Our Friend Feature/Influence Friday posts have given you a bit of an understanding of the Ivy Leaf’s sound. Lindsay’s post on Marla Fibish and Jimmy Crowley will make you listen back to her playing of rhythm and melody on plectrum instruments, and you’ll have a better sense of how she conceptualizes the music, makes decisions, and puts them into practice on the fly – what she’s internalized, what she’s used as fuel for reflection. Caroline’s post on Dylan Foley could probably tell you something about her own upbeat, rhythmically-driven, crisply-ornamented, and sweetly-melodic style of flute and whistle playing; Caroline and Dylan share a kind of modern tradition, nurtured in Comhaltas competitions, which prizes a certain tasteful technical brilliance. As Armand mentions in his post on piper Joey Abarta, the two of them share a great deal in terms of expressive intonation outside of the classical Western equal-tempered scale, and I also find their choice of ornamentation to frequently coincide in tight triplets, startling glissando passages, and long smooth rolls. All of those musical influences can be heard – they make themselves evident – on the Ivy Leaf album, or at any of our live performances that you might happen to catch.
However, that’s really just one part of the full picture. Our music, of course, is much more than just “our music.” Whatever it is in full, it can’t be reduced to a series of sound files on a digital disc. Obviously, better scholars than I have gone to great lengths to discuss Irish music as a social phenomenon, and as a tradition of dance-focused musical rhythms (tunes are universally classified not by rhythm, like 6/8 or 4/4, but by the corresponding dance forms, jig or reel or what-have-you), so I won’t belabor the point. What I would like to bring up is how that fact also suggests that our friends and influences should, to be honest, extend further than other musicians. Beth Sweeney, the Irish Music Librarian at Boston College, has vastly changed my understanding of the tradition, and has made available to me numerous recordings of long-dead traditional musicians. She has her own lovely fiddle style, but it’s quite unlike mine; her influence on my music has been paradoxically non-musical. Our lovely friend Samanatha Jones, herself a sean-nós dancer, finished her graduated studies at Boston University with an extensive thesis entitled “Getting into the Groove: Dancing in Boston Irish Music Sessions” (it’s exactly what it says on the tin); her scholarship has indubitably deepened my appreciation for the living tradition, and for our part in it, but I’m still not certain that such an influence can be heard. Part of this is a kind of epistemological question, but the other part is a personal insecurity. I often find myself particularly pliable to the musical styles of the people with whom I’m playing. When I play with Joe Abarta, it’s a totally different Dan than when I play with the Ivy Leaf; indeed, if I’ve been listening to a lot of Denis Murphy, I’ll play much differently than had I listened to John Doherty all day. It leads me to ask one question – “What is my style?” – and then another – “What influences underlay all my playing?”
It’s an attempt to answer these questions which ultimately led me to choose Kieran Jordan for this week’s Friend Feature Friday. We play dance music, for sure, and we play it in a dancing style, so it’s something of a hilarious oversight that we’ve never mentioned any of the dancers who have passed through the Boston Irish music scene and contributed to our sound. The Ivy Leaf has frequently had guest dancers at performances – we’ve had Siobhán Butler and Jackie o’Riley at a few of our house concerts, we traveled to NEFFA with Rebecca McGowan, we were once graced by the spectacular step-dancing of Rhode Island’s own Kevin Doyle, and Erika Damiana (who went to high school with Armand and myself) will be joining us at our upcoming Blithewold Mansion performance. We love it! It’s a thick reminder of what the music is about, and where it comes from, and why it is the way it is. A collaboration with a good dancer is as rich and meaningful as bringing on another musician – it changes the sound, the rhythm, the whole groove of the thing. Of all those people, however, I chose Kieran for today because I think very particularly about her influences on me as a musician and dancer together, and how she’s helped me (as well as Armand and Caroline) shape a kind of rhythmic headspace which may not be evident on the album, but is much more obvious now.
Kieran is an extraordinarily accomplished dancer, and her whole story is on her website so you needn’t bother reading it here. Instead, I’ll let you know about the very first sean-nós workshop I ever attended. One thing to consider is that I wouldn’t have initially considered going, still quite sheepish about my dancing as I am, but that Kieran had hired me to play for the workshop. Once a month she makes a point of having live music for a proper sean-nós workshop. That should already tell you enough about her – that she understands the music and dance to have not only a rhythmic connection, but a social and personal connection. In particular, the improvised, free-flowing, close-to-the-floor style of sean-nós rather demands the energy of a musician right in the room, reacting to the sounds and movements of the dancers as they themselves react to the tunes. The dynamic is easy-going, yet rolling and relentless. It was preparation for that workshop which made me think about my music as totally dance music.
What really stuck, however, was Kieran’s introduction to the material. She explained to us – not a large group, but a few familiar friendly faces – that she teaches absolute beginners by asking them to think purely about rhythms. She thinks about rhythms in the body and the world: breathing, walking, your heartbeat, the sun rising and setting, the seasons. (She jokes that her classes, for some reason, always come up with other examples: eating and pooping! Getting your period!) To be honest, I’d thought about myself as a creature of habit, but never as a creature of rhythm. Jackie o’Riley has talked to me about coming to traditional music and dance – turning a corner from conceptualizing herself as an audience member, to conceptualizing herself as an active participant. In a similar way, I found Kieran’s simple suggestion to be an electric rail-switch. I once thought of my playing as something that had to be “fit into” a rhythm which existed outside of it (dancers need x/y tune at z beats per minute…). Kieran thought of the dance, and the music that accompanied it, more as clothes for the body of rhythm – fitted, but with some breathing room, clothes that make the body feel covered and sexy at the same time. Her philosophy is clear and clean in her dancing: rock-solid, light but sturdy, with a puckish sense of humor and a big smile on its face.
I could go on to describe Kieran’s immense role in churning up all of Boston Irish dancing into a beautiful traditional froth, and the amount of work she’s done to generally nourish Irish culture in the United States, but to me, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the realization of how a few simple sentences from her changed my understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts in my life.
Michael Coleman, the great Sligo fiddle player of the early twentieth
century, has a curious reputation. He’s known amongst traditional
musicians as one of the greatest men to pick up a fiddle; technically
brilliant to the point of virtuosity, but furthermore an outstandingly
public man whose music did much not only to preserve the Irish
tradition but to re-value it in the new context of the American music
market. For better or worse, he contributed significantly to the
commercialization of Irish traditional music, launching a totally new
type of tradition in which most of us still exist. Many of the sets he
recorded remain classics: the Tarbolton set is par for the course any
time musicians gather. Indeed, the very notion of playing “sets” of
tunes was popularized by Coleman (amongst others), who recorded
medleys at the behest of the recording company to improve
listenability – at the time, most traditional musicians would be
playing single tunes for dancing. Some people call him the savior of
Irish music; he transformed it, most certainly, and as with any
process of evolution, he introduced certain valuable characteristics
which were saved and reproduced, and continue to perpetuate themselves
in modern Irish music.
Scholar and fiddler Caoimhín Mac Aoidh quotes Patrick Kelly, the
inimitable fiddler and whistle-player of West Clare, in saying that
the worst thing ever to happen to West Clare music was the arrival of
Michael Coleman’s records. The comment is double-edged. On the one
hand, the records inspired an intense interest in Irish music in
America; on the other, anecdotes recall local fiddlers at home in
Ireland simply giving up playing, recognizing that they would never
enjoy the shimmering mastery of the instrument which Coleman appeared
to possess. The imitation of Coleman’s style is, more particularly,
what worried men like Patrick Kelly. With the advent of commercial
recordings, local players were exposed to music outside of their
general locality, which had previously determined style and repertoire
– but furthermore, it went a long way toward describing a way of
playing music for a listening audience, rather than for dancers or
simply for enjoyment. Although musicians certainly gathered to play
tunes for the pleasure of it, or played by themselves, their styles
were generally simple, rhythmic, and very tastefully ornamented,
without that commercial need to “impress,” to “sell” their music.
Coleman’s records, like those of Killoran and Morrison, suggested that
musicians could achieve more with a lithe, inventive,
highly-ornamental style, and many musicians in Ireland tended to
agree. Many learned Coleman’s settings of tunes by rote; it was rare
to find men like Patrick o’Keeffe of Sliabh Luachra, or John Kelly of
West Clare, who learned Coleman’s tunes and sets but did not try to
mimic his style in so doing. Even Patrick Kelly himself plays a unique
setting of Bonnie Kate – one of Coleman’s “big” tunes – clearly his
own, but clearly borrowing bits and pieces from Coleman’s record.
This has been generally observed, and it has been stated that Sligo
music came to dominate the cultural awareness of Irish music both at
home and abroad; the music in New York City, where Coleman, Killoran
and Morrison were all based, is largely considered a descendant of
this phenomenon. But this only represents part of the picture. At the
same time that Coleman had left Sligo, gone to America, and begun
recording, Sligo music continued to exist at home in a vein quite
different from what appeared on commercial records. In the county
Sligo, in what has since been dubbed “Coleman Country,” there
persisted the localized styles of playing which predated Coleman’s
influence; the same remained true of other parts of the country. Sligo
music in Sligo does not correspond to the commercialized Sligo music
which Coleman popularized: it is highly rhythmic, sparsely ornamented,
and light on its feet. There are several powerful exemplars of this
style, tending notably towards the duet of fiddle and flute: Fred Finn
and Peter Horan –
- as well as brothers like the McDonaghs of Ballinafad, whose brilliant
and historically-valuable music has been recorded and released on CD.
I would like to point your attention to a very recent release, which
met with my intense pleasure: a solo CD of John Henry. Not the
American folk-hero, of course, but the brother of flute player Kevin
Henry, whose own CD of tunes, songs and stories was released a few
years ago. I knew John’s playing previously from a single track on
Sean o’Riada’s Our Musical Heritage, in which he plays (predictably
enough) a set of Coleman tunes: Reidy Johnson’s (also called Hand Me
Down the Tackle) and Up Against the Buachallans. His playing
immediately caught my attention. It shimmers. It may be difficult to
think of without being a fiddle player oneself, but there is a certain
stridency and sure-footedness to the bow-hand of the best Irish
fiddlers which is immediately evident, although often in subtly
different ways. Henry’s playing is quite hard, with an assertive
attack that really drives the sound forward – quite different from a
Munster player who would have a more open feeling of drawing the sound
up and out of the strings. Henry presses it out with the precision and
confidence of his bow. Reels like the Five Crossroads and the slip jig
Fig for a Kiss highlight this assertive style. One track in particular
shows off his authority: called “the Ewe Reel,” and marked as a
“schottische,” it has the bounce of a polka, driven entirely with the
bow – almost totally devoid of left-hand, fingered ornamentation. The
sound is eminently danceable.
The CD is mostly solo fiddle, with a few guest performances. I highly
recommend picking it up, if for no other reason than to give
perspective on what Irish music was like, is today, and how it
continues to evolve. We can more appropriately appreciate Coleman’s
style if we consider that the kernel of it is much closer to the music
of men like John Henry than it is to the modern players of
Sligo-influenced New York fiddle playing. It is an entrancing piece of
Heyo, Ivy Leaf fans! It’s Friday, and that would generally mean it’s a Friend Feature Friday. Caroline pointed our ears toward Dylan Foley last time; his debut album is pretty mighty fiddle playing. Sadly for me, I haven’t got so many friends as I’ve got influences from recorded music. It’s a bit of an odd way to go about learning Irish music, which is so social, but I get a lot of my style and repertoire from archival recordings of players often dead half a century. So instead of Friend Feature Friday, today will be…err, inFluence Feature Friday? (We’ll figure it out.)
I’d like to show you guys the music of two fantasic fiddle players: Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford. Denis and Julia were actually siblings, the children of Bill Murphy of Lisheen. Bill Murphy was a member of the Lisheen Fife and Drum corps, back in the day, but Denis and Julia both learned fiddle-playing from Padraig o’Keeffe, the last of the traveling fiddle-masters in the Sliabh Luachra area. Padraig had a style very much unlike the standard style in Kerry and Cork. Although he did have a sly rhythmic pulse which we know to characterize Sliabh Luachra music, he was known for playing at a relatively slow place, somewhat reflectively, with rich double-stops and very pitch-sensitive ornamentation (he had at least three very distinct ways of playing an ‘f’ note, for instance). Padraig was also famous for playing slow airs on the fiddle, with great focus on the vocal quality of the music. So between these two influences, Denis and Julia received the swinging dance music of Kerry (polkas, slides, and hornpipes), some of the unusual and archaic fife-and-drum tunes (marches, single jigs, and barndances), and some of the beautiful song airs of home and abroad (local productions, like o’Rahilly’s Grave, or continental pieces like The Wounded Hussar).
Denis moved to New York for a while, and Julia to London, but both returned to Ireland in the 60’s, Denis for good (he sadly died in 1974, still quite young at 64). “The Star Above the Garter” was recorded in 1969, while Julia was visiting from England. It’s a paradoxical kind of album - not everyone would recognize it, or even the names of Denis and Julia, but it’s immensely influential, and many of the tunes (and even the sets) have been standards around the world ever since. If you’ve ever played “the Knocknabower polkas” or “the Ballydesmond polkas,” it’s because of this album, along with a host of other great tunes. If you start the Galtee Rangers in a session, chances are 10 to 1 that people will naturally follow with the Glentaun Reel and o’Keeffe’s Post Office, one of the classic “Denis and Julia” sets.
When I first started playing Irish music - literally, my first lesson! - my teacher made me a copy of Star Above the Garter. I’ve never been able to shake Kerry music since, and every time I hear it, I feel quite at home. Even the West Clare musicians whom I most admire - Nell Galvin, Patrick Kelly, John Kelly - had strong ties to Sliabh Luachra. Many fiddle players (Caoimhin o’Raghallaigh most vocally) have been influenced by the album, along with box players and musicians of all ilk, whether they may realize it or no! It’s a classic recording; any Irish musician alive in the 60s and 70s would know it. So take my advice, tootle over to iTunes and have a go.