Three Men In a Boat

Three Men in a Boat flier scan

We were living close by the Thames at Wallingford when I started to do gigs with Andrew Frank. Sir Max Mallowan (famous archaeologist) and Lady Mallowan (the novelist Agatha Christie) lived close by. We kept a punt in their dilapidated boathouse so Andrew and I worked out our first repertoire on the river. Somehow we ended up taking the watery name of Three Men in a Boat, which must have been homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s humorous travelogue of 1889,  though I don’t remember the book as being especially funny and anyway their boat was a skiff not a punt. Perhaps the concertina counted for two, being a Jeffries Duet.

Three Men in a Boat posterI made up a poster for us with Letraset and Cow Gum. In retrospect it seems an odd piece of marketing for a folk duo. Happily our act is still on the road, though not under that name, and that pole is in regular use propelling the same punt. In summer it’s often moored on the tidal Thames by Richmond Bridge, courtesy of master boat-builder Mark Edwards MBE, and over the years it has been towed on a trailer and launched to explore wherever a heavy punt can be manhandled over the bank and its pole can touch the bottom.

Since Wallingford days the punt has visited punting Camseveral other stretches of the Thames between Cricklade and Richmond, the Cherwell at Oxford, the Cam at Cambridge and Upware, the Great Ouse at Godmanchester, the Medway at Tonbridge, the Stour at Blandford Forum, the Basingstoke Canal near Farnborough, the Colne near Colchester, the Wissey near Thetford, the Bure and its broads near Acle, the Waveney at Bungay, and the Ouse north of York.

Further suggestions welcomed !






Andrew Frank

I got to know Andrew in 1974 through a mutual friend, the singer Emma Kirkby. She said he had a lovely voice, a quirky repertoire and a sparky stage presence – all true then and still true four plus decades on. Our first gigs were in the mid 1970s. Music agents Jean Oglesby and Jane Winder took us onto their books and persuaded folk club secretaries to give us a try. We were Islington Folk Club regulars in the golden years (not that IFC isn’t still wonderful) upstairs at the Empress of Russia, with Bob Davenport at the helm and Flowers and Frolics as the house band. Between times Andrew has been by turns an actor, dancer, stage manager, telephonist, groundsman, cricket umpire, garden designer and above all a singer in many combinations, most famously with Dave Sealey of Bakelite Boys 2000Cosmotheka and George Hinchcliffe – founder of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain – in their fabulous show for the year 2000,  Pop Goes the Century – 100 songs from 100 years in 100 minutes. It had all been planned as a foursome with Dave’s brother Al Sealey, the other half of Cosmotheka. Al died suddenly of pneumonia just before Christmas 1999. But the show went on.

Andrew in Melody MakerIn September 1979 Melody Maker carried a profile of Andrew’s earlier duo with Mike Mann : Mike saturnine, punkish, ‘a direct descendant from the Ian Dury School of Second Hand Car Dealers and Card Sharps’, Andrew ‘an angelic-faced curly-haired overgrown choirboy’, emerging from behind the audience, hands nonchalantly tucked into baggy trouser pockets, with a trained tenor voice and a flair for acrobatics. Mike was the Dark One, Andrew was The Voice, and together they were The Odd Couple, winning over doubtful audiences in Derby and Glasgow.

Looking back through our playlists Andrew has always strung songs and music into ingenious attention-holding sequences: I’m a Waitress in a Small Hotel linking into Bird in a Gilded Cage and (instrumental) They Wanted a Songbird in Heaven so God Took Caruso Away, followed by the patter £1 Song, and Pennies from Heaven; or Rogers and Hart’s My Romance and Sigmund Romberg’s Lover Come Back to Me followed by Boiled Beef and Carrots; or Dibdin’s Tom Bowling, A.A.Milne’s There Was an Old Sailor My Grandfather Knew, and Dave Sealey’s Never Do Today What You Can Do Tomorrow; or Seeds of Love, The Biggest Aspidistra in the World, Petit Fleur, and If It Wasn’t For the Houses In Between; or Noël Coward’s Kingston By-pass, Flanders & Swann’s Slow Train, Beth Carvalho’s Peguie Um Ita No Norte (instr.) and A Signalman Was Ginger Jim. Followed, with luck, by the Stukas’ 1977 punk classic Sport.

There’s a nice video online of Andrew singing another Andrew chimney sweeperSealey special, I’ve Given Up the Chimney Sweeping Now. We’re still on the road from time to time, with appearances over the past twelve months at the Musical Traditions Club, Islington Folk Club and Sheila Miller’s Cellar Upstairs. Catch us if you can.

Wheatstone’s wonder


Where are they now ? . . the symphonium, the seraphine, the tonimeter, the ‘Royal Albert’ transposing pianoforte, the guitarra harpa, the lyre-shaped cottage pianoforte, the panorgue, the autophone, the sommerphone, the piano violin . . [Peter & Ann MacTaggart (1986) Musical Instruments of the 1851 Exhibition]

The scientist Professor Charles Wheatstone – celebrated for his contributions to electrical engineering, optics, acoustics, telegraphy and cryptography –  invented the concertina in London around 1830 and marketed the instrument through the family music business from 1836. His sound source was vibrating metal tongues or ‘free reeds’,  as in the Chinese sheng, introduced to Europe some sixty years by the French Jesuit Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot. Most ingenious contraptions of the early Victorian era have disappeared without trace but the concertina  played around the world today retains all the essential features of Wheatstone’s original design:  hexagonal bellows with musical end-plates close-packed with tuned metal reeds, set in resonating chambers, activated by finger-buttons. A compact and complete design.

The Illustrated London News supplement on musical exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851 had this to say:

‘The concertina, the most elegant and perfect instrument of its kind, was patented about twenty years ago by Messrs Wheatstone. The invention is due to Professor Wheatstone, by whose scientific labours many valuable and important improvements in the construction of instruments with vibrating plates have been effected. Since its first introduction the concertina has steadily progressed in public favour . . . [forming] a valuable addition to those musical instruments that are more especially adapted for the drawing room’. (August 1851, Vol XIX, No 512, p242)

Wheatstone’s patent covered both the physical design of the instrument, its hardware, and what we could call its software, the arrangement of notes. His original fingering system was ingenious but bizarre:  buttons on the right side played the notes that appear on stave-lines (treble E, G, B etc), buttons on the left played  the gaps  (D,F,A, etc). A# and Bb had separate buttons and distinct tuning. As an acoustical scientist Wheatstone rejected the concept of equal temperament. The composer  Hector Berlioz was on the prize jury for musical instruments displayed in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He admired the sweet tone of the concertina but found Wheatstone’s tuning system doctrinaire and unmusical.

jeffries-on-red-lino.jpgWheatstone did eventually switch to equal temperament tuning. He also patented in 1844 a second type of instrument that was mechanically identical but radically different in its fingering system. The ‘duet’ or ‘double’ model resembled a piano keyboard in placing low notes under the fingers of the left hand, and high on the right. But that let the cat out of the bag. Other makers had their own ideas about improving the note arrangement of a concertina, and as Wheatstone’s patents expired they brought new systems onto the market. Most popular were the Anglo-German or ‘Anglo’ type where buttons sounded different tones on the push and the pull, giving a rhythmic lift to dance music. The design of the duet concertina was tweaked this way and that to enhance its chromatic  range and ability to tackle music with a richer harmonic texture. And Wheatstone’s original patented scheme, the ‘English’ system, continued in production and still retains a loyal following.

The upshot is that similar-looking concertinas may belong to any of eight rival and incompatible systems: English, Anglo, Wheatstone double, Maccann duet, Crane or Triumph system, Jeffries duet, Wheatstone-Chidley, Hayden duet.   The differences are spelt out by Allan Atlas in his ‘concertina’ entry for Stanley Sadie’s New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and they’re superbly well documented in the on-line resource virtual archive of material on rival squeezebox systems – a history of fission and division – was created by Robert Gaskins, the Silicon Valley genius who invented Powerpoint and took it from independent start-up to indispensable global-standard software within Microsoft.

There’s wonderful serendipity here.