This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2001 issue
I can still smell the mixed aroma of stale cigarette smoke and Guinness and rain-soaked woollen overcoats when I think back on May, 1978. I’d arrived in Dublin, wide-eyed and wide-eared, in search of as much Irish music as I could absorb. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to be there.
In late 70s Dublin, Irish traditional music was enjoying an explosion of talent and enthusiasm the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a generation. By happy accident, I had started playing Irish fiddle a couple of years earlier and had come to Dublin, fiddle in hand, determined to sit in on some sessions and soak up tunes and Guinness in whatever ratios presented themselves.
The very first evening, I hunted down Slattery’s Bar, the name that came up most often when the helpful locals were suggesting the best spots to find a good tune. Several blocks off brightly-lit O’Connell Street and a bit up from the River Liffey, Slattery’s was a hive of activity at eight in the evening. Downstairs was filled with serious drinkers and a juke box blasting country music. Up the rickety stairs I found another, more spacious bar with a stage under the windows and a folk club going full blast.
I remember standing there agog at the music. Four disheveled musicians occupied the stage, accompanying their singing with guitar, a low whistle, a bodhran, and an exotic-looking stringed thing I’d never seen before. My hair stood up and stayed up. The harmonies seemed to wrap themselves right around my DNA strands. The singing was clear and impassioned. The playing infused the ancient tunes with a rock energy that was, well, perfect. The band moved from recognizable ballads to songs I’d never heard to strung-together medleys of tunes so tasty and infectious I could barely keep from whipping out my fiddle and trying to scrape along with them.
That evening changed my life. Within half an hour of walking into Slattery’s, I swore I’d get to know these guys if it killed me. I had to know more about them, about the songs, about the tunes, and about that weird stringed instrument.
Much remains hazy regarding the latter part of the evening. No one kept an accurate tally of the number of rounds consumed. Apparently I’d had the presence of mind to flip on my cassette recorder. But this much I retained: the band, Tipsy Sailor, was made up of guitarists Kieran Halpin and Mick Fitzgerald (doubling on bodhran), who traded off on lead singing and writing the ballads I had never heard before, whistle player Johnny Keenan, and Fiaich O Brun, who told me his eight-string double-course instrument was called an Irish bouzouki. He let me strum on it a little. It had a very long scale and a flat back, with a lovely trefoil-shaped sound hole. He had it tuned to fifths. I was fascinated by it and asked where he got it. He was vague, but indicated bouzoukis were popular but nobody was making and marketing them in any coherent way. You sort of had to stumble on one or make it yourself.
As it happens, I stayed friends with Kieran and Mick and continue to share music with Mick to this day, 22 years on. But that’s another story. Back to the tale of the bouzouki.
Early the next afternoon, head still throbbing but spirit unrepentant, I wandered south of the Liffey to a little music shop called: The Music Shop. The first thing I spotted as I entered was a sawed-off version of the bouzouki Fiaich O Brun had played the night before hanging on the wall. An actual Greek bouzouki, in all it’s mother-of-toilet-seat glory, hung on a peg next to it. I took down the un-Greek instrument and started plunking on it. Within 30 seconds I knew I wouldn’t leave without it.
I asked the proprieter what he could tell me about it and he replied that it was a bouzouki. I indicated the Greek thing on the wall and said I knew that was a bouzouki, but what was this? He insisted it, too, was a bouzouki. I persisted, pointing out that one had six strings, this one had eight, that one had a tater-bug back, this one a flat back, that one a long neck, and this one a short neck. In the end, the proprietor bent to the point of admitting that I held in my hands “a short-necked, flat-backed, eight-stringed bouzouki,” but that was as far as he’d go. I bought it and have called it an octave mandolin ever since.
I’m still playing that same octave mandolin. It’s the instrument I noodle on, coming up with amusing Celtic tunes to share with you in this magazine. And going back to that wonderful Dublin evening, I recalled the first tune I learned from the playing of Fiaich O Brun. In learning to play the tune, I was also learning my way around the new instrument. While both octave mando and fiddle are tuned to fifths, the scale length differences require totally different fingerings, of course. And since my only fret experience was with guitar, I was coming into the mando more as a mutant guitar than an expanded mandolin. Then, as now, I favored using my thumb to fret the bottom two courses of the opening A-modal chord. But it’s hardly required.
So here’s this cool tune, “The Tipsy Sailor,” that was certainly a hornpipe until these guys straightened out the syncopation and delivered it with a strong rock and reel drive. As it happens, straightening hornpipes is pretty common on both sides of the Atlantic. The first version of “Fisher’s Hornpipe” I ever learned was a Texas setting that was all reel and a yard wide.
But this one, while played pretty straight, rhythmically, shouldn’t be played too fast. The shift up to the fifth fret in the third part is a lovely little musical moment. And the unexpectedly varied arpeggios in the fourth part need to be clear to be fun. There are no tricks to the fingering, other than the way I like to shift up smoothly between the second and third parts of the tune. I play the high A with the little finger, then slide up from the fret below with the third, then second, then index finger. It’s the way Fiaich O Brun did it, so here’s to him.
Slattery’s, alas, is no longer a folk music club. But Irish tunes still retain their magic in Dublin. And as long as this tune is played in sessions, we can keep a little of that magic for ourselves.