Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shamrocks in the Galax

A few decades ago concertina and clawhammer banjo player Bertram Levy composed a tune called Shamrocks in the Galax.  Leave it to a player of those two instruments, who has spent time in both Ireland and western North Carolina, to write a tune that is a blend of Celtic and oldtime sounds. Half my music time is spent playing Irish tunes and the other half is spent playing oldtime tunes, so I can relate to that "blarney hoedown" blend almost by default.

Since I play tenor banjo at oldtime jams and at Irish sessions, I get to see how each repertoire shakes down independently.  There are aspects of each format that I am drawn to when I play these tunes for my own enjoyment.  For example, I like how in oldtime jams they play a tune many times through - at least 4 or more times - which allows the participant to get into a zen-like groove.  (Irish tunes rarely go beyond three times around before shuffling on to the next).  Still, I do like the medleys of tunes in Irish music, I just don't always like knowing in advance how many times through it's going to be before switching.
Paddy in the Holler
I also find it interesting how oldtime fiddlers and banjo players just play the tune the way it sounds to them.  What I mean by that is words like breakdown, march, hornpipe, stomp and reel are more part of the tune title than anything too literal. (By contrast, in Irish music you might feel compelled to play a tune a specific way because of that hornpipe, barn dance, march, polka distinction).

In Irish sessions I like the fact that you are not tied to a key, but are free to jump from D to G to A-dorian and more from tune to tune.  (In oldtime you might find yourself stuck in A when you can't think of anything in A but can think of a bunch of tunes in other keys that you could do!). I also like how tunes in 6/8 and 9/8 time are part of the Irish tradition. (You'll never get to play jigs, slides or slip jigs if you just stick to oldtime!).

Going back to that oldtime concept of just playing the individual tune the way it sounds, with Irish music I'm not too worried about whether a 6/8 sounding tune was a jig or a slide, or whether a 9/8 sounding tune was a hop jig or a slip jig.  It's kind of like in golf where if you stand on the tee of a 450-yard par 5 it's an "easy" hole, but if you stand on the same tee as a 450-yard par 4 it becomes a "hard" hole.  It's the same hole either way.
The Celtibillies
I also like the variety of instruments in Irish music.  Beyond fiddle, banjo and guitar you see flute, tinwhistle, accordion, pipes, bouzouki, bodhran, concertina and more.  This wasn't always the case in Irish trad, but in recent decades additional instruments have been brought into the fold.  Essentially, any melody instrument can lead a tune.  

Oldtime, on the other hand, hasn't been as kind to new instruments.  The ubiquitous duo of fiddle with clawhammer banjo seconding remains the defining sound of Southern oldtime music.  In fact, some instruments that may have been used more commonly in the past - such as cello or tenor banjo - do seem to have fallen by the wayside as the concept of what is oldtime narrows.  Here's hoping for impromptu jams with unusual combinations of instruments; maybe accordion, bouzouki, flute and bodhran alongside dulcimer, autoharp, ukulele, mandolin and washboard!

I do enjoy being exposed to each tradition in its own right, and make it a goal to learn about and blend in with either style in its purest form if necessary.  Then, as an individual, I can continue to take away certain aspects of each to help define and inform what it is that I want to play on my own.

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