Contents

The (New) Old Pigeon On The Gate

The Humours of Glendart/Pay The Reckoning

The Eavesdropper

The Torn Jacket/The Flowers Of Limerick

My Love Is In America

The Road To Lurgan

Thugamar Fein An Samhradh Linn

Behind The Haystack

The Pretty Girls Of Mayo


The (New) Old Pigeon On The Gate

What’s old?  The pigeon or the tune, or both?

Where I live, South East London, one of the most common forms of wildllife is the feral pigeon. On wintry days such as we’ve experienced recently, they’re often to be seen huddled together, in groups of three or four, “balled-up” against the cold.  There is a great sense of stoicism in their enduring the worst that nature can throw at them.

Where I grew up, a lot of people – particularly of my grandparents’ generation – were equally stoic.  They’d lived through hard times and they’d worked hard (plastering, “service” – that is to say full-time live-in domestic skivvying, commercial eel-fishing, hemstitching and farm labouring all feature in my parents’ and grandparents’ upbringings).  They were never going to have more than the barest scrapings to get by on and were never ging to have the respect of anyone except their friends and neighbours.

But their stoicism wasn’t bitter – perhaps occasionally so, but everybody’s allowed an off-day now and again.  The sense I was always left with was that life had tried to grind them down, but they’d always stayed one step ahead.  Their lead was precarious, but it was a lead nevertheless.  Sometimes I imagine these previous generations like the pigeons in a London winter scene … slightly hunched and “balled-up” but waiting for the moment to fly.

The tune … a simple little reel.  I find myself increasingly drawn to these very simple tunes.  I was watching a TV programme the other day which explained how stars, even entire galaxies, disintegrate and the matter from which they were formed may recombine many millions of years later, many millions of miles away to form new stars.  Irish music is a bit like this … we hear fragments of tunes in other tunes, each new tune that emerges owing a debt to all the others in the ever-shifting universe of tunes.

And I wonder about small tunes such as “The Old Pigeon On The Gate” …  Is this a “seedling”, sloughed off from some much bigger tune(s)?  Or is it an elementary tune … one whose phrasing and feel serve as fuel for other tunes?

I suspect the latter.  While playing this tune the other day, I found myself twisting it out of shape and, after a time of messing about, realised that I suddenly had a new tune emerging.  After another little time, the only remnant of the “Old Pigeon” which remained was the first two bars which were preserved intact.

What to call this new tune?  Time will tell.  A tune doesn’t deserve a name – indeed doesn’t need a name – until it’s played in public.  So, until then, I’ll simply call it “The New Old Pigeon” …

UPDATE

In London, we are home to large numbers of parakeets.  They’re not native and there are those who have a dislike of them. However to my mind they are lovely birds, with a vivid green plumage and, in my humble opinion, as handsome and striking in flight and from a distance as when resting or feeding “close up”.  And so, in keeping with the avian theme, I have given a name to the tune I referred to as “The New Old Pigeon On The Gate”.  From this point on it will be known as The Parakeet.

The tune is now complete and I set it out in abc format below.

X:1

T:The Parakeet

M:4/4

R:Reel

L:1/8

C:Aidan Crossey

K:G

|G2BG dGBG|F2AF dFAF|E2cE dEcE|A2AB cBAB|

G2BG dGBG|F2AF dFAF|E2cE dEcE|A2AB cdef||

|g2dg Bgdg|f2df Afdf|g2dg ecAG|FGAB cdef|

g2dg Bgdg|f2df Afdf|e2ef gfef|d2de dBAB||

I really would appreciate comments from fellow musicians!

First published in “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010.


The Humours Of Glendart/Pay The Reckoning

We all arrive at the pub – myself, guitar player, bodhran player and blue-chip flute player – just before 9.00, when the session is due to kick off.

The football’s on.  “Sorry, there.  Should be over by 9.30 and then you can pile in with the tunes.”

Grrrrrrr!  We head outside for a fag and commence ruminating … as you do.

Somehow the conversation comes round to banjo tone rings.  I make the comment that, in my opinion, a  heavy tone ring can make a banjo “sound” quieter.

“Really?”  Eyebrows arch…

“Yeah … in the sense that a banjo without a tone ring can sound tinny and “echo-ey” and “boing-y” …” (Technical terms, these!)  “Whereas, a heavy tone ring – although it can boost the overall volume, has a tendency to remove the annoying overtones.  And so because it tends to blend in with the other instruments better, it can have the effect of making the banjo not be heard “above” the other instruments and therefore, it appears quieter …”  QED!

I’m not sure whether my logic convinces everyone, but there is a general nodding of heads.

The match over, we have a last quick fag and head inside.

“Start us off with a few jigs, there …”

I begin to pick out the first few notes of “The Humours of Glendart”.  The guitar-player leans over and says “I see what you’re saying about tone rings … your banjo’s really quiet.”  After a few more bars, he leans in again and adds “VERY quiet … a bit too quiet, actually.”

Now … often in sessions, I have difficulty hearing my banjo over other the massed assembly of other instruments.  It’s designed to project forward, I’m sitting behind.  Occasionally I have to lean in really close to hear what’s going on.  So I’m not overly concerned.  It’s a big pub with a rake of loud punters.  Sometimes the music just doesn’t cut through …

To my right, as I make the change into “Pay The Reckoning”, the top-drawer flute player appears very disconcerted and leans at an improbable angle to hear what I’m playing.  She shakes her head and throws me a quizzical look.

At this moment a lightbulb appears above my head; if it wasn’t so dark, my blushes would have been obvious.

Surreptitiously, trying (without success) not to interrupt the tune, I reach inside the banjo head and dislodge the rolled-up t-shirt which I’d inserted last night as a mute.  As fast as I can I ball it up and chuck it into the corner.  Flute player has her eyes closed and hasn’t noticed what’s going on.  Suddenly the banjo rings out (and by now, obviously, rings out of tune as the pressure on the head is released … but too late to re-tune before the next set, so I play on anyhow).

We reach the end of the set and top-drawer flute player says … “God, that was funny.  I couldn’t hear you at all and then suddenly there was heaps of volume.  How do you do that?”

“Don’t ask …” I said.  “Just don’t ask!”

The guitar player, seated opposite me, grins.  He’s seen everything.  “Just a question of hitting your stride, eh?  That and a “quiet” tone ring …”

First published on “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010


The Eavesdropper

So … it’s a Sunday “teatime” session in a boisterous pub in South East London and we’ve been on the go for a few hours.

As sometimes happens in sessions, two new faces have appeared and settled in amongst us.  One of the newcomers has with him not just one but TWO bodhrans!  Never mind that we’ve already got two bodhrans in the regular crew and a spoons player … 

The other newcomer  produces … a bodhran!  So there we are … four melody players (banjo, accordion/one-row melodeon/fiddle/whistle, fiddle and whistle) and five percussionists.  An unusual mix, you would have thought but these things happen and no use crying over spilt milk.  The motto is … play on and hope the various batterers of metal on metal and wood on goat can agree among themselves turns to sit out the odd set.

I’m right into the tunes anyway and I pay little heed to the newbies, being more concerned with the interplay between myself and the other melody players.

A lull develops and it occurs to me that this might be a good time to play “The Eagle’s Whistle” which I tend to follow with “The Earl’s Chair” (try it yourself … the reel makes a very nice change after the march).  I quickly establish that at least one of the crew knows both tunes and we set off.  The pace has been quite fast and furious all evening and so I’m determined to ensure that the march proceeds at a gentle, stately manner and I deliberately take hold of the timing, ignoring the tendency of other players to nudge it along a little.  By the time we get to the first repeat, we’ve settled into a very steady rhythm and the tune takes over…

However, as we approach the second part, I’m aware of raised voices.  Apparently one of the new bodhranii has taken up residence behind me and has been talking to the other new bodhran player over the top of the tune.  Our spoons player, who – together with our regular bodhran players – has determined that percussion would be inappropriate for the march section of the set, is a tad annoyed at the lack of respect shown by the necomers.  At first politely, but increasingly insistently, he requests/demands their silence…

One of the guys takes heed and mutters an apology.  However, Mr Two-Drums responds to the spoon player’s demands in a whining manner.  “What’s it to you?”  “I’d appreciate it if you would back off.”  “I’ve never been spoken to like this at a session in my life!”  And so on.  I can see where this one is heading as I make the change into the reel.  Spoons grows ever more insistent.  The new boy rails ever more whiningly.  Neither is going to back down and Spoons will ensure that he emerges with his honour intact!

This, I know, is now going to end up with the spilling of blood and, possibly, flashing blue lights.  I could intervene at this point and possibly rescue the situation but instead, I make the decision to ignore the conversation happening behind me and play on.  I look across the table at the young accordion player who’s made the change with me.  Her eyes are as wide as saucers as she watches the scene unfold and I can tell she’s uncertain as to what to do next.  I signal to her to carry on (via some form of barely perceptible nod, bordering on telepathy …) and I close my eyes and climb back inside the tune.

“The Earl’s Chair” is one of those tunes I’ve played for years and years and so I’m able to concentrate on the tune rather than the mechanics of the tune, taking opportunities to twist it here and there and to up the ante a little at each repeat.  By the time we’ve come to the end of the second repeat, we’re flying.

Throughout the tune, the argument continues.  Mr Spoons becomes increasingly frustrated at the new bloke’s reluctance to simply pipe down.  Meanwhile the “aggrieved” party continues to remonstrate, reedily and whiningly and ever more loudly.  Eventually, the inevitable comes to pass.  Spoons gets up out his chair, bristling and fuming.  “I’m not asking you to shut up, I’m TELLING you!”

And then a lurch, a grip of the collar and the administration of four or five punches to the bodhranii’s (literally) gobsmacked face.

The punches land as we reach the end of the tune, just in time for me to pass my banjo across to someone and restrain Spoons, who is about to launch his second offensive.

(Through the corner of my eye, I witness one of our regular bodhran players zip up his case and slip quickly and quietly out of the pub.  He waves me a quick goodbye and mimes that he’ll phone me later.  In the meantime the gubbed newbie is running round the pub like a headless chicken, pleading with all and sundry to agree with him that this was outrageous and unfair.

He received very little support, it must be said.  Afterwards, when the dust had settled, we all agreed that he didn’t deserve a thumping and I made it clear to Spoons that he was out of line to have smacked your man.  But … he should have given proper order when asked and instead of whinging and whining and yapping on, he should have apologised straightway for talking over the tune.  I could imagine what might have happened if the same boy had talked over the tunes in the same way in some other sessions I’ve gone to and I concluded that there could well have been less arguing and swifter retribution!)

I’ve debated with myself several times whether I should have stopped the tune and intervened.  But I my responsibility was to the tunes, not to the musicians, not to the punters.  They’re adults (up to a point) and ought to be responsible for their own actions.  Besides there were other musicians around – some of them almost as thick-set as myself – who could easily have intervened since they weren’t carrying the tune.

So there you go … for a moment or two, while the debate was in full swing, I was “The Eavesdropper”.

The tune itself … I first came across this tune, as far as I can remember, on Paddy Keenan’s “Poirt an Phiobaire” album (with Arty McGlynn on absolute top form).  The first few notes fooled me into thinking that “Out On The Ocean” was coming up.  Subsequently, I’ve come across it in all sorts of sessions and in all sorts of CDs.  I love the way that the second part, in particular, lends itself to interpretation and each player tends to favour this or that setting, accentuating this or that phrase.  Now and again I trip over myself in the second part, which has a similarity to the second part of “The Primrose Vale” and I find myself slipping between the two – much to the puzzlement of my musician colleagues.  Occasionally, the end result is the sort of train wreck which we all seek to avoid in sessions … but not to worry.  Train wrecks are nothing compared to the Sunday afternoon dust-up in South East London!

First published on “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010


The Torn Jacket/The Flowers Of Limerick

Sometimes I’ve felt like giving the music up … the hours put into learning this or that tune, experimenting with ornamentation and variation and so on just don’t seem to be paying off.  You work with a tune all week and there you are at a session and decide to give it a lash and it breaks down.  Or those ornaments which you’ve worked into the tune just don’t happen and you’re forced into playing the tune “straight” and it sounds clumsy and unmusical.  And all around you there sit fantastic players who glide effortlessly from one tune to the next, from one set to the next, while you struggle to keep up.

So, sometimes for weeks at a time, I’ve let the instrument sit in its case, brooding in a corner of the room.

When I hit these barren stretches, it’s more than I can do to even listen to the music.  I’ll listen to other stuff, sure.  But not THE music.  I won’t, can’t, think about THE music without a feeling of mild despair, a small but insistent nagging in the pit of my stomach.  (I know … I should loosen up … but, there you go!)

I wandered into the latest of these “deserts” about a year ago.  Two, three weeks passed before I could bring myself to listen to a few tunes (picking up the banjo was still very much out of the question).  This CD?  No – nothing captured my attention.  That one?  No.  The other?  Sorry!

And then I dug out The Smoky Chimney by Harrington, O’Sullivan and de Grae.  I’ve always had a gra for this record; it’s laid-back, but full of passion and commitment.  I’m always reminded of John Prine’s line in “Storm Windows” when he sings of “…a country band that plays for keeps/They play it so slooooow”.  So, I’m listening away and they make the change from “Rolling In The Barrel” to “The Torn Jacket” (aka Connie O’Connell’s to whom we’re all indebted for this fine composition)  and my ears pricked up.  To my mind that change is one of the most beautiful, intense moments of music I have yet to hear.

And the tune!  I’m sure that all people who play this music have “epiphanies” from time to time.  I’ve certainly had many moments where “the scales have fallen from my eyes” and truly GETTING this tune was one of those.  I had to, had to, HAD TO learn it.  It was a tune which would not simply extend the quantity of my repertoire by one tune, but one which would surely improve the overall quality…

And then, of course, there’s the tune which comes after, “The Flowers of Limerick”, more commonly known as “The Mills Are Grinding”.  Yet another electric change and yet another tune that’s played at a smooth lope.  So, why stick at learning “The Torn Jacket” … I had to get the next one as well.

So, out with the banjo and practice, practice, practice.  I got “The Torn Jacket” fairly quickly and, to my surprise, “The Flowers Of Limerick” came to me quite quickly as well.  (Alas, rather too quickly … having played it a session some little time after, I found that I’d mislearned the first part and it took some patient coaching by one of my colleagues before I had it properly.  Same thing happened when I picked up “The Milliner’s Daughter”.  I thought I had it learned properly but was exposed in a pretty top-drawer session in South West London.  Could have been a “curl up and die moment”, but a veteran box player leaned across to me and said “I think I have a different way with that tune than you do.  Play me your setting again.”  I did … slowly.  “That’s an interesting take.  But I think you’ll find most people have learned it this way.” And he played the recalcitrant phrase two or three times slowly, motioning with his head for me to join in.  I did, eventually … feeling self-conscious to begin with, but quickly realising that his intervention was meant as a helpful bit of coaching, rather than a public admonishment.  And it sunk in … many thanks!)

I haven’t hit an arid spell since.  But when I next do, I’ll remind myself a) that these bleak moments pass and b) that sometimes it takes only a mere spark to rekindle the fire.  I’ll remember the way in which “The Torn Jacket” and “The Flowers of Limerick” broke through the last log-jam and then – perhaps – I might just enjoy the break!

First published on “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010


My Love Is In America

I came to an appreciation of the music rather late in life – something which, from time to time, I regret terribly.  But then again, what use are regrets?

One of the results of this late immersion in the music has been a rather idiosyncratic approach to learning tunes.  At sessions, I find myself surrounded by players who never put their instruments down; no matter how obscure, or how demanding, the tune, they know it and play away.  Whereas, some nights I’m lucky to be able to recognise – let alone play – half of the tunes.

A big debate rages constantly among traditional musicians as to the “proper” way of learning tunes.  There seems to be a consensus – amongst those who have the ability at least! – that the best way to learn tunes is by ear.  I can well see the truth in this – the music is formed from a finite series of notes, arranged into a more or less finite series of apt phrases.  However these phrases are capable of being arranged into an almost infinite variety of tunes.  A very good musician of my acquaintance, who has a phenomenal ear for tunes, reckons his ability hinges on the fact that he put a great deal of effort into learning phrases, not by artificially dissembling tunes but by noting mentally where this or that phrase recurs in different tunes and how the phrase is affected by following or preceding other “stock” phrases.  He talks about the DNA of tunes and compares the possibilities for endless tunes with the fact that the complex variety of life itself is formed from a tiny range of molecules – but capable of being arranged in infinitely varied ways.

Hmmm.  I’m not quite at that stage.  There are one or two tunes which I’ve learned by ear.  More often, I will have a vague idea of the tune in my head but need a little reassurance that I’m on the right track.  Usually I’ll have a skim through the tune in a book (or more commonly in “abc” format via the web) and play it through one or two times with the notes in front of me until I have the basic sequence.  However, inevitably, the setting doesn’t quite correspond with the way I hear the tune in my mind’s ear.  And so, over the course of the next little while, I’ll play it dozens of times, until eventually I have a version of the tune which works for me …

My Love Is In America is one of those tunes I’ve heard hundreds of times, but it just didn’t “stick”.  Until I was listening to Helen Roche’s beautiful CD “Shake The Blossom Early”.  In one of the songs, My Love Is In America emerges as a theme, played very slowly and steadily on the pipes.  And straightaway I “got” the tune.  I was on the way home and couldn’t wait to see if I could translate this tune which was now firmly established in my memory into my fingers.  It was one of those occasions where the learning by ear approach worked for me.  I wouldn’t say that I played it through fluently in that first instance, but I had very little difficulty in picking out the notes.  And after perhaps forty or fifty repeats – drilling the tune in – I can safely say that I’d developed something of a way with the tune (and, of course, after playing the tune “out” with other musicians, my approach to it has developed further – as it does!).

In London, in any event, this tune is often played at a blazing speed.  However I like to hear/play it a slower pace than that at which reels are normally played.  A slow version of the tune draws out its sense of melancholy.  My Love Is In America.  Such an economical, evocative phrase.  There is undoubtedly a tail to these few words, along the lines of “… and I’ll never see him/her again”.

I remember, during a slow news day, hearing on the radio a few years ago that Irish music had “officially” been rated as the “saddest” of all the world’s musics.  I seem to remember the piece being illustrated by a number of slow airs on the pipes.  However, I would maintain that some of our dance music captures as much melancholy as the most heartbreaking of slow airs.  I find that tunes such as “Corney Is Coming” and “The Bird In The Bush” can conjure up feelings of sadness to match those evoked by, say, “Taimse I Mo Chodladh” or “An Buachaill Caol Dubh”.

And of course, with a title like “My Love Is In America”, it’s not surprising that this popular reel also has a tremendous sense of sadness at its core.

First published on “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010


The Road To Lurgan

A few years back, leafing through a copy of “O’Neill’s 1001”, I stumbled on a jig called “The Road To Lurgan”.

Having been brought up in the outskirts of Lurgan (the one in County Armagh – I gather there are a few Lurgans scattered throughout Ireland), I set about learning it.

The tune is essentially a two-part version of The Maid At The Spinning Wheel (which has an absolute “hoor” of a fourth part; rarely played and with good reason!).

So, the tune was already familiar to me and I could put away the dots (good thing too, since I struggle a lot with reading music). And, as likely happens to anybody who plays the music, I got stuck in a loop with the tune, playing it through many, many times, trying to work it into that automatic “finger memory” which is essential (to me, at least) for playing a tune in a session.

So, with my eyes closed, and playing the tune, I visualised The Road To Lurgan in my head. Turn out of Wolfs Island, down Wolfs Island Hill, Ballinary Turn on my left, then Ruddle’s Bog. The Tones Pitch was to my right as I carried on in my head towards Kitty Smith’s Corner and the turn-off to Raughlan and Kinnego. I mentally crossed the Clauset river, then up The Kesh Hill. From there, a mere couple of hundred yards to the Kesh Chapel and the Kesh school, before rounding McGreavy’s Corner, through Aghacommon, alongside Balinamony Cottages towards Silverwood. The stretch from Ballinamony to Francis Street – “the head of the plain” – was always the longest bit of the journey into town. Very little in the way of houses, little likelihood of bumping into somebody you might know. You might be getting a bit tired by now, a bit fed up with the foot-slogging. You’d maybe be looking over your shoulder as you hear each car approach, in the hope that it might be somebody from out your way, perhaps inclined to give you a lift, to hear a few bids.

But it got me to thinking … that the particular road to Lurgan that I was rehearsing in my mind is only one of many roads to Lurgan. If I’d lived in any of the other townlands which surround Lurgan, then the road would be a very different one. If I’d lived in, say, Agahagallon or The Bleary or Waringstown or Magheralin, then I would have traced an altogether different route into town…

And I speculated idly – as you do! – as to which of these particular roads The Road To Lurgan was named after.

Sure, we’ll never know.

First published on “Pay The Reckoning”, February 2010


Thugamar Fein An Samhradh Linn

“We bring the summer with us…”

I was listening last night to Padraigin Ni Uallachain’s version of this uplifting and joyous song from her uplifting and joyous album, An Dealg Oir. There’s a section where a lark sings over the backing which brought me back to a blazingly hot summer’s day, alone on the slopes of Croaghaun in Achill Island, County Mayo.

That was the summer – and the place – when Irish trad music really began to click for me. For a variety of reasons I needed to get away from London for a bit and I had the good fortune to fall in with two amazing musicians – a whistler/piper and singer called Shay Kennedy and his buddy, the piper (among an array of other instruments) and singer Dermot Maguire. At first it was purely their company that drew me to them. But as that summer wore on, the music started to get under my skin.

On returning to London, I bought my first mandolin. The first of many, over the years. Trying to get a tune out of it was a painful process. How many beginners fall at the first hurdle, I wonder? But perseverance paid off and within a few months I had a handful of tunes under my belt.

And sometimes yet, when I’m playing a tune to myself, I’m transported back to that summer. I feel the heat on my back, the breeze in my face and the sound above me of a mountain lark. Thugamar fein an samhradh linn … we bring the summer with us. A beautiful sentiment.

Aidan Crossey, November 2019


Behind The Haystack

When I was a child, we lived in my grandparents’ house. Like many a child, I was plagued by recurring dreams. One particularly frightened me.

I was standing at the back door. In those days, the area wasn’t so built-up and there was a clear view all the way to Derryadd with the Tyrone mountains just visible on the far horizon. In the dream, about half a mile away, a single haystack stood in a newly mown field. As I watched it, it collapsed.

For some reason, that was a terrifying moment. Every time. I knew it was going to happen and then it happened. And I would wake up scared and crying…

Anyway – that old jig Behind The Haystack! I know all about that. I know all about what’s behind the haystack. I’ve seen it collapse countless times. Nothing! There’s nothing behind the haystack. Now go back to sleep…

Aidan Crossey, November 2019


The Pretty Girls Of Mayo

God knows I wasn’t much to look at, or to chase after. Not-so-sweet sixteen and never been kissed.

She, on the other hand, was a looker. Milky-white skin and crow-black hair. A woman to my half-man/half-boy.

So it came as a shock to me when I learned that she wanted to dance with me. The slow set at the end of the night.

We stumbled around the floor; I’m not much of a dancer. But somehow, over the din, I made her laugh and then – be still, my beating heart! – we were kissing and making arrangements to meet up the next day.

We spent most of that next day halfway up the mountain, looking out over a sparkling sea, larks thrumming and warbling overhead on the splendidest day of that year on the west coast. A chaste day, in retrospect. Holding hands, the odd kiss but mostly just talking. About our barely-begun lives. How exotic the lives of others seem! But then again, how strange that this heaven-sent beauty, this Helen, had thoughts, feelings, insecurities which weren’t a million miles distant from my own.

And then it was time to make the long trip home. A lump in my throat the whole way. So hard to part…

Some find the rain-lashed, wind-stripped landscape of West Mayo bleak and harsh. I love its light, its stark contrasts – lush green of bog and meadow, the deep blue of its infinite skies, the grey of exposed rock, the brilliant white of towering clouds as they billow up from the ocean.

But until that day, I’d never experienced the sheer good looks, the kindness and warmth of the pretty girl of Mayo, whose beauty was as boundless and awe-inspiring as the place from which she came.

Aidan Crossey, November 2019