I just emailed all this to Frances to add some notes of her own and let me know what she thinks of the order. This is not the whole story on these tunes. Nor are these notes necessarily all true, but to me, as I ride to Oklahoma with my generous band-mate Rosalind driving, they feel true. I’m putting them here because it’s part of the process and these are the spontaneous notes that come to mind when I think of my story behind the tunes. Warning: this is a very long post and only a first draft. The “official” notes will be different and Frances will have time to write her notes, especially on the tunes she wrote or introduced. We’re holding off on releasing audio until we’re sure about the mixes but here’s an initial track list:
Dalena McKay (James Scott)
When Frances and I first started playing together, she called me up and sang this tune for me over the phone and I looked it up to find the name. She had found it on a Tannahill Weavers album and as I write this, I’m happy to say that I might catch the Tannies in Asheville in a few days. They were then band where I first heard the pipes played with other instruments, purely for entertainment rather than competition. I think the feeling of hearing them for the first time as a young piper would have been as if you raised a boy in a family that was into competing at dog shows and then one day when he’s 16 the boy discovers that you can play fetch with one, forever changing his perception of what dogs can be. In my mind, this is the inaugural tune between Frances and me.
Party Song (lyrics: EJ Jones, music: trad)
A friend of mine has a daughter who when she was planning her 7th birthday set some rules for the ultimate party: 1) everyone wears their fanciest clothes, but no “ninja” clothes. 2) everyone will have sparkles and if you don’t have sparkles we’ll give you some sparkles and 3) everyone gets to bring their pets. To me that sounded like an awesome party and I wrote the words for this song as if the daughter were actually the earthly representation of Vahalla as understood by a 6-7 year old girl who had now grown into her 20’s and the rules still held and always would.
Toms Export (Richard Kean)
One year at the Texas Scottish Festival, Richard Kean and I were the only two pipers in the Friday night “Kitchen” piping contest. Kitchen-piping is playing purely to entertain the audience without worrying about correctness or purity of technique. I call it “Stage-piping” or “Informal Piping” but anyway in this case the contest was set up to be judged by members of the audience and a judge from the entertainment lineup at the festival. At the time Richard and I were in a band together and we had had a gig a few weeks before. I had been practicing for this contest and when I saw Richard pull his pipes out of the box I saw that the fittings were really loose, meaning he probably hadn’t played since our last gig. I thought. “Well, I’ve got this in the bag” and sure enough when I went up to play, all my practice was evident in how fast and clear my gracenotes were and how beautifully I knocked through a set of reels. I was a little smug when I passed Richard on my way off the stage and saw him trying to keep his instrument from falling apart. He got up and it was a little embarrassing because he was having a bit of trouble keeping the instrument in tune. I shoolk my head a little and thought “Richard you should really be practicing more” as I heard him stumble through a tune. Then I saw a look of resignation in his face and also, a realization: he now had nothing left to lose. Richard has always seemed to me an artist with his own inner voice looking for things to do differently than he’s told. As soon as he realized the contest was lost, he let the artist take over, and like a long-oppressed prisoner, it came bursting out, defiantly and proudly, and his playing changed. He started playing his own tunes and by the time he got to this one, everyone in the audience was rapt in the rhythm of it. He won the contest in spite of not practicing, by sheer display of his life-force in the tunes. I’m sure he made up this tune on the spot, at that contest, just to spite me. I’ve been playing it ever since.
Revel Grove aka the Maryland Renaissance Festival is a perfect place to introduce the pipes and traditional music to an audience who might not have come for it. I’ve always wanted to capture the spirit I saw in my first Faire back in the early ’90’s when I played at one that for a while had a huge budget to hire entertainment. They hired me as a solo and my group Clandestine, going back to 1991 when we were founded by Lars Sloan. I remember when I saw piping at the Faire for the first time and I thought “I could do this!” Later in the year I found Lars who had the piping contract there and told him I wanted to play there with him every one of the 7 weekends the folloiwing year. He had been having trouble getting other pipers out for every weekend so he took me up on that offer and when we got together to rehears the next autumn, he proposed the band’s name: Clandestine. The festival had hired hundreds of actors to dress and speak in characters based on historical figures and every evening they came together to dance to the sound of the pipes, hundreds of people in beautiful clothes and dresses and costumes all dancing in character. Toward the end of the season they would be dancing in torchlight and the effect was jaw dropping to me. To this day I try to bring out that spirit in my playing and when the band was hired last year to play an extened run at Revel Grove, this is 20 years later and thousands of miles distant, I imagined teaching a dance at our closing set. Frances and I then got into a bit of a competition to see who could write the most beautiful, dancable tune, and each night of the festival in 2015 we would teach the dance to a crowd of mostly strangers. I call it “A Turn through Revel Grove” because the dance is call An Dro, translating literally as “A Turn” and Revel Grove being such a great environment for having a moment of spontaneous beauty. If that festival hadn’t hired us these tunes wouldn’t exist and we would be a very different band.
The Laverock Sang (Brian McNeill)
I was informed by the composer when we started performing this tune that I was mispronouncing “Laverock”. I’m not supposed to pronounce the “er” but pronounce it more like “Lav’rock”. I probably pronounce it this way because…well… it’s got “er” in it as well as having had a good friend in my teenaged pipe band days named Sandy Laverock, who played the tenor drum in the Hamilton Pipe Band and one night tried to cuddle me in his sleep when we were sharing a bed on a band trip. I know in his sleep he was actually trying to cuddle is wife because he said “mmmmmm Irene” as he put his arm over me. I mangaged to get out an “uhhh… Sandy?” which woke him and no more cuddling after that.
Leitrim Lilter / The Maple Leaf (Darach de Brún) / Mary McMahon
Rosie Shipley taught me the first tune at her family’s house in Nova Scotia, on the night I met her after a Clandestine show in Liverpool N.S. Her mother Jane had suggested Rosie invite the band over the the house and I was the only one who went for it. Rosie and I later worked together with Gerry OBeirne on The Willow in 2002 and had a band together briefly. That night turned out to be momentous for me and it’s one of the only times I’ve been able to learn a tune by ear on the spot. Having the brilliant Rosie Shipley in front of me must have been the right incentive!
The Maple Leaf was taught to me by a banjo player named Jeane Chirdon in Asheville in December 2009. I’ve never been a fan of the Irish tenor banjo and when I first met Jeanne in 2007 she had her instrument case with her. I remember thinking how beautiful she was and she walked away I saw the case and thought “please be a bouzouki, please be a bouzouki!”. It was a banjo. At least she taught me this tune and I still hate the tenor banjo but I love this tune, and an internet search on thesession.org
led me to find a profile on the composer Darach de Brùn
In the ’90’s I was less of a flute player than I am now and went searching through O’Neil’s 1001 Irish Tunes to find something I could play on the Highland pipes. I found Mary McMahon in one of the only instances in which I could learn a tune from a book.
Dark Haired Lass / The Sheperd’s Daughter / The Flowing Bowl / Boys of Malin
The Boys of Malin was taught to me by Beanie O’Dell, the leader of the Asheville Irish music community. It’s almost playable on the pipes since it needs a G# and luckily I can false-finger one on the chanter and make a substitute E on the smallpipes. I teach it as a smallpipe tune for people who are looking for common Irish tunes that are uncommon in the Highland piping repertoire.
I should have called these “The Altan Tunes” because I learned the first two (three except I changed the fourth one) from the legendary Irish band Altan. I bought their CD “The Red Crow” at Cactus Music on S. Sheperd in Houston after absconding with Jen Hamel from CMU in Pittsburgh to re-form Clandestine in 1994, again with Lars. We were looking for music to learn and be inspired by and Jen wasn’t as big a fan of the Tannahill Weavers as I was. She and I were both heavily influenced by Altan when we were starting Clandestine and she took one of their songs “Nobleman’s Wedding” as a piece to play with the band early-on. I didn’t learn these tunes until many years later when I was looking for new sources of material, and they are such finger-twisters to play that I thought they would be a unique entry in my favorite international piping contest, the MacCrimmon (formerly MacAllan) Tropy, which I saw Gordon Duncan win in my first trip to the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in 1997. That festival changed my life forever and it was a dream to play there in 2014 as the USA representative withi these tunes in the Irish segment. I put “Tuirse Mo Chroi” in front of it because it fits great on the Highland pipes, and is an uncommon tune. I can only find recordings of it by my flute-idol Barry Kerr and, you guessed it, Altan.
Crossing the Sabine
True or not, these notes to the story behind the tunes are lovely, and I can’t wait to hear the music. It is going to be great! I am going to check out the Tannies and Altan now and yes, sparkles are required for the ultimate party! Thank you for sharing your notes, EJ. Always an inspiration!
The background stories make the songs come to Life! Plus, it’s cool to hear the inspiration behind it.