Some Personal Recollections
By Bernard Sheaff
BMG March - April 1950
CAMMEYER and I first met towards the end of World War I. He was living at the time in Langley, Bucks, a refugee from what were then thought to be air raids on London! My own home was only a mile or so away and, when we discovered this, to my great delight he asked me to come and visit him. I then met his wife for the first time - a charming lady of early middle age, the embodiment of kindliness and good humour. She always called her husband "Cam" and to hear her say "Alfred" on formal occasions always made me wonder for a moment who she meant.
Neither on that first occasion, nor on any of my subsequent visits to Cammeyer’s house over the years, did anyone talk "shop". It would have been interesting to know what Mrs. Cammeyer thought of it all - the zither-banjo, her husband’s distinguished connection with the instrument and my own rather anxious efforts in the first few years with the maestro at the famous Swallow Street studios.
She never told me but once said to my wife that she enjoyed listening to Cam’s playing most of all in duets with me. I have always hoped it was true.
Oddly enough, Cammeyer himself was not communicative on the subject of other players, including myself; for although we played duets together for years on a great number of occasions, he never told me (nor, as far as I am aware, anyone else) what he thought of my playing!
I only once recollect him touching on the subject. We were discussing publishing policy and the customers’ point of view and Cam observed, "You must remember they don’t play the instrument like you and I."
I have always had an uneasy feeling that it was mere politeness, although I glowed very comfortably at the time.
Of Joe Morley he always said, "Of course, Joe is an artist." but generally he avoided giving an opinion. His stock way of evading questions about other players was, "Well, I can't say. I’ve never really heard him properly."
A few months after my first visit to Langley found me working with Cammeyer as his "assistant" - his name for me - and I remained with him until he left the Swallow St. premises nearly fourteen years later. It was an experience I would not have missed for anything. Something interesting was always going on.
Cam’s large circle of friends and patrons included distinguished people from every walk of life and we often got what is now called "the inside dope" on front-page news topics direct from someone concerned - the well-known doctor, the famous lawyer, the C.I.D, super, the polar explorer, the Egyptologist, etc.
The sounds of the Jazz era and of radio were then the small sounds of the newly-born. Many readers of "B.M.G." will remember the small, rather shabby looking, Regency house which was number 6 Swallow Street - with the exclusive Fly-fishers’ Club opposite, Vine Street Police Station on the right hand, as it were, Piccadilly Hotel at the back and, on the left, St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, a dozen yards from the street door.
Cammeyer occupied the upper floors, his own room being the front one on the second-floor. A roll-top desk was in one corner and the "old man’s" favourite seat was the desk chair in which he was wont to sway backwards and forwards, American rocking-chair fashion, propelled by alternating one foot on floor and back of head on wall. A worn spot on the carpet and a large dark mark on the old-fashioned red wallpaper testified to this!
GENIAL STATE OF MIND
He did much of his playing and composing tilted back in that chair and his shuffling into the right position, to set it in motion, indicated a genial state of mind generally. This was, in fact, his prevailing mood for, although a strong personality and self opinionated about many things, he was almost never ill-tempered. The complete absence of silly pernickety rules in the running of his business made him easy to get on with.
When I joined Cammeyer he had already been in London about thirty years and this long experience with a high-class connection had taught him all there was to know about the art of receiving every type of patron in exactly the right manner; the prevailing tone of which was, of course, quiet uneffusive courtesy.
But he possessed an extremely powerful voice and if he became anxious or excited about anything it would leap into use on an instant without the least warning.
I was never quite sure whether he was aware how loudly he shouted and its startling effect on the more timid visitor. Soon after my advent, some electric bells were installed but prior to this, wishing to call his craftsman into consultation with a client the dignified atmosphere of the proceedings would be violently dispelled by Cam’s striding suddenly to the door and shouting "SIDNEY!" several times in an urgent stentorian bellow, sounding as if he were beset by gangsters and was calling to Vine Street Police Station for help! He could have been heard there quite easily.
Listening at the door for a few moments to satisfy himself that Sidney had been set in motion, he would return and quietly resume the discussion where it had been broken off.
One of the funniest incidents in this connection happened on a winter’s afternoon when two highly-respected patrons called to see the latest products. The quiet dignity of a high-class West End establishment prevailed. The great man was at his most affable and courteous best, knowing that the instrument cupboard held that which could not be equalled.
Giving his best personal attention, Cam was reaching into the cupboard when suddenly, "DON'T MOVE, ANYBODY! DON'T MOVE!!" burst from him in an anguished howl that made every window rattle in its frame.
He was clinging to the cupboard, one leg held high in the air. Seeing his face, my first fantastic thought was that a scorpion had somehow got inside and severely stung him.
When I made to move, he roared again, "STAND STILL! MY GLASSES!" I glanced at the astounded faces of our visitors - and quickly away again before it was too late.
Understanding dawned. The old pince-nez were in no danger from anyone’s feet. I picked them up from the table and waved them at him - and like a flash the terror and earthquake were no more.
His foot came to the floor and one could not believe the events of the previous nine or ten seconds had happened so rapidly did we return to an atmosphere rather like that which would have attended a conversation between Disraeli and Queen Victoria.
CAMMEYER’S habit of shouting unexpectedly never caused him loss of dignity, for he possessed real "presence" and could carry off small lapses from the conventional (which I think he sometimes enjoyed making) with complete ease.
Elaborate ritual and excessively formal politeness always irritated him and his reaction to "too much damn'd pomp and ceremonial" (as he called it) was sometimes startling and often caused me to go hot under the collar.
On the concert platform "Cam" was always an impressive figure but rather unpredictable if feeling nervous or suffering from one of his "anti-fussation" moods.
When playing duets with him I experienced many anxious moments, but if our audiences ever noticed anything, I believe they always concluded it was a prearranged part of the performance!
One of his best displays of the unexpected was at an annual concert given by the now disbanded Ladbroke Banjo Orchestra at the Kensington Town Hall; a gala occasion for which this well-known London hall was beautifully decorated with flowers.
Right across the front of the wide stage stood tall gold chrysanthemum plants in pots; the orchestra, about fifty strong, being ranged in tiers behind. A most imposing sight -but a little disconcerting to the solo artists who were to perform in the "alleyway" between the band and the floral hedge.
As soon as Cammeyer saw this from the artists’ room I feared the worst, for we always sat down to play and only our heads and shoulders would have been visible from the audience. Cam’s tactful protests on this score were unavailing.
SOMEBODY'S PET IDEA
However impractical, the flowers were somebody’s pet idea and no one would risk giving offence by interfering with the arrangements - often a real difficulty when an amateur executive is in charge "behind"!
When our turn came, Cammeyer strode on to the stage with a disarming smile but with a purposeful look in his eye. Without waiting for the applause to die, he put his instrument into my free hand and seized a flower pot.
Still smiling courteously and grunting a little with the exertion of bending, the "old man" shifted at least half a dozen plants (making a nice clear space for us) before anyone really grasped what was afoot!
The point of this incident is that Cammeyer was not trying to "get" the audience with some cheap buffoonery. His action was simply that of the artist determined, against all odds, to give us patrons the service they had paid for.
The audience seemed to realise this for, as with perfect aplomb he reassumed his role of the evening’s star performer - attending to his hands with a white silk handkerchief in the best concert platform manner - there was a storm of applause mingling with laughter which lasted quite a minute or two.
It was one of the most enjoyable moments I ever experienced on the platform.
Both as a player and composer for the zither-banjo, Cammeyer was in a class by himself and he did more than anyone to develop the musical resources of the instrument.
One important reason for his success and the considerable influence he wielded was the fact that he could demonstrate, by superb playing, the full beauty of his music.
His recitals in the principal London concert halls and his concert tours all over the country made many enthusiastic converts.
Admirers of Cammeyer’s creative gifts are often surprised he wrote so little for other instruments but some of his solos, originally written for the zither-banjo, were afterwards transcribed for the piano - the beautiful "Harvest Song" and a dainty intermezzo he called "Honey’s Holiday" being two I readily recall.
Several of his compositions were orchestrated, including "Merrie Company" and the famous third "Miniature", the themes of which were extended into a waltz-intermezzo and renamed "Underneath the Stars".
The compositions direct for other media were mostly songs and during George Edward’s reign at the London "Gaiety" Cammeyer had an "interpolated" song in nearly every one of the famous successes there.
Cammeyer once told me that his best (commercially) song was "There’s No-one in the World Like You", third of the best sellers in the show. It brought him hundreds of pounds in royalties.
Some years later he wrote the official march of the Boy Scouts organisation, his being the winning entry in an open competition. However, his interest in this side of composition seems to have been spasmodic.
There is no doubt that his best work is his music for the zither-banjo. Many of his compositions are highly original in style, being the direct outcome of extemporisation on the fingerboard. At this he was exceedingly fluent and an exceptional memory enabled him to work out and complete a whole composition without writing a single note!
FREE LYRICAL STYLE
Cammeyer wrote nothing in strict classical form and it is self evident that the free lyrical style he adopted and developed suits the zither-banjo admirably.
He wrote solos depicting many different moods - from grave to gay. One or two show a surprising depth of feeling, particularly his "Meditation" published nearly fifty years ago. His popular successes all players know and they need no mention except that I would say I consider "To the Front", "Chinese Patrol" and "Bolero" the best in this class. The last-named is a difficult solo for the average player.
Some of Cammeyer’s best and most original pieces are not only rather difficult to play - like the "Two Cornish Dances" and "Valse Parisienne" - but also call for special understanding and interpretation. I am afraid many regard the extra work involved as being not worth the trouble.
In this group I regard the "Cornish Dances" already mentioned as the composer’s highest achievement - and I think Cammeyer did too. We both played them often - but not publicly, as far as I can remember.
Of the "Dances" Cammeyer said more than once, "I know I’ve gone ‘way above their heads this time but, anyway, they don’t tread on anybody’s toes." - the second part of his remark meaning that this work owed nothing to any other composer.
Unfortunately much of this fine zither-banjo literature is no longer in print but I sincerely hope something will be done to remedy this most regrettable state of affairs in the near future.