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A Sweet Song for Spring

    Sitting and plunking on my octave mandolin recently on a gray Sunday afternoon, I found myself playing a song I hadn’t 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 couldn’t learn songs fast enough. I heard Kieran Halpin sing it, accompanying himself on guitar at the now-legendary Slattery’s Bar, and instantly fell in love with it.

     Now, I’m 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 you’re looking for both repertoire and inspiration, you can’t beat "Rock & More Roses" by Pat Kilbride, or nearly anything by Brian McNeill. But there’s always room for more and I’m 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. There’s 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, you’re telling a story of a young man’s 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, you’ll find a definitive version of this song in Colm O Lochlainn’s 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.

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