Sitting and plunking on my octave mandolin recently on a gray Sunday afternoon, I found myself playing a song I hadnt played in years, its sweet Irish melancholy just welling up perfectly to capture the mood of the day. "The Rambler From Clare" is a song I first learned in my early days in Dublin, when everything was new and exciting and I just couldnt learn songs fast enough. I heard Kieran Halpin sing it, accompanying himself on guitar at the now-legendary Slatterys Bar, and instantly fell in love with it.
Now, Im a great believer in using the mando for more than just picking tunes or chording along in sessions. Mandolins, octave mandolins, mandolas, and all the Celtic variants from bouzoukis to citterns to blarges, are also ideal for accompanying songs. The chord voicings and inversions are very different from those you get with a guitar, however you choose to tune it. And whether you chord with 3 or 4 courses or arpeggiate, you find lovely open string suspensions with mandos that somehow fit Irish songs perfectly.
This being said, Celtic mandos are entirely underutilised for song settings, in my humble opinion. There are, of course, a few double-course giants in the field of Celtic song. If youre looking for both repertoire and inspiration, you cant beat "Rock & More Roses" by Pat Kilbride, or nearly anything by Brian McNeill. But theres always room for more and Im still waiting for the mando-Hendrix of the next generation to make him- or herself known.
I recently included a guitar transcription of "The Rambler From Clare" in my book, "Irish Songs For Guitar," published by Hal Leonard. But as nice as it sounds with simple guitar accompaniment, I find the song comes to life in a different way when played on mando. Theres a rolling quality to the rhythm that draws the story out with exceptional ease, clarity, and emotion. When you work out the transcription here, be sure to keep your tempo nice and easy. After all, youre telling a story of a young mans resistance to authority and the power of Irish family ties in times of trouble.
For those scholars among you who like to research song lyrics, youll find a definitive version of this song in Colm O Lochlainns 1965 collection, "More Irish Street Ballads." In the published version, there are several more verses than are commonly sung in the pubs today. I keep the story short, entirely omitting the love interest, Sally Magee, and concentrating on the more cinematic plot points of boy-gets-arrested, boy-gets-sprung-from-jail, and boy-escapes-to-Australia.
As for the techniques I use to play this song, I try to keep things very simple, indeed. I often use my thumb to cover both G and D courses when brushing the full A-modal chord, but not all the time. Ive indicated in the notation which places I bar both courses, and which places I only bar the G course, stopping the D course with my index finger.
The only really odd fingering is the B-modal chord in the phrases between the verses. I bar the bottom two courses on the 4th fret with my thumb and the top two courses on the 2nd fret with my index finger. This may be cruel and unusual for those of you with very long scale lengths, though regular mandolins might present easier ways to hit the notes. My fingerings are 25-year-old artifacts dating back to my first flailings on my octave mandolin, borrowing chops as necessary from guitar and with little or no conscious acknowledgement of mandolin fingerings. So good luck finding a comfy way to play it. And when in doubt, leave strings open and brush those suspensions with deliberate gusto.
My arrangement of this song is simple. I toggle between two instrumental passages linking the verses, without adding extra bars or vamps or anything. You can play either or both and mix and match as you like. To finish the song, I simply indulge in a slight ritard and end it on the last sung syllable. "The Rambler From Clare" could provide a welcome emotional shift in any pub session, or just a quiet respite from the frantic jigs and reels and a chance to get yourself another pint.