This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2008 issue
Recently a tune-hungry student trotted out a new tab version of “The Maid Behind the Bar” he’d just learned. He’d found it on the Mandolin Café website, a fine source of repertoire. As he played this terrific little reel I was struck by how different this setting seemed to be from mine. Sure, I had learned mine originally by ear in a session in Ireland maybe 30 years ago, but the difference got me thinking. While I remained completely happy with my setting, everything about this new, quite different setting seemed as “right” as mine was. The tune was instantly recognizable. The phrases led into each other with the same logic, even if occasionally they approached from different directions.
So I found myself pondering the mutability of tunes. Certainly tunes change over time, from instrument to instrument, from place to place, and probably between the first and fifth rounds of Guinness. I wondered what this “Maid” first sounded like when it was trotted out in a session an unknown number of years ago. Happily, the definitive setting for over 100 years is still readily available.
Captain Francis O’Neill included the tune we know as “The Maid Behind the Bar” in his “The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems”, published in 1907. It’s reel #481, listed under an alternate title, “The Green Mountain”. O’Neill was the Chicago Superintendent of Police before the turn of the last century. He ran a force which consisted of about a bazillion Irish immigrant officers, all of whom apparently played traditional music after hours. O’Neill sat them down one by one and pulled at least 3000 tunes and titles out of them, from every corner of Ireland. There are many remarkable things one notices when wandering through the O’Neill collections for new tunes. Perhaps my favorite thing about O’Neill is how he mostly avoided regional style markers or instrument-specific ornaments as he transcribed the essential shape of each tune. He collected tunes from fiddlers, flute players, pipers, concertina players, whistlers, the works. And yet it’s usually hard to tell for certain which instrument’s setting O’Neill was transcribing.
This rather forward-thinking and inclusive approach is a lovely thing for we mando players, coming so late to the party. We are free to learn the basic shape of the tune and then indulge in whatever ornaments our instruments and the nimbleness of our fingers permit, without worrying about “playing it right”.
So I played through O’Neill’s 1907 setting and was struck that it seemed to sit politely back in its reel rhythm and proceed at a trot, percolating along as a perfect tune for social dancing. I also found myself guessing that O’Neill learned the tune from a button accordion player, because of the idiosynchratic placement of a couple of grace notes and triplets and by the solid “note-iness” of the setting. Of course no accompanying chords were indicated, since chords in sessions are a relatively recent development, but the chords implied by the arpeggios the tune is built on are pretty much the same as the ones heard today.
I compared 1907 with 1978 and realized that I and my session comrades had retained the shape of the tune but had re-arpeggiated the opening phrase (repeated in bar 5) and straightened out the half-cadence descending plunge in the 4th bar. Also, with the inclusion of one new quarter-note in each part, giving an instant’s respite from the strings of eighth-notes, the tune seems to put its head down and break into a canter, becoming (in my humble opinion) a little more exciting.
I then compared my 1978 setting with the current Mandolin Café setting, (courtesy of transcriber Dennis Ladd). Very interesting. Several phrases have morphed back into the way O’Neill set them 100 years ago. The indicated chords skip a couple of places where I reach for a passing A or A7. The unbroken “note-iness” is back, too. And the fourth bar of the A part, which I believe to be a pivotal emotional point in the tune, repeats the third bar rather than hitting the high F# and then sliding back down for the second half-cadence.
But I was happy to note that, between the time he learned the tune and played it for me, my student had chaged the Mandolin Café setting in at least three places. Whether by evolution or intelligent design or what I sometimes call “the semi-literate oral tradition”, Irish session tunes change and keep on changing, probably daily, and that’s what keeps them alive and kicking.
So here are all three settings of “The Maid Behind the Bar”, covering a century of Irish sessions. I’ve guessed at chords for 1907, provided the chords I like to play for 1978, and passed along the Mandolin Café chords for 2008. The one titled “2008” is the setting newly-altered from the website, but hats off to Dennis Ladd for his good work… check it out. As for my preference, I’m sticking with 1978, partly because I’ve played it that way for so long I’d blow a gasket if I changed now. But I still really like some of the rollicking details from 1978, like how the quarter-note in the fourth bar hits a major seventh against the accompanying G-chord. It’s tense. It’s powerful. It’s Irish rock-and-roll.
Play them all and find a new setting of your own. I’ll check in again with all of you again in 20 years and see how the tune sounds then.