November-December 2010

Learning Session Tunes

Hanneke Cassel teaches
Jenny Dang the Weaver

By Roland Sturm

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?

So I started asking professional traditional musicians for their suggestion: "Among your favorite tunes to play, which ones are session standards and/or commonly played by other people?" This month, my guest is Boston-based fiddler, composer, producer, and teacher Hanneke Cassel.

Hanneke pursues a solo career and her latest CD, For Reasons Unseen (November 2009) features an all-star cast of musicians - including Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Rushad Eggleston, Casey Driessen, Brittany Haas, Keith Murphy, and Aoife O'Donovan. She also tours regularly with Baroque/Celtic group Ensemble Galilei, and is a co-founder of Celtic chick band Halali. She teaches at the Boston Harbor Fiddle Camp, Valley of the Moon Fiddle Camp, and the Sierra Fiddle Camp and produced recordings by Crooked Still and Scott Alarik. While certainly in the traditional music camp, Hanneke's playing has its unique edge with a wide range of tones (no doubt reflecting her degree in violin performance). On a recording of her composition Waiting for the Dawn (on the CD Silver), she suddenly shifts to a tone that sounds like a heavily distorted guitar at the edge of feedback and for a long time I assumed it was electronic processing. But, no, this is all in her right hand.

JIGSnJAMs___jenny_dang_the_weaver.jpgHanneke's suggestion for a "must know" session tune is Jenny Dang the Weaver, a reel in D of Scottish origin. The melody was already played in the American colonies in the 1700s where it appeared in manuscripts of fiddlers in New England. It also is include in many of the major tune collections of the 19th century. One of the first recordings of the tune was by uillean piper Patsy Touhey probably around the turn of the century, but I don't have it. The earliest recording I could find is also an Irish bagpipe solo, but from 1924:

These days, the tune is more likely to be associated with Cape Breton repertoire.

Here is Hanneke playing the tune very slowly (the version I transcribe below).

Hanneke Cassel "Jenny Dang The Weaver"

and here is a faster version

Hanneke Cassel "Jenny Dang The Weaver - faster"

You can see how important it is to listen to how the tune is played because the transcription doesn't capture important pieces (e.g. the triplets are not really played like triplets). Once in a while, you might also want to add a little variation, one that I use occasionally is to add a note in the B-part and make it an even 8th note run (see alternative B-part).

And since it is more fun to play a set, I added another great reel, The Ale is Dear, which makes a nice tonal transition from D to B-minor. Here in Los Angeles, the Scottish Fiddlers of LA tend to put both of those tunes together and they are also played together at the CTMS Celtic session.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


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