This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2012 issue
I heard the other day that the Irish traditional band The Chieftains were touring to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Wow. Has it really been fifty years since uilleann piper Paddy Moloney and Co. began to celebrate Irish music with such joy and care that an entire musical-cultural resurgence followed in their wake? Every performing Irish musician today owes thanks to The Chieftains for opening the door to the Irish baroque repertoire of Turlough O’Carolan, to blowing the dust off of nearly-forgotten tunes, and to presenting jigs and reels free of the contexts of ceili dance or pub session, exciting a new generation with the staggering possibilities they offered.
I still remember the joy of discovering The Chieftains for the first time, chancing on a “Chieftains 2” LP in the early ‘70s. I didn’t know who these guys were but aside from the crackling musicianship, there was something at once scholarly and free-wheeling about the way the band played and strung those delightful tunes together. I was instantly hooked and woodshedded every single tune on the record, eventually finding a few more records to add to my collection.
A few years later I found myself in Dublin, where I was the luckiest California Celtic aficionado alive, dropping innocently into a unique explosion of music and talent, with stars and stars-to-be playing nightly in every pub. One night I was told of a house party nearby to benefit the wife and kids of a local character who had recently died uninsured in a road accident. A few of the locals invited us to tag along so after dropping a few quid in the donation basket we sat in the living room and discovered that the band was The Chieftains and Sean Potts, the band’s whistler, was the host. The night was a glorious blur, as we were the only non-locals to be there, sitting nearly knee-to-knee with the band while Mrs. Potts distributed tea and biscuits. If I hadn’t been a fan before, that experience certainly would have done it.
All sorts of “firsts” in the Modern Celtic Revival can be traced to The Chieftains. But the one that surprised me most was that they were apparently the first band to record the work of Turlough O’Carolan, the legendary 17th century blind harper. The tune was “Planxty George Brabazon” and appeared on that first LP I bought nearly 40 years ago. Planxties were musical tributes that O’Carolan wrote for patrons who put him up on his travels and fed him well. Dozens and dozens of them. Some planxties feel like one might dance to them, while others are more stately and classical in form. But stately or spritely, all are distinctly Irish and the last two generations of Irish musicians have lovingly taken the O’Carolan canon and done marvelous things with it.
So in honor of The Chieftains and their longevity, here’s a setting of “Planxty George Brabazon” for mandolin. Most O’Carolan tunes work best at a leisurely pace, drawing out phrases and lingering on the cadences. Taken uptempo, “Planxty G.B.” seems to be structurally patterned after a hornpipe, though it was not intended as a dance number back then. I feel that locking it into a danceable rhythm robs the piece of some inherent wistfulness, so I try to be relaxed while navigating through it.
While The Chieftains may have been the first to record it, “Planxty G. B.” was well-known to trad enthusiasts. The oldest transcription I have is in the 1903 edition of O’Neill’s “Music of Ireland”. The Bunting Collection, published in three installments from 1796 to 1840, contains a good number of O’Carolan Planxties, but not this one. O’Neill did not embellish the melody, nor did he tip his hand about the chordal implications musicians of his era might have indulged in. So we’re left with a blank slate and the tradition invites us to do as we please with it.
I’ve transcribed the melody for mandolin the way it falls under my hands and using available adjacent strings to mostly hint at the chord progression. At the leisurely pace I prefer, I gently arpeggiate the chords. Feel free to try different chordal colorations, substituting a minor 6 for a major 4, for instance, or a minor 2 for a major 5. I’ve used all four here for you to test drive. If you are comfortable adding a note here or there to the fragmentary chord voicings shown, by all means go ahead. I’m merely trying to use the mandolin to hint at the chords while staying out of the way of the beautiful melody.
All the arpeggios are meant to be played with down strokes, bass to treble. The fingerings are pretty standard, except perhaps for getting to the Am chord coming out of the C chord in the 6th bar of the A part. I’m up on the 5th fret of the G and D courses with my middle and ring fingers and index finger stopping the C on the A course. I shift down, playing adjacent C and B with the index finger and then I thumb over for the low A on the G course, the index finger hopping to the 2nd fret of the D course. This way I can let the lower 2 courses ring through the last half of the bar, with C played with the ring finger, B with the middle, A open, and G with the pinky.
So if you’re a session player, by all means work this one up as a quiet palate-cleanser to tuck between fast and furious medleys of jigs and reels. And send an appreciative thought out to Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains for fifty years of great music and for starting so many of us out in search of the joys that Celtic music has to offer.