This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2009 issue
I love the musical community here in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are blessed with an abundance of astonishing talent, generous caretakers of various traditions, and wacky characters. I started hanging around the local Irish musicians 35 years ago, a span of time that amounts to three generations of oral tradition pass-along. Drawn by the music, I was kept interested and engaged by the wacky characters. Only later did I begin to appreciate the level of traditional caretaking that was going on all that time.
In my earliest days, much of the local Irish scene orbited about Kevin Keegan, a 50-ish Galway native button accordion player with a near-bottomless repertoire and endless musical energy. A younger generation of players recognized a good thing when they heard it and made it their business to learn everything they could from Keegan, as they also had from fellow Galway-born accordionist Joe Cooley, who died just before I took up the fiddle. Fiddler Cathie Whitesides, fret-man Eric Thompson, and box player Jeremy Kammerer were among the inner circle of Keegan students, each of whom deserves at least a Master’s degree in Ethno-Musicology for the way they absorbed, studied, and then graciously shared Keegan’s tunes, style, and regional specificity.
It’s kind of funny to think that by the late 1970s, if you wandered into an Irish pub session in San Francisco, you’d be hearing not just a hot Irish session, but a distinctly Galway-style session, in both repertoire and flair. And, with due respect given to Joe Cooley, this was due largely to the personality and ubiquitous presence of one musician: Kevin Keegan.
So I came along and started out trying to learn tunes at the Starry Plough, mostly wedged in behind the piano where no one could hear me scraping on my fiddle. By the time I’d gained enough confidence to migrate around to the front of the piano, though, Keegan had moved on to that Great Ceili Band in the Sky, dying at 54.
But Cathie and Eric and Jeremy and the rest never stopped with the Keegan tunes and the Keegan style. It kept informing the local style and still does to this day. Jeremy, much to his credit, taught a workshop at the Lark in the Morning music camp for many years with the express purpose of passing Keegan tunes on to the youngsters who never knew him or heard him live. I picked up a slew of them myself.
But I hadn’t really thought much about Keegan for a long time until a couple of years ago when another Keegan enthusiast, Evo Bluestein, showed up at Lark Camp with a CD he’d cobbled together of live pub session tunes recorded in the early 70s with Keegan and the other usual suspects. I got me a copy instantly, floating back to those innocent days in the pubs when every tune was a new delight, the Guinness flowed copiously, and smoke hung thick in the air.
Of course, mostly the sound quality was awful. But the raw energy was still in there. And so was the sense that a roomful of very fine musicians was learning at the feet of a genuine master, having a ball in the process. Most of the tunes on the CD have never been out of session rotation since the 70s. But there were a couple I didn’t remember and probably never learned back then. One was “The High Level Hornpipe”, a sweet and lilting tune that has some twists and turns to it specifically designed to be played on a button accordion, but that are both possible and pleasureable on the mando.
And here it is, transcribed directly from the playing of Kevin Keegan, rather than filtered through Jeremy’s fingers and then mine and then sifted through thirty years’ worth of foggy memory that can mutate anybody’s version of a tune. A little time capsule for you.
I’ve transcribed it in standard hornpipe 4/4, but need to clarify the rhythmic feel beyond the way it’s notated here. You see, I get extraordinarily tired of writing out dotted eighths and sixteenths and feel they are hard to read anyway. So, while it’s not written out quite this way, play the whole tune as if each beat that isn’t occupied by a pair of sixteenths and an eighth note is a loping pair: think dotted eighth and sixteenth, or long-short, or DOOT-dee DOOT-dee DOOT, as suits your fancy.
My favorite parts of this tune are the two spots that combine a C# and a C-natural in a single bar, as well as the third and fifth bars of the C part that add an unexpected diddly-doot to the tune that always makes me smile. The C part refuses to resolve on its own, so I always take it back around and play one last A part to finish the tune.
Enjoy your trip down somebody else’s Memory Lane. Learn the tune and raise a toast to the memory of Kevin Keegan, who forever enriched the Irish scene in San Francisco.