May Tune Recap

There is no one I know who can execute a tighter bow treble than Kevin Burke. Say what now? Okay, so a bow treble is a type of ornamentation — or technical decoration — that fiddle players can add to their tunes. It’s where we move the bow in a quick down-up-down motion to add a bit of “spice” to the tune. When Kevin Burke plays a bow treble, it is so quick and crisp that it sounds more like added percussion than a repeated melodic note.

To give y’all some context as to why I’m waxing poetic about this master fiddler, I attended Kevin Burke’s house concert a couple weeks ago at the home of some of my musician friends, Mo and Dale Scott. It was incredible to say the least. I have seen Kevin perform before at the Swannanoa Gathering, but what I didn’t realize then was how much of an effect he has had on my own playing. Growing up, my dad played a lot of William Coulter CDs in our house, and I only found out this year that the fiddle player I listened to all the time as a kid was Kevin Burke! I must have subconsciously absorbed his phrasing and choices of ornamentation, because when I started playing fiddle music myself, that was the role model I had in my mind. Nowadays, whenever I ask my musician friends who are familiar with this type of music who I sound like stylistically, they almost always say Kevin Burke! Now I know why.

One of my favorite tunes from this house concert is one that I decided to record for y’all this month called “S’iomadh Rud A Chunnaic Mi.” In English, this translates to “Many a Thing I Saw.” Sounds like a good story already, right?

Coincidentally, I posted a blog earlier this month focusing on my favorite artists from my February travels to the Folk Alliance Conference, where I also heard this tune from Adam Agee and Jon Sousa. These guys are based in Colorado, but like me have traveled and studied abroad overseas to immerse themselves in the tunes and songs of Ireland and Scotland! Kindred spirits…

While the tune is listed as a reel in thesession.org, this tune is primarily an example of Scottish Gaelic mouth music, or puirt-a-beul. This came about when there would be a dance but no musicians were around to play for it. So, as a perfect example of “the Thrifty Scot,” the people improvised and made up words to the well-known tunes. These were meant to be more light hearted or silly, so they didn’t tell a story like a ballad would. In fact, they are probably most similar to Irish lilting in that the tune is sung — but whereas lilting is just syllables strung together, puirt-a-beul uses words. It’s actually quite a skill to develop, requiring breath control and a good knowledge of the Scots Gaelic language/pronunciation at a rapid fire pace. I learned one puirt-a-beul set with Mary Jane Lamond at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton back in 2015 and am woefully out of practice. Heather Sparling has a great book called, Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music, which goes way more into depth about the tradition of puirt-a-beul. So if you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the read!

For my second set of tunes, I decided to go back to my memories of studying in Cork. I left Ireland in May 2017 after an eight month period of intense study at University College of Cork for my Masters Degree. I still get very nostalgic for that time of my life, especially for the people I was fortunate enough to meet and connect with. If anyone from Cork is reading this I miss y’all SO much, and am planning a 2020 trip back to visit! These tunes are dedicated to you.

When people ask me what my musical focus is, I usually just say Irish traditional music. But if I were to get really specific, I would say that I hone in on the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland (parts of Counties Cork, Kerry, and Limerick) with nods to my Appalachian North Carolina roots. I think the mountains are becoming more and more a part of my soul. “Sliabh Luachra” translates roughly to “The Mountain of Rushes,” which gives you an idea of what the landscape looks like in this region (thank you Kevin Burke for pointing this out in your concert)!

The beautiful “Sliabh Luachra” rush mountains of West Cork and Kerry! Taken from the Ring of Kerry at Ladies’ View near Killarney in 2017.

This area is known for its polkas and slides, almost but not quite replacing reels and jigs in session repertoire. Today I’m going to play you two slides that I learned in my fiddle lessons with Connie O’Connell at the college, called “Barrack Hill” and “Paddy Cronin’s Slide.” These lessons were unlike any others I’d ever taken. Two or three other fiddlers and I sat around in a circle in a narrow room of the music building with Connie for 45 minutes every Tuesday afternoon and absorbed 1-3 lesser known tunes (they had to be in order to pick one all of us didn’t already know). It was done entirely by ear, but we were allowed to record the tunes on our phones to practice for the next week. I absolutely love this learning approach, and have continued to incorporate into how I learn new tunes to this day. It’s a great brain exercise, and really instills the music deeper into the musician.

So with my Barry’s Gold Blend of tea within arm’s reach and two Sliabh Luachra slides on my mind, here is my May tribute to my time spent in Cork!

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