Billy and the Rubber Piccolo

Billy Balatyne was a piccolo player from near where Kathryn Tickell grew up. She spent many hours in his company learning tunes and he was the first musician who’s playing she’d really loved, the foundation of her playing style. She’d spend ages on her tin whistle perfecting all his little flourishes, articulations and ornaments. I wasn’t alone when she told me this for the first time. There was also a capacity audience at the Bath Komedia who she was introducing me to.

Mosstroopers Polka

By Billy Balatyne transcribed by Kathryn Tickell

Articulation is a word wind players use to talk about how a note sounds when using your tongue to stop or start a note. The same way you have to articulate clearly when you’re speaking. If you say ‘Tee’ ,the front of your tongue is on the hard palate behind your upper front teeth, the back and middle of your tongue is raised. Now if you say ‘Duh’ the tip of your tongue is a little flatter and touching more of the hard palate and the back of your tongue is low in your mouth creating a softer sound. These little adjustments of the tongue create different sounds when you play a whistle or flute. If you say Tuh-Kuh-Tuh really fast that’s a style of ornamentation called triple tonguing. Billy’s style came from decades and decades of playing Northumbrian dance tunes at dances in village halls in the early 1900’s, you could only go home when the sun came up when it was light enough to ride your bike. He was a very talented player and his style involved lots of articulation which made his playing sound very crisp, clear and rhythmic – perhaps even a little twee to a modern listener.

During the performance at the Komedia I was to do a solo on Billy Balatynes own piccolo – a piece of folk history. Like in the previous piece I wrote, I was somehow again the sole representative of a centuries old tradition, this time being presented the honour by the nation’s favourite Northumbrian pipes player and doyen of Northumbrian traditional music. I was to play the ‘Moss Troopers Polka’ a tune by Billy to accompany a clog dance by Amy Thatcher. A dancer who’d learned the craft since the age of three with the legendary Stockport youth dance group Fosbrooks. I hadn’t. My folk music education had been spent learning the greatest hits of Altan at Nuneaton Technical College, or was it Technological. I don’t know, I’m not that technical.

After college and getting Grade 8 I continued to study flute eventually to the completion of a degree in traditional folk music, so I’m quite good at it but I did all that on a Boehm system flute. What you might regard as a ‘classical’ or silver flute. It has lots of lovely buttons only a few of which correlate to a simple system, ‘keyless’ or wooden flute.

Boehm was an instrument inventor back in the 1800’s who was responsible for the system with which you can attach four or five keys to one rod with a pin and articulate them all separately. If you think of a flute or a clarinet, oboe or saxophone you’ll remember there are keys and long rods down the length of the instrument. That is the Boehm system bit which later got added to and refined by other makers. Having keys meant you could reorder the way the fingers played the notes. A modern flute is laid out a bit like a piano, all the big keys are the white notes and the smaller black notes are shared out between the various odd little buttons and is contrived in a way that is fairly logical to play. This is not the case with an antiquated wooden piccolo. When Kathryn first gave me Billy’s it felt like she’d given me a magic wand. Someone else’s magic wand and I was not a wizard, Hagrid.

Billy Balatyne

Holey Ha’penny a record featuring Billy and the piccolo from an album my dad has recently come into possession of.

It wasn’t the first time she’d given it to me. I’d received from Kathryn whilst I was at University a few years after Billy had died. There had been a bit of a commotion because Billy was also good friends with Kathryn’s father Mike Tickell – purveyor of Northumbrian folk history, teacher of folklore to Kathryn, explorer of soon to be damed valleys*, keeper of dead North East piccolo players sacred instruments. This was not to be the case though, whether Mike liked it or not, the instrument was given to Kathryn. I was blown away when she told me to “see what you can do with it”. She doesn’t have a clue about flutes and didn’t want it to fall in to disrepair. Unfortunately it was already there so I took it to Bill Mcnaughton, flute maker and part time Elvis impersonator along with an interesting old military fife I’d been given by a flute collector.

If you ever get the chance to visit a luthier or instrument makers shed, do it. There is an amazing smell of sawdust, different oils, metal and dust usually accompanied by un-organised mounds of small tools. Bill’s shed is no different. It was in the back of Norman’s Holmes garden filled with things that spun, wobbled, shaved and split wood. Norman is a fantastic wooden flute player who’d known Bill for years. Bill had owned a music shop where he hand made silver flutes. The music shop eventually closed which is when Norman asked if they might work together on a prototype wooden flute. They worked together producing and selling these wooden flutes for years after. He was the man to fix the piccolo.

Bill did an amazing job restoring the instrument but I wasn’t really interested in playing it. It was too squeaky, too hard to play. I’d recently found that I loved strummy, twangy things. I was spending all my time learning them, in particular a right-handed copy of an octave mandolin my dad Mike plays made by Rob Armstrong. I’d started the Monsters on it with Amy, Dave and Carly**. Piccolo was just not cool. I regretted not making more of it at the time but I had a load of catching up to do on the mando. Which is what I do in Kathryn’s band these days. Playing the mando that is….and a bit of catching up.

Around ten years later I received the Piccolo a second time at Kathryn’s converted farmsted in the hills of Northmberland. I was actually in her band at this point, It was our first ever few days of rehearsal with the new line-up. Kathryn and I had put together an exciting group of musicians for her idea of a Northumbrian ‘world music’ band. Amy Thatcher on Accordion was the first choice having worked with Kathryn for about eight years at that point. I’d managed to get myself in for being a good performer with the Monsters. I’d recommended Joe Truswell (the Monsters drummer) as he’s a really solid tasty drummer and Kate Young who’s just amazingly musical. Kathryn had brought in Cormac Byrne the Irish pocket rocket to finish the line up on bodrhan. “That’s Bow – like take a bow. Ron, like Ron Burgundy. Bow-Ron. You say it” he’d instructed me in the sound check at the Komedia. I said it.

Cormac, Joe and I had actually met the summer before serendipitously at Lakefest, a festival the Monsters were playing. We had a great late-night drink around a huge metal artwork which looked like a birdcage housing a bonfire. It kept us warm while ‘Cor’ told us the longest story about meeting a notorious angry dolphin. None of us knew the next time we meet we’d be playing together.

Moss Troopers Polka was scrawled on a small A5 piece of parchment we’d found the night before. We had been going through her treasure trove of newspaper scraps and photos her mother had kept. It was an interesting tune, very distinctively Northumbrian; major, bouncy, lots of intricate triplets. (see photo above) I’d heard these types of tunes in sessions but hadn’t ever learned any. It was starting to dawn on me that my solo in the show was on an instrument I didn’t know how to play, playing a type tune I was completely unfamiliar with. This was fine, I like a challenge. Still it was my only solo in the whole show.

Joe in Bristol

Joe probably being funny at St. George’s in Bristol

Joe has these anxiety dreams. He dreams he’ll be playing a gig but sat on the toilet or his drum sticks suddenly turn to rubber and everyone thinks he’s terrible. He’s very funny and the stories are hilarious the way he tells them. My solo was beginning to sound a lot like one of his anxiety dreams. I was reminded of this on stage at the Komedia just after I heard about Kathryn’s fascination with Billy’s playing, her reverence for his style, and just how much of her young life she dedicated to playing just like him.“Oh fuck” I thought and I hoped the piccolo wouldn’t turn to rubber during the next three minutes.

I began the tune with some long notes leading into the A part. The tricky articulation and triple tonguing of the triplets were going well. Amy’s clogs rhythmically beat the wooden stage floor raising years of dust. The dead skin particles of all the performers who’d gone before us illuminated white in the spotlight . The tune was going fine, but my mind was racing I really hope no-one here has heard Billy’s playing before…. hang on…. is this the the A section or is it the repeated A section….I think it’s the repeat. Damn it Kieran concentrate. “Did you get distracted by a butterfly or something?”, shut up imaginary Kirstine (my sister) oh for fuck sake I’m at the end of the B section now – did I do the repeat?…… They’ll know. The audience will know and after the gig they’re going to come up to you and say ‘that didn’t sound like the Moss Troopers Polka I know by Billy Balatyne legendary picollo player you should never play that picollo again. You cant even spell it right’ errrr…. fuck it, A section here we come.”

I hadn’t done the repeat. Did Amy know?

It’s handy having your wife on stage sometimes. Amy switched up the routine quickly and we thankfully ended together with a flourish.……AND THE CROWD WENT APESH*T!!! The headlines in the Bath Chronicle the next morning were “player of ancient piccolo summons the spirits of the past and provokes free buss pass owning crowd into nostalgic frenzy”.


*see “The Dam” by David Almond

** Amy Thatcher – Accordion, David de la Haye – Bass, Carly Blain – fiddle.  MCB started out as a quartet.


Here’s Billy playing Mosstroopers Polka

I transcribed a couple of lovely little tunes this week you might like to hear. The first one is a Newcastle session classic called “Asher” By Rodney Miller, named after his son says Colin Nicholson.

Asher by Rodney Miller

Transcribed from the playing of Sophie Lynch


I’ve heard it for years – It’s on a Sharon Shannon album actually simply tilled “Rodney Miller’s Reel”. Recently I’ve heard Sophie Lynch playing it one time at Kathryn’s party and at Bar Loco in toon. She’s training to be a dentist currently but has had a fantastic upbringing in folk music having been to folkworks summer schools and a part of Kathryn’s Super Folkus older musicians group. At the party she was playing it with Erin Rae and Scott Turnbull both brilliant players. I played it yesterday with Stu Finden of Whapweasel in Guitar Guitar where they have a Eastman with nice sounding top end.

The other tune is called “Do You Want To Fly” by  Flying Sofa Quartet.


Transcribed from Flying Sofa Quartet video

They were recommended to me by Sam Partridge. In fact it was recommended to a pupil of mine called Lucy Marsh she’s recently been accepted in to the National Youth Folk Ensemble by him. I helped her prepare for the audition and she got a great review from Sam. He mentioned the flying Sofa Quartet as the flute player from the band is particularly good. I nicked the tune from a youtube video.

NB. Originally there was a mention of the piccolo being left in a will – KT has told me this isn’t technically the case and its “a long story”. Billy had a couple of piccolos one went to his son and the other was given to KT. The transcription is not KT’s handwriting but she can’t remember whose it is.

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