This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2002 issue

In past columns I have explained a little about how Celtic music developed through the centuries and how various instruments including the mandolin have been absorbed into the tradition.  I want to deal this time with harmonies, but we need to start with a little historical perspective first.

There are several parallel Celtic musical traditions, developed for different reasons and on different instruments.  For centuries harpers would use their diatonic instruments to play melodies with arpeggiated chordal coloration.  But until very recently harpers did not mix with other folk musicians.  Their function was more courtly and formal.  In fact, it wasn’t until our generation that classically-trained traditionalists like Sean O’Riada and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains began combining Irish harp in ensembles with fiddles, flutes, and pipes and finger-style guitarists turned O’Carolan tunes into standards.

Speaking of pipes, there are the two very different worlds of Scottish Highland pipes and Irish uilleann pipes, neither of which mixed much with other instruments beside drums until this century.  Again, it was our generation that recognized Highland pipes as one of the great rock and roll instruments ever and bands like the Tannahill Weavers and the Battlefield Band blazed loud and boisterous new directions to take both military and dance tunes in.  The quieter uilleann pipes, played by pumping a bellows with one elbow with the drones pointing down to one side and the melodic chanter on the knee, were used both for dance tunes and for haunting set pieces and slow airs.  Developed and improved upon during the Industrial Revolution, some uilleann pipes began to feature valve keys called regulators which could change the pitch of the drones and, within strict limits, supply chordal accompaniment to the melody.  But like the Highland pipes, uilleann pipes did not play with fiddles and flutes in ensembles as a rule until very recently.

Then there are the dance tunes—the jigs and reels and hornpipes written on and for fiddles, flutes, whistles, and free reeds—which most mando players are most drawn to.  These, too, have been treated primarily as a straight melody art form if you don’t count the oom-pah accompaniments played by accordions a century ago and then imitated by pianos on through the 20th century right up to the modern folk revival.

The old recordings of the great fiddlers of the 20s like Michael Coleman are often hell to listen to today, because of the stultifying and ham-fisted piano accompaniments.  But as guitars gained popularity in sessions, new chordal voicings and possibilities got experimented with and it became permissible to break step with all the unison players and toss in some harmony.  And now to our general delight, the harmonic fun that Celtic musicians have with even the simplest tunes passes the old masters by leaps and bounds.

Mandolins and citterns are among the most versatile instruments in modern Celtic music simply because one minute we can whip out melodies complete with cool ornaments and the next we can drive tunes with chords and rhythmic emphasis.  We can also borrow the drone idea from the pipes and create implied chord changes by moving melodic phrases against open strings.  We’ll have some fun with that next time.

But for this issue, let’s take a popular jig and see how much mandolin-friendly harmony we can pack into it.  The jig I have in mind is “Banish Misfortune,” one the truly great tunes and one that you’ll hear in every Irish session on earth.  It’s a three-part tune in D major that rolls along as happy as can be.  Without changing or adding a single note, the melody is very satisfying and offers abundant opportunities for ornamentation using triplets, turns, and anticipatory snaps. 

In this notation I’ve included a few triplets, both ascending and descending.  As always, you should feel free to play or omit ornaments as you see fit.  If you’re looking for good places to try adding other triplets, try “tripletizing” just about any quarter note.  All the quarter notes in “Banish Misfortune” hit on a 1 beat or a 4 beat.  And since these are the emphatic beats that drive the jig forward, digging in a little extra with a nice same-note triplet ornament is entirely appropriate.

Now for the harmony line.  This harmony, or one very much like it, is widely popular in the pub sessions.  You’ll notice that the harmony is not simply a parallel line above the melody.  It crosses the melody and occasionally plays in unison, though the beginnings and endings of each phrase convey a happy harmonic lilt with implied chords.

So what might you do with this harmony in a pub session, once you’ve got it under your fingers?  My advice is always to start out simple, then make the tune a little more fun each time.  I’d play straight unison all the way through once, then perhaps break into the harmony line on just the last three bars of each part the next time through.  Then, harmonize all the way through each 8-bar part but not on the repeats.  Then, if the band is still up for it, go hogwild and harmonize all the way through.  Mixing it up is always fun.  And everybody in the session will enjoy a little energy boost.

Of course, not all Irish and Scottish tunes lend themselves equally to harmony lines.  I find tunes that sound like they were written for Highland pipes among the hardest to do anything with harmonically.  “Gravel Walks” from the Fall 2000 issue, for example, is a tune that seems most effective playing against a strong drone tonic.  Whenever I try to harmonize horizontally it sounds needlessly busy.

But others love a little harmony.  “The Pinch of Snuff”(Spring 2001) cries out for a close harmony.  Again, like in “Banish Misfortune,” I’d let the harmony come and go, alternating harmony phrases with unison phrases to keep it interesting.  And in “The Coleraine Jig” (Spring & Summer 2000) I like to wait until the B part of the tune and harmonize about the first four bars, just for a dash of sweetness at the most melancholy melodic moment.

Try harmonizing some of your favorite jigs and reels.  Remember that you don’t have to harmonize all the way through—that even two or three notes in passing can give a tune a lovely splash of color while you make it more your own.