I have traced my father’s ancestors back to the late 1600s and without exception, all were born in Norfolk. My father’s grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), was the first Norfolk Blackwood to be able to read and write. In his youth he worked as a labourer in a mill in Hapton, but he somehow ended up owning a windmill in Harlesdon. Prior to William Blackwood, all our Norfolk ancestors were agricultural labourers, and many died in the workhouse, as paupers.
So, it never ceases to amaze me that, with that background, my grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood (1881-1965), was an organist at age 19, as listed in the 1901 census, and spent his life as a music teacher in Harpley. I have no idea of what or who it was that inspired him to a musical career.
His musical interests were classical, and he subsidised his teaching income by serving as organist in local churches. For some years he was the resident organist at Sandringham, the Royal residence. And his church responsibilities included training the church choirs. He ended his career in his early 80s, as organist at the church in Bushmills, near Portrush on the north coast of Ulster. But he continued to practise every morning, afternoon and evening until the night in 1965 when he permanently fell asleep.
It was my grandfather who taught my father to play the piano and instilled in him the music-reading skills that stood him so well. But my father had no real interest in classical or church music and when he was 16, in 1935, he moved to London, to take up a position as a trainee-manager with Sainsbury’s, which in that era was an upper-class grocer. It was in the evenings that he found his true musical love – big bands, such as those of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Joe Loss etc. He used to go to the ballrooms in North London, not to dance, but to listen to the bands, to observe, to study their technique.
It was during the early years of the war, when his regiment was stationed in and around Portrush, that my father established himself as a pianist, most nights playing a few numbers with the local bands. After the war ended, he returned to Portrush and joined the Ernie Mann band. But I have covered much of this history in a previous article, so I will not repeat myself.
To many, it might come as a surprise to know that for most of his professional life my father never had a piano. He bought the sheet music, turned up at a venue and played.
He retired from his dance band in the late 1950s to concentrate on his farming business. But music was his great love, and in the late 1960s he bought an electronic organ, an early version of modern keyboards, and soon was employed 2-3 times a week, playing in local hotels. For friends and acquaintances, he made numerous recordings on a little tape-recorder. Following is an example:
He died suddenly in late 1995; he would have been 77 the next day. We found his music case packed and prepared for a performance that night.
In my turn, I had no musical training when I was young. We had no piano at home and neither the primary nor secondary schools that I attended gave any musical tuition. But I had enough rhythm to fill the role of drummer in a group with some teenage friends. We were pretty awful, but we had fun while it lasted, and when I left school in 1963, Bill McKeown invited me to join the little group that he was forming. I wrote about it in the previous article that I mentioned earlier.
One of my friends, Raymond Lyttle, who played lead guitar, had real talent, and he went on to join the Delta Showband. Sadly, he was killed in a car crash in England in 1970.
All my four sons studied the recorder at Lyndhurst Primary School, with some success. And for a time, John played the cornet and Philip played my old clarinet. It was only Andrew who continued to study music at secondary school, ending up with an ‘A’ level. For one of his exams he had to submit his own composition and thankfully I managed to make a recording of him playing it. He called it ‘Springtime’ and every time that I listen to it, I can hear his interpretation of the four seasons…
During his school years, my youngest son, Philip, became very much involved in amateur musicals, both in school and with a local junior operatic society. For a time, he flirted with the idea of pursuing a musical career. I suspect that one day he will return to the stage, albeit in an amateur mode.
So, from humble Norfolk roots, to date four generations of the Blackwood family have studied music, have entertained, have acted. I write these words so that future generations of my family will be aware of their historical roots, and in the hope that some of them will be inspired to carry the baton for one more lap.
For music is very much in their genes.