Not Traditional

Back in the stone age, before the internet, it was challenging to find the source of songs, even ones that were quite popular.  Things have changed since then, and while the innernet is full of all kinds of misinformation it does make basic fact-checking a lot easier.  Even so, it’s worth mentioning two songs which are still often referred to as ‘traditional’.  So for the record;

  • The Ballad of Glencoe was written by Jim McLean (Duart Music) around 1963
  • Wild Mountain Thyme (Will Ye Go Lassie, Go) was written by Francis McPeake around 1957

Worth noting that Wild Mountain Thyme as we know it now is actually Irish if you really want to get down to it.  No really.  Although the words are pretty much pulled from a song called ‘The Braes of Balquidder’ by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), there’s been some significant re-working to come up with the simple lyrics we know today, and the melody is completely different from the original.  So it’s really a new song in every meaningful sense of the word.  And McPeake = Belfast = Irish (last I checked).  (Although I did find one anecdotal reference to someone running a club in Belfast which McPeake played at back in the day.  The person suggested the song was learned from Elizabeth Cronin of Cork, who also recorded it for Alan Lomax.  The trail ends there as far as I can see.  Let me know if you find out any more.)

So both of these songs are written in the tradition, absolutely.  But ‘traditional’?  Nope, not at all.

And while we’re here, if you’d like to have a look at some real historic material (as opposed to ‘traditional’, which is a term I’ve never really understood, does that mean it was written by a committee?), you might enjoy having a look at the Scottish National Library’s collection of Broadsides.  Now there’s a beautiful use of the internet.  Nice work.  Thanks.


I stumbled across this the other day, had completely forgotten about it.  A little bit of ancient history, getting close to twenty years old by my reckoning.  Al Cross is playing the drums on this track, if memory serves that’s Henry Heilig on the bass, and yes I’m on the electric guitar (I’ve played electric as long as I’ve had an acoustic guitar so this recording wasn’t unusual in that sense).  I don’t seem to have the masters for these sessions any more, didn’t make it through several life changes.  I remember there was a particularly interesting arrangement of the pumping shanty ‘Leave Her, Johnny’.  Oh well.  I think I’ve still got the version of ‘Lanigan’s Ball’ somewhere.  That was sort of my party piece for years.  People told me later that it was ahead of the curve at the time, although I imagine it would probably seem kind of normal by today’s standards.  I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.  In the meantime, this was intended for dancing, so feel free…

kbsitepicinstrument007the song–>Tom O’Bedlam

I never had any reason to release the tracks from these sessions, at the time there were no Canadian performers on the scene using electric instruments to play traditional music.  No gigs, no support, that simple.  God forbid I should’ve showed up to play jigs and reels with an electric guitar.  Like playing political music, electrified traditional music was deeply frowned upon–unless you came from somewhere else.  (‘Where are the political artists in Canada?’ said the well known British political musician during his visit to an early Canadian folk-business conference.  ‘Mumble mumble mumble,’ replied the individuals who were deciding who got hired or not at the time.  I was there.  Yes, that’s a quote.)  Apparently things are different now.  No longer being part of that world I really couldn’t care less.  But yeah, the scene really was that provincial.  Shame.


kbsitepicsession017Hard to get out sometimes just now, but folks in Cambridge were having a bit of morris dancing and such, and I know they have a good time playing some sunday afternoons, so I went out and watched the dance for a while and enjoyed listening to the tunes.  I’ve been to sessions like this for years, asked to host more than a few.  People still tell me they remember one I shared with one of the fellows in this session.  Was real nice to hear him again, he’s a delight.  Those sessions were a lot of years ago now, I’ve probably told you about them, but I still remember being quietly pleased that we were able to make it seem to just happen that everyone who was there to play got to do what they wanted, and that neither of us felt the need to lead everything, and there there were both things everybody played and things most of us were quiet and listened to.  Somehow we managed it without a plan or a format or anything as formal as taking turns going around a circle.  I’ve had conversations with people who don’t think it’s possible.  Ah well, it did happen, and they say it was a good thing for people.  Meantime, nice to hear the tunes and to get out for a few minutes.

Of Bicycles and Happy Endings

Working on a recording the other day I was reminded that not everyone around here can play a rhythm part for a slip jig.  It is in my nature to assume that if I can do something anyone can.  It is apparently in the nature of the universe to remind me that it’s not necessarily true.

(If you’re asking yourself ‘What’s a slip jig?’, it’s like this–if you think of a normal, garden-variety jig as having two main beats, then a slip jig has three of those main beats.  No big deal.  So a single bar of a standard jig rhythm goes ‘bicycle, bicycle’, but a single bar of a slip jig goes ‘bicycle, bicycle, bicycle’.  Easy enough.)

Never really thought of it before, but I guess I’ve been playing slip jigs for years.  There’s something about having three strong beats in a phrase that I find really compelling.  So I love playing it.  I actually recorded one a while back.

kbcdlettersthe song –>Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)

The tune is one of my favourite slip jigs.  Not because I wrote it, I just really enjoy playing it, both the melody and the rhythm.  And it’s nice how well the tune fit with the song by Robbie Burns.  It’s probably worth me pointing out that both the tune and the verses of the song are in a slip jig rhythm (call it 9/8 time if you count things that way), but the other sections of the piece are in normal jig rhythm (that’d be 6/8 in that same counting method).  As a matter of fact in places the arrangement flows pretty freely back and forth between the two.  I don’t know why I did that, really.  I think I enjoy the way the slip jig moves things along with that rolling, pushing ahead feeling.  While the normal jig feels a little more like marking time, waiting for the next flight (which is useful in its own way).

I think I like the song, too, because the guy gets to keep his fiddle and enjoys the company of some good people.  I’m a sucker for a happy ending.  And like all the best songs, it’s apparently a true story.  Go figure.

The Sound of the Harp

Recording the harp is an interesting process, it’s such a great sound it’s easy to get lost in it.  I feel like there’s a huge amount of space between the notes somehow, and all that space is full of rich, ringing tones as the strings resonate with one another.  You don’t notice it as much when you add other instruments, it’s an easy thing to obscure.  A badly recorded harp can sound pretty much like a cheap electric piano, at which point one has to wonder why not just go with the piano.  But on a good recording you’ll hear all of those harmonics rolling around.  Particularly when it’s a solo thing.

Working with the harp for so many years was great ear training for me.  Certainly was necessary to learn how to tell when the string was at the right pitch, with or without an electronic tuner.  I’m reminded of the saying common among players–that the harper spends half of their life tuning the instrument, and the other half playing the instrument out of tune.  Sad but true.  So you can imagine that tuning the average guitar is no longer a scary prospect.  I’ve had worse.  Way worse.

Of course once it’s tuned you have to do something with it.  The other day I said I’d let you hear some of the sound.  Here’s something.

The tune –> In the Bleak Midwinter

A seasonal thing I suppose, although that’s not why I play it.  It’s a melody I love, and was one of my father’s favourites as well.  Hard not to think of him while I’m playing it.  I think maybe that’s one of the things music is for.  I hope you enjoy it.

Something About the Harp


I learned how to play the harp many years ago.  It was a Troubadour model, made by Lyon & Healy.  By the time it fell to me it had been through many hands.  It wasn’t in the best of shape, the string band was one long curve upwards and there were several significant cracks in the body.  But I played it anyway.  And I fell in love with the sound–so much space between the notes.  It’s still the thing that I find most compelling about the harp.

I’ve owned a harp for most of the time since then.  It’s a wire-strung 36-string that has a lovely bell-like tone, very different from the nylon or gut-strung instruments you tend to see.  For quite a few years I only played it when I needed something ‘just so’ for a recording.  It would sit for ages in between being used.  Then a little while ago I picked it up again for personal reasons.  When I did I discovered the most amazing thing–I was able to play the melody to any song I’d ever written.  I mean without practice or having to ‘figure it out’.  That may not seem like a big deal until I point out that I couldn’t have done any such thing before I took that long break.

I’m still not sure exactly how that all worked out.  But I’m enjoying the results.  When I get a moment I’ll record a little something for you to hear.  It is a pretty sound.  In the meantime I’m enjoying playing it.  And I’m still looking for an explanation about what happened.

Songs and Tunes–How Can I Keep From Singing

I don’t try to attach a fiddle tune to every song, but sometimes it just makes so much sense.  You can get such a lovely groove going in so many different ways.  I know that groove may not be exactly how it might be played behind the tune when it’s in the tradition straight up, no ice.  But happily that’s not as much of a hanging offense in these parts as it used to be.

In this particular case I got to lilt the tune myself at the same time as I’m flat-picking it on the guitar.  The result is kind of what I hear in my head most of the time when I’m playing a tune, whether I’m responsible for the melody or not.  I certainly think that’s part of why and how I’ll play the rhythm part when that’s my job.  Of course I don’t hear the melody’s phrasing the same way it comes off a fiddler’s bow.  More like a flute player.  I suppose maybe because that’s where I started.  Well, actually it was a whistle.  But that’s a story for another time.  In the meantime, it was kind of nice to hear this again.  The words still mean a lot to me.

kbcdlettersthe song –>How Can I Keep From Singing–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)

The Guitar Part (second set)

kbsitepicinstrument004I’m working on a little project I’ll think you’ll enjoy, looking forward to getting some of the sounds down so you can have a listen.  In the meantime, we were talking about guitar parts, so here is that second experience from that same series.

Messing around with mics, we were.  When we were done, I asked if they’d mind just one more for me.  These were the reels, never did have a chance to ask what they’re called.

First the tunes –>Reel Set

Two tunes, one firmly G-major, the other’s just as firmly in something else.  I think of this second kind of tune as a modal D.  The melody forces the chords to drop down one (yup, that’d be a C), then back up, to give it that particular feel.  Sometimes I keep the D-chord and move only the bass note.  I’m funny that way.  The ‘other’ chord in that tune is based around an A.  Neither major nor minor, I think of it as an A5.  Probably worth pointing out that I’m not playing the bass D-string on that chord, and I might not play the treble D-string, either.

GOkay, let’s be honest here, I never really know what’s going to happen in a set like this.  The sum total of planning at a session is often overhearing one player to another ‘three each?’.  Apparently the traditional response is ‘yeah, we’ll see’, which allows a player to either play the tune a number of times, or not.  That number might be three.  Or not.  Took me years to figure it out–don’t count, just play.

If I’m very lucky, a melody player will lean over and clue me in to a tune change, some nice people even supply a suggested key.  The fact that the letters b,c,d,e and g all sound exactly the same when spoken with a fiddle under one’s chin takes little away from the kindness of the thought, also makes for some very interesting arrangements du jour.  To tell the truth, I’m always happiest when I get a catch of eyes and a nod to tell me to pay attention, something’s coming up.

The rhythm of a set of reels is what it’s about.  Whatever you play, don’t get in the way of what’s being played.  After a time through I feel like we’re laying back into a groove rather than driving ahead.  In a reel I’d normally be tempted to start playing the off beats (one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND), setting up the drive in the same way as a mandolin in a bluegrass tune.  But on this tune I hear a different kind of thing going on in the second half of each musical phrase.  So I fall into the first off-beat, then I wait to hear what’s going on.  After a few phrases I can match the rhythm, and it translates well to the guitar.  Let’s stay here for a while.  At this point I start paying attention to the line of the melody so I can help accent or swell.  A little goes a long way, no need to overplay.

D/C bassA nod confirms that we’re coming into a new tune.  I’ve been warned beforehand where we’re likely to go.  The question is always whether the rhythm I’ve set up is going to work in the new tune.  One way to find out.  The tune stops, I know it’s coming, so I’m ready.  Hit the G to finish off the first tune, leave a space, then firmly on the downbeat with the new chord.  And I’m playing basically the same groove as before.  Hey, it works.

By this point my head’s down and I’m grooving, listening closely to what Pat and Kelly are laying down.  When you’re playing a tune like this one, no matter how long you play it, it never seems quite enough times through.  I understand why people put together medleys for concerts and such, but sometimes you barely get to know one tune before it’s gone.  I’m all for keeping people’s attention, but sometimes I just wanna hear the thing roll for a while.  Guess I played too many dances.

(Many thanks to Kelly Hood and Pat Simmonds for the tunes.)

The Sounds Around

kbsitepicsession007I think one of the ways that I’ve been lucky is that most sessions I’ve been involved with have included instruments other than guitar.  And while that other instrument may be nothing more exotic than a fiddle, oftener than not it’s something a little more unusual.  Not only do I get to hear all these different sounds, it somehow makes the unusual a little more normal.  Which strikes me as being healthy somehow.

(this particular session it was a kannel, from Estonia)

Songs and Tunes–Indian Lass

We were talking about this arrangement the other day, I thought you might like to hear it.  The song is one I learned from the singing of Cooper, Nelson and Early.  Normally sung as a slow, pretty waltz, I noticed that the words scanned beautifully when played in that loopy, skipping way that I tend to play a jig.  I was enjoying wandering through it in the key of F, and as luck would have it I remembered a jig in that same key that I’d learned during my time playing with Ken Perlman.  The jig is called ‘Light and Airy’, one of the tunes collected from Prince Edward Island.  I enjoyed the way it fell under the fingers on my flute, made even happier by how it fit with the song as it had evolved.

I enjoy singing songs as much as I do playing tunes.  This kind of arrangement is a natural extension of that love.  I enjoy the way the tune serves as a counterpoint to the story.  I’ve put together quite a few of these over the years.  Never really had much much opportunity to perform them.  I did take the time to rehearse a fiddler and Irish piper through a whole evening’s worth of that kind of thing a few years ago.  It was a great sound.  Sadly the musicians moved on before we were able to get any of it out in front of people more than once or twice.  Since then I’ve continued to work out arrangements like this, might sit down and record them one day.  In the meantime I still like the way this came together.


the song –>Indian Lass–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)