Ruth Finnegan,
The Hidden Musicians
(Wesleyan University Press, 2007)

The subtitle says it all: "music making in an English town." This exhaustively researched book proves the adage that all universal concerns are local. Rather than try to analyse how the world makes music, Finnegan concentrates her efforts on the very English town of Milton Keynes. Anyone reading the book can then extrapolate to almost any corner of the globe, and if they were to dig deep enough I am sure they would find similar expressions of music in their own backyards.

An important component of the book is the value of the amateur musician. She concentrates on these people who are the absolute essence of music, be it folk singing, fiddle playing, opera, jazz, brass band membership or bell ringing. Without these enthusiasts who perform for the pure love of the music there is no music. We see biographies of the "great and good -- or not so good" overpopulating our bookshops, especially in the festive season but very little of their content relates to the music. We get childhood trauma, six-figure record deals or bed-hopping exploits. For the music we must turn to books like this.

A simple scan of the chapter titles gives the potential reader an insight into the diversity of musical worlds orbiting one medium-sized town, and from that we can guess or calculate the number of people involved and from that we estimate the number touched by local music makers. There are items on musical theatre, pub music, church music, country and western, and choirs. It is only when we list them we realize the number of organizations involved.

Over more than 300 pages of well-researched and lovingly accumulated facts, figures, anecdotes and reports, Finnegan draws us into a world that most people touch a few times each week in various ways from snatches of music, to advertisements to attendances at performances. She reminds us that such events do not "just happen." Behind every musical note whether on a banjo or a hand bell there are people dedicated to organizing, rehearsing and performing.

It is impossible in a short review to cover the myriad aspects of local music examined here ranging from the dynamics of pub performances to funding performers and advertising gigs. With copious notes and illustrations, this book will inform the academic but will also fascinate the casual reader, provided he or she has at least a passing interest in music, people or community.

review by
Nicky Rossiter

1 December 2007

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