This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2013 issue
I thought the 21st century was supposed to make things easier for the traditional tune hunters. All these websites dedicated to tune names and alternate names and ABC notation and attributions and videos… one should be able to find any of the thousands of traditional tunes out there with a couple of mouse clicks. And if it’s neo-trad, one should be able to find out who wrote it and when. Are you chuckling yet at my naiveté? Fair enough.
I found a lovely little jig the other day on YouTube called “Brid Harper’s” and sat down and played through it a bunch, fairly certain it held some cool aspects to share in this column. I then set about establishing who it was who played in the video and where the tune came from. Fat chance.
The player in the video is headless, though evidently male. The blurb accompanying the video proclaims that he is playing a 1920 Gibson A3 mandolin, but makes no mention of who the player is or what corner of the globe he inhabits. I tried to shuffle through other videos to unearth a name, but no luck. I sent a message asking who the heck he was, but received no reply. Tabling that task for the present I turned to the tune attribution.
Brid Harper’s may or may not be a tune also known as “Rock on the Clyde”, which, in spite of its very Irish shape and feel, gives it at least a chance of being Scottish in origin, as opposed to Irish. But one on-line tune derivation site expresses veiled annoyance that it can’t find any old source books that include the tune under either name. Further poking was required.
Searching for Brid Harper rather than “Brid Harper’s Jig” netted the first useful information, as Brid Harper is a fine fiddler who grew up in a musical family in Castlefin, Co. Donegal and now lives in Co. Tyrone, is married, and goes by Brid Rafferty. The earliest videos I could find show her as barely a teenager in 1980, delighting a local audience. Clearly she kept at it, as she won the All-Ireland championship in 1988 and still plays in sessions and festivals that rate the occasional YouTube video. She’s darn good, fluid and precise.
But did she write the tune that bears her name? It would be only fair to credit her if so. Several recorded versions got me to sites offering recordings for sale, but offering little in the way of liner notes or writing credits. But I finally found a 2002 Compass Records recording by the uilleann pipe and concertina duo Niall and Cillian Vallely called “Callan Bridge”. In their notes they report that they learned the tune from playing with Brid Harper and, as I’ve done myself in so many sessions, with or without a handy recording device, failed to get the name. So they named the tune after her, in the time-honored fashion of the forgetful yet honorable oral tradition. She apparently never claimed to have written it. As for the tune’s Scottish or Irish origin, there’s a strong Scottish thread in the Donegal tradition so it could still go either way.
But getting back to the mysterious mandolinist, I asked a trusted source who seems to be able to identify practically any instrument that shows its face on YouTube (even played by masked mandolinists) and sure enough, she eventually reported back reasonably certain that this “Brid Harper’s” was played by a young picker in Caen, in the north of France, who is active in the French Celtic scene but remains strangely elusive in the cyber-realm. If he is the mystery man, I do hope he reads this and contacts me, as I’d like to thank him directly.
Anyway, there we have it… a tune cool enough to demand that I take the time to wrestle it into my repertoire, out there in the glorious digital realm, and yet still cloaked in mystery and supposition. So what is it about this tune that’s so nice?
I admit it was a technical aspect of the mandolinist’s playing that first caught my eye, and that I would likely have missed if I wasn’t watching his hands. He plays crisp and confident triplets, something I’ve struggled with all my life and that I admire greatly in any player who has mastered the ornament. But here he gave me a tremendous idea that I could use to improve my triplet command.
He cleaves to the usual picking direction rule of jigs, which is: down-up-down, down-up-down. But when he’s about to play a triplet, whether it’s the first beat of a down-up-down or the second, he switches picking directions and plays an up stroke in anticipation of the triplet, then a quick down-up-down for the triplet, and then back into the regular pattern.
Obvious, yes, but it might take a little while to master it. I think the effort’s worth it, since triplets add such sparkle to Irish tunes and the ability to drop one in whenever it seems appropriate is the mark of an accomplished player.
I’ve indicated triplets throughout this setting of “Brid Harper’s”, though the anonymous player moves them around a bit each time through the tune. Feel free to learn them as placed and then either leave them out or put them somewhere else. I particularly like the way the B part soars and then surprises with the slight variant on the repeat before settling back to the top. A delightful tune indeed and I’m indebted to Brid Harper Rafferty for starting the domino chain that delivered the tune to me through years and miles and pixels and websites.
The digital age still isn’t able to offer a musical connection that can match a good old pub session or playing face-to-face with a friend or mentor, but musical fun can certainly be found in the cyber world. It’s up to us to take it home, make it ours, and then pass it on the old-fashioned way. Play them triplets! I’ll have another pint.