This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2013 issue
Chris Caswell, my partner in Caswell Carnahan and my fellow traveller into youthful Celtic fame and fortune, died in January. He knew it was coming and he went out with customary grace and class, but he left this stage far too young and I’ll miss him a lot.
In recent months I’ve been flooded with memories bubbling up from inside and from reminders from others about just how important Chris was to me at a pivotal point in my life, more than thirty years ago, as I launched into the musical direction I wanted most feverishly and he wanted as well. We were well-suited as a partnership, equal dreamers and flaunters of convention who loved to play and loved to perform.
From the get-go we annoyed the hell out of the stodgier traditionalists, who didn’t appreciate how we had such fun stretching boundaries and mocking the tradition as readily as drawing inspiration from it. We had a ball and a pretty good run for three or four years before going our separate musical ways. Our orbits intersected from time to time over the years, though the last time we put a band together for concert appearances was in 1999.
I’ve understandably been revisiting lots of the old Caswell Carnahan arrangements, reminding myself just how cool the interplay was, and how we keyed off each other and kept the music exciting and surprising. Juggling a dozen instruments together in any given set didn’t hurt with the surprise element, of course, and Chris provided the still unmatched instrumental range of being able to switch from harp to whistle to flute to bodhran to Highland bagpipes all within ten minutes. I played my stringy things and sang and grinned.
So with Chris so strongly in my thoughts this season, it seemed natural to find a Caswell Carnahan arrangement to share with you all. The one I kept coming back to was actually a tune I shared in this space in the Spring 2007 issue, the slow reel called “The Girl Who Broke My Heart.” The languid, melancholy melody is one I learned from a West Country English fiddler named Stuart Gordon. The accompaniment, transcribed here for the first time, is cribbed from Chris’s harp part. When we performed this on stage I took the melody on fiddle. But the melodic setting is gorgeous no matter what instrument you play it on.
I like to play “The Girl” very legato, allowing the notes to ring as long as possible and lightly brushing the chords to arpeggiate and keep things soft and flowing. The rhythm, too, is rubato and free, often pausing for a breath at the end of the 4th bar and again as the 8th bar cycles back to the top. It’s no longer a dance tune in this setting. It has something else to say.
One thing it expresses is that some music requires two players. Two parts twine around each other. Each pulls the other along. Each listens to the other and resonates in agreement. This kind of music is like true friendship. It doesn’t have to make a big thing about it… it’s just there. So find a friend and sit down and play this little duet and consider the gift of friendship in your life. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
The opening phrase of the accompaniment A-part riff that Chris played on the harp is a little quirky to finger on the mando, deviating necessarily from my usual dictum of keeping the fingers dedicated to their own frets. But with a little work it makes sense. I finger the 5th fret G with my ring finger, the 5th fret D with my pinky, and the 4th fret C# with my middle finger. Playing my longer-scale instrument, this means I have to rock back and forth a little to reach for the first fret F on the E string with my index finger, but it’s not uncomfortable.
Chris and I liked the emotional tang of the opening phrase so much that we started out the tune with a couple of bars alone as an intro. If you use this idea, you could transition from pretty much any other tune, fast or slow, into this pensive setting.
In the B-part, both the slightly arpeggiated half-note G chord in the first bar and F chord in the second bar are fingered with index finger on the E string, middle finger on the D string, and ring finger on the A string. This has always been my favorite modal chord to move up and down the neck and with the low G pedaling on the bottom, it suits the mood here well.
So thanks to Chris for a life well-lived, if far too short. May the music long outlive us and continue to make the world a sweeter place.