Steal From the Best
Over the last 30 years, during which I’ve often labored to absorb as much Celtic music as humanly possible, I have looked to a long string of musical heroes for guidance and inspiration. I’ve turned the spotlight on several of them in this column, singing the praises of Alec Finn and Johnny Moynihan and Jim Sutherland and Johnny Cunningham and Gerry O’Connor just for starters. Mostly I wanted to play as well as they did, with that flash and polish they made look and sound so easy but which defied years of practice. Still, there was one Celtic mando hero whom I wanted more than to sound like. I wanted to be him. Yes, I admit it: I wanted to be Andy Irvine.
Andy Irvine had it all. He played his odd double-course instruments with an almost fey feather-light touch. He sang in a dreamy tenor. He wrote his own wonderful songs, infused with equal parts Irish longing and modern hippy romantic vagueness. He was a member of Planxty, the Beatles of Ireland, the Celtic Super Group of All Time. He knew a million traditional songs and tunes. And he’d been to such cool places.
Andy Irvine had gypsied around eastern Europe, falling in love with beautiful women, running from the cops, sleeping under the stars, playing music with every sort of strange and exotic character in the dim and smoky byways of now-vanished kingdoms, and then come home to sing about it all.
From my very earliest days of distinguishing Irish music as a separate and distinct musical genre, I found myself mesmerized by Andy Irvine’s music. It was both gentle and compelling, both ambivalent and devastatingly emotionally honest. And he sounded like nobody else in the world. What an ideal for a middle-class California kid needing a hero.
(I need to digress briefly from this homage for a commercial break… Hey there, loyal reader of the Celtic Considerations column and Celtic mando enthusiast! Want enough inspiration to keep you occupied for the next six months? You need Andy Irvine’s Greatest Hits, now available on seven completely unrelated CDs. Buy the following and be transported: Andy Irvine/Paul Brady (1976), Rainy Sundays, Windy Dreams (1980), and 5 Planxty CDs: Planxty (1972), The Well Below the Valley (1973), Cold Blow and the Rainy Night (1974), After the Break (1979), and The Woman I Loved So Well (1980). All still in print and available on the internet. Each and every one a masterpiece. We now return you to our column, already in progress.)
Perhaps Irvine’s most profound contribution to the development of popular Celtic music lies in his opening the door to Balkan influences. It was he, in fact, who was the first of his trad Irish crowd to travel to Romania and Bulgaria and bring back Balkan tunes and Balkan time signatures to the Irish pub scene, setting off what has become a generation of feverish cultural cross-pollination. He brought these cryptic new tunes to Dublin, taught them to pals Paul Brady and Donal Lunny, and the Irish session scene was never the same again.
Planxty was the first band to fully “celtify” Bulgarian dance tunes in concert, arranging them to feature uilleann pipes and Irvine’s and Lunny’s dueling bouzouki sounds and building long sets to thunderous tantric climaxes. The results were hair-raising. So much so that now, 25 years later, you can hardly find a hot Irish band that doesn’t include Balkan tunes in their repertoire.
And out in California 25 years ago I, too, was gaga for the Irish-Balkan medleys made possible by Andy Irvine. So I started tinkering with time signatures. My partner at the time Chris Caswell and I got lots of mileage from our rip-snorting 7/4 version of the rave fiddle reel “Farewell to Ireland”. It was a real show-stopper, and we were the only ones then in the area playing the Celto-Balkan card, but there was something strained about the arrangement that kept it in the realm of a novelty number, rather than an easy amalgam of two cultures.
But one day in 1981, after replaying Irvine’s Rainy Sundays, Windy Dreams endlessly on the turntable, I was granted an Andy Irvine-inspired Balkan brainstorm. I’d been trying to drop a beat every other bar to tart up reels into pseudo-Balkan tunes. But why not add beats instead of dropping them?
I was noodling on my octave mandolin, practicing an E-minor reel I didn’t much like called “The Otter’s Holt”. Suddenly I realized that I’d unconsciously added two beats somewhere, turning the first pair of four-beat bars into one long 10-beat bar. Damned if it didn’t continue to work all the way through the tune. And damned if suddenly I didn’t think this was the coolest tune ever written!
This new tune, which I quickly dubbed “The Mad Otter’s Holt”, rolled along in 10, though the internal pulses in the bars were really alternating figures of 6 and 4 beats. After amusing myself for a while with this tune, I snapped off the last note with a power chord. But I hit the wrong one. Rather than resolving to the E-minor, I hit a fat A-modal 4-chord instead. Well, this certainly worked with the final E of the melody. But it left it hanging in mid-air, longing to go somewhere… anywhere.
It needed something to tie this time through the tune to the next one, some magical connecting phrase. And I remember wondering casually to myself, “What would Andy Irvine do?” And, pretty much by flailing accident, channeling Andy, I came up with an unlikely series of notes that, strangely enough, did the job. There’s no way I could have come up with it if I hadn’t spent most of that day wanting to be Andy Irvine. And I’m happy it worked out. It reinforced a maxim I’d heard often before: In music everybody steals, but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
I’ve transcribed both “the Otter’s Holt” and “The Mad Otter’s Holt” for you here. The unlikely transition is something I like to play only once, giving it the element of surprise so the audience is left wondering, “Did I really just hear that?” And when playing the 10-beat version, be sure to emphasize the 6-beat/4-beat pattern in each 10-beat bar. It may not be Balkan, but it’s not quite Irish anymore either. And whatever it is, I still get a kick out of it.
Click thumbnail for printed tab notation for “The Mad Otter's Holt”