It’s been a long winter. One of the companions that has nourished the endurance for me has been the Irish harper Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin, more commonly rendered today as Turlough O’Carolan. O’Carolan died 270 years ago last week (March 25th). Most folks who have been around the folk music and dance scene are probably familiar with O’Carolan’s greatest hits; “Planxty Fanny Power”, “Hewlett”, “Planxty Irwin”, “Sheebeg and Sheemore” (generally iterated with a guffaw as “She Begged for More”), and of course, “O’Carolan’s Concerto”. The complete list of his tunes numbers over 200, though the certainty of his being the composer is questionable in a number of cases.
The term “Planxty” appears to have been, if not invented, at least popularized by O’Carolan as a preface to the name of the individual he happened to be honoring with a new composition. Since he spent a fair amount of time traipsing about the countryside availing himself of the hospitality of rich folks, he ended up making extensive use of the word.
Biographers suggest that he was not really a stellar musician, but his mediocre renderings were offset by the beauty of his music, and his poetry which often accompanied it. Additionally, he was known as a fun-loving gregarious character. In any case, he kept me good company this winter. Some years ago I inherited a lovely Mason and Hamlin parlor organ from my grandmother. Having barely touched it for a couple of decades, I had reconciled myself to finding a good home for it (such instruments have virtually no value, even in the age of EBay). Then I began to dabble with some of the O’Carolan melodies, and though the organ is quite a different flavor of instrument than the harp, I found its reedy, almost homely sound to be appropriate for the tunes. The “music” – meaning the written-out notes, that O’Carolan gave us provide just the melody, so there is some creativity required to determine appropriate chordal and harmonic accompaniment. Folks steeped in the older musical traditions of Ireland will make choices that might be more carefully informed. Additionally, he was a contemporary of, and influenced by, such “classical” composers as Vivaldi and Corelli, which may be instructive if one is targeting authenticity. While in many cases it’s not hard to find something that suffices, it’s also fun to experiment. One afternoon Rodney Miller and August Watters came over for tunes, and we spent most of the day “interpreting” O’Carolan. Rodney gave some suggestions of what he envisioned (or en-heard) and August, who teaches at Berklee College Music in Boston, and who knows from chords, was able to parlay this into actual voicing – chords with names like a Gsus flat ninth, and other words that sounded to me a bit like chemistry. I suppose it actually is chemistry.
It’s not terribly difficult these days to find either the written or recorded music to much of O’Carolan’s works. A few tunes have worked their way into the traditional New England dance repertoire (“Maggie Brown’s Favorite”), but most are appropriate for just playing, and, of course, listening. We hope that this inspires you to explore.
There’s some chance that you’d hear an O’Carolan tune at any of the three events the Monadnock Folklore Society is presenting this month (and we encourage you to check out our calendar to the right, where we list other folk-related events in the greater Monadnock Region). On April 5th the Peterborough Town House will resonate with the music of Crowfoot, weaving musical influences from England, Ireland, Quebec, and the Appalachian Mountains into a captivating fusion. Each member of this trio is a multi-instrumentalist, which adds to the tapestry. Steve Zakon-Anderson will be calling.
The following Saturday, April 12th, finds Lisa Sieverts calling with the Sugar River Band in Nelson. Long-time New England dancers are familiar with fiddler Jane Orzechowski, of Old New England. Jane is joined by her musical offspring, each of whom is accomplished on multiple instruments including piano, fiddle, guitar, and accordion. The sound promises to be rich with New England flavor, though having spent some time with them recently, I can attest to a certain curiosity about modern influences as well. In any case, the level of musicianship is extraordinary.
Both dances start with a beginner’s workshop at 7:30, dancing at 8:00. See the calendar for more details.
Hunt Smith is a fiddler, mandolinist, guitar player, and general raconteur who has recently migrated to Nelson from a place that doesn’t have long winters or black flies (in spite of that we believe him to be a reasonable fellow). Brasstown, North Carolina, home of the John Campbell Folk School, is sometimes referred to as a bookend (Nelson being the other) for traditional music and dance in the east. Hunt absorbed a plethora of music from there and elsewhere, and we are so pleased to have him as the featured performer for the Nelson Coffeehouse on Sunday, April 20th. The Coffeehouse also serves as an open mic for musicians, poets, and storytellers. Again, see the calendar to the right for more details. If you’d like to perform, please contact Lisa Sieverts by EMAIL or call 603-827-3044.
As always we invite your comments, ideas, and suggestions for this Website and for the Monadnock Folklore Society. Write to us. Happy Spring!