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Bernard Overton 1930 - 2008
he news of the sudden
death of Bernard Overton
during the early hours of
June 14th 2008 has come as
a shock to many musicians,
players and lovers of the
whistle. Bernard was the father
of the low whistle, a unique
instrument that has had a terrific
impact upon traditional music
and related musical genres.
Bernard Overton,
Bernard Overton was born in
with Joannie Madden
Northamptonshire in 1930 and
and Phil Brown at the
Big Whistle festival
developed his engineering
skills during his early training Finbar was so impressed by this sounds of the low whistle so
in aeronautical engineering that he asked Bernard to make prominently. The Overton became
and in the Royal Electrical and him another in ‘D’. At around sixty almost fundamental to the sound
Mechanical Engineers. Later his centimetres in length this was of musical phenomena of this
employment in the then hotbed of much bigger than anyone might type.
the English motor manufacturing anticipate a whistle to be. Birth
industry (including Massey had been given to the Overton There are many Overton
Ferguson and Jaguar) further dynasty and more specifically the aficionados, who will now be
honed his skills as a design low whistle as we know it today. mourning Bernard’s passing.
engineer. Inevitably a short list cannot be
Such was Finbar’s popularity that exhaustive, but certainly Cormac
During the late 60’s and early when he featured the low whistle Breatnach, Troy Donockley,
70’s many skilled engineers in he was always asked where Brian Finnegan, Finbar Furey,
the UK lost their jobs through the he had obtained this unusual James McNally, Davy Spillane
demise of manufacturing industry. instrument and orders began and John McSherry should be
Drawing strength from this to flow in for Bernard’s special mentioned. Alongside these
setback, Bernard employed the design. Within a short space of virtuosos, Bernard leaves behind
precious skills he had gained to time he was working full time to many legions of whistle devotees
produce what was to be a revered cope with the demand for his across Britain, Ireland and far
and classic instrument. The word whistles. beyond. Their playing is the truest
‘legendary’ is used too often testament to a legacy which will
these days without due regard to From two initial designs the endure for a great many years to
its actual meaning. Bernard was Overton broadened in its range come.
unquestionably a legend and the across the decades to the
legacy of his classic instrument, manufacture of over twenty There is an honesty and sincerity
which included the pioneering different types. These included that runs through the full length
block (mouthpiece) design, made Sopranos, Mezzo Sopranos, of an Overton whistle – as
the ‘Overton’ the ultimate whistle Altos, Tenors, Baritones and Bass wholesome as that of the great
with a truly unique sound and Baritones. Probably the most man himself. His personal
unassailable playing features. popular model was the Tenor ‘D’ skills were most endearing: he
(Low D). Imitation is the greatest was loyal, dependable, and
Bernard designed his trademark form of flattery, and as the years honest, with an attractively dry
instrument almost by chance have passed some have tried sense of humour. Despite his
during the heady days of the to copy the Overton, causing achievements and his legacy,
folk revival. Eddie & Finbar Bernard anxiety in the process. Bernard remained, to those who
Furey were one of the biggest The brand nevertheless continued had the good fortune to know
draws in the U.K. folk scene, and to develop and the Overton him, a most modest, unaffected
a highlight of their remarkable act sustained desirability. and practical man, and a true and
was Finbar’s composition ‘The sincere friend.
Lonesome Boatman’, originally Little was Bernard to know what
played by Finbar on an Indian he was starting all those years It is gratifying to know that the
Bamboo Ab flute. Eventually ago. During his early years of Overton brand will continue to
after years of wear and tear, design and construction, he live on in the playing of whistle
Finbar became worried at the witnessed an initial surge of devotees everywhere, and will
rapid demise of this ethnic alto interest in the instrument thanks prosper and develop in the
instrument, which was roughly to Finbar Furey. Momentum capable and talented hands of
forty-one centimetres in length. continued steadily through Colin Goldie, Bernard’s design
The only substance to the flute the decades, culminating in partner and colleague.
at the end of its busy days was an explosion of ‘whistlemania’
the tape and chewing gum that towards the late 1990’s, when the Our thoughts are with Margaret,
held it together. Legend has it instrument passed from the folk Bernard’s wife and David and
that its final demise occurred one scene into wider popular culture, Dawn, Bernard’s son and
night when someone sat on it at with the tremendous success of daughter.
a party. Request and necessity both Riverdance and music from
gave Bernard the opportunity to hit movies such as Ned Devine by Phil Brown
make a prototype whistle in ‘G’. which featured the haunting Big Whistle Music
The Living Tradition - Page 12
Issue80.indd 12 14/7/08 14:48:12
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