May-June 2010

The inspiration comes from a traditional session I lead at the California Traditional Music Society. Many people like the idea of playing in a session and have decent skills and know some tunes, but do not quite have the repertoire or skills to hang in with a typical pub session (i.e. reels at blistering speed). Our session is aimed at the more common intermediate player, but I also want to keep it interesting enough for stronger players. Learning new material is important and I have a strong preference myself for learning tunes that are likely to be played in sessions elsewhere.

Here is a pair of tunes that fit the description, one a lovely slip jig with the grim title The Night (Before) Poor Larry Was Stretched, the other the Clare Reel. While neither one was entirely obscure, they have become much more popular recently. The reason is undoubtedly that Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill recorded them on their last CD Welcome Here Again. Martin Hayes is a very popular and influential fiddler and this was their first recording in almost 10 years (the last one was a 1999 live CD), so it got a lot of attention. In a departure from typical Irish recordings, Martin and Dennis did not put tunes into sets, but recorded them standing alone. The Clare Reel is track 1 The Night Poor Larry Was Stretched track 5. Poor Larry also exists as a ballad with several different lyrics and changes in the melody, but it takes a minimum of 8 verses before he is dead, regardless of the version.

Martin Hayes epitomizes the fiddle music of County Clare for many people, but he certainly has his own idiosyncratic and very recognizable style. Personal styles dominate regional styles, although there are some recognizable regional characteristics. The Clare style could be characterized by a slower pace and a more wistful or even eerie feel. A contributing factor may be the use of flat keys, F, Gm, Bb, or even Eb. You will get that idea immediately if you listen to the short version of the Clare Reel (also the first track on their CD) available on Martin's

of one of the key players of the Clare Style, Paddy Canny, who then was well into his 80s in the video. Paddy Canny could be considered the musical grandfather of Martin Hayes because he taught Martin's father, PJ Hayes, in the 1930s.

Paddy Canny plays two standard jigs, but note his fingering: Cliffs of Moher is played in sessions everywhere, but in the key of Am, whereas Paddy Canny plays it in Gm.

Now, if Paddy Canny plays in Gm, there is a good reason to learn some Irish tunes in Gm, which happens to be the key for The Night Poor Larry Was Stretched.

last year, and Poor Larry starts at 1.12

I learned both of those tunes from Martin shortly after he had recorded them (he also helped me glue my upright bass back together, but that is another story) and

I transcribed both tunes in the attached pdf to get you started. But remember that you can never really learn a tune from sheet music alone. It gives you the notes, but that is only part of playing music and often the easier one. Sheet music is very helpful while learning a tune, but you need to get away from the printed material quickly and get the feel from a recording, video, or experienced teacher. I wrote out chords as well, but the chords here are more standard than what Dennis would play, and written so they are easy when capoed at 3rd fret (again, the idea is that you can use that for a session): Clare Reel becomes then: D-Em-D-G-D-Em-D for the A part and Bm-G-F-Em-D in the B part Poor Larry becomes: Em-D-Em-D and G-D-G-C-D. However, that does not sound at all like Dennis Cahill. To sound more like him, try an Fsus throughout the A part of the Clare Reel and play the top 4 strings (finger them as F/Bb/C/F). Or for Poor Larry B-part, keep an F in the bass and chords change each bar: Bb/F - Eb/F - Bb/F - Eb/F. But when there are several chord instruments at a session, you need to agree on chords in advance or only one of you can play at a time.




Cinco de Mayo Special:
Fiddle Tunes
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.

Traditional Southwest Fiddle styles (e.g. Arizona, New Mexico) sound a lot more Mexican (or Central European) than the better known Old-Time Southeast style (e.g. Virginia, Carolinas, Kentucky). Clearly, the influences and original sources were different: Maybe Habsburg Empire rather than Highland Clearances? But in both cases, the original European sources were filtered through time and local sensibilities, resulting in a new unique style of music.

El Churrumbé is a dance tune from New Mexico and I found it on several field recordings. It is an extremely easy tune to teach and yet fun to play. The only more recent commercially available would be by Jenny Vincent, entitled Spanish American Dance Tunes of New Mexico, although she plays it a little different and very slow. However, you can listen to it as it is being played in some jam sessions on YouTube (so check them out before looking at the sheet music). Another important source of tunes from New Mexico was Cleofes Ortiz, who was born in 1910 on Pajarito Plateau near Rowe, New Mexico, and began playing for dances in his teens. He stopped playing in the 1920s until he was rediscovered 50 years later. PBS did a documentary on him entitled Violinista de Nuevo Mexico, which includes some of the tunes that are often played, and which is available as I'm writing this on YouTube. The only source to buy a CD of his playing would be Bayou Seco.

Purple Lilies is one of the best known tunes from Arizona, thanks to the efforts of Bayou Seco (Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie) of Silver City, New Mexico, who have kept that style alive and brought it to new players. You can find lots of versions of Purple Lilies on YouTube. The main source is the fiddle band music of the Tohona O'odham people of Southern Arizona. Utilizing instruments originally introduced by Spanish missionaries, the fiddle band sound is an unusual mix of polkas, two-steps, and mazurkas utilizing violins, guitar, and drums. One great CD is by the Gu-Achi Fiddlers, entitled Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music. It is not virtuosic and the fiddles are on the scratchy side, but the exuberance and more than compensate. This distinctive twin fiddle style eventually changed into a newer Native American style known as chicken scratch or waila (which replaced the fiddles with a saxophone and electric guitars).

Every spring, I teach these tunes in an afterschool class at a local school. I practice with students for a few weeks and teach them about 8-10 tunes by ear and then they perform at the Cinco de Mayo festivals and the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival. Aside from El Churrumbe and Purple Lilies, the other tunes are usually from the playing of the Gu-Achi Fiddlers and Cleofes Ortiz and they sound authentic enough for a Cinco the Mayo fiesta, especially when supplemented by a classic like Cielito Lindo. So, yes, maybe it is cheating a bit, but that way students learn an authentic traditional fiddle style.

You can hear more of this in the Eucalyptus Grove at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival on May 16.

El Churrumbe

 Purple Lilies


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.


All Columns by Roland Sturm