A Site Dedicated to all enthusiasts of Classic Style Banjo
John D. H. Field died at Ealing Hospital, west London, on the night of 8th August 2018. He was 74 and had been battling bone marrow cancer since the beginning of the year, suffering from aggressive chemotherapy and weekly blood transfusions. He never married and leaves a sister, a niece and a nephew, to all of whom he was devoted.
By profession, John was a chemical engineer, specializing in water quality, having studied in both London and Toronto, but his main interest throughout his life was music, and it was through his musical activities that he became best known. Equally at home on the banjo, tenor banjo, mandolin and fiddle, he was also catholic in his musical tastes and could play a variety of styles on all of them.
John first came to general attention as part of an extremely influential group of instrumentalists who gave weekly lessons in the early 60's at Cecil Sharpe House in London, home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society. He held the banjo chair at a time when there was keen interest in learning the folk styles, particularly bluegrass. John was one of the few people in Britain who could play a presentable version of Scruggs-style banjo, and Cecil Sharpe House was a popular destination for a host of aspiring players. Jim Woodley (gtr.) and Bryan Oliver (mndln.) were also regulars and together the three of them became the resident bluegrass band.
In the March 1965 edition of the BMG magazine, Cyril Phillips, a classic banjoist who had been running a monthly column on the bluegrass style wrote: "The publication of this article should just about coincide with the issue by Decca of an LP entitled "Way Down Town" by the Malcolm Price Trio + 1. The " + 1" is a young bluegrass banjoist named John Field whom I had the pleasure of meeting when he paid a welcome visit to the Associated Banjo Circle recently. The meeting was one I had looked forward to for some time, because a few months previously my good friend Charles Bramley had secured some examples of John's playing played them over to me. And one did not need to be a bluegrass enthusiast to realise immediately that here was one of those rare people with markedly developed musical talent and a vital natural flair for the five-string banjo."
"Meeting John Field in person and hearing him play fully confirmed the enthusiasm I had felt on first hearing those few snatches of music on the tape recorder. As I had suspected, John was no stranger to music, having had ten years' classical piano training before taking up the banjo 3 years ago. Although only 21 years old, he is a mine of information on bluegrass techniques and styles; has visited the United States to see and hear many of the finest American performers and has, I am bound to admit, provided me - as a result of one meeting and two letters – with more general and technical information about bluegrass playing than I have succeeded in obtaining from any other single source since I plunged into the subject last July."
"John tells me be first heard the 5- string banjo played in the Seeger manner by Winston Young on the B.B.C.T.V. programme "Tonight" and heard his first Earl Scruggs disc shortly afterwards. From then on he started to play and teach himself almost entirely by listening to records and other performers."
"His style is indeed remarkably suggestive of Scruggs; the clean sweet tone, mastery of slide and slur and brilliant octave-string punctuation are all there. But to me the most appealing feature was an underlying sensitivity for musical effect."
"John Field's tone is pure banjo tone; silver bells of sound that would have warmed the heart of Alfred Cammeyer and would almost certainly have provoked J. McNaughton to unscrew his fluently adjectival fountain pen if I had not done so first. I think that no-one could have been a better or more welcome ambassador for bluegrass than John Field was on that evening. He is modest and unassuming, highly intelligent and musically well-informed; in short, a thoroughly likeable person."
"Moreover, he endeared himself to us all by his genuine reciprocal interest in orthodox style playing for which he professes a keen admiration and showed us, by joining in an Ossman duet with Charles Bramley, he was perfectly capable of changing from bluegrass to orthodox style if ever he wished to do so."
According to John, he and Charles Bramley bumped into each other by chance and were quite taken aback by the other's style of playing: John had never seen classic banjo before and Charles had never heard Scruggs style. They spent the next few years effectively teaching each other, John establishing a good grounding in the classic techniques during the period.
Malcolm Price was a phenomenal acoustic guitar player in the Doc Watson mould who led a folk trio that was one of the most popular shows on the folk circuit. About the LP record that Phillips mentions, John said: "It was recorded in two afternoons at the Decca West Hampstead studios, in Oct 1964, about 6 months after I started playing with the MPT. I never thought it was much good at the time (or now). The mix was all wrong and the CE Special XX banjo (soggy calfskin and open back) didn't sound good. It's the one I still have. I was also suffering from a stonking head cold during the recording. A few takes were scrapped due to my sneezing…. Still, some punters claimed to like the album at the time and Malcolm did too. It was a long time ago and seemed like a good idea back then, but to my mind never captured what the MPT could do."
"Malcolm was a one-off for sure. The original Trio were one of the hottest things on the early Folk Scene. I first saw them at Reading Folk Club in Sept 1963 and was knocked out. Getting the invite to play with them early in 1964 was fantastic. I guess I played about 90% of their gigs in 64 and they were often working 5/6 nights a week and also had BBC Radio and TV work, and recorded for Decca. I was with them on some broadcasts and appeared on Anglia TV twice from the Norwich studios. I also played for a year with MP's second group, which was MP, Ian McCann, Roger Churchyard + self. That was also highly memorable, but MP decided to go solo in 66....probably for financial reasons as much as anything. I needed to quit too, as my finals were looming, and although I never went full-time as a musician, it was taking up too much time/energy and detracting from the day job and university stuff."
At about the same time, John also established contact with other well-known classic players, such as Tom Edwards: "I've dug out a letter I received from Tom Edwards; the date he wrote it was 12/2/1966. We exchanged several letters at that time, but this is the only one I kept. I had sent him a tape of Jim Woodley, Bryan Oliver and myself running through a few old bluegrass classics, and I suspect that Tom hadn't run up against a UK bluegrasser at that point. There are some interesting details from Tom about his friendship with FVE and Tom's acquisition of a flush-fret from Dr. Thornburgh. I don't know whether Tom retained/bought that banjo, or where it is now. Tom was a most remarkable player on f/style, plectrum and tenor banjo, and did send me a tape or two of his ensemble. I still have one of those. He invited me over to his place, but for reasons now lost in the mists of time, I never went. Talk about a lost opportunity......."
While John remained active in music circles after his peak in 1966, he had to balance his music with the day job. He mastered the guitar, the mandolin and the fiddle to add to the banjo and tenor banjo, and he branched out into as many different styles that would allow him to keep playing. His fiddling could accommodate western swing, bluegrass, English and Irish folk, for example. It was during this period that he also took up making and repairing instruments, and when he retired he became a virtually permanent student of the violin workshops at Cambridge.
In 2013, following his recovery from major open-heart surgery, he rekindled his early interest in classic banjo, and worked with Tony Bryan on duets. The bar they set themselves was extremely high, which accounts for so little of what they achieved being recorded – it was never perfect. John was particularly keen on acquiring banjos from the period, and for a few years played Bill Bowen's FVE flush-fret banjo. He can be seen playing this on the YouTube tribute video ‘The Lobsters' Promenade'. He also played a 12" Weaver while he was trying to restore a 12" SS Stewart.
In terms of repertoire, John had no fear, and picked numbers based on their appeal to his taste. "Darktown Dandies" and "Shuffle Along" from the Morley catalogue, "Life in Louisiana" from Grimshaw, "Jazzbo's Holiday" from Tarrant Bailey Jnr were all routine, as were "Ragtime Episode" and "Ramshackle Rag", but once he had heard Gregory's "L'Infanta March", that was immediately added to the practice list. The difficulties of the piece were always a challenge that could not get in the way of his ambition.
That was the way John lived his life.