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Blowzabella at Folkiri 2018 in Le Mans
Blowzabella at Folkiri 2018 in Le Mans
Background information
OriginLondon, England
Years active1978–present
MembersAndy Cutting
Jo Freya
Paul James
Dave Shepherd
Barn Stradling
Jon Swayne
Past membersDave Armitage
Nigel Eaton
Chris Gunstone
Gregory Jolivet
Ian Luff
Bill O'Toole
Sam Palmer
Dave Roberts
Cliff Stapleton

Blowzabella are an English folk band.[1] Formed in London in 1978, the band currently consists of Andy Cutting, Jo Freya, Paul James, David Shepherd, Barn Stradling and Jon Swayne.[2] The line-up has changed multiple times over the years, with Jon Swayne being the only remaining original band member.[3]

The band are best known for using bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy and a range of acoustic instruments in their music, heavily influenced by English and European traditional folk music.[4]

Much of the bands work has become "standards" amongst modern British/European folk music, with many European folk bands often citing Blowzabella as their major influence.[5]

Current members[edit]


Blowzabella was formed in Whitechapel, London in 1978 by original members Bill O'Toole, Jon Swayne, Sam Palmer, Chris Gunstone, and Dave Armitage.[12] When the band first formed, Swayne, O'Toole, and Armitage were studying woodwind instrument making at the London College of Furniture, while Palmer had recently finished the course and had already began a career making hurdy-gurdies.[13] During this time period, Swayne, Armitage, and Palmer all lived in run down tenements at the Fieldgate Mansions.[14] Gunstone was living in Blackheath, and was heavily involved in Balkan music and dance.[15]

After Swayne finished college he returned to his hometown in Somerset, subsequently giving his flat at Fieldgate Mansions to fellow bandmate David Armitage, which served as Blowzabella's main HQ for the next five years.[16]

The band's name was taken from an English bagpipe jig "Blowzabella", popular in the late 17th century and early 18th century.[17] Bill O'Toole and Jon Swayne discovered the tune while researching for bagpipe repertoire in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.[18] Blowzabella was an English bagpipe tune and the name, with its combination of "blow" and "bella", summed up the band's sound. Bill O'Toole had created and revived the English bagpipe based from old artwork and carvings in medieval English churches. This group of predominantly instrument makers were students at the woodwind makers course at the London College of Furniture in Whitechapel where they also had Peter Lees (Hammer Dulicmer) as their interval act. Bill O'Toole also added stilt walking to the group's versatility and all except Hurdy-Gurdy could be seen playing above the crowds such as the Hood and Albion Fairs.[19] The band's unusual combination quickly got them established in southern England and East Anglia.[20] Although they played folk dance music, they were never a folk band for the first four years (1978–82), always aiming for the widest audience though they did play at the Nyon Folk Festival 1980 (Switzerland) and Trowbridge Village Pump Festival 1982. Their first bookings were playing for the London French folk dance group L'escargot.

In late 1979, Bill O'Toole returned to Australia and formed the band Sirocco. Chris had tried to get Blowzabella to record an album but Jon did not want to record. After three attempts over several months, Chris finally persuaded Jon. They recorded at LCF but were not happy with the tapes and there was no time left as Bill departed and went home to Australia. Dave Roberts (melodeon, percussion, caller) then joined Blowzabella (late 1979). The group became increasingly popular. Chris Gunstone had formed Goat Records and his first release "17 Macedonian Folk Dances" was No 8 in the Melody Maker Folk Album Charts. Chris formed another group, The Trio, with Paul James (bagpipes, woodwind) and Cliff Stapleton (hurdy-gurdy) and played for the grand opening of Covent Garden Market by Sir Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC (19.06.1980). They were filmed afterwards for an American documentary This is England for the Warner Channel, USA. Having further successes i.e. as support for the Albion Band: inauguration of Prince Philip as President of WWF, Dave Armitage suggested to Chris to invite his Trio to join Blowzabella as they were turning down lots of bookings due to not being available because all the group except Chris had full-time jobs. The Trio had become full-time musicians, regularly busking at Covent Garden Market and St Paul's Portico. Chris thought joining might make Blowzabella a full-time professional group as he had wanted from the beginning. So Chris invited his Trio to join Blowzabella in late January 1981. Also Chris had always sought to have two bagpipes to play harmonies as in the beginning with Bill O'Toole. Having an extra hurdy-Gurdy did the same with harmonies and Blowzabella had a wall of sound with this combination. James was also in another folk-rock band Dr Cosgill and Chris had a record label Goat Bag Records which released Dr Cosgill's single January 1981. Chris was interviewed by Robin Williams for Blowzabella on BBC Radio 4 PM Programme, which was a unique musical item on a heavy news programme. Chris had also formed a Macedonian folk dance group Izvoren in London and Paris and 4 of Blowzabella's versatile musicians were in the Izvoren band: Jon Swayne (Macedonian Bagpipe), Dave Roberts (Tambura), Dave Armitage (Tapan/Drum) and Chris Gunstone (Tambura). Blowzabella and Izvoren both performed at the St Chartier Hurdy-Gurdy and Bagpipe makers festival in France July 1981 televised by French channel TF1.

In 1981, Dave Armitage left the band. James devised a way for the band to finance their own record by foregoing four concert fees and paying the recording studio instead. The band recorded their first album Blowzabella in 1982 at Dave Pegg's Woodworm Studios (engineer Mark Powell) with Chris Gunstone, Paul James, Dave Roberts, Sam Palmer, Cliff Stapleton and Jon Swayne. This album co-produced by Gunstone and James (and Swayne on his tracks A2 and B3) reached No. 4 in the Melody Maker Folk Album Charts in August 1982 and was another breakthrough album for different bagpipes other than Irish which had dominated the UK folk Charts for a decade. Since Dr Cosgill folded up (late 1981), James was not content with an equal share in Blowzabella and increasingly tried to run things his way. Engendered by James and Stapleton disagreements on policy and to avoid a split saw Chris Gunstone, "the guiding spirit",[21] out of the group in September 1982. Chris then became manager of Robert Mandel's East European Folk group (EEF) [22] featuring Marta Sebestyen from Hungary. Though for the next 3 months he honored his radio appearances on BBC Radio World Service in promoting Blowzabella's first hit LP that set up several international festivals bookings for Blowzabella the following year. Though the bouzouki was the driving rhythm of Blowzabella's unique sound they never replaced it due to the traumatic events of the split. However the band still had enough force to attract new fans to concerts, workshops and by the sale of the instruments they made inspired many to play and set up their own groups contributing hugely to the revival of the folk scene .

James now became the band's sole manager (September 1982) organising their live performances and recordings. The band now concentrated more on folk venues for work selling their albums and continuing their contribution to the folk revival of the English Bagpipe and Hurdy-Gurdy. Dave Armitage (bass-curtal) rejoined Blowzabella (September 1982) for a brief period along Dave Shepherd (fiddle, five-string fiddle, viola d'amore).[23] Dave Shepherd had previously played in bands with Roberts and James. The band recorded the album In Colour in 1983 with Dave Armitage, Paul James, Sam Palmer, Dave Roberts, Dave Shepherd, Cliff Stapleton and Jon Swayne and guests Max Johnson, Dave Mitchell, John Spires (of the Dead Sea Surfers) and Clash and Generation X drummer Terry Chimes. Later that year, after a tour that included a trip to play at Vancouver and Winnipeg folk festivals, Samuel Palmer left (1983).

In 1984, the band recorded album Tam Lin with Frankie Armstrong and Brian Pearson, and the album Bobbityshooty with Armitage, James, Roberts, Shepherd, Stapleton and Swayne. In 1985, Armitage and Stapleton left and Nigel Eaton (hurdy-gurdy) and Ian Luff (bass guitar, cittern, mandola, darabuka) joined the band. Together they recorded the album The Blowzabella Wall of Sound in 1986 with Eaton, James, Luff, Roberts, Shepherd and Swayne. The earlier band had a stable line up, but the later band never seemed to be able to hold onto musicians; even so their music had inspired many and there was plenty who wanted to join and be on the next album.

In 1987, they recorded the live album Pingha Frenzy while on tour in Brazil for the British Council with Eaton, James, Luff, Roberts and Shepherd.[23] Jo Freya (vocals, saxophone, clarinet) joined Blowzabella before the recording of the album A Richer Dust in 1988 (credited as Jo Fraser on the album[23]) which also saw the return of founder member Jon Swayne to the line-up. Gunstone wrote to Plant Life Records (1988) suggesting a 10th Anniversary album but received no response. Andy Cutting (diatonic button accordion) joined in 1989 and appears on the album Vanilla recorded in 1990 with Cutting, Eaton, Freya, James, Luff and Swayne.[23] This line-up toured frequently in Britain and Europe and made many festival appearances. Nigel Eaton (Hurdy-Gurdy) also played on tour with Led Zeppelin 1994-96 (and on No Quarter album).

The pressure of constant touring led to the decision to take a break from December 1990.[23] In 1996, Dave Roberts died. The line-up of Luff, Cutting, Swayne, Eaton and Shepherd played a small number of performances from 1995 to 2001. In 2002, James proposed the band reform and organised performances to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Blowzabella in 2003. Cutting, Eaton, Freya, James, Luff, Shepherd and Swayne played several festivals and performed together at a special reunion 25 years concert in Bath in September 2003, with guest appearances by Dave Armitage, Bill O'Toole and Sam Palmer. Gunstone accepted James' 25th Reunion invitation, but with no further response regarding rehearsing, dates etc. from James he later withdrew. At the end of 2004, Eaton left the band and was replaced by Gregory Jolivet, from Bourges, France. In December 2005, Luff left and was replaced by Barnaby Stradling on bass guitar.

Since January 2006, the line-up has broadly remained the same. In July 2007, the band released the album Octomento, their first album of new material since 1990. This was followed in June 2010 by the live album, Dance and an album of new and traditional material Strange News in October 2013 and Two Score in 2018. Jolivet left the band in August 2020, due to the problems for musicians caused by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. The band continues[when?] to compose, record and perform live.


  • Blowzabella (1982) Plant Life Records PLR 038
  • Blowzabella In Colour (1983) Plant Life Records PLR 051
  • Bobbityshooty (1984) Plant Life Records PLR 064 (reissued 1998) Osmosys Records OSMO CD015
  • Tam Lin (Frankie Armstrong and Blowzabella) (1984) Plant Life Records PLR 063
  • The Blowzabella Wall of Sound (1986) Plant Life Records PLR 074 (reissued 1996) Osmosys Records OSMO CD005
  • The B to A of Blowzabella (1986) BZB01
  • Pingha Frenzy (live on tour in Brazil) (1987) Some Bizarre GHCD 1
  • A Richer Dust (1988) (reissued 1996) Plant Life Records PLCD 080 (reissued 1996) Osmosys Records OSMO CD010
  • Vanilla (1990) Special Delivery SPDCD 1028
  • Compilation (1982-1990) (1995) Osmosys Records OSMO CD001
  • Octomento (2007) Blowzabella 1
  • Dance (2010) Blowzabella 2
  • Strange News (2013) Blowzabella 3
  • Two Score (2018) Blowzabella 4

In 2009, "Fulmine" from Vanilla was included in Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten as track twenty one on the seventh CD.


  1. ^ "Blowzabella". Discogs. Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  2. ^ "Blowzabella". Discogs. Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  3. ^ "Blowzabella". Discogs. Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  4. ^ "Blowzabella - About". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  5. ^ "Blowzabella - About". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  6. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  7. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  8. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  9. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  10. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  11. ^ "Blowzabella". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  12. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  13. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  14. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  15. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  17. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  18. ^ "Blowzabella - Dronehenge". Retrieved 27 April 2022.
  19. ^ "Tune number 2". Retrieved 16 August 2021.
  20. ^ "Waveney Clarion 1973 – 1984: Summary of contents — Fairs Archive". Retrieved 16 August 2021.
  21. ^ Melody Maker, November 1982
  22. ^ Southern Rag, October–December 1982
  23. ^ a b c d e Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 151. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.


  • Encyclopedia Blowzabellica - The Blowzabella Tune & Dance Book (1987) Dragonfly Music
  • Encyclopedia Blowzabellica - The Blowzabella Tune & Dance Book (Second edition 2010. Published by Blowzabella) ISBN 0-9549013-1-2
  • Blowzabella. New Tunes for Dancing. (2004) Published by Blowzabella. ISBN 0-9549013-0-4

External links[edit]