This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2004 issue
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.
As for the techniques I use to play this song, I try to keep things very simple, indeed. I often use my thumb to cover both G and D courses when brushing the full A-modal chord, but not all the time. I’ve indicated in the notation which places I bar both courses, and which places I only bar the G course, stopping the D course with my index finger.
The only really odd fingering is the B-modal chord in the phrases between the verses. I bar the bottom two courses on the 4th fret with my thumb and the top two courses on the 2nd fret with my index finger. This may be cruel and unusual for those of you with very long scale lengths, though regular mandolins might present easier ways to hit the notes. My fingerings are 25-year-old artifacts dating back to my first flailings on my octave mandolin, borrowing chops as necessary from guitar and with little or no conscious acknowledgement of mandolin fingerings. So good luck finding a comfy way to play it. And when in doubt, leave strings open and brush those suspensions with deliberate gusto.
My arrangement of this song is simple. I toggle between two instrumental passages linking the verses, without adding extra bars or vamps or anything. You can play either or both and mix and match as you like. To finish the song, I simply indulge in a slight ritard and end it on the last sung syllable. “The Rambler From Clare” could provide a welcome emotional shift in any pub session, or just a quiet respite from the frantic jigs and reels and a chance to get yourself another pint.
The Rambler from Clare—lyrics
The first of my courtships that was ever made known
I straight made my way to the County Tyrone
And there among the fair maids, they used me well there
And they called me the stranger and the Rambler from Clare
Twas then I enlisted in the town of Fermoy
But with so many masters I could not comply
I deserted next morning, the truth I declare
And for Limerick town started the Rambler from Clare
When like a deserter my case to bewail
I was captured and taken to the town of Rathkeale
Then off to headquarters I had to repair
And in the black hole lay the Rambler from Clare
I took off my hat and I made a low bow
In hopes that the colonel would pardon me now
The pardon he gave me was hard and severe
Twas, Bind him, confine him for ninety-nine years
My poor, innocent mother got a woeful surprise
And my loving brother, his shouts reached the skies
Brave boys, said my father, Your arms now prepare
And bring me my darlin’, the Rambler from Clare
It was then they assembled in a harmonious band
With their guns on their shoulders they were ten thousand strong
The firing began with the boys in the rear
And they broke the jail doors and took the Rambler from Clare
Now I’ve got the title of a United Man
I cannot go home to my own native land
So off to America I now must repair
And leave all my friends in the sweet County Clare