This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2011/2012 issue
Some Irish tunes maintain their popularity in the sessions for years. Others seem to flare up as dazzling musical supernovas, only to vanish from the pubs, leaving only a half-remembered, “Now, how did that one go again?” I’ve been playing and listening to Irish jigs and reels and hornpipes now for well over half my life and I’ve noted the persistence of some tunes with surprise and the disappearance of others with pangs of regret. And then there are tunes that lie low for a while, only to reenter the tradition, seemingly as fresh and enjoyable as the day they wandered off.
I’ve mused before in this space about how the tradition embraces tunes and shifts them around and recombines them and mutates them over time. Mostly this process delights me, since taking any other attitude seems akin to King Canute sitting on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in. And I’ve had my own personal and ever-shifting “greatest hits” list of tunes that my fingers reach for when I’m sitting alone or with friends. Occasionally I’m delighted to be prodded into remembering a former “greatest hit” that I hadn’t played in years. There it is again, fun and fresh and even trailing along some misty old memories about who I was and what I was doing when I first learned it.
Not long ago someone wrote me about “Rakes of Clonmel”, a double jig I’d recorded in 1985 on “Two For the Road” with Robin Petrie on hammered dulcimer. It held deep meaning to this person and I realized with some embarrassment that I’d completely forgotten the tune. So I dug out the old vinyl and revisited the old repertoire. “Dang, what a fine tune,” I muttered to myself as I pulled out the octave mando and cycled it through a couple of dozen times.
Robin and I used to play “Rakes of Clonmel” with the melody largely covered on hammered dulcimer and me percolating along with the rhythm and filling out the chordal ideas. While the tune is already in a darkish Em, we liked finishing off both A and B parts on the unsettled and unsettling 4 chord (Amod), making it even darker. Since it been nearly 25 years since this tune was in heavy rotation at my house, it took a while to remember where I’d first heard it, but the name Arty McGlynn finally popped up with an “Aha!” Guitarist McGlynn recorded a marvelous, highly influential, and all-too-quickly-forgotten album titled “McGlynn’s Fancy” in 1979. His flat-picking was clean and emotional—no flash, just a deep and abiding love for the tradition. I gobbled up everything on this record, including both his fine selection of tunes and his subtle and groundbreaking arrangement ideas. Sure enough, the chords Robin and I used on our recording were cribbed directly from McGlynn.
My own, long-forgotten liner notes on “Two For the Road” stated that this jig was once a 3-part jig, but had been pared down to two when played for country dances. Sure enough, a quick refresher look in “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” from 1903 found the 3-part setting of the tune. The lost C part is sort of a variant of the B part and doesn’t add anything notable to the narrative arc of the tune. So, I’m happy with the editing that the tradition (or maybe just Arty McGlynn) indulged in before presenting it to me and my generation. Of course, if you’re curious, check the old setting out as it might be just the ticket for a new session medley.
In relearning “Rakes of Clonmel” as a solo mando piece, I found myself reaching for occasional double-stops to hint at the chords I was hearing echoing from the past. I’ve transcribed these double-stops here, though if you wanted to play a clean, single-note melody, you can just let a bandmate groove along with you on the indicated chord changes. One thing I particularly like about this tune is how it establishes its tonal center and then hangs up in a very unsettled way all the way till you come down on the next 1-beat on the next repeat or part of the tune. Even though it touches another Em tonic moment in the 7th bar of both A and B parts, this doesn’t undercut the unsettled quality. Finally, I’m fond of finishing the tune with the 4 chord under what otherwise would be a melodic resolution back to the tonic. It worked in 1985 and it still works today.
So thanks to my correspondent for the remembrance of things past and may “Rakes of Clonmel” greet the new year with new life and possibility.
Click here for printed tab notation for “Rakes of Clonmel”