Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…

Troll Tuning

Baltimore - with Dún na Séad before restoration - painted by Val Byrne

Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne

It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden. 

One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.

Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March

 

The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.

The Devil's Music: Hardanger Fiddle

The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle

All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’

In Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls to stop the Sheehogue from stealing them away

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’

The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.

My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –

 

To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.

Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather

Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

Blaskets