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The Odd Case of the Scottish Thumbprint

In my very first column for this magazine I explored the question “what makes a tune Celtic”.  My answer was no clearer or definitive than anyone else’s, I’m afraid.  Just saying that a tune comes originally from Ireland or Scotland isn’t really that helpful.  In fact, there are any number of parallel and very different musical traditions indigenous to the Celtic world that only reveal their shared “Celticness” through careful and repeated listening and playing.  This time around let’s explore some unique characteristics of Scottish tunes.

As you may recall, we players of double-course instruments are very recent interlopers in the Celtic continuum.  Mandolins and octave mandolins and bouzoukis have no more than a thirty-five-year history in the sessions.  For a generation we’ve been borrowing licks and ornaments and techniques from guitars and tenor banjos and fiddles, trying to fit in and sound authentically Celtic.  In their turns, of course, guitars and tenor banjos and fiddles did the same thing, trying to mimic the peculiar bips and squeaks and squawks of the uilleann pipes and the Highland pipes and flutes and finally the Gaelic singing that preceded them.

But as for what marks Scottish tunes as unique, we might as well start with a look at bagpipes.  The Highland (or “war”) pipes have a melodic range of only nine notes.  This is sort of amazing when you think about 300 years of complex bagpipe repertoire somehow playable all within an octave plus a whole step.  So when you spend some time listening to Scots reels and jigs and 6/8 marches (which masquerade cunningly as jigs) you start hearing tunes, usually in the key of A mixolydian, that sound very melodically compact.  Many, if not most, of these tunes were probably originally written for bagpipes, even if they’re being played on fiddles or accordions or mandolins.  And that would mark them pretty clearly as slam-dunk Scots Celtic tunes.  A fine example is “The High Reel”, a tune you can expect to hear once a night in pretty much any session anywhere as a medley-ending curtain-dropper.

There are some interesting melodic patterns that crop up repeatedly in bagpipe-friendly Scots tunes.  One that’s received much attention by academic musicologists over the years is “the Scottish Thumbprint”.  The Thumbprint is defined as a short phrase played through, then followed by the same phrase a whole-step lower.  The B part of “The High Reel”, for instance, includes a little tip of the hat to the Thumbprint [see example].  The phrase in the second bar that sits solidly in an A arpeggio is echoed in the fourth bar by an identical phrase that sits in a G arpeggio.  Then the tune snaps back to the A and rolls merrily along.  Voilà!  The Scottish Thumbprint.

Once you become conscious of this pattern you’ll begin noticing it everywhere in Scottish traditional music.  Of course, despite the rantings of cranky academics, the Thumbprint is not a guarantee that a tune is Scots, but it’s a fairly accurate stylistic marker.

The Scots violin tradition, which developed independently of the bagpipe tradition, abounds with Thumbprints, too.  The cool thing about the tunes written on and for violins (and equally friendly to the mandolin) is that they are not constrained with the 9-note limits of the bagpipe.  So we get rocking reels that sound 100% Scottish, but that can range all over our instruments with amusing abandon.

One clearly Thumbprinted Scots tune that leaps to mind is “Blair Athole”, which is collected in several good tune books and which I have in my dog-eared “Kerr’s Third Collection of Merry Melodies”.  [Side note to repertoire hounds: I found all four soft-cover Kerr’s books in Edinburgh over 20 years ago.  I hope they’re still in print.  Next to “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” and “Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems”, Kerr’s is my favorite source of repertoire.  Try to find them.]

But “Blair Athole” came to mind because it was one of Johnny Cunningham’s party pieces, and the first tune in his awesome “Fair Warning” medley that never failed to bring the house down [see my last column].  In “Blair Athole” we get a full-blown example of the Thumbprint, with the entire first two-bar phrase repeated immediately a whole-step down.  The chording behind this, as in most of the Thumbprinted Scots tunes is a 1 chord (A) followed by a flatted 7 chord (G), then back to the 1 (A).  There’s something satisfyingly rock-and-roll about this chord progression, which probably adds to its appeal.

I love playing this tune, both on mando and fiddle.  It’s unpretentious and un-fussy.  Yet it contains a mesmerizing propulsion that makes me want to play it many times through before moving on.  Johnny liked to move from “Blair Athole” into a tune with a very major 1-4-5 melodic shape, avoiding the flatted 7 entirely.  I agree that this is a cool way to change the mood and continue the excitement.  There are hundreds of tunes to choose from.  Happy hunting.

One last note on the different Scottish traditions.  It’s a little simplistic to refer to bagpipe tradition as a single thing.  The martial and dance music is very different from the raga-like pibroch tradition, in which pipes spin extraordinary and subtle variations on themes.  And there are those who insist that there are two distinct violin traditions indigenous to Scotland: the fiddle tunes common in sessions and set dancing, and the more formal violin strathspey tradition that first flowered in the 18th century with Neil and Nathaniel Gow and continued through J. Scott Skinner in the 1920s.  Strathspeys are uniquely Scots, highly synchopated tunes that we’ll deal with in a future column.

We also have a Scottish harp tradition that goes back many centuries, and the truly ancient unaccompanied vocal traditions of both the Highlands and the Hebrides.  Our generation has brought all these disparate traditions together in new ways, some for the first time.  All are still vigorously alive.  With all the clever cross-pollination going on now, it will be interesting to see how we define “Celtic” a couple generations down the line.



spring 05

Click thumbnail for printed tab notation for “The High Reel B-Part” and “The Blair Athole”



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