Back it 2001 I was on a kick where I would go into a studio once a month and record. The one month interval was working well since it would give me time to both save money for the session and plan out what I was going to work on. After several months, however, I got a bit lazy and found myself unprepared for a session I had the following morning. Slightly panicked, I pulled out the flute on the evening before the session and was inspired to write the first of the two tunes included here. The first tune in the set I named Blackwater Tide. The second tune, which I wrote in ’99, is called Licking the Moss. This is one of those recordings that is part of the Castaway album.
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.
In the mid 90’s I went to New York for the Millbrook Muster. After a lovely day of traditional fife and drum we imbibed a few cocktails and enjoyed each others company as we played tunes around the campsite. As the night covered us in stars our fifing had moved from the traditional jigs, reels and hornpipes into the more exploratory realm of what we called ‘Space’.
Space usually involved a half-dozen fifers playing, without any predefined structure or direction, in an attempt to spontaneously create atonal music. From the outside I suspect it was fairly offensive. But being in the center of it was intriguing. Like an ant colony, it initially appears unorganized, but after a bit of observation, a strange sense of organization emerges. Musicians would react to what the other musicians were doing and the Space would take on a musical dialog of its own. Without a map the participants would begin to gain an intuitive sense of where things were going like ants finding their way to food. Fascinating.
Well, the woman who was trying to sleep with her newborn a few tents over did not find Space to be nearly as interesting as we did and, with a fair amount of energy, she let us know. In an attempt to be considerate we put the fifes away and, instead, decided to continue our musical explorations through group humming. Ironically, this ‘Hum Jam’ attracted quite a crowd and before we knew it we had a dozen or more participants with as many onlookers. It was all very organic and quite exciting. But, once again, our lady-with-a-baby was unable to see the brilliance in the musical and communal phenomena that was unfolding before her. And with more energy than before, she leathered into us with an ear popping, shrill harangue that rivaled any atonal noise we could have possibly produced with fifes. She really killed the mood.
I went home, once the weekend was over, with a spiteful vengeance toward that screaming wretch who ruined our Space, which is ironic since I’m actually a reasonably nice guy. The next day, in a moment of catharsis I wrote this tune.
In a nod to Space, I wanted to write a tune that sounded somewhat random and, originally, left the last note of the tune up for interpretation by the performer. My recording of Screaming Wretch, primarily on bouzouki and tenor banjo, is very incomplete as you will hear instruments drop the second time through. But, I wanted to post it because Plùc is looking for some new material and the best way to learn this tune is to listen to it…repeatedly. Also, you will notice, upon close inspection, that I am playing this slightly differently than how I originally wrote it. This is due to a combination of me softening a few spots, now that the years have soothed my aggravations, along with my fading memory of every accidental that I wrote in.
So, to the lady-with-a-baby: Thanks. This tune would have never been written without all your bitching. Second, I hope you can accept my belated apology for ruining your good nights sleep.
Every year, on April 19th, the Sudbury Militia and Minute Company and the the Sudbury Ancient Fife and Drum Corps marches from the old Sudbury center to the North Bridge in Concord, MA in honor of the colonist that took up arms on that day in 1775 against the most powerful army in the world. For me, April 19th was on par with Christmas for excitement. I loved the way everyone dressed. I loved the smell of the black powder from the muskets and, most of all, I loved the music. The melodies of the fifes were infectious and it became my instrument of choice. Since I only heard fife and drum few times a year I was, on the eve of the march, as restless as most kids are the day before Santa shows up.
The first tune I can recall as a child is called ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and has the distinction of being the the first tune played every year to start our walk to Concord. I have recorded my arrangement of this tune with three voices to go along with this post. I will get the written music posted as soon as I can.
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.
I have a long overdue ‘Thank You’ to send out. I’m going to cover may ass by telling you that I was waiting for the right time…which is now.
You see, about a year ago I was sitting in my office when my boss came a knockn’ and asked me if I could take a guy to lunch who had been interviewing at The MathWorks for most of the day. She said, ‘you don’t actually have to interview him, just keep him busy for an hour.’ Great. Do you know what a challenge it can be to take a complete stranger to lunch, be on your most professional behavior, not talk about the reason he is there to begin with, be interesting so the guy doesn’t think our company hires a bunch of bozos and not spill something? Since I like both my boss and my job I agreed to humor the guy for an hour.
The guy’s name was Luke Stark. Ten minutes into lunch we both realized that we had lots in common and before long we were yammering on about traditional music, electronic music, recording and audio on the web. I told him that I had started a recording a bunch years back but have been fairly inactive as of late, parked at a musical rest stop you might say. In any case, we exchanged contact info in case the job thing didn’t work out. Fortunately for me it did. It was the best non-interview I ever conducted.
Once at The MathWorks Luke began nudging me. Luke:When are you going to get back to recording some of that fife music? Me:Geez, I’d love to but I really don’t have any equipment, time, motivation… Luke:Don’t be lame, I’ll bring in my rig and we can try it out.
Thus, he dragged me back onto the musical highway. We tried out some of his equipment, which was like dangling a hooked worm before a catfish. He then loaned me some equipment. Mmm, tasty worm. And then, he forced my to buy my own equipment, which I never would have done were it not for the barbed hook in my lip. Now I spend hours nestled away in my basement recording the Celtic equivalent of Time Out, which my wife is really thrilled about because she knows it will be just the biggest hit and once the royalties start rolling in we’ll be able to take that trek in Nepal that we’ve always dreamed of. Then, of course, I had to start a damn blog, sucking every last morsel of energy I have, so that I can share my progress.
So, Luke, in all sincerity, thanks. I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing this today if it weren’t for you.
Now, if anyone is interested finding out more about this Luke fellow and his cool music you can do so at his fresh new blog called Mighty Bee of Ynturest. I expect great things so pay him a visit.
How poetic is it that the first steps towards independence in America happened at a bridge? Standing on one bank the colonists were subjects to a distant king. Fighting their way across the bridge they took their first steps on the shores of freedom. The bridge I speak of is the North Bridge in Concord, MA.
On the morning of April 19th, 1775 men from Concord and many surrounding towns gathered on Punkatasset Hill to discuss the movement of British troops. Upon seeing a column of smoke rise from the town, and naturally assuming the Regulars were setting their homes ablaze, they “resolved to march to the middle of the town to defend their homes, or die in the attempt.”
The common belief is that, led by the fifes and drums, the men marched towards the North Bridge, which arched the river between them and the good folk of Concord, to oppose the tyranny before them. What was running through their minds as the beat of the drums steadily marched them towards their great foe in red? The moment must have been surreal and the future so dizzyingly uncertain. It amazes me that, at the brink of certain conflict, music was played at all.
What they played on those fifes and drums, as well as the story in general, is the subject of some debate. The surviving tradition, historically correct or not, is to play The White Cockade, which was a “traditional Scottish tune that celebrated the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to reclaim the throne of Britain for the House of Stuart.”  If the story is true, playing the White Cockade represents a “bold taunt of defiance” according to historian D. Michael Ryan.
The fact is, it is not really clear if they played the White Cockade or any tune. There was no mention of the tune being played on that day until 1835. A hundred years after the battle the story was further promoted with a well known article from Harper’s new Monthly Magazine called The Concord Fight.
Regardless of the historical details it is, nevertheless, moving to hear the drums and fifes slicing through the fresh April air every spring on the morning of the 19th as they march down the dusty road towards freedom playing The White Cockade.
Also, I got rid of the music rating on the comment page. Everyone has been too kind and simply gave me fives. Unfortunately this was not helping with my goal of highlighting tunes that are most popular. So, in its replacement I am trying a different approach. I installed a plugin called Popularity-Contest that calculates popularity based on traffic. The most popular posts will show up on the right side of the page under ‘most popular post’. I still need to figure out how to flag most popular tunes.
So, while I’m at it, here is a list of the WordPress plugins that I use on this site:
Ok, I was inspired after listening to My Love is in America over at the Irish Flute Tunes blog. Here is my version of it on the tenor banjo. I usually go into Rakish Paddy after this tune but it was getting late and my banjo playing is just too rusty to pull off the second tune.