub called The Pickeral, it's got a fish over the door, you know it. Anyway, there's a woman in there singing 'l'm longing for my dear old home again' (in a cottage down that little winding lane), and later on someone mentioned a 'Jolly country lad from Lancashire,' and someone said, 'shall I try it'. 'Yes go ahead' we said. Well I just about remember the first verse and the chorus of that. Then they asked a fella called Rocky to sing the countryman's song (it's actually called 'When the wind waves the barley in July) and he gets up and sings it and it had a nice little swing to it. I had a smashing memory then and I could remember the first verse he sang and there were three or four choruses to it, so I knew that, but I didn't know the second or third verse - There was a sailor with me, Bill Plant and I said to him. 'Gosh I wish I knew that song Bill, I know the first verse and chorus. 'So Bill goes up to the singer and he says,My young friend liked your song. Have a pint with me and will you write out what he doesn't know.' 'Yes sure I will', he said. 'Do you know the first verse then?' I said. 'Yes I think so'. He said 'Well lets hear you reel it off'. So I did and he says,'You've got it boy.'
John: What was the first song you ever learned?
Fred: I'll tell you the first song I ever learned in my life and I learned it from my father. my mother died when I was about half past five and my father used to sing me a song to get me to go to sleep and he'd ge ff* to sing with him. The first song he ever learned me was the 'Sailor Boy', it's known all the way up the East Coast of England. Well after that, like any kid, I wanted something fresh, when I'd learned it and he got me onto 'To be a farmer's boy' and I believe it was an old Suffolk shoemaker who wrote that song but unlike the modern song-writer, he never made a fortune out of it. In fact if I've got the story right he died half mad in the poor house. The other song he used to learn me was 'What's the life of a man' but I forgot most of that now. Anyway, that's how I started my career as a singer.
John: Where did you first come across dancing dolls?
Fred: Well there's nothing new about them, they were made in the days of our grandfather when they had to make their own fun. In my old grandfather's day they used to have fiddles and concertinas and when they played, that was when they brought out the dancing dolls. I suppose I made my first one when I was about 14 and went on making and making them. My uncle Jim he'd got one and I used to play the fiddle for him and he used to dance a doll. It surprises me today the number of people who have never seen one. There was a chap I went to school with made one and I kept improving on his. I tried 2 together and I have tried 3 but 3 is too many. With 2 I find I get better results than with one. But you can't make a doll dance unless you have a proper board. You've got to thin it down until its got the right spring and you do it by trial and error and when you've got it right you keep it at that. The dolls I've got are the maximum size you can get them, but you must keep them light otherwise they won't dance properly on the board. Then I got the idea of dressing them up because I thought they looked better, but you can't put them in trousers because it would restrict the movement of the legs, so they've either got to be a woman doll or a Scotsman with a kilt.
John: When did you first start playing in the pubs?
Fred: There was an old fiddler down here called West Abbott and I used to go down to his house, I was anxious to learn all I could. Eventually he asked me to go down to Earl Soham Victoria and I got a great reception down there and in those days they had a whip-round for you when you'd finished playing. Well if you got two bob or half a crown that was a heck of a lot of money in those days. Then I used to play in Rishangles Swan, Monk Soham Oak, Henley Cross Keys. I don't know where I haven't played in my time.
I remember once I was working for a farmer, we had 12 hundred sheep to drive to Diss and there was six of us driving them and they seemed to stretch along the road for a mile. Wouldn't do today with all the traffic. We'd got to sleep rough for the night, on an old dirt floor in a shed. I went and pulled a big bunch of straw and put it in the corner, and I thought I better get a few beers inside me, so I goes into a pub called the Two Brewers and who should be in there but Billy Bennington (although I didn't know his name at the time). Anyway our old shepherd, if he could get anywhere where there was music he would get as drunk as an owl. Anyway when he came into the shed that night, someone tried to show him where to lay, but he went over and says, 'I'm down! I'm not moving now', but he laid in a lot of barley chaff. Well when you get barley chaff down your blinking neck you know about it. He laid there talking a load of gibberish and I laid there and I laughed meself to sleep. Then another night I never got as far as a shed, I was so drunk I slept in a shock of wheat in a field and the old shepherd, he lay there next to me on the ground and he's got a mackintosh over his eyes and he thought he was covered up.
John: Did you work at droving very long?
Fred: Well, later on this Harry Capon, he laid all his land down and he said that he wouldn't break it up until he could get 3 men for a guinea and this was after the First World War. He started selling his sheep off, 100 at a time. Then after that things got pretty hard about here. There's a corner down at Debenham they call the Pot Shop Corner. I've seen as many as 30 or 40 men standing on that corner, all damn good working chaps. They didn't have a shilling in their pockets and they didn't know where to get one, and I remember 4 chaps going round the woods around here looking for pheasants and they never found one, and they ended up about 3 o'clock in the morning, shooting some ducks off a farmer's pond, to have a feed for the next day. But they weren't all bad days. I can remember in Rishangles Swan, its closed now. There were two old boys who amused themselves all night dancing over a blinking broomstick and one old chap, Swiver Farrer every five minutes he'd knock on the table,'I'll have another skip,'and you know that night he must of drunk 15 pints and never went outside (and mind you the beer in those days was better than it is today). I passed him going home and he was walking up the road as straight as a Grenadier and I remember his parting words,'Come again Fiddler.'
John: What did you do after droving?
Fred: Well I left this countrywhen I was 19 and I went out to New South Wales and I didn't like it there, it was as dry as a wooden god John! I went three hundred and eighty-one miles from Sydney and I didn't like it. I got the train back to Sydney and the drunks on that train played merry hell so I didn't get any sleep 'till next morning, and I remember sleeping in the park there waiting for the train to go up North so I tied my violin to my wrist so nobody could pinch it. I went to a place called Lismore and they'd had so much rain up there everything was flooded and I went onto a railway construction job.
I also worked on a tunnel once for an old ganger called Bill Cane. We used to get 7/- a foot per man to blast our way through this tunnel and timber it as well.
I'll tell you a story that went on there on that job. 'Poker' and 'Two-up' were the main gambling games there you know. Anyway, some of us were holding a Wakes over a dead marine one night and that chap Mulligan, the one who shifted the hole in the tunnel, he goes out with a good blue serge suit on, a J B Stetson hat, a pair of Marshall shoes and a Pellico shirt. He was done up like a dog's dinner. Anyway, we were holding this wake in a tent and all of a sudden the tent door bursts open, in comes Mulligan and his eyes were sticking out like organ stops. Well he's lost his hat, he's lost one of his shoes, he'd torn his jacket and torn his trousers. 'For God's sake give us a drink!' he said,'I've seen a bloody ghost in that creek down there.' Well when we'd calmed him down lie told us he was coming through the creek and he'd seen a ghost floating about 6 or 7 feet high, he'd run through a swamp, he'd run through a barbed-wire fence and tore his clothes. You know nobody believed him and they laughed and took the micky out of Mulligan so much, eventually he left the job. But about a fortnight later there was a boy called Tommy McCorly coming through that creek. He saw that ghost and it scared merry hell out of him and then we started to think there was something in it. 3 or 4 fellas went down several times to see if they could see this ghost but they saw nothing. Well we used to get paid once a fortnight as I said and a chap called Snowy Wilson was coming through that creek and there was nothing that would frighten that fella. He sees the ghost coming towards him and in that creek were a whole lot of rocks and the funny thing is that they were all round and they were anything from the size of a monkey's fist to a football. Snowy picks up a couple of rocks and he throws them at this ghost and he knocks it down first shot. Snowy says'lf I can knock you down you bastard I can beat you. Let's have a look at you', and when he gets there it's a woman and she's crying and she's on a pair of stilts and she can't get up. Well when she explained to him what she was doing there, Snowy calmed down, cause he's got a bit ratty by then. Apparently she had come from Kent where they walk on stilts in the hop fields- Anyway, her husband had been going over to another camp to play poker and she thought he was going over there after another woman. So what she's done was dress up to scare him but she'd scared everybody except him.
John: Was there very much music out there?
Fred: Yes, you'd ge a fair bit I was coming down a mountain road one night and I heard a man called Jim Jackson playing on a tin whistle and he was playing 'Over the Waves,'waltz and as I stood and listened, I could hear how it was done. So I thought I'd get myself another tin whistle and one Sunday morning I got up on top of a hill out of the way and I realised by breath control I could get a lot more notes than I could when I first had one, and I was getting along fine. Well there's I don't know how many ants in Australia and there isn't very many of them very friendly and there's one called a Green Head ant and if he bites you, he nearly dives his head night in much worse than a wasp sting. Anyway, I'm playing 'Annie Laurie' and a blasted Green Head ant got up my leg and I played a note that I reckon you could hear from here to Haughley.
I remember one night I had that old fiddle there. It's a copy of an old Stradivari. Now I was in Queensland just over the border, and going over the other side of the mountain - they used to call it 'going over the bump'. Anyway, there was some fellas going over there one Saturday night and I knew they were going on the booze and I didn't want to get mixed up in that. So I went down to an Irishman's place and damned if I didn't run straight into it. They asked me to go and get my fiddle and I know I ended on me back on a fella's bunk playing '100 pipers'. I can still remember what I was playing, but after we'd finished the whiskey a fella went out to a 'Sly Grog Shop' and bought some more whiskey, but it had methylated spirits mixed with it but by that time we'd had so much we didn't taste the damn stuff. John! the next morning when I woke up I wished I could of died. I don't know how those tramps drink methylated spirit. Crikey no more of that for me. I used to know an old Tasmanian chap Hughy Delaney. He used to reckon we were all mugs to pay 12/6d for whiskey when you could go and get a bottle of methylated spirits for 9d and he d get as drunk as an owl on that.
You know it was funny out there. I've know men who've forgot how to speak their own language, they'd been away so long. You know it only takes a few years. I landed home here on a Tuesday and it was a market day in Ipswich and there'was two old-time farmers standing there on the pavement talking and I heard one of them say a couple of sentences. Well I put my bags down and kidded I was tired, just to listen to them. I mean the old Suffolk dialect today you only hear in isolated pockets but they were speaking in the real old Suffolk dialect and I had to stop and listen to them. It surprised me coming out of the blue like that and I knew I was home!
From EDS Vol 45 No 1