Tuning In

By Ian Worpole, Contributor
April / May 2006

Tunes. Lots of them this month, not to be confused with songs, of course – those have words. Some songs start out as tunes and if it’s a really good one someone might add words, sometimes to great profit (think “Unchained Melody” or “Danny Boy,” which started out as “A Londonderry Air” until one Fred Weatherly, an English barrister, added the words). But tunes it is, and first up is a CD entitled Tunes.

Featuring Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, Michael McGoldrick and Jim Murray, Tunes is a collection of traditional and contemporary Irish tunes that at first glance at the retro typeface and first listening sounded a little dated to my ear but after a few plays became ever fresher.

Sharon Shannon is a household name in Ireland; primarily an accordion player, but also a virtuoso fiddler, she moves effortlessly from the traditional style found here to the contemporary format of recruiting the well-known singers found on her solo work – much more about that later. Frankie Gavin, long-time member of DeDannan, is one of the great fiddle/flutists of our day, as too is flutist McGoldrick. Jim Murray adds fine guitar work, including the ever more popular bass, and the subtleties and nuances improve with each listening. Great for dancing around the house or beating time on the steering wheel.

So, what in fact are these tunes, spoken of and played with such reverence? A recent estimate claims that there are over 7,000 known Irish tunes (and if you’ve ever visited any of the discussion groups online, you’ll know that there are people out there prepared to come up with those kind of arcane figures and back them up with the details). We’re talking about reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, waltzes and much more.

Many date back to the 17th century and represent a venerable tradition of oral and written music passed down from itinerant pipers and harpists. The most famous of wandering musicians was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind harper who lived from 1670-1738 and whose compositions, or planxties, are still played and recorded widely today.

Reels were introduced from Scotland sometime in the 18th century (“The Campbells Are Coming” becoming “Miss McCleods,” for example) and jigs have been written for dances since the 17th century. Hornpipes are an English import, again in the 18th century. It was all about the dancing then, and often it still is, along with the jigs and reels, polkas, mazurkas and waltzes still popular in large parts of Ireland and America to this day. But the more typical live outlet for the tunes themselves today is at the Session, or Seisúin.

The session as we know it came about quite recently, in the Irish pubs of London and in the bars of North America in the early 1950’s. A group of musicians who share a love of the tunes will gather regularly in any given pub and play and swap tunes, drink and share the craic (pronounced crack: banter, jokes, stories, anything but drugs, my Mum was relieved to hear).

Players usually sit in a circle, often to the frustration of the casual listener, but it is quite simply so they can hear each other over the pub noise, which is ironically another essential component – sessions can be pretty lifeless affairs in an empty public space, not to be confused with the pleasures of a living room or kitchen session. A session can be run with an iron fist by a venerable and virtuoso player who will countenance no beginners or more than one rhythm instrument, but typically it’s a more casual affair with all being welcome, which allows for plenty of eye-rolling between the regulars.

There are any number of jokes detailing one musician’s disdain for another’s instrument, and even their own. My favorite being the piano-accordion player’s tear of someone stealing his instrument locked in the car; when he returned there were four of them. There is a pecking order of instruments: fiddle, accordion, flute, whistle and all the melody instruments preferred over the rhythm section – guitar, bodhran, bouzouki.

I myself, after years of folk and blues guitar, began my love affair with the tunes on guitar, but after being glared at by the “real” players, took up an Octave mandolin and spent hundreds of happy hours learning the tunes. A good player can call on 500 or more tunes from memory or prompting, and we are not talking sheet music here – it remains to me a sheer phenomenon regarding brain cells.

And how to identify what is to be played’.’ Opus 6.999 – boring! How about “The Hag with the Money” or “Rolling in the Ryegrass”? Titles are as creative as the tunes, and are a part of the fun. but there is almost never any descriptive element involved: There is no metaphysical content to “The Rambling Pitchfork” or “The Floating Crowbar.” for example. Many tunes are known by multiple names, some named after the composer, if known – there are any number of Martin Wynnes. On the other hand, it’s also known that fiddler Tommy Peoples will compose a tune and slip it into the repertoire anonymously so that it immediately becomes part of the vast reservoir of tradition.

Applause is. and should be. perfunctory, unless for the occasional well-sung song by request, not to be confused with the unrequested badly sung song, usually “Danny Boy.” which perversely is, of course, also the most requested song. Sometimes I swear I will devote an entire column to the world-view of “Danny Boy.” I’ll discuss how there isn’t a single Irish reference in the whole song, glens being Scottish, and how. when sung well, it can bring a tear to the eye and when sung badly deserves a half-brick to the head.

But I digress. Sharon Shannon also has a newly released double CD on the Compass label. The Sharon Shannon collection 1990 -2005. Disc One offers a selection from her early career, one that included a stint with The Waterboys. An all instrumental CD, it includes tunes from her self-titled debut album, which became the most successful Irish traditional music album ever released. Disc Two is a selection of singers Shannon has invited to record with her at different times, most famously for the Diamond Mountain Sessions of 2000, a triple-platinum CD in Ireland, followed by Lihenango. The likes of Steve Earle, Jackson Browne. John Prine. Kirsty McCoIl and Sinéad O’Connor perform classic songs, with Shannon providing her distinctive accordion sound as backup. There’s even an extremely mellow rap song. “What You Make It (da da da da)” featuring Marvel and Lady K that became the summer hit of 2004 in Ireland. If you don’t have the earlier CDs. this double set is essential, great listening, above all. sheer fun.

Another of the quartet on the Tunes CD, Michael McGoldrick also has a new CD, Wired, a follow-up to his 2000 album Fused. Filled with percussion, tape loops and his distinctive flute, whistle and pipe sounds, this is a spacious, sonic sound, exhilarating and melodic. His original material, mostly co-written with keyboard player Donald Shaw, ranges from the traditional form reminiscent of his days with Lunasa, to a jazzy Ian Anderson sound, with some Indian chanting along the way. The traditional tunes themselves have been arranged to surprise one constantly: it’s always a dilemma to present the material in a new way without losing sight of its origins. Michael and his collaborators have created a unique CD from start to finish.

Rounding out the tune issue is Flook. a half-Irish. half-English quartet, which has been together now for ten years I guess. To paraphrase Mick Moloney. as long as the English hall don’t start putting on uniforms they’ll continue to get along just fine. Flook’s new CD Haven has in fact a similar sound to McGoldrick. which is hardly surprising, as he was an original member of the band, which at that time consisted of three flutists. The addition of strings and percussion added a whole new texture and sound to the remaining two flutists. Sarah Alien and Brian Finnegan. and created their current sound. The English touch is evident in much of the percussion and guitar playing, which offers a distinctly medieval air: indeed. English guitarist Ed Boyd lists John Rcnbourn as an inspiration, and the CD as a whole is calmer and more reflective than their previous release Rubai. Standout tracks include the beautiful “Souter Creek” and “On One Beautiful Day,” but the whole album is a treat from start to finish. with John Joe Kelly rounding out the band with his All-Ireland championship bodhran and mandolin playing.

So there you have it. a grand set of instrumental CDs, plus Shannon’s vocal pals. And with reference to flutist or flautist. I defer to Patricia Harty’s recent IA quote from James Galway: “There is no such thing as a flaute.” ♦

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