FUNKY SESSION INSTRUMENTS:
MORGAN O’SHAUGHNESSEY’S NYCKELHARPA
A nyckelharpa is a rather obscure traditional Swedish instrument. I have seen only a few of them in my life (and actually never in Sweden). It looks a bit like a hurdy gurdy, with wooden keys and many strings, but is played with a short bow rather than by turning a handle. Seems like a limiting instrument, but I met Morgan O’Shaughnessey playing his nyckelharpa at Irish sessions and there sure don’t seem to be any limitations when he plays.
Roland:Morgan, you are bringing a rather unusual instrument to Irish sessions. Can you tell us more about it?
Morgan O’Shaughnessey: It is a nyckelharpa, an instrument that stems from Uppland (the region around Uppsala) in Sweden. Mine is a chromatic or “three-row” nyckelharpa, the most modern version of this ancient family. “Nyckel” is an old word for “key” in Swedish, so it is literally a fiddle with a keyboard hanging off of it. There are many enjoyable jokes among Swedish fiddle players that refer to Grandpa and his rusted old typewriter when discussing the inner workings of this instrument. However, I refer to it as simply being “a viola that plays in tune.” Traditionally, you as a player would build your own instrument - but that is why there are so many unplayable ones hanging above mantles in Sweden. The playing and making traditions were slowly dying out in the mid 20th century until Eric Sahlström, started a school of building and playing that is still going to this day. Now, thanks to him and several other great artists such as Åse Jinder and Olov Johansson from Väsen, the instrument is having a renaissance. These days, one can even get a nyckelharpa performance degree from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm!
Brother Duets from Seattle
Early country music was a simple style with sparse instrumentation. The first commercial country music recordings in 1922 and 1923 by Eck Robertson and Fiddlin’ John Carson were either solo or duo recordings by fiddlers. Duo acts performing old-time country music were common, often featuring the uniquely blended harmony singing of two brothers were a common combination. One of these early acts, the Monroe Brothers, included the future "father of Bluegrass Music," Bill Monroe. The Delmore Brothers, the McGee Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) were other popular brother duets performing and recording country music in the 1930s.
CELTIC COLOURS FESTIVAL
PLUS A VISIT FROM ANDREA BEATON, DICK HENSOLD AND DEAN MAGRAW
Cape Breton, an island in the province of Nova Scotia at the Eastern end of Canada with under 150,000 people, is the home of a musical style that is popular far beyond its borders. Cape Breton music was strongly influenced by Scottish immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th century and its fiddle style may be the closest current representation of Scottish fiddle music of the 1800s.
Q & A WITH DUSTBOWL REVIVAL’S FIDDLER CONNOR VANCE
Connor Vance is a professional violinist, the fiddler in the international touring roots band Dustbowl Revival, and a judge at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival. I first met Connor Vance when he was in elementary school. At that time, I organized the entertainment program for school fundraisers at the time and tried to involve kids as far as possible in the entertainment program. Part of that was teaching an afterschool fiddle class so students had some traditional and appropriately sounding material for the school’s Cinco de Mayo event. Connor (and also his brother and dad) became regular performers at the Will Rogers Fall BBQ and the Cinco de Mayo. Recently I had a chance to catch up with Connor, probably about 15 years after the first elementary school performances?
FROM OPERA TO O’BRIEN’S: A CLASSICAL MUSICIAN’S JOURNEY TO CELTIC MUSIC
Among the musicians at traditional music jams/sessions, you will find many unusual paths how people ended up there. But it is rare that an accomplished classical musician crosses over, especially on an instrument that is rather unusual at jams. But opera conductor and cellist David Aks who discovered Celtic music last year, and his cello are now regulars at pub sessions, Scottish Highland Games, and even fiddle contests. I first met David playing with the Scottish Fiddlers earlier this year and below is his story.
WHERE DID THE JAMS GO?
LIFE AFTER THE CALIFORNIA TRADITIONAL MUSIC SOCIETY
Last month, I went to an old-time jam, which seemed to be just the same crowd as at the old-time jams at the California Traditional Music Society, which closed in 2012. That made me wonder what happened to the other regular activities that used to happen at the California Traditional Music Society: The weekly bluegrass and Celtic sessions, the Scottish fiddle classes, etc. Did they disappear? Were they replaced by something new?
Organized events are essential to keep traditional music alive and get new people involved. Anybody can go to the store and pick up a book on how to play an instrument or take lessons. But music is a social activity and practicing on your own at home is rather limiting and more often quickly leads to a dead-end. The energy and the intricacies of traditional music are not captured in sheet music, but needs to be experienced live.
HOW TO GET YOUR BAND BOOKED AT THE TOPANGA BANJO FIDDLE CONTEST AND FESTIVAL
Planning for the 55th Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest next May has started some time ago, and late fall and early winter is when we look for new ideas. Not just bands performing, but also dance teachers, arts & crafts, workshops, sing-alongs, etc. Scheduled performances are a big part of the event and get as much stage time as the contest itself.
My task as talent coordinator is to put together a program that fits with the festival’s mission. While there is no shortage of bands each year that want to play, there is often a mismatch in expectation that is frustrating for both sides. This may be a good opportunity to explain what the festival is looking for and how you can get on the program. Music slots fill up very rapidly (demand for those slots outstrips availability several-fold), but we are often looking for workshops, dance instructors/bands for the dance barn, music and other activities in the Eucalyptus Grove until the spring.
SLOW AND EASY
A GREAT SELECTION OF SESSION TUNES FOR BEGINNERS
Playing with others is one of the best ways of improving your playing and certainly an enjoyable one. But it also is a difficult step that many never are able to overcome. A key challenge is find a common repertoire shared with other musicians. All styles have core tunes that would be known by experienced players in that style – but usually just in that particular style. Neither instruction books nor tune collections are particularly helpful to identify an initial core repertoire.
For Irish music, John Weed (fiddle) and Stuart Mason (guitar) have just released a second set of 25 tunes that qualify as core tunes for Irish/Celtic sessions, following up their Slow and Easy Volume 1 from 3 years ago. Volume 2 of Slow and Easy, unsurprisingly, is a collection of easy tunes played at a very slow pace.
OR SOAP OPERA THEME?
MAKES A GREAT SESSION TUNE
Here is a charming tune that is a lot of fun to play and very easy to learn. I first got the tune years ago from Aedan MacDonnell, a harp and accordion player in the Los Angeles area, but it faded from memory until Aedan played it again more recently at one of our local sessions. Now people request it. Everybody enjoys the tune, whether other players (who are able to pick up the key phrases after one or two rounds) or the pub audience.
It is difficult to pin down the origin of this melody. It is simple and sounds like it could be an ancient melody that made it across centuries to us, but the truth may be much more prosaic: Most likely, it was written for a French TV series in the 1970s! Aedan calls the Twiglet, which is a Morris-style dance and this tune seems to be a popular choice for that dance. More commonly, it is known as Theme Vannetais (Vannes is a town in Brittany), including among Morris dancers who use it for Twiglet. And there is yet a third source for it, namely as a Welsh pibgorn tune called Bwrlwm.
New Celtic Pub Sessions In Los Angeles
2014 started well for Celtic music In the Los Angeles area, with two new regular pub sessions filling in a desert between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach. A pub session – or seisiún for those who like their Irish spelling – is a great way either to play or hear (and usually both) live music outside a stiff formal setting and nice to have two weekly sessions back in our area. Any type of jam session can be ephemeral and initial excitement wanes rapidly, but these two may have legs and be around for a while:
The first one is every Sunday night, starting at 7:30pm, at O'Brien's Irish Pub, 2226 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. Easy parking and little traffic. The inside setup is ok because it becomes more of an aisle than a circle. But fits about a dozen players within that (misshaped) circle. No center table and limited space for your beer if you are in the musician’s circle in case that matters to you. As happened last night, consider spilled Guinness as a natural stain.
REEL DE LA GUIMAUVE:
A QUEBECOIS REEL FROM THE PLAYING OF ANDRÉ BRUNET
We recently had some friends over to jam and one of them is a big fan of Quebecois music, so eventually the music turned French Canadian. I don’t know too many French Canadian tunes myself, just a few that seem to work well for jams. My favorite is La Grande Chaine (also known as Glise à Sherbrooke, Reel de Tadoussac, and many others), which the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles have used as a concert finale. This column is about a different G reel, Reel de la Guimauve, which I learned from the playing of André Brunet. It is a bit harder than La Grande Chaine, but also has a recurrent phrase that people can latch onto quickly. That is important when trying tunes in sessions because complicated tunes without quickly identifiable phrases are jam busters.
FAKEBOOKS AND TUNE COLLECTIONS
Fakebooks and tune collections are a great way to jog your memory about forgotten tunes and even help with learning new ones. I have a good number of such books, including both new compilations and historical classics, but my favorite one is available free: The King Street Sessions Tunebook, compiled by Santa Cruz musician Mike Long. It is available on his website. Mike plays many string instruments and is the guitarist in the Santa Cruz dance band Dance Around Molly.
The King Street Sessions Tunebook is a collection of about 1000 tunes, primarily Irish, but with a good selection of Scottish tunes and a few American ones. It is a fakebook, not a transcription of performances, so the tunes are stripped down to their essentials with little to distract (ornamentations, bowings), making them very accessible to beginners. In contrast, the Fiddler’s Fakebook has a large fraction of more detailed transcriptions and arrangements, so it is a mix of fakebook and performance settings.
Galician Tunes –
Good for Celtic Sessions?
Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, is an unlikely candidate for Celtic session tunes, but there are many cute tunes that work well. Here is a video and transcription to one tune that our family and friends regularly play, Muiñeira de Cabana.
There has been a long-running debate whether Galician and Asturian music have roots in a Celtic history of the region. Claims that Galicia is a “Celtic nation” seem tenuous given that even the traditional language is similar to Portuguese and feel more like marketing ploys by the tourism department. However, there is something to Galician and Asturian folk music that has similarities to Irish and Scottish folk styles, but how much of it has made it across the years and how much has been an international revival phenomenon will remain unknown. The Celtic revival movement over the last decades, which even includes a “Galician” recording by the Chieftains, may have blurred any distinctive local musical tradition.
Traditional Music Festivals Alive and Relevant?
The Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival (TBFC) started in 1961, making it one of the oldest continuously held traditional music events in the US. TBFC will have its 53rd event this May, whereas Clifftop, West Virginia (officially known as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival) is in its 23rd year; Winfield, Kansas (Walnut Valley Festival) is in its 41st year; and the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser in Idaho started in its current form in 1963. Only the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, VA, marking its 78th event in 2013, has an unambiguously longer tradition.
What makes a festival relevant and gives it longevity? Most traditional music festivals or contests tend to be ephemeral events and are quickly forgotten, although some historic names get commercially revived. The Newport Folk Festival, for example, only lasted for about 10 festivals before its demise, but after was restarted in 1985 as a for-profit enterprise
More Finnish Tunes
for Gloomy Days
Rainy winter days seem to call for more subdued tunes and since we don’t have that many cold wintry days in Southern California, better to take advantage of them when they happen. Here is a Finnish tune that manages to even make the otherwise cheerful key of D major sound gloomy. I’m sure there are many cheerful tunes in Finland as well, but almost all the ones I know definitely lean towards the darker side at least when compared to old-time fiddle tunes.
Our family learned the tune in this month’s column from the traditional Finnish fiddler Antti Järvelä, who was featured in my column from last September. The September column had a video and a transcription of Antti playing a Polska. Polskas are very common in the traditional music of Nordic countries and are in ¾ time, but with a very different feel than waltzes. Polskas are very intriguing tunes, fun to play, and it is unfortunate that they never crossed over into US fiddle style – although this is might be changing.
The Lifecyle of Regular Jam Sessions
Regular jam sessions tend to be ephemeral events – maybe only new folk festivals are less likely to endure beyond the first few events. So was a privilege to have led an intermediate level Celtic Session at the California Traditional Music Society in Encino for almost 4 years. But with CTMS having to vacate its building by December 31, there are only two more Celtic sessions left at CTMS: November 18 and December 16. So if you haven’t come recently, these are the last opportunities. We might even play a few Southwest tunes as the closer (see my columns from May/June 2010 and March/April 2011) as requested by some regular attendees.
The CTMS Celtic session seems to have had an above average lifespan. The last 2 years have seen the start and quick demise of Scottish sessions, Cape Breton sessions, and numerous Irish sessions, whereas the CTMS session has been steady. Moreover, in many ways the CTMS session was a replacement of another multi-year session led by Robin Ellwood at the Celtic Arts Center that fell apart after the Celtic Arts Center lost its building, so maybe there is a history of more than a decade. In fact, the Celtic Arts Center Slow Session is where my son as a little kid learned his session skills – and now he is about to
A Traditional Finnish Polska
As Played by Antti Järvelä
Folk music from Finland may be an eclectic topic for this column, but every tradition offers some interesting new twists. It is still new to me, so I have asked one of Finland’s leading traditional fiddlers to present you some tunes and links to explore. Antti Järvelä is a fantastic teacher and charismatic performer and he comes to the US occasionally (including this fall, although California is not on his current touring plan). But if you have a chance to see him live or take a lesson from him, take that opportunity. And if you find yourself in Finland sometime in the summer, he also organizes one of the most exciting folk festivals called Kaustinen Folk Music Festival
Keeping Tunes Alive:
Over the Waterfall from the playing of Alan Jabbour
Over the Waterfall is an extremely popular fiddle tune, even to the extent that it occasionally gets (unfairly) snubbed as a beginner’s tune. But not that long ago, Over the Waterfall was at risk of extinction: By the middle of last century, only one musician was known to play this tune, Henry Reed (1884-1968) of Glen Lyn, VA. Reed taught the tune (among many other tunes) to Alan Jabbour, whose band, the Hollow Rock String Band, was at the center of the old-time stringband revival in the 1960s. Alan remembers that his band loved the way the tune plummets down, as if going down a waterfall, and they added some intriguing chords to it. The version they recorded on their 1968 album is the tune as it is known today and Alan has a number of stories associated with it.
The first story dates back to the 1969 Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. Then, Alan had just moved out to Los Angeles to become an assistant professor at UCLA and was drafted to judge the fiddle contest. Sitting in the judging area, he remembers a young man coming up on stage “dressed in the Topanga garb of that period” to announce that for the contest he would play “a Henry Reed tune, learned from the playing of Alan Jabbour: Over the Waterfall. The contestant obviously didn’t know that his source was sitting right in front of him (which might have made the performance a bit more nerve-wracking), but Alan was just as surprised that Over the Waterfall would beat him to Los Angeles.
Session Tunes for Beginners
Playing with others is one of the best ways of improving your playing and certainly an enjoyable one. But it also is a daunting step to join a session and one that many never are able to overcome.
One challenge is learning the “right” tunes, a common repertoire that is shared among most musicians in a style. All styles have core tunes that qualify as common repertoire and that would work in sessions/jams just about anywhere – but usually just in that particular style. Neither instruction books nor tune collections are particularly helpful to identify an initial core repertoire.
For Irish music, John Weed (fiddle) and Stuart Mason (guitar) recently recorded a really nice learning CD with 25 tunes that qualify as core tunes for Irish/Celtic sessions. I think they chose a great selection of tunes and play them at very slow speed. Arguably their speed is even slower than a “slow session”, so you would have to bring up the pace to play with others, but their speed makes it very useful for beginners – or even learning new tunes by ear if you don’t play Irish music. Roughly doubling the speed would be right for an intermediate level session, about 2.5 times faster for a pub session. You can listen to the tunes and also purchase the tracks or the CD on their website.
Old-Time and Celtic Marches:
Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine /
Sherman’s March to the Sea /
Braes of Dunvegan / Caledonian March
One type of tune that I haven’t covered in this column before are marches. Marches are often overlooked in favor of hoedowns/reels and jigs, but they do exist in all traditions. Since marches are not very fast, they are excellent for intermediate level sessions and yet are fun to play.
One march that got around a lot is Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine or Sherman’s March to Sea. In Europe, it seems to be known as Caledonian March. At the moment, here in Los Angeles, a variation of the tune is making the rounds as Braes of Dunvegan. There are at least 3 different sessions in town that play it regularly and it has become core repertoire of the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles.
Tunes in Disguise:
Old-time hoedown or Irish Air?
In the last column, I covered what may be the best known jam or session tune – Soldier’s Joy - but this column will dive into more obscure territory, although with a tune played by two masters of their respective musical styles: Bruce Molsky (Old-time) and Martin Hayes (Irish).
Before learning obscure tunes, it is always good to refresh your memory of the classics. I recently jammed with some high schoolers. Sure enough, Soldier’s Joy was a tune that worked really well (as did Old Joe Clark, Angeline the Baker, etc.). That actually was one of my first jams this summer because my main activity this summer has been riding my mountain bike from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide. That ride was a little over 2700 miles and took a few hundred hours of pedaling time. No music content, but here are my pictures from the ride.
If You Can Only Learn One Tune
If you are new to traditional music, or new to playing without reading sheet music, Soldier’s Joy is the first tune you should learn by heart. Everybody knows this tune, regardless of genre! And that is a rare thing because I cannot think of any other tune that works equally well in bluegrass, old-time, Irish, Scottish, New England, jams/sessions.
Soldier's Joy has been found in sheet music and dance instruction manuals from the 1700s and it is usually thought to be Scottish in origin. In the 1800s, the tune started to appear in numerous collections, usually classified as a reel or country dance, and arranged for a variety of instruments
What is a Strathspey and Reel Society?
Traditional music sessions or jams are an essential part of Irish, old-time, or Bluegrass. In other styles, however, different formats of playing with others have been more important.
One different approach that has taken off in the last few years in the US, even expanded into other styles, originated in Scotland as Strathspey and Reel Societies. Strathspey and Reel Societies in many ways seem like community orchestras, except that they are dedicated to folk music, strathspeys and reels being two distinctive forms of Scottish traditional music. The reason that such groups started in Scotland rather than elsewhere may be that sessions have been less common in Scotland than in Ireland, making people look for other outlets. Scottish music has also always been somewhat more “literate” than other traditional music styles and the use of sheet music enables organizing bigger groups. Tunes that are now standards in the American fiddle tune repertoire, like Devil’s Dream, Soldier’s Joy, Hop High Ladies, originated in Scotland and can be found in Scottish tune collections from more than 200 years ago.
Cinco de Mayo Special 2011: Fiddle Tunes from the American Southwest
It is still early in the year, but now is a good time to learn tunes for those jams in May (you’ll be able to put them to good use at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Festival). Check out my column from last May/June 2010 about the background on Fiddle Tunes from the American Southwest and two classic tunes from the repertoire.
Every spring, I teach an afterschool fiddle class at a local school so that students can perform at various Cinco de Mayo festivals and school fund raisers. For our neighborhood schools, these May festivals are the most important fundraisers of the year, so it is a big deal if students can provide the entertainment.
Learning Session Tunes
A Strathspey with Natalie MacMaster
A few more possibilities for novice and intermediate players to join Celtic sessions have opened up in the Los Angeles area recently. The first one is called Celtic Slow session - Los Angeles Area, the second one Southern California Cape Breton Session. You can find contact information and schedules for both (as well as tune lists) by clicking on the links. The Celtic Slow session is for anyone who wants to learn to play traditional tunes and is a great way to get started, while gaining speed and technique. There are about 2 sessions a month and it seems to alternate between Sierra Madre and Santa Monica in city parks or facilities. The second group, Southern California Cape Breton Session, provides an informal setting to play Cape Breton tunes and practice step dancing, so it is a bit more specific. Their sessions are held twice a month in the Los Angeles area in members' homes. Both groups will work on specific tunes, so a good way to build up repertoire (and the tunes I covered over the last few months will work very well for both sessions). If you still have time, there is also an intermediate Celtic session at the California Traditional Music Society every 3rd Sunday, which I run. That session is a little bit faster and wider range of tunes than the first two sessions, but nowhere near the speed or complexity of typical pub sessions.
Learning Session Tunes
Hanneke Cassel teaches
Jenny Dang the Weaver
Let's continue the "classic session tunes" quest started in the last column. There are so many tunes that if you start learning tunes from recordings (or tune collections), chances are slim that you build up a repertoire that lets you play with other people. There are some obvious first choices for beginners, such as Drowsy Maggie, Harvest Home, and maybe one or two dozen that are could be considered universally known. But where do you go next?
Learning Session Tunes -
Two reels as played BY
CAPE BRETON FIDDLER
There are thousands of tunes out there and the number is growing daily. Nobody can learn more than a small fraction of those. So if you want to play with others, where do you start? I thought I ask some professional traditional musicians for their suggestion: "Among your favorite tunes to play,which ones are session standards and/or commonly played by other people?" My first guest is Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser who recorded two reels for us: Primrose Lasses and Brenda Stubbert's .
Joining Jams and Sessions
Summer is here and so is the festival season with many opportunities for jamming. Playing with others is one of the best ways to improve your playing and certainly an enjoyable one. Are you one of the many people who like the thought of jamming, but find the next steps step too daunting?
It's actually not that difficult, but you need a bit of preparation. Knowing what to expect and what to look for will go a long way towards a successful start. Participating in a jam session is more than walking up and playing along with other musicians. It's no different from joining a conversation: You need to know the language (style) and the topic (repertoire).
May-June 2010 #2
Cinco de Mayo Special:
from the American Southwest
Nothing celtic in this particular column, but as it is getting hot and Cinco de Mayo is coming up, here are some tunes from the American Southwest that are a lot of fun to play in jams/sessions. I have played them in sessions from a bit north of the Mexican border to a bit south of the Canadian border and many places in between. Two favorite tunes in this genre are El Churrumbé from New Mexico and Purple Lilies from Arizona, which I cover in this column.
[Editors Note: Welcome to Roland Sturm's new column Jigs and Jams. Due to timing, we published his first two columns together, Part 1 and Part 2.]
and The Night Poor Larry Was Stretched
Welcome to a new FolkWorks column! The idea is to cover interesting session tunes from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, and other places with a bit more on their history and context than just dots on paper. Celtic is not a term many people like because it sounds too much like a marketing category than a particular music style, but it stuck as a generic umbrella for musical traditions from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, Wales, Brittany, Galicia., so we might as well use it here.