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Chromatic Flights of Fancy

            I recently taught at a music camp out in the California redwoods.  While I was the designated Celtic instrumentalist, the balance of teaching and woodshedding covered various American styles, from bluegrass to oldtime to blues.  Most of my students were new to Celtic session tunes, though they attacked the new material with fierce enthusiasm.  Inevitably, we got to talking about the connections between Scottish and Irish traditions and the various folk traditions of eastern and southeastern America.  Somehow, understanding the underlying family connections helped make learning the new styles a bit less daunting.

            Several times I found myself playing a tune I knew as an Irish tune, only to have a well-grounded oldtime player say, “Hey, that’s a Virginia tune!”  Yep, it’s true.  “Blackberry Blossom,” for example, is common from Scotland to California and no one is quite sure where it was originally written.  The American tune “Red-Haired Boy” is known in Ireland as “Little Beggar Man” with only ornamental differences.  The list goes on and on, including tunes like “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and “The Mason’s Apron”.  But talking to my new friends about how Irish and Scottish tunes morphed into American tunes and acquired American nuances, I recalled a great example of how American traditional style has worked backward, infecting trad musicians in Ireland and having a lasting effect on Irish tradition.

            In my early years of hanging out in the pubs of Dublin and soaking up as much music as humanly possible, I ran into a young fret and fiddle player named Gerry O’Connor.  Still in his teens, he was considered a marvel in the sessions and open mikes.  His playing was so inventive that sometimes accompanists would have no idea what to do behind him.

            One night at the now-legendary club The Meeting Place, O’Connor got up to do a guest spot on tenor banjo with members of a hot local band.  He looked painfully shy and just started playing, slowly feeling his way into a tune and ramping up as he decided to commit to it.  The tune was “Miss McLeod’s Reel”, originally a Scots tune called “Mrs. McLeod of Raasay”.  The guitarist sitting next to O’Connor launched into an accompanying riff as he recognized the tune, but before O’Connor had finished the first time through, a look of panic was growing on his face. 

            O’Connor had abandoned the safe confines of the modal world most Irish trad players inhabit and was spinning variations both chromatically and in a distinctly bluegrassy way.  My eyes were boring holes in his right hand, as I found it hard to believe what I was hearing — a four-string tenor banjo sounding like the hottest five-string Scruggs-style bluegrass I’d ever heard.  It didn’t seem possible, but there it was.  And what made it even more remarkable was how the variations kept coming, all different, each building logically from the last, and all seemingly floating out of the banjo with effortless grace.

            I can’t remember exactly when the guitarist threw his hands up in despair and walked off the stage, but O’Connor just kept playing, going from one tune to another for a good fifteen minutes before retiring to thunderous applause.

            A few issues ago, I dedicated this column to talking about theme and variation, using Paddy Keenan’s setting of “Cahir’s Kitchen” as an example.  In varying that tune, Keenan stayed within the mode.  That is, he used only the seven notes that make up the G minor scale, relying on reordering runs and arpeggios to keep things interesting.

            O’Connor went nuts by comparison.  I’ve transcribed a pretty standard version of “Miss McLeod’s” here, followed by one of O’Connor’s variations, captured on tape that night at the Meeting Place.  Those of you conversant with bluegrass will find this setting very familiar, indeed.  But imagine what it did to the musicians in Dublin.  While O’Connor played at a rarified skill level, he opened up the local imagination to experimenting outside the scale boxes they’d been stuck in.  And over the years, more American oldtime and bluegrass hints have found their way into the sessions over there, reflected in fiddle and mandolin styles as well as banjo.

            When you feel your way through this transcription, notice how far some of the phrases pull away from the essential shape of the tune, while somehow snapping back in time without going entirely off the rails.  I love the fearless abandon of this setting, even if I can’t play it and sound like Gerry O’Connor.

            The triplets can be tricky.  O’Connor can hit triplets with either an up or a down stroke and follow them with either an up or a down stroke.  My advice would be to start slow and see how much speed you can manage before having to sacrifice triplets or finesse them with hammer-ons and pull-offs.  However you manage is fine and entirely fair.  Remember the Dublin guitarist who fled the stage in the face of this tune.  Any attempt at conquering this tune setting is an honorable act.

            It occurs to me that there’s another cultural level of interest going on with this setting.  We have strong elements of Scottish, Irish, and American styles weaving together here with equal vigor.  While Irish tunes are played all over Scotland, it’s less common to find Scots tunes played in the sessions in Ireland.  So Gerry O’Connor has given us a rare trans-Atlantic 32-bar Celtic family reunion wrapped up in “Miss McLeod’s Reel.”  Works for me.

            Gerry O’Connor has been very active in the Irish music scene over the years and can be found on any number of CDs.  My personal favorite is his 1991 solo release “Time to Time” (Mulligan LUN CD 051), on which he plays banjo, guitar, and fiddle.  It’s worth hunting down.


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