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Keeping a Sweet Irish Song Sweet

     When I first got my octave mandolin in Dublin, I toggled back and forth between my zeal to learn all the jigs and reels ever written and my equal zeal to learn how to accompany all those lovely Celtic ballads I heard in the pubs night after night. Being more of a guitarist than a mandolinist at the time, I approached my new instrumental love object as a sort of mutant guitar. By this I mean that my chordal shapes and ideas didn’t tend to be expanded versions of bluegrass and swing mandolin chords. Rather, I borrowed my guitar technique even so far as using my thumb to bar the G and D courses or mute the G course while fumbling for plausible fingerings for modal-sounding chord voicings.

     I don’t regret this introduction to Celtic mando. I don’t necessarily recommend it, of course, either. The larger members of the mando family benefit equally from mandolin and guitar sensibilities when it comes to finding the unique strengths of the instruments and making them do what neither little mandolins nor guitars have done. Whichever angle you come in on, there’s a huge tonal and harmonic pallette to explore.

     One of the strengths of which the Celtic octave mandolin can boast is its ability to provide gentle, insistent propulsion of a song in the form of continuous eighth notes played on one or two courses, often the more resonant lower courses, while tracking the sung melody and implying the chord changes with the subtlest of arpeggio hints. Andy Irvine’s work with Planxty is replete with good examples and well worth detailed exploration and close study.

     Andy was one of my strongest influences while I was first learning the Celtic ropes. One of the first Irish songs I learned, "I Know My Love," rolls along in a very Irvine-like manner, though I first learned it from the playing of a County Cork bouzouki player named Jimmy Crowley. It’s still one of my favorite songs and one my romantically-inclined wife insists I sing whenever she’s in the audience. I’ll show it to you here and try to explain how the subtleties of stress and dynamics pull all the pieces of the song together while revelling in its essential Irishness.

     I mentioned the way Celtic mando can propel a song. A steady down-up-down-up picking pattern is necessary, with even emphasis on downs and ups and no strong pulse points either on the down beats or back beats. To set up a song like "I Know My Love" in the key of D, I’ll often set the tempo with eighth notes in groups of four, picked down-up-down-up, two open D’s and two open A’s, over and over again until I’m ready to launch into the melody. Try it and try to keep the dynamics absolutely flat. It’s so simple it might fox you at first, but it’s a good little meditation to get you into the tune.

     "I Know My Love" is mostly in 12, which translates into a slow three with the eighth notes burbling along quietly. There are a few crooked bars in the sections connecting the verses. You’ll want to emphasize the 1 beats through the connecting passages more strongly than anywhere else in the arrangement. This gives the crooked connectors a dynamic lift and a momentary bit of contrast.

     When you start picking out "I Know My Love" simply play through the melody as sung before worrying about any accompaniment or rhythmic fills. It’s a simple, catchy melody, with the chorus being really a continuation of each verse. Once you’ve got the melody under your fingers, play it through again while filling in all the eighth notes. In other words, quarter notes will be a pair of down-up picks, a half note will be two pairs. There will be no spaces at all. And you’ll notice that every note in the melody will be started on a down stroke.

     As you play this version of the song through a few times, emphasize the melody notes while trying to keep all the filler eighths even and consistent. It’s this feel that you’ll want to maintain when adding all the double-stops and arpeggios in the final notation provided here.

     If you’re working out this arrangement on a small mandolin, you have several fingering options for the A-modal chord (first appearing at the 5th eighth note in the third bar of the verse) with the G and D courses stopped on the 2nd fret. Personally, I’d just barre with my index finger. On my larger mando, I stop the D course with my index finger and the G course with my thumb. I also shift up to catch several of the hard-to-reach notes including the C# in the 3rd and 5th bars of the verse and the unison A on the D course in the 6th bar. For the C# I use my ring finger, since that’s what I’m using to finger the B immediately preceding it. Similarly, I use my second finger to slide up to unison A because that’s the finger I use to play the F# immediately preceding it. I have to shift, since my scale length is too far to reach with my pinky. But even if you have big enough hands to reach the unison A, for instance, slide up into it anyway, since that helps with the feel of the arrangement.

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