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Notes from the Field

Mandolin in Celtic Music

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In the forum there is some discussion of the idea of a Celtic Mandolin with reference to a good article to which it would be impossible for me to add.

In the past, not being able to add to a discussion has rarely stopped me from contributing. But more and more I am of the mind of a quote from a Burning Man poster: “having something to say is highly overrated”. So I will move my thoughts from the forum to the blogs.

Many years ago, … OK, back in the 80s, I traveled more than somewhat to Scotland and Ireland every spring, in search of traditional music, pubs, girls and other “good crack”.

This was back before the mandolin was common in Celtic music, really. I was usually the only mandolin in the sessions I attended, the exception being a Sobell bouzouki, a huge beautiful powerful instrument which was showing up a lot, and occasionally a Joe Foley bouzouki with that lovely curved extension above the headstock. I wanted one of those real bad.

I played a Gibson 1923 A2 snakehead. It was, at the time, not a very traditional sound, but it was what I had. My style of playing traditional music was very much an East Coast American Jam Session Contra Dance style, so there was more than my mandolin that was not very traditional.

This one evening, outside a pub in Galway near the bay, I screwed my courage to the sticking-place and opened the door.

So here are the hurdles requiring extreme intestinal fortitude:

• Going into a pub with a musical instrument case in your hand – once you do you are committed. There is no going back. The case screams loudly your intensions, and everyone will know exactly why if you don’t open the case that evening. Exactly why.

• Waiting for a welcoming eye from one of the folks at the on going session. Will it happen? Will it happen? If it doesn’t will I open the case anyway? Who has enough courage for that? Fear in front of me, terror behind, no help no help.

• Actually sitting down with them, (after getting the nod), and taking out the instrument.

• Asking permission to take out my cassette recorder (to capture more tunes – one of the main reasons I even left the house - items more valuable than pictures or post cards).

In response to a shrug, I put the recorder on the knee high table, in amongst the cigarettes, pipes, lighters, rolling papers and tobacco pouches, (more common in those days than “ready made”), and pushed the record buttons.

I did ok, as I generally did. I was able to hold my own on about one in four or five tunes, and not cause harm on the rest. If I didn’t know the tune, I would sit out and “listen some”. My practice in those days was to do what I could, and then take the recordings back to transcribe to music paper late into the night. If I came back to this particular session in the future, I would have maybe a third or more of the tunes under my fingers.

Mandolin tone quality wasn’t as much of a fetish then, as it is now, to me at least. I was happy to get the notes mostly in the right order at the right times. So I was taken aback when one of the fiddlers said: “Ah yes, that good old Gibson sound. Play us some Jimmy Rogers.”

I hesitated. This was not on the program, not what I had in mind. Not what I was about in those days. He caught my expression and said, “well certainly you didn’t bring that all the way over here to play our music.” And he launched into some great Jimmy Rogers song which everyone quickly joined in on. Well except me, because I wasn’t as up on this music, and had to sit it out and listen some.

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Updated Sep-13-2014 at 2:04pm by JeffD



  1. lflngpicker's Avatar
    What a great story, Jeff. Well written and I completely know what you are referring to when you discussed walking in with the case in hand. What an interesting way you put that idea. It brought it to mind for me and memories crossed paths with yours. Good essay and thanks for the discussion and thoughts on this. I was brought up hearing my dad play his old 00018 Martin on Jimmy Rogers. Thanks. Dan