I remember the first Irish tune I learned, and where I learned it, and the instrument I learned it on, and the person I learned it from. It was the A mixolydian jig “Mac’s Fancy,” in a tiny 18th century clapboard house on a cobbled side street that ran up from the harbor in the town where I was born.
[tune #1176 in Alan Ng's great resource at www.irishtune.info]
The instrument was (I now realize) a beautiful, if worn, tobacco sunburst Gibson A-model mandolin (still, in my memory, the most wonderful mandolin I ever played—or maybe just the one that imprinted for me what that music should sound like).
I learned the tune in the old way, from someone showing me how it went: A--- S---, who was a classical guitarist, a trust-fund kid, and the resident of that little Colonial cabin: a tiny ship-style galley and a 10-foot-square “common room” on the main floor, and two cubbyhole-sized bedrooms above. He shared rent on that house with the great flamenco guitarist
I honestly can’t recall where I met A---—maybe Larry met him first, or I saw one of A---’s little classical-guitar restaurant gigs?—but I remember him as a thin, intense, WASP-looking guy with wispy blond hair, a prototypical social-activist alternative lifestyle, and, I realize now, an ability to dramatize the events of his own life. I certainly remember him describing the guitar-geeks’ response to his (at that time) unfashionable attempts to play classical guitar using thumb-under lute technique, and no nails, and the way he made that resistance seem like great Romantic drama. And the drama continued when I realized—only very belatedly and only after more histrionics—that the guy wanted to sleep with me, and I was too obtuse (and, at 20 and just moved back from
But A--- taught me my first Irish tunes: a pair of jigs—tunes I still play and still teach to my own students, almost 30 years later: “Mac’s Fancy” and “The Rose in the Heather,” and for that I owe him a great debt. I don’t know if I ever heard recordings of these tunes until after I had been playing them for years, but I now know almost certainly where A--- got them: from the definitive De Danann record, released in that year of 1980, which he must have ordered from overseas: The Mist-Covered Mountain.
From its cover (a beautiful John Jay Audubon-style pastel painting of falcons, hares, and other fauna) to the staggering instrumental firepower and telepathic communication of the players contained therein (Frankie Gavin, Alec Finn, Johnny Ringo McDonagh, Charlie Piggott, and Jackie Daley), the marvelous rootsy sean nos of the Connemara singers it features, and the impeccable choices of repertoire, it’s absolutely definitive.
There’s a ferocity to this record: as my friend Roger quotes piper Eugene Lamb, “there’s great violence in that music.” Not that the music either assaults the listener or espouses violence, but rather that there is within this music, as in all great traditional music, a sense of the full range of the most fundamental and visceral human emotions: joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, love and combat. It’s the fierce exultation with which Frankie Gavin, already at 24 a grizzled veteran of the road and the most direct heir to the dapper wildmen (Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran, Hugh Gillespie) who emigrated from Sligo to New York, whose records were the finest flower of Irish music’s Golden Age, and which Frankie imbibed literally at his father’s knee (a much later Frankie solo CD is titled, aptly, Fierce Traditional), led this band, soaring on the spring foundations of Alec Finn's bouzouki accompaniment.
The first time I visited
Frankie Gavin would have been a genius no matter who was accompanying him, but in tandem with Alec’s bouzouki, and particularly in trio with the blazing C#/D accordion of Mairtin O Connor, the first box-player in De Dannan, and still (pace Jackie Daly, Aidan Coffey, and Conor Keane) the best fit for Frankie (though the set I heard Roger, Connie Dover, Paddy League, and sitter-in Frankie in freezing mud at the 2004 North Texas Irish Fest was first-runner-up—talk about a high-wire act!), he was completely essential to the revival. He joined the band, formed out of sessions in Hughes’s pub in the Galway gaeltacht of Spiddal, at the age of seventeen, and when you get those original players (Frankie, Alec, the mighty bodhranist Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, and their secret weapon, box/banjo-player Charlie Piggott) together, they can recount some wild stories of picking up Frankie, still in short pants, from the National School on a Thursday, driving halfway across the island for a hair-raising festival weekend, and dropping him off back at the school’s front-door, sleepless and hungover, on the Monday morning.
Some bands are great because of the way they not only support one another, but also because of the way they counter-balance one another, in terms of musicianship and personality. In these early DD records, in addition to the ferocious intensity, there’s just a sense of freedom: of people who were so strong as individual players, who had played together so much already in 1980, that there are no apparent boundaries to the music.
There’s the eponymous opening set of jigs, the first—my first tune learned from A—played by Alec (a lapsed Yorkshire bluesman) and Charlie on paired National tenor guitars—about as non-traditional an instrumentation, and about as pure-drop an interpretation, as you could hear in the 1970s folk bands—and which is lifted into the stratosphere by Frankie’s throaty fiddle entry on Junior Crehan's “Mist-Covered Mountain”;
The casual, herky-jerky swing of the “Cameronian/Doon” set, featuring Piggott’s vastly underrated banjo playing (Piggott was the best band banjo player in the revival—making everyone around him swing that much more) and Ringo’s blazing bones. Piggott’s understated by solid-as-a-rock banjo also gets a featured workhout on “The Cottage in the Grove,” before Frankie spins into the spookily- (and typically-) twisted line of yet-another untitled “Sean Ryan’s”;
Of the singing of Tom Phaidin Tom and Sean O Conaire, who step in to replace original vocalist Dolores Keane (after Keane, their best-suited singer, departed, they were never able to hold on to a vocalist for more than a couple of records), I can only quote my revered teacher Henry Glassie, in his magisterial Passing the Time of Ballymenone “When I hear the old men sing, I love Ireland even more.’” Whether the simple minor dance song “Seamaisin” or the narrative “Banks of the Nile,” the songs, featuring Phaidin and Seanin singing in the rootsiest of roots styles (you can barely distinguish, by accent, between the English- and the Irish-language texts) and the lads rambling around them, are a direct connection to the deepest taproots of the tradition. They were at the same time also powerfully influential: this record’s “Maire Mhor” (“Big Mary”) was the direct source for Dervish’s turbo-charged take on the same song on Live at Palma;
There’s the swing of the “Mulvihill’s/Dawn” set, where the nice tribute to the emigrant fiddler Martin Mulvihill makes a great, uplifting change into the multi-octave fiddle fireworks of the “Dawn”, before Jackie Daly steps to the fore with a set of his patented Sliabh Luachra polkas. Jackie was a magnificent player, but his Cork/Kerry sensibility was fundamentally at odds with Frankie’s old-school Sligo ornateness, they meet more successfully on the O’Carolan dedication “Mr O’Connor,” a trio of box, fiddle, and bouzouki, and of which trio a videotaped performance exists (gotta love the sweater-vests);
The record closes with a wonderful, quintessential set, in which, after a titanic version of the 4-part big jig “Langstrom’s Pony” (and I’m realizing now that there’s another one I learned from A--- all those years ago), they slip into the driving 4/4 of the minor reel “The Tap Room,” before Frankie blasts into the last tune of the last track on the record, the great Scottish reel “Lord Ramsey’s.”
At any Irish music session in the world, if you play traditional music, and regardless whether you know the local language and customs, if you know the tunes off this record, you have a universal musical language in common. If you can play these tunes, you can find people anywhere in the world with whom you can play them, because you and they got the tunes from the same place. This record is that definitive of a generation’s experience within the music.
Years later I did meet Alec, and Frankie too, in person while on staff at Zoukfest between 2002-04. One year, Alec and his Scots duet-partner Kevin McLeod were sharing one half of another little house, a casita occupied in its other half by my flute-playing buddy Steve and his wife. This was at a reconstructed US Cavalry outpost in the mountainous
We did have some tunes together, Alec, Kevin, myself, Grey Larsen, Mason Brown, and a few others, in one of those little casitas, and I experienced if only briefly the astonishing, pure-oxygen-breathing sensation of being accompanied by that inimitable (truly: no matter its simplicity, no one has ever been able to replicate the telepathic intuition of Alec’s accompaniment) bouzouki playing.
But at another iteration, several years before and again while listening to Frankie and Alec play, I had a bit (OK, more than a bit) of an emotional meltdown that week, possibly but only partly maybe brought on by altitude sickness, which I’ve since learned can play hell on your emotional state. It comes into this story in a couple of ways (see also this Zoukfest Diary post about such meltdowns and why I think they occur). Though I managed to avoid acting out, it wasn’t like everybody around me didn’t know something was going on with me. Among whatever other factors having to do with expectations, “castles in the air,” and emotional ambiguity played into this, one I could identify was the old, old personal trope of what Dharmonia calls the “I sucks”—that is, being so attached to an egocentric equation between display of one’s artistic ability and one’s sense of self-worth that one is virtually paralyzed. There were, once again, people around me who were better musicians than I, and a mark of the “I sucks” is an inability to recognize that, in such situations, nobody except yourself cares who’s better.
This also why a bad self-image is a neurotic double-visioned chimera: it is simultaneously too negative and too positive, simultaneously too self-derogating and too self-absorbed. It’s the disappear-up-your-own-asshole obsession that the old Yankees I grew up with would call “fulla yerself” and the old Buddhists I admired would react to with a blow from a bamboo stick.
In the event, I got both, in a most unexpected situation and from a most unexpected source: one night about 3am, in the sprawling old adobe 18th-century mission belonging to Chipper Thompson, who was kindly housing a whole raft of Zoukfest characters during the week. I had a conversation with my musical baby-sister Jessica, who had been a fiddle student in my slow sessions in Bloomington, had gotten very good very quickly and moved back to Chicago to take part in its top-notch scene, but had come down to Taos for the festival hang. Over the course of a rambling conversation, Jessica—a no-bullshit Chicagoan—had said, in essence, “What the hell is the matter with you this week?” Being called on my psycho-drama forced me to cough up an honest answer, which was that I was intimidated and feeling lousy about my own skills (God, the self-absorption of the neurotic baby-boomer). And she said, matter-of-factly, “Maybe you try to play too many different kinds of music.”
Bear in mind that she was a good twenty years younger than I, and that I had been a teacher of hers, and of other such young people, damned near as long as she’d been alive. My instantaneous reaction was: Where the hell did this child get off telling me why I didn’t play the way I wanted to, and where the HELL DID SHE GET OFF BEING RIGHT?!?
Because of course that’s what can happen when an accurate insight comes straight at you, no matter the source: it can cut through your bullshit emotional defenses. I instantly knew that she was right, and that my attempt to be a top-notch player not only of Irish trad music, and Mississippi Delta blues, but also bebop, and Near Eastern music, and Zulu music, and Mande music, and medieval song, and Christ knows what else, was not only unrealistic and ill-founded, but was also in fact driven by a kind of hubris. The people I admired had spent whole lives in one of those musics becoming virtuosi of the kind I wanted to be; where the hell did I get off either trying to be, or agonizing over failing to succeed at being, a badass in all of them?
It was sobering. She was my student, and years younger than I, and was experiencing some of her own emotional meltdowns, but goddamned if she wasn't wiser than I, at this particular issue, and goddamned if she wasn’t right. My mood—my week-long brooding funk—snapped in that moment.
I spent the next two days thinking about the implications, of both resignation and inspiration, behind her insight. Somehow I was ready to hear it, or her no-bullshit
In another year, by which time I’d gotten my head straight as per Jessica’s dictum, the linchpin moment was a set of tunes in the lobby of the Taos Inn (“Taos’s Living Room,” to hear their advertising tell it, full of the preening artsy millionaires who drink there and the starving Taos artists who work there), played by my Coyotebanjo fiddle cohort Randal Bays, Alec on bouzouki, and my young fiddle student Thomas, over from Lubbock for the week, and at 16 making a hell of an impression of the grizzled vets, as he would later do to James Kelly, Brendan Larrissey, and the grizzled vets in the pubs of Sligo, Roscommon, and Galway. Randal, Thomas's teacher that week, sat with eyes closed, as Thomas played a tune for him with Alec's accompaniment. And for just that few minutes, I saw three generations from two continents, and the bond the tradition had created between them, and the strength, resilience, and century-spanning sanity of that union.
It was a long way from that little house on the granite bluffs above the harbor of my home town, to the adobe casita in the mountains above Taos, but when finally, after decades, I heard Frankie and Alec play together live the first Irish tunes I ever learned, and Randal and Thomas and Alec teaching tunes to one another, it didn’t, in light of the tradition, feel like hardly any time at all.
These poems came out of those experiences. I’ll dedicate them, here, to Jessica, and to Thomas, but also Lauren and Laura and Corey and Jacob and Elanor and Patrick and Kelli and Matt and Genny and Lawrence and Susan and Matthew and Linda and the John Waldron Ceili Band and the Celtic Ensemble and all the hundreds of other youngsters, down through the decades, for whom I’ve been privileged to be a (flawed, imperfect, ego-centric, but I swear to God good-intentioned) conduit to the tradition.
I am grateful for all they’ve taught me.
Spark flies in the dimlit pub.
Babble of voices, clink of glasses.
Cigarette smoke, damp wood, old beer.
Lamplight limns backlit cornsilk hair;
flashes on bare dancing downy arm.
Fiddler plays on.
--cjs, for Jessica Z, 8/19/01
Old man and young,
Intent, hunched forward,
Ear cocked to the fiddle’s belly,
And the newest tune.
While around them swirls the crowd
Clatter of glasses, skirl of talk,
A few faint tendrils of smoke,
And time stops.
No moment but the present,
As the tradition gives,
and gives back.
---For Thomas and
, at ZoukFest, 9.15.04, cjs Randal Bays