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John Playford: The English Dancing Master

Dancing Master John Playford

John Playford: The English Dancing Master

John Playford was born in Norwich in 1623, and died in London in 1686. His father

was a mercer, also named John. Local records show that he was one of a large family, many of whom were scriveners or stationers. While his brother Matthew was recorded at a grammar school, there is no record that John did so. It is likely that his education came from the almonry, or choir-school, which was attached to the cathedral, and it was here he probably acquired a knowledge of music and the “love of Divine Service”.

After his father’s death in 1639, Playford was apprenticed to John Benson, a London publisher of St. Dunstan’s Churchyard on Fleet Street. After seven years, he earned his freedom and became a member of the Yeomanry of the Stationer’s Company in 1647, which enabled him to trade as a publisher. Playford secured the tenancy of a shop in the porch of the Temple Church, the place from where all his publications were issued until his retirement in 1684. His publications included political tracts, miscellaneous non-musical works, music theory, lessons for various instruments, collections of songs, and psalms. His books had a ready market with the law students of the Inns of Court, or Law School, that passed his shop each day.

By personal inclination and family, Playford was a Royalist. One of his political tracts was The Perfect Narrative of the Tryal of the King, as well as others relating to the executions of royalist nobility. In November of 1649 a warrant was issued for his arrest as well as his associates. Nothing was heard of him for a year until, on November 7, 1650, a stationer’s register was entered for The English Dancing Master. Apparently things had cooled off enough for him to return.

While it was theoretically obligatory to register works, Playford registered so few of his music books before publication, it is not known whether The Dancing Master was his first music book or not. It was certainly not his last, for seventeen editions of that work alone were published.

As well as a bookseller and music publisher, in 1653 Playford was admitted clerk to the Temple Church, an office he held to the end of his life. He devoted himself to the repair and maintenance of the building, and also promoted the seemly ordering of the services there. He was also vicar-choral of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It was about this time he married Hannah Allen, daughter of Benjamin Allen, a publisher of Cornhill. The Playfords moved to Islington in 1655, where his wife established a boarding-school for girls. She maintained this school until her death in 1679, upon which Playford returned to London, taking a house in Strand.

An examination of the court books of the Stationer’s Company shows that in 1661, Playford was called to the livery. In 1681, the king wrote a letter to the master and wardens that Playford and others listed be admitted to the court of assistants. He retired in 1684 in favor of his son Henry and another young man, Richard Carr, although a number of books retained his imprint until 1686. Henry also published from the same shop in the Temple Church until 1690.

Playford’s will requested that he be buried in either the Temple Church or in St. Faith’s, the stationer’s chapel in the undercroft of St. Paul’s. Unfortunately no record of his burial is known in either place.

More about The English Dancing Master:

In 1651 Charles I was under arrest and about to be beheaded. People of Royalist leanings were persecuted. Between political unrest and the periodic outbreaks of plague that threatened the city of London, people were beginning to seek refuge, education and leisure either in their homes or away from the city. A do-it-yourself book on social dancing was long overdue.

It is fairly well known that John Playford was a bookseller and publisher, not a dancing master. It is also fairly well accepted that he did not write The English Dancing Master. Scholars have determined that six to eight different contributors actually wrote the book, some covering dances known for years, while others may have been penned specifically for the book. A fair number of typographical errors still cause confusion today, but for the most part, the steps are clear.

Playford published the first seven editions between 1651 and 1686, his son Henry published the eighth to twelfth editions, and John Young the remaining six. In A Musical Banquet, a 1651 Playford publication, The English Dancing Master is advertised “… to be played on the Treble Violl or Violin”.

Sadie, Stanley, editor. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London.

Keller, Kate van Winkle and Shiner, Genevieve. The Playford Ball, 103 Early English Country Dances. A Capella Books and the Country Dance and Song Society, Chicago.

Barlow, Jeremy. The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master (1651 – ca. 1728). Faber Music Ltd., London.

Millar, John Fitzhugh. Elizabethan Country Dances. Thirteen Colonies Press, Williamsburg, Va.

Written by Fidelico de Rocheforte for Volume 3 of Letter of Dance.

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Oranges and Lemons

On Twelfth night we had a delightful evening, though not so grand as last year…we played at Oranges and Lemons, Hunt the Slipper, Wind the Jack…we

had a very pleasant ball till 10, sometimes Mama, sometimes myself acting as the musicians.

Fanny Austen to Miss Dorothy Clapman
February, 1812

This is a game based around an old English children’s song, called ‘Oranges and Lemons’, about the sounds of church bells in various parts of London.

Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including theories that it describes public executions and/or that it describes Henry

VIII’s marital difficulties. Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded

versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,

Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,

Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,

Oranges and Lemmons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clemens,

When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,

When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,

When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,

When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls.

There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,

which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the

1840s. Oranges and Lemons was the name of a square-four-eight-dance, published in Playford’s, Dancing Master in 1665, but it is not clear if this relates to this rhyme.

This is how the traditional version is played:

Two children form an arch with their arms. They determine in secret which of them shall be an ‘orange’ and which a ‘lemon’. Everyone sings the ‘Oranges

and Lemons’ song (see below). The other children in the game take turns to run under the arch until one of them is caught when the arch falls at the end

of the song. The captured player is asked privately whether they will be an ‘orange’ or a ‘lemon’ and then goes behind the original ‘orange’ or ‘lemon’

team leader. The game and singing then starts over again. At the end of the game there is usually ‘a tug of war’ to test whether the ‘oranges’ or

‘lemons’ are stronger. The game is similar to ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.*

Gay go up and gay go down,

To ring the bells of London town.

Oranges and lemons,

Say the bells of St. Clements.

Bull’s eyes and targets,

Say the bells of St. Marg’ret’s.

Brickbats and tiles,

Say the bells of St. Giles’.

Halfpence and farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

Pancakes and fritters,

Say the bells of St. Peter’s.

Two sticks and an apple,

Say the bells of Whitechapel.

Pokers and tongs,

Say the bells of St. John’s.

Kettles and pans,

Say the bells of St. Ann’s.

Old Father Baldpate,

Say the slow bells of Aldgate.

You owe me ten shillings,

Say the bells of St. Helen’s.

When will you pay me?

Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,

Say the bells of Shoreditch.

Pray when will that be?

Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,

Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Chop chop chop chop

The last man’s dead!

(The arch comes down tapping one player)






*Instructions from Other information from

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