JOE MORLEY An investigation by The Wanderers taken from "The Banjo" No 60 March 2001

The name Joe Morley is synonymous with our understanding and appreciation of the English banjo scene as at was and is today.. His name is the equivalent of Caruso’s to an Opera devotee, Segovia’s to the guitar fraternity or Menuhin to the violin.

Joe Morley’s total devotion to the banjo ensured that to the banjo fraternity throughout successive generations, his name remained un-forgotten. Certainly, his enduring legacy is a large collection of unique compositions for the banjo, coupled with a style of playing upon a very special type of banjo created by his good friend, Alfred Weaver.

Joe Morley’s Death Certificate states that he died in Lambeth Hospital of Carcinoma of the larynx on September 16"’ 1937, a Thursday. Morley had suffered considerable discomfort and was admitted to St. Stephen’s Hospital Fulham for examination and tests prior to being moved to Lambeth for an operation, during which he died.

Curiously, in his articles in ‘Pickins’ (Emile Grimshaw & Son’s publication) entitled ‘My Memories of Joe Morley’, the well known banjo historian George A. Keeler categorically states:- "The last time I heard Joe Morley on his banjo was on l3th September 1937 at the London Banjo Club when he played an un-named composition. I call it ‘Morley’s Last Melody' "

The B.M.G. report on the London Banjo Club’s meeting for September makes no mention of Morley’s presence but did include a bold type notice announcing Morley’s passing on its editorial page headed 'TRAGEDY!’ In numerous issues prior to the September edition, B.M.G. had meticulously reported Morley’s visits to his London Club and the pieces that he played.

Keeler and his wife were present at the September meeting of the London Club, and his ‘Pickins’ article goes on to state:- I do this (referring to the 13"’) with every confidence for, on visiting him in hospital shortly afterwards I asked Joe what was his last work he had difficulty in explaining it as his voice was failing, but I had the MS of the piece at home and was able to whistle softly the first few bars when Joe confirmed that it was his last composition.

Keeler is wildly mistaken in his dates and events. Without doubt, Morley did not attend the London Club’s meeting on September 13"' as he was in hospital, seriously ill.

One would have thought that the October meeting of the London Club should have included some recognition of Joe Morley’s death, and his contribution to the club’s well being. Nothing of any kind is reported.

It has never been explained, or investigated, why Joe Morley was first admitted to a hospital in Fulham, to the west of London, when his last place of residence was given as 22 Engadine Street, Wandsworth. a borough of South London, and miles from Fulham. Apart from 22, Engadine Street, we are only aware of one other permanent address for Joe Morley, the well known 11 Brunthwaite Road, Fulham.

As a promotional ploy, and to obtain a higher price for these publications, or even some thing more clandestine, Clifford Essex produced a series of banjo solos by Joe Morley with the composer’s ‘home’ address on the cover, showing Joe Morley as the publisher. Keeler’s articles confirm that at least one these solos by Morley, ‘Slip Along Polka’, the first on the list of seven, (Rag-time Jubilee, Fun in the Cotton Field, Grafton Parade, Coons Pic-nic, La Plus Belle Polka, The Spread Eagle March) was indeed composed while he was living in Brunthwaite Road. As Keeler points out:- "Morley played the piece during his time with the Clifford Essex Pierrots." As Morley was with the Royal Pierrots from 1896 to 1909, he would have resided at Burnthwaite Road somewhere during that period, as no firm date for ‘Slip Along Polka’ is known. Essex, however, was probably using Morley’s name to publish and sell material while still in partnership with Alfred Cammeyer, prior to their highly acrimonious split in 1900.

As the present residents of 11 Burnthwaite Road are Adamo Morgese and his partner Anne Ager it came as quite a surprise to both of these charming people that their house was the former home of the great Joe Morley.

Attempted contact with the present resident of 22 Engadine Street has proved fruitless.

Following Morley’s death in Lambeth Hospital (4 on map), in South London, he was buried on Monday, September 20"’ in Streatham Park Cemetery (now South London Crematorium . 3 on map) Streatham is relatively close to Wandsworth and Engadine Street. The internment was ‘private’, as opposed to previously published inaccurate facts that Morley lay in a pauper’s grave.

The funeral was paid for by Morley's nephew, James Edward Morley, who gave his place of residence as the ‘Lion Hotel, High Street, Ramsey, Huntingdonshire. Only days before the same nephew’s details were entered on Joe Morley’s death certificate as James ‘H’ Morley, nephew, of 15 Ardbeg Road, Herne Hill, London SE24!

From cemetery records, it is apparent that no formal headstone was provided for Morley grave. A small vase was placed on the grave by an un-named woman in 1948, but this and similar small items were cleared away during extensive re-lawning during the late 1970s. Further researches have established that Morley’s birth date of December 3rd 1867 given in William Brewer’s excellent article on Joe Morley in B.M.G. of December 1955 might not be correct.

It is definitely known that Joe Morley was born in Kinver, Staffordshire as the result his father, a married man, having an affair with a Miss Maxwell. An entry in the 1881 British Census lists a Joe Morley, aged twelve, as born in Staffordshire, the son George Morley, a ‘salesman’. This would give 1869 as the year of Joe Morley’s birth (Clifford Essex claimed that Morley was 76!)

George’s wife, Lucy, is listed as a dressmaker plus children. Deliah 7, James 5, Louise3,  and Sophia 1. James was therefore Joe Morley’s half-brother who was obviously the father of Joe’s nephew, also James, the official ‘informant’ on Morley’s death certificate and the person who paid for his famous uncle’s funeral.

Further researches are planned to accurately confirm Joe Morley’s date of birth. It is known that he was registered at birth and a certificate issued - Morley to showed it to Dick Pepper, son of Will C.Pepper of ’White Coons’ fame, during 1936.

The circumstances of Joe Morley’s final demise are a sad indictment against his contemporaries in the fretted instrument firmament, more so followers of the banjo. It would have been a simple matter for those commercial interests who had gained financially from Morley’s work not only to see that he benefited from the best medical attention, but to ensure that his funeral was commensurate with his unique status. Their penny-pinching attitude when it really mattered speaks volumes for their real appreciation of Morley’s plight.

It is further puzzling that the Pepper family did not assist Morley at the last. We do know that Morley had stayed on occasion at Dick Pepper’s riverside home in Twickenham, to the west of London. Pepper had a high regard for Joe Morley, having engaged him for his Kentucky Minstrels radio series in January 1933, so it is odd that there was no apparent financial input from his direction. It is maybe the case that Pepper felt that he had done enough.

Admittedly, Clifford Essex established a Testimonial Fund for Joe Morley in the spring of 1930 that two years later had accumulated a paltry £I93.9s.4d in donations. It must have been thoroughly demeaning for Morley when referred to by Essex in his various articles as ‘Poor Old Joe’, and statements like "We cannot let a man like Joe Morley starve or go to the Workhouse" only served to heap further discomfiture upon him in his time of need. For someone of the stature of Joe Morley who had been the guiding light in English banjo music and tradition to be offered virtual crumbs from the table was an absolute disgrace.

Essex re-started the fund, but again it failed to produce anything worthwhile, as later reported:- "it was a great disappointment to me that out of 1000 collecting cards we sent out, only 200 came back!"

It could be argued that Morley’s plight was of his own making. His published compositions were sold mainly in the UK via John Alvey Turner and the Clifford Essex Co. (in various guises), to the banjo fraternity. Bearing in mind that Morley received a trifling ‘half guinea’ (55p) for his compositions, it is no wonder that his income from published solos was poor.

The sale of Morley’s copyright to the publisher was also included in his small fee, so he failed to capitalise on however many copies were produced or any re-prints.

With changes in musical tastes following WWI, Morley’s work, and similar material from his contemporaries, was in gradual diminishing demand, as Essex confirmed -"we have many of his compositions in MS that remain unpublished". Turners had published the ‘Joe Morley Banjo Tutor’ in 1929, but by then the finger-played instrument was fully in decline, and this fine work was a poor seller by comparison with more modern publications.

With the demise of the minstrel and pierrot, Morley’s public appearances were mainly confined to the more introverted, specialist fretted instrument concerts and recitals staged by his publishers or B.M.G. clubs. The fact that Morley seldom missed a meeting of the. London Banjo Club, of which he was President, and visited numerous others, such as those at Lewisham and Ealing did not seem to count very much when he really needed practical help. His playing invariably included unpublished material in the unavailing hope of stimulating publishing demand from players. Of course, he was always ‘Good old Joe’, his fans unaware that he invariably lacked the return bus-fare and faced a long walk home ‘to his digs’.

Past historians have cited Morley’s retiring nature, his lack of ‘pushiness’, for his failure to make regular appearances on the musical stage, his talents were confined to the occasional fretted instrument concert or ‘musical evening’. Morley obviously placed a good deal of trust in Clifford Essex, in particular, to obtain regular paid engagements, but clearly to no avail.

Joe Morley’s lack of exposure on commercial recordings further mitigated against his name and talents reaching a wider, general, audience. It is often repeated that Morley suffered from hot hands’, which apparently prevented him recording on a regular basis. The fact that he was one of the finest banjoists in the world with such an impediment does not seem plausible.

A simpler explanation is that Morley, as supremely talented as he was, did not have effective contacts nor the apparent ability to ‘sell’ himself. Neither obstacle would have been insurmountable had his close associates made the effort on his behalf, even for a fee. Or was it that Morley, let loose in a recording studio, may have diverted work from other banjoists? When one considers that a great deal of banjo material released on disc was not in Morley’s league, and of pretty poor content, his own recording career could have amounted to a great deal more than half a dozen commercial discs and a few home brewed cylinders.

That Morley was more patronised than fostered and promoted as a unique artiste is readily apparent in numerous published references, ‘Good Old Joe’ or ‘Poor Old Joe being recurring themes. Even the kindly Bernard Sheaff in his reminiscences of Joe Morley unwittingly confirmed this as he described how Morley was taken up on his offer to pay for "some small items", probably strings. Considering that Turners had sold thousands of Morley compositions for a paltry initial outlay, Morley should never have been troubled to pay for anything.

The conclusion must be drawn that like many talented artistes, Morley failed to appreciate his own ability and suffered accordingly, being trusting and thoroughly exploited, only to be abandoned when his music was deemed unfashionable.

During the inter-war period, the ‘banjo world’ in which he had taken centre stage, in reality, no longer existed, being devoid of the solo instrument, with the banjo in its pick-played form relegated to the rhythm section. Even then, the banjo was thoroughly misunderstood.

Publications such as B.M.G. eulogised over the finger-played banjo as if nothing had changed, effectively promoting a falsehood that sustained until its closure in 1976!

Morley’s worth was almost trivialised by those with the power to promote his talent and make his work available as sheet music, on the musical stage or on disc. This demeanour and talent were ideal for the formal concert platform before the ‘general public’, but this, again, was hardly ever appreciated.

With the Kentucky Banjo Team, 1933.

 

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