The Myth of Tragedy

Where tunes come from and what they carry
Episode Trailer

How do composers conjure melodies in traditional Irish and Scottish styles? Where do the tunes come from, and what do they carry? Composers Liz Carroll, Dáithí Sproule, and Katie McNally discuss creativity, resilience, and myths behind new and old tunes from their homes of Chicago, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine.

Fiddle players Laura Cortese, George Keith, Leanne McNally, and Laurel Martin also weigh in with resonant stories behind the music.

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Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Leslie Stack, Patricia P. Wilcox, Michael Craine, Mark Haynes, Emil Hauptmann, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Jon Duvick, Suezen Brown, John Ploch, Joel DeLashmit, Let’s Learn Irish, and Ministry of Folk.

Episode 47 – The Myth of Tragedy: Where tunes come from, and what they carry
This Irish Music Stories episode aired November 10, 2020
https://shannonheatonmusic.com/episode-47-the-myth-of-tragedy/

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Matt Heaton: guitar player, performer of production music for Irish Music Stories 
>> Laura Cortese: San Francisco-born singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background and post-folk sensibilities
>> George Keith: Minnesota-born, Boston-based fiddle player and computer programmer
>> Dáithí Sproule: Guitarist and singer born in Derry and now living in Minnesota, and one of the first to develop DADGAD tuning for Irish music. 
>> Liz Carroll: Chicago-based fiddle player and composer who has been named All-Ireland champ, Grammy nominee, National Heritage Fellow, and TG4 Cumadóir
>> Katie McNally: Boston-born Katie McNally grew up playing Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle music and currently tours with Fàrsan and the Katie McNally Trio
>> Leanne McNally: Boston area Celtic music advocate and Boston Celtic Music Festival board member
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Laurel Martin: performer and fiddle teacher in the Boston area who plays sessions, festivals and concerts throughout New England

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>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger, comforting, tolerable, transformative stories behind it.

[ Music: – Bold Doherty” from An Traidisiún Beo
Artist: Angelina Carberry ]

Like the night of music Matt Heaton and I had on the night of September 11th, 2001. This jig, Bold Doherty, was the very first tune we played that night, with banjo player Angelina Carberry and her dad. Here’s my husband Matt’s take on that night:

>> Matt: We were in Ireland on September 11th. And the only way we found out about was we were talking into town, and we passed a shop that had a bunch of Tvs, and saw  all the images there. And when we went back to where we were staying, a lot of the neighbors came by to check on us, and just make sure we were okay, because we were the Americans in town. And that night we had been planning to go into a session. And we decided to stick with it, for want of anything else to do. And it turned out to be a really, really special and powerful night of music for us.

>> Shannon: Then there’s the Golden Castle hornpipe, and the story of the cigar guy on the morning after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, JUST over four years ago.

>> Laura: So I remember the morning after the 2016 election, sort of waking up with this sense of heaviness and realizing Hillary Clinton had just lost.

>> Shannon: That’s Laura Cortese, speaking from her adopted home in Belgium. With her Scottish fiddle background, she knows how the company of other people, and how these little tunes can get us though tough moments. 

>> Laura: You and I were walking near my house along the river in Medford where we live, talking about what was ahead. And this little red-faced guy puffing on a cigar, just looking at us with this look in his eye that, I don’t know, this trumph or something. Just puffing on a cigar, he just says, “Mornin’, girls!”

And it really felt intentional to use the word ‘girls,’ and not ‘ladies,’ or just say good morning, you know. And I think the hope that we had before that election was lost at that moment

>> Shannon: After our walk, back in 2016, I came home and played the Golden Castle hornpipe. 

[ Music: slow, mournful Golden Castle ]

I heard this story once about this tune. About how Junior Crehan, that fiddle player and composer from Clare, had played it as a lament over his friend’s grave. Other musicians started to join him. And eventually they all settled into this hornpipe rhythm together.

[ Music: Golden Castle in hornpipe time]

When the chips are down, traditional musicians often seek solace in these tunes. We listen to recordings of them. We play them with other people. Or we play them by ourselves, but we’re still keeping company with the people and stories associated with the tunes.

After my friend Sean Gannon died, I thought of this waltz he used to play on the box. I associate it with some really great nights of music, with Sean and other friends like Dan Isaacson and fiddle player George Keith:

>> George: Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, my good friend Sean and his father John used to do the weekly 3pm session at the Burren pub in Somerville. I was part of the session that followed at 7. But we liked playing tunes with the Gannons, so we’d show up at 3pm to play tunes with them. And Sean would often stick around after his gig to play with us. The gigs were 3 hours long, but nobody typically asked us to stop. And we’d be having fun, so we’d keep playing til the bar closed at 1 or 2 often.

Many weeks in those 10 or 11 hours, Sean would pull out this pretty waltz he had. He never had a name for it, but he remembered his grandmother singing him to bed with it when he was young. Which was a really nice story for the tune. When Emily and I got married, we asked him to play it for our first dance even.

>> Shannon: So years later we found out it wasn’t actually an ancient melody, but it was, in fact, used as the theme tune for this BBC miniseries set in Scotland. The tune was written by by Iain MacLachlan with one name (Dr. MacKay’s Farewell to Creagorry). But most people associate it with this TV show, “Dark Island,” a BBC miniseries set in Scotland.

>> George: I’m guessing Sean’s Granny was a fan of the show, and it got stuck in her head. It reminds me a bit of Robbie O’Connell’s story about trying to dig up some old songs in Mooney’s bar in Ring from an old local fellow. And instead of some precious piece of history, the fellow keeps on coming up with Wayne Newton hits.

[ Music: “The Dark Island,” from Encore

Artist: Celtic Fiddle Festival ]

>> Shannon: Maybe not so much Wayne Newton hits. But Dark Island waltz? That’s part of my traditional music repertoire. And maybe it’s not quite as ancient as Sean’s story had led us to believe. But it’s a sweet tune.

So is the Anniversary Reel. It’s just a tune that I wrote. But I’ve played it in a number of settings over the years, including with the Japanese Band tricolor. It takes me back to my travels with Yuka, Koji, and Hiro… And it also takes me back to the Burren Pub with George and Sean. 

On one of those Sundays, the Battlefield Band from Scotland had come in for tunes after playing  concert up the street. It was a hilarious night. And when I think of that tune, or of Dark Island, it brings me right back there.

Here’s the Battlefield Band’s take on the anniversary reel:

[ Music: “The Anniversary Reel/Out for the Night,” from Out for the Night
Artist: Battlefield Band ]

This “Anniversary Reel,” played here by the Battlefield Band, and the Dark Island TV theme song, and classic tunes I’ve learned from venerable old concertina players: they all somehow hang together for me. And in this episode, I’ll dig into how and why this is.

With the help of composers Liz Carroll, Dáithí Sproule and Katie McNally, I’ll explore the origins and anatomy of trad tunes. We’ll consider personal and collective taste, and how traditional style affects innovation and creativity. 

And we’ll talk about the tunes. And the myths that surround them.

 * * * *
Irish and Scottish instrumental music traditions are based around melodies, and around all the players who work together in a collective way to keep the tunes going. To learn them, to teach them, and share them, and to add new ones to the repertoire. 

As new tunes come along, it’s the group that ends up selecting tunes and incorporating them into the general collection. And as guitar player Dáithí Sproule pointed out, there’s a pretty consistent group aesthetic. 

>> Dáithí: Taste is a hugely important factor. Even in a collective situation. When you’re talking about talking to lots of musicians through the years, you’ll find an incredible degree of agreement about who’s liked and who isn’t liked. 

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: As I speak, there are traditional musicians writing tunes and telling stories. Musicians like Dáithí. It was he, in fact, who used the phrase ‘myth of tragedy’ that started this whole episode. 

Now only time will tell which ones get adopted. Of course these days, most of the sharing of music is done online, while Covid restricts in-person gatherings. And while we weather another U.S. Presidential election and its aftermath.

Yep, that’s what’s still on as I assembled this episode.

[ Music: “The Wolf / The Duck,” from On the Offbeat
Artist: Liz Carroll ]

The outcome of this election was different from 2016. But there are some parallels. I asked Chicago-based fiddle player Liz Carroll where she was four years ago:

>> Liz: Oh, I just, I just remember that night, and just going to bed ,and just not being able to sleep, and checking the phone every hour (or less). Yeah. It was pretty horrifying.
>> Shannon: That was such a gut puncher. Laura Cortese and I met up for a walk.
>> Liz: The day after?
>> Shannon: Yeah, the day after. And this red face guy passed us. And he was, like, smoking a cigar. And he looked at us, and he beamed at us. And he said, “hiya, girls!” 
>> Liz: Haha. You’re like, no, we’re not where you are now. Haha! So he was happy? He was obviously happy. Or he was oblivious!
>> Shannon: Yeah. Either way it was kind of devastating.
>> Liz: Yeah, it was pretty horrifying, wasn’t it? You know, if I had had a call from you two to go for a walk, I would’ve done it. Ah, yeah.

>> Shannon: There are a lot of happy Americans, rejoicing in the Biden/Harris victory.  And there are also people in mourning. Because their agenda lost. Some of those people are protesting, and they’re writing their tragedy myths right now.

Hopefully those protests are with proper social distance. And outside.

[ Music:  “Limerick Liftoff,” from (Live in our Living Room)
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

When things get tough for me, I often go outside. And that leads me back in, where I might begin writing a tune. But once I begin writing out of despair, sometimes lighter music emerges. Like this one, The Limerick Liftoff. [Music swells]

I wrote this as Space-X was launching a mission to the International Space Station. A friend in Ireland, Jaylin was cheering for a Chinese astronaut onboard. There was a misunderstanding. and another friend thought that Jaylin was on the space station himself. 

So I wrote a slip jig. And in the second part there’s a Star Trek reference.

[Shannon sings B  e  a]
[ Liz laughs. ]
>> Shannon: That’s what’s happening for me!
>> Liz: Right, right. Haha!

>> Shannon: Humor aside, like any traditional slip jig, it’s got this first part (with eight bars), and then a second part (with eight bars). Like any other traditional slip jigs, it’s got that 9/8 rhythmic feel for the dancers. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel… or the rocket.

[ Music: “As The Crow Flies,” from Half Day Road
Artist: Liz Carroll ]

>> Liz: I really love everything about the construct of jigs and reels. So was I thinking of breaking any molds? Not really. I just basically wanted to, um, play different notes.! So it kinda started early for me. I mean, I was on the accordion when I was making up tunes. And that’s pre-fiddle. So it’s a long time that that has been a kind of an interest to me. And something that I liked to do. 

I wouldn’t say I’ve broken too many molds. I just kind of follow my nose.

>> Shannon: As she does here, with the tune “As the Crow Flies.” [Music swells]

>> Liz: Maybe I could say this, that I think my tunes were more complicated when I was younger, and they’re less complicated now. And so somewhere along the way, I think it’s possible that maybe I really do want people to like ‘em. Hahaha! There’s that! 

And maybe there’s something to be said for really getting down to making it accessible, and making it really logical. Always, like in politics, I like logic, you know? It makes me happy. And I can remember finishing tunes or figuring out where a phrase was going to go, and just on my lonesome in my house, just laughing out loud. Because it was so logical! And I was like, there it is.

And I think maybe you’re trying to be honest with yourself, to really follow where you want to go. [Music ends]

You would really follow a path. And you would know “ah, not it.” Haha. So it’s more like the next idea comes from you saying, “that’s not it. And then what’s next?”

And again, you’re giggling as you do it. But that would kind of be the process. So, sad to say, there’s no incredible formula there. 

[Music “After Hours Theme” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Are there composers that you really love that you think you might have, uh, been inspired by compositionally?

>> Liz: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, you know, it’s their tunes. Funny enough, you don’t think of it as them. You think of it as their tunes. I think that, um, the first one that I was able to really kind of go “here’s this person composing tunes” was Ed Reavy. 

>> Shannon: Ed Reavy emigrated to Philadelphia when he was 15. He lived, played fiddle, and composed tunes there for the next 76 years. His music really resonated with players in the States, and back in Ireland. And today many of his tunes are staples at Irish music sessions. They’ve been played by, like, everybody. Including fiddle player Paddy Cronin, who left his home in Kerry and emigrated to Boston in 1949. By then, Reavy was in his early 50s.

>> Liz: So Paddy Cronin was in Chicago at a bar called Hoban’s on the South side. So I would go and hear him. And this one day, he started playing this whole little batch of like, really strange tunes. That I hadn’t heard before. And I was like, what’s that? what’s that? And they were all Reavy tunes. 

I don’t think I had any recording device. I don’t think I got any of them on tape. But I knew that those existed. And at some point I had gotten his book. I just decided, God, it’s hard to remember stuff when I’m reading it, you know? It could go out of my head so much faster than if I actually learn it by ear. So we had a reel to reel tape recorder. And I taped the whole book!

Haha! I just went from tune to tune. And they were awesome. Every one of them. And I really realized that what was so amazing about them was that you didn’t want to change a note. That they were perfect. They were perfect. They were like gems.

What seemed to be the case is these ones that you really started to admire, they were just perfectly laid out. You could change them. But they didn’t need to be changed. 

>> Shannon: There was an Ed Reavy tune that Liz took some liberties with. For an album of his compositions. It was produced by musician and folklorist Mick Moloney, and Liz played Ed’s jig called the Wild Swans at Coole.

>> Liz: I just kind of rambled and wanted to see what else was there. Or which way things could go. And I actually was a little bit worried. You know, was Ed going to like this? I’d only met Ed once. But Mick Moloney said to me, he said maybe mine and one other one, he loved. And he loved it probably for the same reason that you and I would love somebody changing your tune (if it doesn’t kill it hahah!).
>> Shannon: Well, yeah, that they cared for it enough to, like, dig in there and see what was there? [Liz claps]
>> Liz: They dug in there. And they found their own voice in your tune. You know, I love that Irish expression of ‘being chuffed.’ But the times that I’ve been most chuffed, haha, are if somebody does something to it. If they actually went a different way, then I’m like, “oh yeah, thumbs up.!” And you kind of feel like maybe that tune is going to have a life then.
>> Shannon: Yeah. And that it can withstand innovation and variation?>> Liz: Yeah.

>> Shannon: Here’s a little demo of variation and innovation. I asked my friend George Keith, my Dark Island Waltz buddy, to record the Wild Swans at Coole, the way Ed Reavy wrote it in his book. Here’s the first part, the way that George played it:

[ Music: “Wild Swans at Coole,” from Living Room Demo
Artist: George Keith ]

And here’s what Liz did on that album:

[ Music: “Wild Swans at Coole,” from The Music of Ed Reavy
Artist: Liz Carroll ]

Now here’s the  second part, the way that Ed Reavy wrote it.

[ Music: “Wild Swans at Coole,” from Living Room Demo
Artist: George Keith ]

And here’s Liz’s B part.

[ Music: “Wild Swans at Coole,” from The Music of Ed Reavy
Artist: Liz Carroll ]

It’s little turns and twists. But that’s what these tunes are. Taking turns here, twisting there. Now, and always. That’s how tunes are written.

[Music: “Little Bird Lullaby” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton]

>> Liz: You know I’ve been going through a lot of old music scraps in these “Covid times.” And I decided to take a photo of each one that was actually an original. 

One thing that’s kind of funny is that  many tunes get named way after. Case in point, I was finding something from when I was—like a little booklet with the address from where I lived in Chicago, when I was in high school, so I know exactly the time period of this. And I’m finding, you know, a couple of tunes like, say, is on the last album. So it had never been named. Yeah, it’s kind of interesting.

After this pandemic began.. was funny enough. I was doing the dishes and I was like, Oh right. I should listen to a little Bach for niceness sake. Uh, also soothing. And um, so I put on, uh, the Glen Gould. It’s just piano. And it was going, you know. 

[ Music: “Last of the Leaves,” (by Jake Charron) from Half Day Road
Artist: Jake Charron ]

So I went into the TV room afterwards. Just sitting there and thinking, you know, it’s really, really close to Irish in a lot of ways. It was just lovely that it just goes, just, just goes. And so I thought, you know what? And so I just went and grabbed my old pen and music paper and sat back in the TV room. And I went, okay, no editing. Just go. And nothing is bad and just go. Great fun!

I think it’s a nice activity for anybody to just, just go. Just don’t even look for good or bad. And there’s this time to be here with your thoughts. You know, there is no session anyway. So you’re just playing music. You’re just composing music. Nothing is good or bad exceptw hat you think. And it’s been kind of nice.I imagine it’s the equivalent of, you know heading off and just hiding out monk-like. And just kind of setting yourself straight with the world. Uh, so, composing wise, it’s been a little bit of that. 

It’s funny, you know what I love about writing the tunes—you have to tell me if you’re the same—I mean, it’s just so wonderful that it can be just be a response to so may things. It can just be a response to you going, “I think I’ll make up a tune now.” It can be somebody else saying what do you think you could make up? It can be, you know, that you’ve had a lovely walk and you just are in just such a delighted mood that you go ahead and you write a tune. Or it can be that you hear a wonderful tune and you go I wonder what I could make up that to go with that.

I mean, I’ve abandoned tunes also for a while because, yeah, I wanted it more to come to me rather than to work at it. Again, just since looking through things I found a tune. And God knows when I wrote it. But I never finished it. And I sat down with it just maybe three weeks ago. And I finished it. And yeah, that sneaky laugh that I was just talking about where I get really happy and just I go “whoa!”

>> Shannon: Do you want to share that one with the listeners? 
>> Liz: Totally, totally. Yeah! I would love to!

[ Music: “Liz’s New tune,” from Living Room Demo (with chords from the Lower Level)
Artists: Liz Carroll & Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Since Liz had told me about harmonies she’d imagined for the tune, we had Matt Heaton play chords the second time around

[ Liz continues the tune and guitar joins second time around ]

>> Shannon: From long abandoned tune to finished melody, with chords. Finished just before the November 3rd election. The soundtrack for another myth of tragedy? At this point, Liz didn’t know.

>> Shannon: Do you have plans for, uh, this election? 
>> Liz: Oh my gosh.. So, we’ll be watching. Fingers crossed. But we should come up with something. I was just thinking about it. You know, my, my husband years ago, uh, had an accident at work. A fella had something up and he was cutting a piece of wood. And didn’t he lose it in the machine. And it took off arrow-like through the shop. And it went through my husband’s hand and into his stomach. 
>> Shannon: Oh my God.
>> Liz: Now. I don’t even want you to worry about that. He’s fine. It all ended up fine. It missed every major thing, unbelievably. But yeah. He was in the hospital for a bit But that happened, I don’t even know the year, but we know the date October 26. So on October 26, we always have shish kebab.[ Hahahahaha! ]

So Shannon, what I’ll say to you now is that rather than tell you about worrying, I’d say if the best happens, we’ll probably have some special, special celebration every year in honor of things changing in this country for the better. 
>> Shannon: I like this. I like it a lot.

[ Music: The Bag of Spuds,” from Notes From The Heart
Artists: Mick, Louise & Michelle Mulcahy ]

A special plate of skewered spuds. A new tune, a tale of woe. When big stuff goes down there’s power in marking the events. And sharing them. I wondered what guitarist Dáithí Sproule had planned from his home in Minnesota:

>> Dáithí: Um, have already voted, you know, by mail. So it’s just going to be weird. I’m just waiting for all the dramas, and all the red herrings. I don’t know. But I’ll be watching.

>> Shannon: Well, THIS was the backdrop. The election was still looming large as Liz revisited and finished her latest tune. And as Dáithí sent me this quick melodic sketch

[ Music: “October Tune,” from Living Room Demo
Artist: Dáithí Sproule ]

>> Shannon: So do you want to just dive right into the tune that you sent? ?

>> Dáithí: Well, all right. Yeah. Well I just thought if we were talking about how to compose —  of course the first answer everybody gives and should give is I have no idea, you know. But obviously iit happens. So then I thought, all right, I will try and make an opportunity just as an exercise. So I just happened to have the guitar here. The guitar I played it on is Lisa’s guitar, which I don’t play. She normally is in standard tuning. So then the first chord I played was an A Major. And I never composed anything in A major. So that was a starting point.

[ plays first phrase ]

And that was the start of the tun. So really, I actually believe any series of notes is the start of a composition. And I think.. I think that you should have courage and just listen to it. You know, play a series of notes and say, right, that’s the start of my tune. I mean, you really can’t go wrong.  And I think the difference between people who compose and people don’t compose, maybe that they just don’t have the will, do you know what I mean?

I have even just got out a recording device and started singing random melody. And it’s always melody, you know? And when it has worked well, I have then had to learn my own tune. So in a sense, it emphasizes the fact that you don’t compose the tune, you know. That it sort of comes to you.

[ Plays more of the new October tune. ]

Another thing that I think is as crucial to arranging and composing is to finish it. Now I know not everybody does that. But I never just have a bit of a tune laying round, or hardly ever. If I decided this sounds nice, then I finish the part. And almost immediately I would do another part. So that you have a completed a completed object!

>> Shannon: Yep. So already in the example that you’ve given me, melody is something that emerges immediately. [Sings the first part]
>> Dáithí: Right, very good.
>> Shannon: I notice that that’s four bars. Kind of how a lot of Irish melodies tend to run. And then you had the answer [sings], then you had that statement, right? And then it went somewhere else, entirely.
>> Dáithí:  Well, it wanders. It deliberately wanders. Even though melody is what I love, and what we all love, and that’s what Irish music is based on, at the same time, I’m a guitarist. So playing on a guitar is based on structures, frameworks. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t look at like this is a B flat. You know, I’m just playing around with these structures. And I know ones that have worked in the past. And then I play them. [plays more of the melody]

That open note? I didn’t imagine that.  And now back to the A. [continues to play on the guitar.] And then it descends. You very seldom go wrong with a descent!

>> Shannon: Haha!

>> Shannon: You seldom go wrong with a descent. It’s helpful to go by feel and chord shape. And once you get going, you tend to just finish the tune. The Dáithí Sproule school of Irish melodicism!

[ Music: “Taylors Falls,” from The Crow in the Sun
Artist: Dáithí Sproule ]

>> Dáithí: One of the things I like about the tunes— and they’re little things, you know, they’re like sonnets or something, they’re small little things — but what I like about them compared to a lot of other things I do is that instantly they become outside me. You know, I’ve given birth to them. And I can experience them completely as if you had made it up, or somebody I knew had made it up. There’s no ego tied up with it at all. And of course, if I bother finishing it, it’s because I like it. So I like all my tunes. But I like them all as if somebody else had made them up. So it’s really nice to have something in my music where, uh, there’s no question of insecurity. Because you know, it’s not me. Do you know what I mean?
>> Shannon: I know what you mean. Even with my own, um, self-consciousness and hang ups, I do find that by writing a tune, usually once I’ve gotten it to where it feels right for me, that’s it. And I don’t have any question about the tune. 
>> Dáithí: Yeah. It’s a nice feeling. 

>> Shannon: It really is a nice feeling to create things that feel, somehow, outside of you. And that tell stories, and weave in different influences. Composing this podcast for the last four years has been a tremendous exercise in listening, experimenting, and accepting help. I couldn’t produce Irish Music Stories without all of my incredible guests, all of you listening, and the folks who have kicked in with support.

Before I chat more about Irish melodicism with Dáithí, here’s my son Nigel to acknowledge this month’s sponsors.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Emil Hauptman, Leslie Stack, Pat Wilcox, Michael Craine, Mark Haynes, John Ploch, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Joel DeLashmit, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Susan Walsh, Jon Duvick, Suezen Brown, Let’s Learn Irish, and Ministry of Folk.

>> Shannon: Thank you. And thanks for listening to this podcast, and to these beautiful melodies.

In addition to guitar tunes, Dáithí also writes new melodies to traditional lyrics. There’s a tradition of doing this, as Terry Woods did with My Dearest Dear which I really associate with Dáithí and the group Trian.

[ Music: “My Dearest Dear,” from Trian
Composer: Terry Woods
Artist: Dáithí Sproule and Trian ]

>> Dáithí: I make up melodies to traditional lyrics, too. That’s another sideline, too. But that’s different. Because obviously when I do that I’m trying to make something that would fit into the tradition, you know?

But with the guitar tunes, I’m not sure I would call them… Well, they are music made up by an Irish person. But I’m not sure how they relate to the Irish tradition. It would be a wee bit like some of Liz’s tunes. Some of it is Liz Caroll music, you know? They’re certainly played by an Irish traditional musician. But melody is really, really, really important. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. Because when I first heard, you know, fancy finger pickers, a lot of it was what I would call noodley music, you know? It was noodling around and having rhythm patterns and chord patterns. But very weak in melody. And to me always trying to make up a beautiful melody is the thing for me.

>> Shannon: Katie McNally also writes beautiful melodies, Her tune, The Acadia March, was one of the first tunes I played with other people after the 2016 election.

[ Music: “Acadia March,” from The Bloom of Youth
Artists: Childsplay ]

From her home Portland, Maine, Katie remembered that musical moment with me. We had just begun rehearsing for a week of shows with the New England fiddle band Childsplay. 

>> Katie:  Hillary wasn’t my first choice candidate, but the idea of having a female president president was totally thrilling to me. Like so many other countries in the world have had a female leader. And the fact that we haven’t is so insulting and so weird. So I was really, that was something that I could look forward to. 

I don’t know if our rehearsals started one or two days after that election. Something like that. And, um, it was so good to have both that as a distraction. And just to have all these people who I love and cherish around me

[ music swells ]

>> Shannon: I remembered talking to my friend Leanne McNally (Katie’s mom) right around that time, right after playing the Acadia march. Our conversation has been written into that tune for me. And her story has a whole new dimension, now that we have Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Myths like these add such depth to these little tunes. Just days before our 2020 election, I asked Leanne to share that original story.

>> Leanne: Hi, Shannon. It’s been really good talking to you. As far as the 2016 election goes, I do remember feeling nothing but clear in who my choice for President would be in that election cycle. You know, we had a very qualified candidate, perhaps the most qualified candidate in history, running against a candidate with no qualifications to be President. 

Everyone was aware of what was happening on both sides. There was a lot of concern and watching of polls. But I was really clear about voting for Hillary Clinton.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until I saw a photo on election morning of my daughter’s face, wearing proudly her “I Voted” sticker, and seeing tears in her eyes . And she said “I just voted for the first Lady President.” And that’s when it really hit me that this was something very different for young women in our country. I had had the experience of being Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferrara. And those were the big events in my lifetime, in terms of feeling that sense of pride and awe and shock and wonder and possibility.

[ Music: “Planxty Charles Bunworth” from Ireland: Crossroads Of Art And Design, 1690-1840 – The Music
Artists: Liz Carroll, Liz Knowles, Catriona McKay, Kieran O’Hare ]

But to really understand how my daughter saw it made me feel differently about it. And I did proudly where a pantsuit that day when I went to the polls to vote for the first Lady President! 

I think I brought with me that day my daughter, but also my mother who was a proud Kennedy Democrat all her life. Voting was extremely important in my family. And you know, we had lost her a few years before. So I brought her with me that day. And also thinking about her, I thought about my grandmother who didn’t always have the right to vote. And wondering what she would also be thinking about it. Wondering if she would have that same look in her eye that my daughter did that day.

[ music swells ]

>> Shannon: There’s history and family and tragedy and transcendence in these tunes. They come from people’s personal experiences. I asked Katie where she was coming from as a composer:

>> Shannon: As you’re writing tunes, are you aware of like trad music forms?
>> Katie: Absolutely. I guess sometimes I’m straddling a couple of different sonic spaces when I’m composing. I grew up in the Boston area. So my fiddle playing is super influenced by my fiddle teacher, Hanneke Cassel. And by that whole scene, Laura Cortese. And also just the kind of like Americana sound that’s in Boston, that amazing scene. 

And I also grew up in the more trad Cape Breton scene in Boston. So they’re both kind of like Scottish Cape Breton sounds, but with slightly different bents. I try and honor both of those worlds of sound, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally when I’m writing. Sometimes I try and make it a little edgier and newer sounding. Sometimes I’m really going for more of a trad sound.

[ Music: “Mutey Big Build” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton

I’ve been writing a lot of tunes at the piano in the past couple of years instead of on the fiddle. Um, I find that it kind of helps me get me out of the physicality of the fiddle and, like, those trad phrases that your fingers go to. And also I feel like the piano gives me a more, obviously, sense of harmony. And like where the tune is going in that way. So I think that that can make tunes a little bit more interesting if you’re thinking of them more holistically like that

>> Shannon: We started talking about methods for composing. And Katie told me sometimes she’ll set some guidelines or limitations for herself, as a way to center creativity.

[ Music:  “Hometown Lullaby” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Katie: It’s kind of like, I sit down. And I decide I’m going to try to write a tune today. And I give them myself those parameters or whatever. And I kind of got that idea thinking about how rhythmically interesting pipe tunes. And how Scottish bagpipers only have nine notes that they can deal with. So they have that limitation on themselves when they’re composing. And they come up with all these really cool rhythmic ideas that maybe a fiddle player wouldn’t, because we have this wide swath of notes to choose from. And, um, they’re thinking maybe more melodically than rhythmically or something. So that was the first time that I was like wow, that’s a really useful exercise. And most of my tunes have come out that way somehow.

>> Shannon: A musical prompt really does help. Like Katie’s pipe range constraint. Or Liz Carroll’s Bach-style free-form writing. Or Dáithí Sproule’s melody that came out the way that it did party because it was written on a standard-tuned guitar.

For my newest tune, I wanted the 8th, 6th, 4th and 5th scale tones of D Major to open the first measure. [ Sings d B G A ]

But when you start a tune like that, it’s really tricky to get out of G Major. But not impossible. And after you count every note, it settles in D.

86 is American slang for to cancel, or to reject. And I named the tune 8645.

[ Music: “8645,” from Living Room Demo

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Any tunes you’ve been working on?

>> Katie: Yeah, I’ve been composing a lot since we’ve been in quarantine. Since March.

it’s definitely been something that’s kind of a balm and it’s also given me something to focus on. And to remind me that I am a musician, despite the fact that we don’t have gigs. We can’t really play together. So I’ve been composing a lot. 

The evening the news broke that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, I was devastated. I started thinking about all of the worst case scenarios. Um, and I kind of made myself sit down at the piano. And I wrote a tune like in 20 minutes. And usually my composition process is not that speedy. But I was just feeling so much. And oftentimes my composing comes out of bad feelings, you know. Like every breakup song in the world is great, because someone was feeling terrible. Haha. Um, so, so yeah, I wrote this tune and I called it Lady Ginsberg. I’ve been playing it a little bit whenever I’m feeling glum about the state of things.

>> Shannon: Katie recorded the tune with her partner Neil Pearlman. Neil’s got a great podcast called Trad Cafe, if you don’t already know about it.

[ Music: “Lady Ginsberg,” from Living Room Demo

Artist: Katie McNally & Neil Pearlman ]

>> Katie: One thing I’ve been thinking about a little bit in terms of composing is like, what do I value in a tune? I don’t know. what makes a tune good, or what makes it last, or what makes it worthwhile on kind of a grander scale? Where in the tradition, does it lie? Does it lie in the tradition or not? Um, and yeah, I think, I think it’s really important to do a lot of listening to a lot of old tunes before you just like splash out and write the next, like jazz, Scottish tune or whatever. Although I love the fiddle pop ballad, too. So, whatever haha.
>> Shannon: And what do you think makes an enduring fiddle tune?
>> Katie: I mean, my favorite tunes are the simplest ones, the ones with the fewest notes.16 bar tunes. But there’s something captivating about them regardless. And something just catchy about them. So if I could write the next Jenny Dang the Weaver, I could, you know, I’d be done. I’d be happy.

[ Music: “Jenny Dang the Weaver,” from Instructional Video
Artist: Hanneke Cassel

>> Shannon: Yeah. And what is it about Jenny dang the Weaver that works?
>> Katie: What a great question. It’s something, like, ineffable about it. And it’s fun to play. It’s easy to play on the fiddle. It feels good to play. It does a couple different things rhythmically. It never lands the same way twice, so that’s good. Though there is repetition, so it sticks in there and is familiar, even on like the second listen or whatever
>> Shannon: There’s melodic and rhythmic variety. And it’s simple. And just enough repetition. 
>> Katie: Mmm hmmm!
>> Shannon: It’s like a recipe, a really good recipe. It’s like not too many crazy ingredients. It’s just how you combine them.
>> Katie: Totally. The freshest heirloom tomatoes and Malden sea salt

[ Tune: “John’s Theme” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Fresh. And balanced. Many of these old tunes—and some of the new ones—are so…  well, well composed. They’ve got a vibe. A sound. A feeling. They work.

And if they resonate with a lot of players, they get passed on. They get in circulation. They become part of the tradition. Part of the collective. 

>> Dáithí: Taste is a collective thing. The engine of taste or the fuel of taste, or whatever the right word is, is emotional. And it happens instantly. It’s an action of the unconscious, which has been fed by all the things that you said. But it results in an instinctive, uh, revulsion or whatever. Hahaha!

>> Shannon: Whether it’s an old jig in an Irish bar on September 11th; or the theme to a Scottish TV program; or a post-election fiddle march; or a pretty melody in A found on the standard-tuned guitar near the desk; or an unfinished fiddle tune that finally found its groove in 2020, trad tunes are little, manageable morsels that allow players to tap into the well. The well of ACTUAL collective memories, or personal myths, or just a vague sense of familiarity or nostalgia.

These tunes lift us up when we’re beaten down. And they can help us to process enormous hurt, and confusion, and relief — in small, 32-bar packages.

Here’s Boston-area musician and teacher Laurel Martin. She was one of the fiddle players with whom I played the Acadia March that day.

Tune: “Heartstrings Theme” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton

>> Laurel: I feel as if the tune is almost like an expression from someone long ago who’s reaching out through the tune and saying, “You wouldn’t believe what sadness I’m experiencing. You wouldn’t believe what joy I’m experiencing. And I’m experiencing this now, but with this tune I’m reaching out to YOU. To say this is something we have in common, you and I.”

And I feel like it’s music that just carries that sort of thread of common human experience. And there’s something compelling and inexplicable about it. There are moments when I feel that this old tune—this old tune that’s been playing for generations, and generations, and enerations — it’s carrying something with it. And I love that feeling that we’re all a small part in a much bigger, longer continuum

>> Shannon: Newer tunes, composed in an older style, can also connect us, and capture and preserve memories. Happy ones. And really tough ones.

>> Dáithí: They become associated with a feeling for me. Like I’ll probably associate this tune now with doing the interview with you. And there’s a very good chance that I’ll be blathering to my students or to somebody at a gig in the future (if there are gigs) about the tune, and playing the tune. And you’ll  be in the story. There’s no escape! Haha!

[ Music: Dáithí October tune reprise ]

>> Shannon: Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to all who kicked in this month to help underwrite the project. Donate and find 46 more episodes at IrishMusicStories.org. 

Thank you, Matt for the production music, and for accompanying Liz’s new tune. Thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging our generous supporters. Thank you, George Keith, for the Dark Island story, and for playing the Ed Reavy tune. Thank you, Leanne McNally and Laura Cortese for the election stories. Thank you, Laurel Martin, for your beautiful words on Irish tunes. 

And big thanks to Liz, Dáithí and Katie for being up for these video chat interviews. Now as we all know, there’s a bit of latency in the Zoom room. Nothing I can’t adjust in the Irish Music Stories control room. But behind-the-scenes, not everything is so… slick:

>> Shannon: Can we maybe do a 1, 2, 3 clap?

[ Shannon and Katie clap, and it’s not together.]

>> Shannon: Can we maybe do a 1, 2, 3 clap?

[ Shannon and Liz clap, and it’s not together.]

>> Shannon: OK, I’m gonna go 1, 2, 3 and we clap? 
>> Dáithí: We clap together?
>> Shannon: Yeah.
>> Dáithí: It would be great if a guitar accompanist couldn’t do that! Hahaha! Oh, sorry! 1, 2, 3, oh no!!

>> Liz:  Hahaha. Do you think we need to do 1, 2, 3 and clap again?
>> Shannon: No. God, no! Hahaha!

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Laura Cortese

SINGER/FIDDLE

San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston

George Keith

FIDDLE

Minnesota-born, Boston-based fiddle player and computer programmer

Dáithí Sproule

SINGER/GUITARIST

Guitarist and singer born in Derry and now living in Minnesota, and one of the first to develop DADGAD tuning for Irish music

Chicago-based fiddle player and composer who has been named All-Ireland champ, Grammy nominee, National Heritage Fellow, and TG4 Cumadóir

Boston-born fiddle player who grew up playing Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle music

Leanne McNally

CELTIC MUSIC ADVOCATE

Boston area trad music supporter and Boston Celtic Music Festival board member

Performer and fiddle teacher in the Boston area who plays sessions, festivals and concerts throughout New England

The Heaton List