Hornpipes have always been the poor relation in the Celtic dance tune family. Irish and Scottish enthusiasts play hundreds of jigs and reels for every hornpipe they bother to learn. And yet, hornpipes enjoy just as rich a history and just as satisfying an emotional pallette as the more common dance forms.
I eased into Irish music from the old-time side, learning fiddle tunes at competitions and musical gatherings, and usually starting out with American takes on tunes that I later learned had Irish or Scottish origins and sometimes very different settings to compare with. My earliest acquaintance with hornpipe dates from my flirtation with bluegrass and old-time, so I’d learned a handful of hornpipes from hotshots competing at California festivals before I found out that they weren’t all supposed to sound like reels.
The hornpipe started out as a particular, highly syncopated clog dance, often associated with things nautical, that needed to go at a particular speed in order for the dancer to fit in all the fancy clogging moves. Once upon a time, all hornpipes ended each 8-bar part with this rhythmic phrase:
In time, as all dance tunes were weaned away from necessary connection with dancing, hornpipes got straightened out a bit and sometimes merely hinted at the old dance steps while encouraging players to speed them up and give them slightly different energy. Nowadays, your average hot American setting of “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” for example, can be medleyed with reels and played with top-gear abandon and sheer rock-n-roll drive.
But there are still corners of the Celtic world where hornpipes retain some of their old glory and are prized for not being quite like any other dance. South Wales is an extraordinarily musical place where hornpipes flourish in unique ways. In addition to the popularity of a capella traditional choral music and the huge triple-strung harp literature played by masters like Robin Huw Bowen, on any given day from Newport to Swansea you can likely find a local village dance or “twmpathan” where accordions and whistles and small pipes and fiddles keep the boisterous locals dancing half the night.
The Welsh excel in happy-sounding tunes. On balance, you’ll get many more pure major tunes in a Welsh session than the darker Irish modal tunes or the Scots tunes borrowed from the Highland pipes, with their built-in flatted sevens. And if you happened to stumble across a “twmpathan,”you might be surprised both at the frequency that hornpipes are dropped into the mix and with the different ways hornpipes are played there.
Mick Tems and Pat Carron-Smith, the married two-thirds of the trio Calennig, have been based in Llantrisant, South Wales, a lovely little hill town north of Cardiff, for many years. It seems that every time I wandered through, there was a dance on that night and Mick and Pat were running it—Mick on accordion, Pat on concertina, whistles, and spoons, and both singing lustily in English and Welsh. Their band-mate Peter Davies added all manner of pipes and woodwinds and the mix was always fun.
Mick and Pat have collected some marvelous hornpipes. Their inclination with the dances is not to straighten them out, but to occasionally lean toward a polka-like swing, which encourages wild dancing without ripping through the tune too fast. And a good thing, too, since many of the hornpipes have wonderful melodic shapes and unusual forms. The native Welsh tune “Y Lili” (The Lily) is a 24-bar hornpipe that carries a whiff of Scotland with it. And “Y Bregeth” (The Sermon) has got to be the only 112-bar hornpipe ever written, this from an old collection and reintroduced into the tradition by harper Robin Huw Bowen. Both tunes are on Calennig’s CD “Dwr Glan” (Sain SCD4025, 1990), which is rare but available through www.folkwales.org.uk/calnig.html. Visit the site for more about Calennig and to further whet your appetite for Welsh tradition. And send out good wishes to Mick, who’s recovering from a stroke. The village dances need him back soon.
The tune I have for you this time, “Gypsy Hornpipe #1,” is not on Mick and Pat’s CD, but I swear I’ve heard them play it in Llantrisant. It’s been recorded but I can’t recall by whom. This is both a perfect example of a pure, old-fashioned hornpipe and a typically happy Welsh melody. There’s really no trick to playing it, other than to play it every bit as syncopated as indicated in the notation. And I find I often play a unison low D with the high D on the first beat of the 5th bar in the B part, since the melody in the previous bar is pointing you down in that direction.
I hope this won’t be the last Welsh tune to find its way into your repertoire. We can’t have too many happy tunes these days.