Eden Bailey - Winifred Atwell

Eden Bailey - Winifred Atwell

Winifred Atwell came to the UK from Trinidad in 1946 to study piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she became the first ever woman to receive the RAM's highest level of distinction for musicianship. By 1954 she had become the first ever Black recording artist to have a UK number 1 in the charts, and remains to this day the only female instrumentalist to have achieved this. In addition to recordings and concert performances, Atwell became a TV star, hosting her own show on BBC and ITV channels. Atwell was also the first Black musician in the UK to sell over a million records, which she did with three consecutive releases. Between 1952 and 1960 she had eleven top-ten hits, and in this time Lloyds bank insured her hands for £40,000 on the condition that she never did the washing up.

It should be the case that Winifred Atwell needs no introduction. With so many of her achievements utterly unprecedented, and many unsurpassed, one might expect her to be a household name. However, you’ve probably never heard of her, and indeed her name is scarcely recognised by those with an interest in any of the many planes upon which she had success. Why could this be?

I wanted to write this short article to introduce you not only to Atwell's remarkable work, but also to some of the issues involved in studying her.

Winifred Atwell was born in Tunapuna in Trinidad, around 1913. Her mother was a district nurse, and her father a pharmacist, and both being busy with work, she was often left to take care of herself from a young age. She’d occupy herself by playing the piano and the organ at the local parish church. From the age of six she played charity concerts, and before she came to Britain she was already quite well-known locally, having been invited to play duets with the Governor of Trinidad on one occasion. Despite this success, her parents still worried that it would not necessarily be possible for her to work as a musician, and whilst they supported her musical development, they also insisted that she trained as a pharmacist before pursuing a professional career as a pianist.

It was always Atwell’s intention to perform ‘classical’ music, and although her recording of Grieg’s piano concerto made the top ten in the pop charts in 1954, and her recording of Rachmaninoff’s ‘18th variation on a theme by Paganini’ stayed in the top ten for nine weeks, her best known work was performances of honky-tonk and ragtime repertoire. Her extensive performance of honky-tonk began as a means of funding her studies in classical repertoire and technique, performing mainly in bars and clubs. This is a remarkably similar trajectory to other Black women who reached fame at a similar time – perhaps the most notable example in the USA being Nina Simone, who held classical art music in the highest esteem, yet reached fame out of necessity to sing and perform jazz to fund her studies. As Atwell became increasingly well-known, she established a very specific set of carefully considered performance practices, including the way she presented herself, interacted with the audience, and perhaps most interestingly, using two different pianos, depending on the repertoire being performed.

Typically, having played classical repertoire on the concert grand of whichever music hall, theatre, or television studio she was performing in, Atwell would move across the stage to what she referred to as her ‘Other piano’. Apparently, this run-down piano was picked up for £2.50 at a market in Battersea, and travelled around the world with her for the rest of her career. Some critics believe that the origins of the piano were somewhat romanticised, designed to pander to the attentions of the press, and although visibly battered and audibly ‘out-of-tune’, this piano was in fact quite precisely prepared. When asked by an Australian fan club member in the 1970s, Atwell explained that ‘all strings on the piano lower than the C below Middle C were tuned to concert pitch. One string from each set of two and three above that was detuned and all the remaining strings were tuned to concert pitch.’ The notes were not randomly out of tune through age and dilapidation, but very specifically configured.

Here is another clip: this time we see and hear Atwell playing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on the same piano on the building site for the Sydney Opera House:

Both of these clips give quite a good idea of Atwell’s general style, and the second clip of her playing a patriotic song at a site of cultural nation-building leads onto a key aspect of her performance that perhaps relates to her success, and the acceptance of her ‘Otherness’.

Atwell overtly performed articulations of British nationality that signified a 'belonging' to, and identification, with a notion of the British public's 'self'. Among her most popular recordings were two of her own compositions – the Britannia Rag and Coronation Rag. Atwell herself acknowledged the somewhat random allocation of names to such rags, and these titles indicate that she explicitly took opportunities to express her affiliation with ideas of contemporary British nationhood and institutions. This was further expressed through the spaces in which she performed. In addition to performing at the first Royal Variety Show for Elizabeth I, Atwell was known to be invited to give private performances for members of the royal family.

In appearance Atwell also conformed to a very white upper class establishment-sanctioned notion of demure femininity. Having to contend both with racialised (racist) discourses about black people making music as well as with the perceived sexual potential of music, Atwell shifted attention away from these potentially damaging constructions by performing Western classical art music, and by carefully avoiding anything more sexual than her own ‘Flirtation Waltz’, helping conjure an image of a demure respectability to the British public.

One significant way in which Atwell could be seen to have made her ‘Otherness’ acceptable is through the use of her ‘Other’ piano for honky-tonk repertoire, in what could be seen as an act of self-colonisation. By restricting non-classical, or typically European, forms of music to an instrument that was actively identified as ‘Other’ to the norm, which was physically separated and confined to a specific object, this ‘Otherness’ was enclosed, separated, and clearly demarcated. It is perhaps this physical, visible, and audible containment of one manifestation of ‘Otherness’, that made Atwell as a whole feel approachable and acceptable to both latently and actively conservative white British audiences and male patrons.

In these various ways, Atwell’s ‘Otherness’ was acceptable (either through cloaking or celebration) during her lifetime; but for a woman whose achievements were far more than merely acceptable, her ‘Otherness’ has certainly played a part in how she has been received since the height of her fame.

In the first years following the arrival of the Windrush Generation, there were several television shows and radio programmes which explored and documented the lives and experiences of those trying to make London their home having come from British colonies in the West Indies. However, by the 1960s representations of people of colour in the British media all but disappeared, and in particular, histories and fictive explorations of the lives of Afro-Caribbeans in the UK were broadly absent from mainstream British media. In addition to lack of representation in popular media, and therefore awareness in broader public spheres, the histories and lives of those affected by the colonial rule of the British Empire have been somewhat systematically erased from formal education in the UK. Notably, the Empire features nowhere on the contemporary National Curriculum, and as recent events in Oxford have shown, many prestigious Higher Education institutions are not yet willing to confront their imperialist legacies to say the least.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of education has accompanied the rise of certain forms of racism in Britain. It is interesting to note that The Black and White Minstrel Show was first aired on the BBC in 1958, a year after Winifred Atwell’s show on the very same channel. The history of awareness and erasure of colonialism and its victims is something I hope to explore at greater length in my dissertation, but this should give some impression of the significance of media and formal education in effecting overall awareness of certain peoples’ histories. It would seem that in addition to the broad institutional lack of acknowledgement given to the history of the British Empire and colonialism, individuals whose stories cannot be told without reference to the Empire have also been written out of histories, and popular conscience.

It is increasingly being recognised that the dominance of patriarchal narratives, and white-washing of musical canons, and academia in general, have claimed many women and people of colour as their victims, systematically excluding figures who were both recognised as important during their lifetime, and also whose work has had long-lasting impacts. Atwell suffers from being doubly marginalised, across the lines of both her gender and race. Crucially, when two margins of exclusion intersect, the extent of marginalisation is typically multiplied. Winifred Atwell's erasure is due to her gender and race, but compounded by an overall blanket of silence surrounding the British Empire, and histories of colonialism.

This topic transcends the scope of this article, and there we have much to learn from Winifred. It is not only her incredible achievements that we should learn about and share with the world more widely, but the reasons for her erasure that we must expose.

If you are interested in learning more about Winifred Atwell, please tweet Eden at @Eden_VB and encourage her to post more on her blog.


Eden Bailey is currently Vice President of Access and Academic Affairs at the University of Oxford's Student Union, a position she was elected to immediately following the completion of her Masters degree in Music at Magdalen College. Prior to this she read for a Music BA at Magdalen, graduating with First Class honours in 2015. Eden's work ranges from campaigning for the de-colonisation of curricula to acting as Trustee for the Oxford-based Young Women's Music Project. She maintains a blog here.

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