This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2002/2003 issue
I devoted a previous column to talking about the shapes of Celtic tunes and how you can sometimes retain the shape of a tune while stepping pretty thoroughly away from the original time signature the tune is played in. This is an idea that’s been getting explored and refined since the early days of the Irish band Planxty, when mandolinist Andy Irvine turned his knowledge and love for Balkan folk music to the traditions of his birth.
Andy was among the first to popularize Balkan time signatures in the Celtic music crowd and they went over like a house afire. Now, twenty-five years later, every hot Celtic band has either added Balkan tunes to their repertoire or “Balkanized” something Celtic. I shared an Irish jig called “The Cliffs of Moher” in the Summer 2001 issue which my band and I had “Balkanized.” We dropped the tune into an entirely un-Irish 7/4 time signature, dropped a note here and there to make it fit, stretched a note here and there to even up the pulse, and ended up with a melody recognizable as “The Cliffs of Moher” but with a brand-new lilt and excitement.
But while playing some of my altered tunes, it occurred to me that you can just as easily give a tune a brand-new rhythmic personality and appeal while staying within the Celtic tradition.
In any given pub session, Irish or Scottish, you’ll mainly get strings of reels (in 4/4 time) and jigs (in 6/8 time). If anybody tosses out a Kerry slide or a Scots pipe march, they’ll likely be medleyed with jigs, as they share much the same rhythmic pulse. For added variety, you’ll also get the occasional synchopated hornpipe or bat-out-of-hell 2/4 polka or leisurely waltz. And if you hang out in the sessions for a year or two, you’ll probably have several hundred tunes at least half-learned, rattling around in your brain, if not always smoothly accessible by your fingers.
I’ve occasionally found myself getting the nod to pick the next tune in a session and launching into a melody my fingers eagerly want to play, only to screech to a halt a few bars along, saying, “Wait, that’s wrong!” The melody was right, but it was a jig and I was trying to play it in reel time. I find that in sessions, it’s usually best to stick with playing the tunes the way the gang is used to playing them.
But when I’m playing at home or with an adventurous friend or two, all bets are off. A tune that we’ve played often as a jig can suddenly become a reel, or the other way around. The discovery of a tune that can shift time signatures easily is exhilirating and fun. It allows you to rediscover a tune you may have been playing by the numbers and no longer really enjoying. Suddenly, the same melodic shape is unrolling under your fingers, but it ‘s sprung to life as you have to pay attention to maintain the new rhythmic drive without stumbling.
Probably the first tune I heard deliberately treated this way was “The Gravel Walks,” a reel I shared with you in the Fall 2000 issue. It was one of the first 20 or so tunes I learned when I was first building my Celtic repertoire. I woodshedded it often, playing along with my early Boys of the Lough album and laboring to master Aly Bain’s fiddle ornaments and the fluidity of Cathal McConnel’s flute.
Some years later, I was fortunate enough to find myself playing at festivals with the Boys and fiddling in after-hours sessions with Aly and Cathal. It was in one of these late-night ad hoc master’s classes that Cathal kicked into “The Gravel Walks” in 6/8 time. It took the others in the session a few synapses to realize what was different about it, because it sounded so right and completely appropriate as a jig. But by the time Cathal had come around to the repeat of the first part, we were all in there with him, falling in love with the tune all over again.
So here’s a transcription of “The Gravel Walks” as a jig, the way Cathal mutated the melody to fit the new time signature. I particularly like the way the second part of the tune works in 6/8. The melody falls under the fingers of both flute and mando in lovely little synchopated descending bursts. In the original 4/4 version, this part always has a distinctly martial bagpipe feel to it. Cathal has given it added forward motion.
You can try this idea on pretty much any tune in your repertoire. Some will work with a mimimum of fuss, while others won’t work at all. And if you discover a particularly nice reel that seems to improve when turned into a jig, teach it to your friends and encourage them to reexamine their own repertoires.
Finally, don’t let any trad nerd tell you that you’re committing some sort of cultural sacrilege with all this. Centuries ago, hornpipes were counted in 3, not 4. And early in the last century, Francis O’Neill wrote (in “Irish Minstrels and Musicians”) both about how pipe marches evolved into jigs and how jigs and reels could evolve as matched pairs. So this intra-Celtic shifting is nothing new. It’s just another way the tradition keeps growing and making us want more.