Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slip Jigs and C Tunes

Irish slip jigs and old time C tunes have no association, although I'm at the point in my musical development where I'm starting to have an interest in both tune types, which are sort of like "4th tier" or "4th rung" in their respective idioms.  But once you get around to them they can be a lot of fun.   
If you fall for Irish Traditional music you’re bound to come across slip jigs, hopefully sooner than later.  Unlike the more common reels and hornpipes which are in 4/4 time, and jigs (and IMO slides) which are in 6/8 time, slip jigs are in 9/8 time – “pineapple, apricot, sausages; pineapple, apricot sausages”.  To me slip jigs feel elusive and exotic…with an almost jazzy phrasing.  The time signature can be challenging for the trad music blow-in with no classical music background to try and wrap his head around.

The first slip jigs you’re likely to encounter are The Butterfly, Foxhunter’s and Kid on the Mountain.  However, at my local session they play at least three other lovely 9/8 tunes:  Snowy Path, Boys of Ballisodare and Another Jig Will Do.  I like all three of these slip jigs and they are some of the next tunes I’m going to be working on.  Comb Your Hair and Curl It and A Fig For a Kiss are a couple other titles that come to mind.
Just as slip jigs aren’t the first Irish tunes you learn, old-time fiddle tunes in the key of C are only going to come up after you’ve worked through D, A and G.  Some of the old-time jams I attend will occasionally spend some time in C, and there’s a lot beyond Billy in the Lowground, including Texas Gales, East Tennessee Blues, Spider Bit the Baby, Monkey in a Dogcart, Hell Broke Loose in Georgia, L and N Rag, High Yellow, Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase, and many more. 

The mark of a dedicated old-time player is the person who hangs in there and even relishes the jump to C.  As someone who plays Appalachian fiddle tunes on tenor banjo, I’m especially interested in learning C tunes because they have a "raggy" sound that really seems to suit the instrument.  Texas Gales (also called Texas Gals) is the one I currently like best and may want to learn next.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Old-Time Fiddle Music

Unlike classical music, where we have composers, conductors, musical scores, and musicians, in old-time fiddling a tune's composer is very seldom known.  No musical notation is definitive; there is no score, no composer's intention, no written down single source, no conductor.

Old-time tunes live in memory and performance; they pass from one fiddler to another.  There are only the fiddler, the idea of the tune, and the way the fiddler brings it out, or sets it.  An old-time fiddle tune is a little like an empty room:  the dimensions are pretty much fixed, and the doors and windows are in place, but the fiddler furnishes the room with a setting according to individual taste.

Over the years, the fiddler changes the setting, improving it a little, making it his or her own.  Just as there is no single "correct" way to furnish a room, there is no one right way to play a fiddle tune.  There are many right settings, some more satisfying than others.

The above content comes from Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes by Jeff Todd Titon.  

Technique: What Is It? (An excerpt from The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar)

Technique means "what you do and how you do it, to get what you want".  How you do what you do makes all the difference in the world when it comes to playing your instrument.  We want good technique, which means we get what we want from our instrument in the most economical and effortless manner, with a minimum of stress.

It's important to realize that when you see a good player do something you can't do, it's not because they have talent and you don't.  It is because they are doing it differently than you are.

You may lose control at a certain speed and not know it is because you are allowing tension in your shoulder, which makes it impossible to have control of the fingers.  The person you are watching play well is very relaxed.  He has already paid attention to this tension and gotten rid of it.  His inner experience is totally different than yours.  If he were doing it the way you are, he wouldn't be able to do it either!

This tip comes from The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar by Jamie Andreas.  I don't play six-string guitar, but a lot of the information in a book like this is universal - applicable to any instrument and all types of music.  I replace the word "guitar" with "tenor banjo" or "my instrument" where it makes sense.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Anna and Elizabeth - Sun to Sun CD

One CD that arrived in the mailbox a little too late for inclusion on my Best of 2012 List, but certainly deserving of the same recognition, is Sun to Sun by Anna and Elizabeth.  In many ways it’s the feminine answer to Eamon O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer’s Murphy Beds album that topped my list – a raw, sparse duo recording documenting the sound two people can make with just their voices and acoustic instruments. 
While the Murphy Beds have more of a Celtic center, Anna (Roberts-Gevalt) and Elizabeth (LaPrelle) are rooted in Southern traditional folk music - ballads, lullabies, tunes.  Music you might play around  the home on fiddle, guitar or banjo…for yourself and for others.  Sun to Sun contains 13 such songs from Virginia and Kentucky, learned from the repertoire of ballad singers such as Addie Graham and Texas Gladden.
Anna and Elizabeth are two women in their twenties living in Southwest Virginia.  The concern I usually have with young artists who perform old-time music is they get too wrapped up in sounding “old” and authentic, and what comes out can sometimes be a bit forced.  None of these contrivances seem to plague Anna and Elizabeth, who are natural and comfortable with their chosen medium (in a performance setting, they enhance the music with storytelling and original folk art). 
Anna and Elizabeth are not just curators of rural music and traditions, they are contemporary examples of how it can attune to the modern day.  Were it not for the fidelity, Sun to Sun might pass for something Alan Lomax captured on his tape recorder.  As they say in the CD booklet, "this music, for us, is tricky to separate from the sounds of crickets in the mountains all summer, the laughter between tunes in our kitchen, the patience of small stitches, the sight of an old woman flatfooting with her walker". 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scales Used In Common Irish Session Tunes

I conducted a study of the tunes in L.E. McCullogh's 121 Favorite Irish Session Tunes and the 60+ tunes  in John Walsh's Session Tunes pdf.  A total of 185 tunes from the standard repertoire.  Surprisingly, 100% of the tunes in both collections were written using a key signature containing either one or two sharps.  (One sharp was always F# and two sharps was always F# and C#).  I suppose this means that the notes Eb, F, G# and Bb aren't needed to play the basic melodies of any of them.
83 of the 185 tunes have a home note of D. (45%)
47 of the 185 tunes have a home note of G. (25%)
28 of the 185 tunes have a home note of A. (15%)
24 of the 185 tunes have a home note of E. (13%)
3 of the 185 tunes have a home note of B. (2%)

Of the 83 "D" tunes, 62 have 2 sharps and 21 have 1 sharp.
Of the 47 "G" tunes, 46 have 1 sharp and 1 has 2 sharps.
Of the 28 "A" tunes, 23 have 1 sharp and 5 have 2 sharps.
Of the 24 "E" tunes, 13 have 2 sharps and 11 have 1 sharp.
Of the 3 "B" tunes, all 3 have 2 sharps.
I'm a little surprised that no 3 sharps (A-major), 0 sharps (D-dorian) or 1 flat (G-dorian) tunes were included.  However, the reason that tunes in 1 or 2 sharps dominate might be because tin whistles, flutes and pipes are basically D instruments and most lack a G# key which is needed for tunes in A major. So, Irish tunes that resolve to A tend to have a G natural due to the lack of the G# note on some of the important instruments.

It should be noted that there are lots of A-major tunes, even though they weren't included in the two tunebooks I looked at.  A-major is popular with fiddlers who don't have the same G# restrictions.  It's also worth noting that the Irish tunes which sound "minor" are much more likely to be Dorian than the classical minor (Aeolian) mode.  So when someone says "this tune is in Aminor" it's often technically inaccurate.

The Irish repertoire isn't quite as restricted as these findings seem to indicate, as I know there are gems in F and C waiting to be found.  However, the basic repertoire does primarily consist of tunes with home notes of D, G, A and E. For me, since I'm fairly new to the tradition and haven't yet developed a keen ear, being able to make educated guesses about the likelihood of a tune's tonal center can help me narrow things down in a session setting.  Guessing that a tune is in D is like answering B on a multiple choice question.  The law of averages, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

House Concerts - Good for the Performer, Good for the Audience

I don’t know if house concerts are becoming more popular or if I have just arrived at the right combination of age and musical taste to be in the loop, but I had the pleasure of attending several enjoyable house concerts in 2012.  A house concert is just that – an intimate performance in someone’s home.  The host invites friends, neighbors and fellow music lovers to attend.  There’s usually between 20 to 30 people there.  It’s BYOB, you chip in 10 or 20 bucks for the performer, there’s a potluck beforehand, and the “band” – usually a small acoustic trio, duo or solo artist - does two approx. 45 minute sets.
Dubl Handi
House Concerts are great for the right performer.  All the proceeds go to you.  You get fed and are usually given the option of staying the night.  It’s an opportunity to make a direct connection with an attentive audience who is there to hear your music.  It helps if you are personable, charismatic, entertaining, able to play well under such scrutiny, and comfortable interacting with fans.
The Steel Wheels
House concerts usually have a built-in audience so you don’t have to do any promotion on your own.  Attendees tend to be slightly older, affluent and artsy; old fogies that want to support new fogies and who still buy CDs.  The bond you establish there means these folks will remain fans and may also be inclined to donate to your Kickstarter project down the road.

The Stray Birds
House concerts are great for the listener, as well.  It’s a no hassle, up close and personal event that starts on time and ends at a reasonable hour.  You get to hang out with friends and other like-minded music aficionados and you can chat with the performers, if you like.  The costs can be lower than dinner for two, a night at the movies, or an evening at a bar or club, and you don’t have to put up with people talking over the performer!
Curtis Eller

Coincidentally, there are some fine venues in the Richmond, VA area that follow the house concert model.  These include JAMinc, Ashland Coffee and Tea, The Listening Room, and Shady Grove Coffeehouse.  At venues like this where you can experience great music in a close and friendly environment you’re almost always guaranteed a good time, even if you aren’t familiar with the artist going in.

(The musicians pictured above are ones I saw in memorable house concerts in 2012).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keeping a Practice Journal

Starting New  Year's Day, I intend to begin keeping a practice journal and update it every day during 2013.  I'll use it to keep track of exactly what I played or worked on that day.  Warm-up exercises, what the recurring theme or main focus was, what I was thinking or feeling during the practice, how I divided up the practice session, what my goal was and whether or not I met it, what I could have done better, what my stopping point was, what I want to remember for next time...stuff like that. I'll also include any technical information, tips, pointers or other insights I've come across or learned recently.

In addition I'll list things I want to work on the next day, next week, next month, and even longer term goals.  I'll jot down specific concepts I want to focus on, such as tunes to learn, exercises and drills, ear-training, ornamentation, increasing speed, timing, rhythm, arpeggios, scales, improvisation, analyzing the shape of a tune, books I want to look at or read, research I want to do.  Basically planning so I know exactly what I need to do next time.  This will help me have a well-rounded practice regimen.

I also want to write in the journal immediately following a session or jam.  How it went, how I felt, what I played, what I couldn't play, what I didn't understand, what my physical and emotional state was, what tunes I liked or didn't like, what was frustrating, where I had  light bulb moments, and so on.  I currently attend 6 to 8 jams a month (20 hours per month) and it's easier to identify weaknesses and deficiencies immediately after playing in such an environment.

Ultimately, by keeping a practice journal I hope to have a feeling of accomplishment as I look back and see my progress over time.  It will keep me honest about what I really need to be working on and will challenge me to continue to push myself further than I was the day before.

Kokomo Jo - Caribbean Christmas: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the World's Best Christmas Album

My favorite Christmas album is a cassette tape called Kokomo Jo - Caribbean Christmas that I got from a truck stop near Farmville, VA in 1992.  The tape is now worn out, but thankfully someone has uploaded the full album to the web as an MP3, (click to listen) thus preserving it in digital form and giving you a chance to experience the same joy that I have known for the last 20+ yuletides.

You might think my love for this album is in jest, but you'd be wrong.  It's a sincere appreciation that has only grown deeper as the years have passed.  Maybe it's because Side A is Calypso and Side B is Reggae (you won't be able to tell the difference), maybe it's the singer - presumably Mr. Kokomo Jo himself - singing in a that ultra-cool Jamaican accent, maybe it's because it was recorded in Nashville, TN, maybe it's the constant, rock steady synthesized drum machine.  All I know is that Kokomo Jo - Caribbean Christmas is the music I rely on to get in the holiday spirit!

Track List:
Side One (Calypso) 1. 3:08 Caribbean Christmas 2. 3:45 It Came Apon A Midnight Clear / Hark The Herald Angels Sing 3. 3:53 Jingle Bells / I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day 4. 3:17 Joy To The World 5. 3:47 Go Tell It On The Mountain 6. 2:49 Up On A House Top

Side Two (Reggae) 7. 2:51 We Wish You A Merry Christmas 8. 3:17 Deck The Halls 9. 2:57 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen 10. 3:43 We Three Kings 11. 4:10 What A Child Is This / Away In A Manger 12. 3:25 O Come All Ye Faithful / O Little Town Of Bethlehem

If you didn't click the link above to hear this album, here's another chance.  Kokomo Jo - Caribbean Christmas.

The 25 Most Popular Irish Session Tunes

Using a combination of the rankings found on and, here are the Top 25 Most Popular Irish Session Tunes, based on how many members of each of those sites play them.

1.  Drowsy Maggie
2.  Kesh Jig
3.  Butterfly
4.  Cooley's
5.  Silver Spear
6.  Morrison's Jig
7.  Out on the Ocean
8.  Maid behind the Bar
9.  Connaughtman's Rambles
10.  Banish Misfortune
11.  Harvest Home
12.  Blarney Pilgrim
13.  Rights of Man
14.  Musical Priest
15.  Banshee
16.  Wind that Shakes the Barley
17.  Mountain Road
18.  Boys of Bluehill
19.  Lilting Banshee
20.  Lark in the Morning
21.  Cliffs of Moher
22.  Star of Munster
23.  Merry Blacksmith
24.  Kid on the Mountain
25.  John Ryan's Polka

Unlike Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown, this list of trad greatest hits stays pretty constant.  Chances are pretty good that a few of these tunes are going to be played at some point in the evening during any typical Irish session.  If you learn all 25 of these don't worry, there's plenty more waiting in the wings!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ice Cream Truck, My Source for Turkey In the Straw

I'm only partially joking with that post title.  Think about the tune Turkey in the Straw that you hear coming out of an ice cream truck.  To me that's as good of a place as any to start developing your interpretation of the tune. The melody line and intonation are clear, providing a solid foundation from which you are free to construct your own arrangement.
I believe there is a melodic identity at the heart of all good "ice cream truck version" that is independent from any one musician, source, style or equal playing field that allows everything from a West Clare jig to a Kentucky fiddle tune to be incarnated side by side regardless of who originally played them or where they come from.

I play traditional Irish and old-time tunes because A) they are great stand-alone melody lines and B) there are other local musicians who like to get together and play these same tunes in unison.  If folks in my area played a Norwegian Two-Step repertoire or Southwestern O'odham fiddle music, then I'd probably be inclined to learn some of those tunes as well!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mel Bay's Fiddle Sessions Archive

From June 2003 to October 2009 Mel Bay published a bi-monthly webzine called Fiddle Sessions.  Each issue featured 3 or 4 articles pertaining to the fiddle or fiddle playing, although much of the content is of general interest.  The issues are archived here.  I don’t play fiddle, but I was happy to have found the archive because I think you can learn about your own instrument by relating it to how other instruments are played.

I browsed through all of the Fiddle Sessions issues, and below are links to the articles I found to be the most helpful or interesting. 

Ecstasy at the Contra Dance (Donna Hébert, June 2003)
Learning Without Lessons (Stacy Phillips, April 2004)
BLACK EYED SUSIE - a version for beginners (Stacy Phillips, December 2004)
Pages From A Fiddler's Notebook (Joel Shimberg, February 2005)
Thoughts on Self-Starting as a Fiddler (Stacy Phillips, April 2005)
Practice Ethics: Part 1 (Betse Ellis, April 2005)
Practice Ethics: Part 2 (Betse Ellis, June 2005)
Jehile Kirkhuff - My Music Mentor (Ed Berbaum, August 2005)
More on Jehile Kirkhuff (Ed Berbaum, October 2005)
Natalie McMaster (Elizabeth Szekeres, December 2005)
Natalie McMaster, Part 2 (Elizabeth Szekeres, Feburary 2006)
Analysis of a Swedish Waltz (Karen Myers, April 2006)
Fiddle Styles by (Tim McCarrick, October 2006)
The Ivy Leaf as played by Jehile Kirkhuff (Ed Berbaum, December 2006)
John Hartford Comes to Dinner (Bill Gurley, June 2007)
Learning By Ear Vs. By Reading Music or Tab (Carolyn Osborne, August 2007
Alternate Fiddle Tunings inIrish Fiddling (Tim McCarrick, October 2007)
Tommy Jarrell's Family Stories 1830-1925 (Nancy Neithammer, October 2007)
Tommy Jarrell's Family Stories 1830-1925 Part Two (Nancy Neithammer, December 2007)
Tommy Jarrell's Family Stories 1830-1925 Part Three (Nancy Neithammer, February 2008)
Road to Lisdoonvarna and Sergeant Early's Jig (Philip John Berthoud, August 2008)
Secrets of Efficient Practice (Paul Anastasio, February 2009)
Listening to the Tradition (Missouri Girl, February 2009)
Sharpening Your Ear Without a Pencil Sharpener (Paul Anastasio, August 2009)
More Secrets of Good Practicing (Paul Anastasio, October 2009)

Like I said, you can sometimes gain new insight and expand your overall knowledge and understanding of music by studying material intended for other instruments.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Six Water Grog's Top Ten Albums of 2012

The annual Best Albums of the Year List is one of my favorite to compile.  Read on for the recordings I liked the most this year.

The Murphy Beds - The Murphy Beds (self-titled)
This album started off great on first listen and then grew on me from there.  It is what it is.  Song 1 does the same thing as song 10 and every one in between.  It goes to that place.  Simple, catchy, beautifully played.  Has an album feel.  One great song after another all the way through.  A comforting vibe, the way it was recorded.  A duo: just bouzouki, guitar and two voices in harmony.  Sounds like songs the hobbits would write and sing.

Dubl Handi - We Are In the Clouds
Happiness.  You can't help but smile when listening to Dubl Handi.  Who knew banjo and drum could sound so good together?  This album has a little bit of studio production, but it only adds to the fun.  This is a fresh take on old favorites.  A more creative and less affected angle than other young fogies.

The Stray Birds -  The Stray Birds (self-titled)
The Stray Birds have taken flight. Three individually talented musicians who have come together to form a band that is both heavy and light, with great songwriting and an authenticity that is true to the vine.  If this debut album is any indication, these guys and girl have a bright future.  They sure made a fan out of me this year!

Dan Gurney - Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion
This is one of the most sparse albums on the list. Just button accordion with very subtle piano backing.  Patient, relaxed, lasting, masterful treatment of tunes.  An incredibly palatable recording - captured in one three-hour, somewhat impromptu studio session in Galway in August 2011. It sounds natural, like what Dan Gurney would be playing whether the record button is pressed or not. 

Medeski Martin and Wood - Free Magic
For over 20 years now MMW have been a band in full command of the muse; artists and improvisers with a fluid link between creativity and the chops to pull it off.  Groove, lift and flow.  This live album captures over an hour's worth of the highlights from a 2007 acoustic tour.  It summarizes the essence of the gamut of their sound.

We Banjo 3 - Roots of the Banjo Tree
Where else can you hear a trio of Irish tenor banjo players take on old-time tunes like Liberty, Over the Waterfall, Boatman, Poor Liza Jane, Bill Cheatam, Kitchen Girl, John Brown's March and Lost Indian?  And where else can you hear Irish tenor banjo used for chording/rhythm and not just single note melody? There's also some trad, some very catchy songs, and an all around level of musical proficiency that is on par with anything else on this list.

The Hot Seats - Feel
The fully-realized, mature sound of The Hot Seats proper captured for the first time on a full length album.  They bring a little bit more umph and obliqueness to these old time traditional tunes than your average overalls and banjos ensemble, plus they sport original songs that everyone from your grandchild to your grandmom can love.  The Hot Seats sound like a band that knows what they are doing.

Lilt - Onward
There's something about the sound of flute and cittern in Irish music - a warmth of tone that you can't quite get with other combinations of instruments.  This is yet another minimal, duo, trad recording born out of a love for the music with skills honed from many a night spent having some tunes with friends and fellow musicians.  It's definitely not flashy, and that is what makes it so appealing.

Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio - Across the Imaginary Divide
Bela Fleck (5-string banjo) joins the Marcus Roberts Trio (piano, bass, drums) for a straight-ahead jazz album that comes off as if it were a quartet that has been playing for years, and not just a virtuoso sitting in with an established band. Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts each brought in material they had written for this project, but it's impossible to distinguish who wrote what.  It swings and that's what's important.

The Dust Busters - Old Man Below
The Dust Busters take their music making very seriously.  Like method actors getting into character, they do their best to bring to life rural American folk music of the 1920's and 30's - digging up their material from old 78's and field recordings.  Stylistic integrity is paramount to the fiddle tunes, ballads, breakdowns, rags, stringband blues, early country and minstrel songs they interpret on Old Man Below.

Honorable mention: Lisa Hannigan - Passenger, Carla Morrison - Dejenme Llorar, Chicago Reel - Chicago Reel, John Cronin and Daithi Kearney - Midleton Rare, Bigfoot - I've Got a Bulldog, Colm Phelan - Full Circle, Aaron Freeman - Marvelous Clouds, The Froggy Mountain Boys - Route 77.

Click here for my best of 2011 list.
Click here for my best of 2010 list.