During the Irish Rebellion of 1798 the rebels were often known to carry barley oats in their pockets as provisions while on march. Unfortunately, thousands of the dead rebels found their final resting place in mass unmarked graves, which were referred to as croppy holes.
As the seasons passed barley would be found growing above the croppy holes and came to symbolize the regenerative nature of Irish resistance to British rule.
In the nineteenth century the Irish poet, Robert Dwyer Joyce wrote a ballad entitled Wind that Shakes the Barley, which repeatedly references the barley as a young lad has to decide between the love of his lady or the love of his country.
As our last track on the 1999 Amadán album, Sarah Kennedy sang a A cappella version of this haunting song.
A couple of months ago a friend of mine loaned me a strumstick. The strumstick, a three stringed instrument that is a close musical relatives of the Appalachian Dulcimer, was created by Bob McNally. As I was testing out the strumstick one morning at the breakfast table I started singing, to my children’s delight, a simple chantey called Sam’s Gone Away that I had recently learned off a great old album called Colonial and Revolutionary War Sea Songs and Shanties by my friend Cliff Haslam.
I had so much fun beatn’ away at this song on this odd little instrument that I decided to give both the song and the strumstick a go on tape. The first instrument on the recording is actually guitar. The strumstick comes in on the break and hangs around for the rest of the song. Incidentally, this is the first time I’ve recorded vocals and, apparently, I’ve still got some learning to do. But hell, this is all just for fun. So here ya go.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the struggles we all go through when learning and mastering a craft. In this case the craft I speak of is music. But, really, it could be any craft. As a beginner you tell yourself, “If I could just play a tune or two, that would make me really happy”. Then, that is not enough. You need to learn twenty, fifty and then a hundred tunes to be happy. After a hundred you realize that the first twenty that you though you learned need to be re-learned because the way you’re playing them really sucks. Eventually your repertoire grows, your technique gets better, your tool set more rich, and you set new goals for yourself. Here is the point. Beginners have one very key thing in common with experienced craftsman. They are both striving to get better.
Along the journey of musical development it is important to have mentors and role models. And it is important for the mentors to remind those following behind that everyone starts at the beginning, and that the most important key to getting better is to follow the path of your interests. Practice all you want, if you are not doing what you want, you ain’t gettin’ better. And if you’re not getting better, it is likely you are getting worse.
One of the things I like most about mentors or roll models is their war stories. What was the path they followed? What inspired them to work so hard and get so good? What hurdles did they have and how did they get out of their ruts? I also love seeing evidence of their own humble beginnings. It reminds me that they are just people and that they really did have to make their way around similar obstacles.
One of my role models is Paul Brady. The man is simply a brilliant guitar player and I am stuck in a rut behind him. One of my hurdles is to find my way out of that rut and cut my own path. For those that don’t know, Paul Brady took a traditional song called Arthur McBride in the mid seventies and made it famous.
Recently I was poking around YouTube and found this live version of the song from 1977 which, aside from a few amusing mistakes, is identical to the recorded version that drew so much acclaim. Check out the gorgeous base line that serves as its own melody. Listen to the finger picking…especially in the solo. Whewww! Classic stuff.
Now, you want to see something really cool? Check out Paul singing the same song in seventyfour. It sounds hokey by comparison. No beautiful base line. Very little finger picking. Mostly strumming. The singing has no character. Man he sucks! O.k., not really, but you get the point. To get from ’74 to ’77 he had some real work to do. If he had stopped in ’74 I don’t think we would be talking about this song.
So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to get back to practice. I’ve got ruts to get out of.
Here is a song written by Dougie MacLean that I recorded with Amadán back in ’99 called Caledonia. Sarah Kennedy was our singer at the time. Just to avoid confusion, she is not the same girl that is in the picture of Amadán from my Amadán – Scotsman / Paddy Clancy’s post. She was a tough Somerville chick but I really loved her voice. We had planned on recording The Foggy Dew, which I once heard her silence the nÓg with, but when we got into the studio she changed her mind. Such is life.
Damon, our fiddle player, and I had never heard Caledonia, which is a romantic name for Scotland (thus the photo above from flickr), until that day. So, we improvised all the instrumental bits. For the instrumental break I asked the engineer to play the song while a worked out a flute part. Once I figured out what I wanted to do I asked him to roll tape. He said “I’ve been rolling all along, do you want to take a listen?” I did and decided my job was done.
Not long after this recording Amadán parted ways and I have not heard from Miss Kennedy since. Hopefully she is still singing.