Pat Shaw at Sidmouth Festival, 2017

 “You can’t consider it music until you feel yourself dancing to it.”[1]

Here Jane Harrison and Ali celebrate Pat Shaw’s musical background and legacy.

We are honoured to be playing for the Pat Shaw dance workshops and ball at Sidmouth in 2017 in what would have been his centenary year and wanted to share and celebrate the uniqueness of Pat’s music. We will be working with caller John Sweeney.

Pat Shaw composed a large number of enjoyable tunes, some written for his own dances; there are many more, for dancing and listening, in a variety of styles and often recognisably within a particular traditional idiom. Sometimes, our hearts sink when presented with new compositions for modern dances, wishing that maybe the dance composer had just chosen some good old reels or jigs.  This is never the case with Pat’s music. What is remarkable is how he was able to create so many tunes that seamlessly match the dance and traditional style. We started thinking about what had influenced Pat when composing, and on the influences on our playing.

Being immersed in folk music and dancing from an early age gave Pat a life-long interest in traditional music – which he pursued after studying music at Cambridge.  Both of us were similarly born with traditional music around us, starting dancing early thanks to our dancing families, with  Ali’s father playing the accordion and Jane’s parents going on to follow Pat in collecting dance.  This created for us an understanding of traditional dance music, the ‘metre and rhyme’, the 8-bar phrase, repeats, keys and rhythmic and modal variety.

Pat inherited his mother’s collection of published folk music, which he continued to add to over the years, developing an encyclopaedic folk-musical knowledge of the British Isles and far beyond. This must have helped when he first visited Shetland in the 1940s and found a strong culture of fiddle music, recognising some Scandinavian influences, with very little recorded or notated. In 1947 he returned to Shetland and started collecting, learning to play the accordion along the way so that he could join in the music to help as an icebreaker.  From the renowned Unst fiddler, John Stickle, Pat noted some 92 tunes [2].

Shetland music has a strong rhythm and identity, which we love, and is great for many styles of folk dancing we were lucky encounter early on. Jane’s father met the Shetland fiddler and teacher, Tom Anderson on his dance collecting trips and took the family back for a holiday where they first heard the ‘Da 40 Fiddlers’.  Aged 18, Jane went to study with ‘Tammy’, as he was known, at Stirling and later in Lerwick. Ali played with Blue Mountain Band, led by Rick Smith and Maggie Fletcher who had known Pat and visited Shetland`,  adding several Shetland tunes to the repertoire.  We made a very memorable joint trip to Shetland in 1988.

Pat continued to collect tunes wherever he travelled, able to absorb the styles he collected into his own tunes. His dance tunes often follow the most normal 32 bar, 2As, 2Bs pattern but sometimes have a more varied 16 bar B part, as found in a quite a few Scottish and Shetland tunes, but he was not bound by this and his version of the traditional Three Sea Captains has 36 bars. He was adept as well at providing tunes in two different rhythms enhance the dance. He even wrote triple-time hornpipes (3/2) that have more generally been replaced by jigs or 4/4 hornpipes.

For his dances, Pat thoroughly researched the early printed versions, such as Playford, Wilson and Bray, producing and teaching his own interpretations (not always without controversy) and obviously appreciating their associated tunes, created some of his own that would not appear out of place in these early publications.

Pat’s influence though was greater than just the composing and collecting tunes. Jane found from her own parents’ dance collecting that the collecting process is not just one-way – Pat was always keen to disseminate what he collected but he also  wanted to ‘plough back’ locally. Tom Anderson talking in 1977 [3], just before Pat died, describes how great an influence Pat was on music in Shetland from his accuracy in transcribing tunes, before he even had a tape recorder, to making his collection available. We were both to benefit.

Pat was also happy to write dances to existing traditional tunes, such as from songs or those for morris dance, and when given some small books of old Dutch tunes, he very quickly composed a number of dances, which were later published in his,’ New Wine in Old Bottles’. In the 1960s, Pat became involved with the Welsh Folk Dance Society, going on to research many dances and tunes as well as writing new tunes, such as Coleg y Brifysgol Abertawe (about and written for the University College of Swansea). More often though he would set his welsh dances to traditional tunes, such as Red House of Cardiff to the tune Tŷ coch Caerdydd or Waterfall Waltz to Caerdroea, and we may be playing some of these at Sidmouth.

Some of the most well known of Pat’s dances though result from his visit to America in the 1970s, which also have particularly memorable tunes in American reel or even rag-time style. Jane met Pat the year after he wrote Levi Jackson Rag and still has the original hand-written copy of his music.

For more years than we really care to remember we have played for dancing; English and Scottish country, American running set, squares and contra, as well as for morris, sword and step-dancing. Traditional players have influenced us in many ways, (Jane taking a night-school class in Irish fiddle no less).  We both particularly enjoyed the playing of the three Northumbrian shepherds but occasionally we get to play with more recent musical influences, (once playing with the band Peeping Tom). Like Pat we are try to understand the ways in which traditional music and dance work together, to make the moves, the steps, and the patterns in the dance,  meaningful, sociable, energetic, beautiful, fun, happy, and elegant, depending on the idiom of the dance. Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies, singer, collector and poet, said of Pat’s music: ‘they were mostly catchy tunes and lay as close in to their dances as the skin to the apple”.  We are looking  forward to Sidmouth, and to playing all Pat’s tunes ‘close in to their dances’.  Please join us!

Postscript from Jane:

Letter Pat Shaw to Joan Flett Feb 1977

Pat’s letter to my mum, Joan Flett in February 1977, refers to a film by Ion Jamieson of dancing in the Scottish Borders around 1930 which my Mum donated to the School of Scottish Studies. Pat was there when was it was first shown in public in 1977. We hope to show some of the film at “Talk – The Collectors. The work of dance collectors Tom and Joan Flett”, Chris Metherell in discussion with Jane – The Arts Centre, Sidmouth, 9.30 Monday, 6th August.

A playlist you might like to listen to after reading:

  1. Jeremy Morfey quoting Pat on the Pat Shaw Legacy Group ‘His most memorable quotation was that you could not consider it music until you could feel yourself dancing to it.’


  1. A Shetland Fiddler and His Repertoire, John Stickle, 1875-1957. Patrick Shuldham-Shaw ( Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 3, Dec 1962.


  1. Pat Shuldham-Shaw’s influence on the Shetland fiddle scene.
    02.16 – Track ID: 79819 – Original Tape ID: SA1977.013
    Pat Shuldham-Shaw’s influence on the Shetland fiddle scene. Tom Anderson discusses the influence of traditional music collector Pat…
    Contributors: Tom Anderson
    Reporters: Tom Atkinson

Thanks to Jane Harrison for the photographs below.

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