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Further Adventures in the Victrola Tradition

I have mused before in this space on the marvelous ways that the Celtic tradition has managed to pass itself along over the last century or so to new generations that did not grow up in tiny Irish villages, learning tunes from their elders over pints of Guinness.  First there were the printed collections like “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” at the turn of the 20th century.  Then there were the early 78 rpm recordings, mostly done in the Eastern United States in the 1920s.  Then there was the Folk Scare of the ‘60s and the era of popular vinyl LPs by the likes of The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners.  And then there was the more recent Celtic resurgence and the new century, with YouTube videos and endless websites full of MP3s and musical notation.

Each of these links in the cultural historical chain enriched the tradition and often tossed in some unplanned side-effects.  For instance, the printed collections provided a wealth of repertoire, but were unable to convey nuances of style or regional specificity, so all over the world, people grew to love great traditional tunes that bore little resemblance to the the ways in which they were originally played in Ireland 100 years earlier.  And the early 78s were responsible for a phenomenon still prevalent in sessions, but that wasn’t originally part of the deal:  playing tunes only twice through in a set.

Your average Irish ceili dance can last ten or fifteen minutes.  But the early 78s could only hold three minutes of music per side. Hence the abbreviated sets that got archived in those early days.  Too bad about that.  I say ignore those 90-year-old time constraints and play tunes ten times through each, having more fun each time.

But constrained as they were, those early recordings by Michael Coleman and Paddy Cronin and the rest are matchless cultural treasures, both for the tunes and for the styles they were presented in.  And sometimes the tradition netted something extra.  I was reminded recently of one recording of a pair of tunes by the Kerry-born fiddler Paddy Cronin that has mutated into a new three-part tune by virtue of being recorded in that pairing.

My old pal Marla Fibish is a delightful mandolinist in the Irish scene around the San Francisco Bay Area.  Earlier this year she released a CD of mando-family duets with the legendary Jimmy Crowley (“The Morning Star”, available through www.marlafibish.com and as CD and download through CDBaby) that I haven’t been able to stop listening to.  Marla has impeccable taste in tunes and one of the reels on this CD is, improbably titled, “The Gneeveguilla”.  As no one seemed eager to explain the meaning of the title, I did some linguistic digging and think that there’s at least a fair chance that it’s a somewhat phonetic rendering of the Irish for “Act of Valor”.

This three-part tune was cribbed from penny-whistler Mary Bergin, who got it from Paddy Cronin’s rendition of the two two-part E-minor reels “The Pride of Rathmore” and “The Girls of Farranfore”.  They were medleyed normally on the 78, but at some point, somebody (I’ll credit Mary Bergin until someone provides better information) took the second half of the A-part of “The Girls of Farranfore” and made it into a third part stuck on the end of “The Pride of Rathmore”.  This bright idea brightens up the dark E-minor tune amazingly, by blossoming into a G chord at the top of the C-part in a way that just makes me smile.

The notation for these two tunes (occasionally calling them collectively “The Gneeveguilla”) can be found on many websites, always in the key of Em.  Marla and Jimmy recorded their version in Bm, which packs quite a wallop, but which I found a little much for this column, so I stuck with the original key.  Heck, try it both ways, if your chops allow.  And learn “The Girls of Farranfore” all the way through, just for fairness’s sake.  It’s sad to think that it might only survive as a 4-bar addendum to another tune.  It’s sweet in its own right.

There are no really tricky bits to this tune, and it rolls along nicely at an easy, unhurried tempo.  I generally play the triplet ornaments as a picked first note, hammered-on second note, and both pulled-off and picked third note, but the triplet-happy among you might try picking all three.  And yes, each of the three parts is only eight bars long.

And so we have a tune that never would have been born had it not been recorded first as something else.  There are plenty of examples of how the late 20th century Vinyl Tradition has altered tunes and songs and lodged them permanently in the zeitgeist in their altered forms.  This is a rare example of the Bakelite Tradition.  I hope to hear of more tunes and settings that owe their shapes or even their existence to having first been engraved into 78 rpm records.  It might make a nice album concept.

Click here for printed tab notation for “Gneeveguilla”



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