Railway grooves that shape traditional tunes

Cutting Routes and Tracing Roots

Railway grooves that shape traditional tunes
Railway grooves that shape traditional tunes
Episode Trailer

As tunes travel they change. And to turn an old Irish reel into an old time tune can involve adjusting notes to suit different instruments, using different techniques… and also digging into the non-musical stories. In this episode I tuck into some early railway stories while Agi Kovacs and Jesse Winch help me follow Paddy on the Turnpike, from North Galway to North Carolina. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters:

Laura Johnson, Frank Krygowski, Lynn Hayes, Mike Voss, Bob Suchor, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, John Ploch, Matt Jensen, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Brian Benscoter, , Finian McCluskey, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Matt Jensen and Suezen Brown

Episode 65-Cutting Routes and Tracing Roots
Railway grooves that shape traditional tunes
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 18, 2022

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Agi Kovacs: Hungarian-born, D.C. based percussive dancer who performs with Footworks
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories


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

[ Music: “Bunch of Keys,” from The Genius of Peter Conlon. 78 RPM Recordings from 1917-1929
Artist: Paddy PJ Conlon ]

Like how adjusting a few notes in a tune .. and moving it from the single row melodeon to, say, a banjo… and digging into some non-musical stories. Well, all of this can take a tune like Paddy on the Handcar AKA Paddy on the Turnpike, from North Galway to North Carolina.

[ Tune: “Paddy on the Turnpike,” 

Artists: Jesse Winch & Zan McLeod ]

Waylon Jennings once said “what makes a song country? When I sing it it’s country.” Or at least that’s how Brad Paisley quoted him when he was interviewed on the Smartless podcast. The guys were asking Brad—also a superstar country artist—what he thinks makes stuff sound country. And Brad was saying like, if you have a rock beat and you’re singing about something urban, it’s not really country. But if you have that same rock beat and you’re singing about, like, taking your baby out into a cornfield, well that’s gonna have more of a twang. 

[ Music: “Mountain Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

So you take this tune, The Bunch of Keys, AKA Paddy on the Handcar or Paddy on the Turnpike. You play it on the flute. Maybe you add some DADGAD guitar vacuuming the thirds out of the chords. 

[ Music: “Bunch of Keys,” play through from Living Room ]

More Irish, less American.

But if you grab on open back banjo, adjust the melody to suit that instrument, and maybe add some boom chuck guitar backing: well that’s gonna be a little more Waylon Jennings. 

[ Music: Jesse/Zan reprise ]

And it might inspire a percussive dancer to do some flatfooting. A little less ceili, a little more cowboy. A little more wide, open west, where the buffalo roamed, and where the prairie used to stretch, unbroken, for days. 

[ Music: “Travel Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

I loved poring over Brian Floca’s book Locomotive with my kid. It’s gorgeously illustrated. It’s about the feel and the thrill of railroad travel. Especially the way it must have felt for Americans in 1869, riding the new Pacific Railroad, North America’s first transcontinental railroad that ran for 1900 continuous miles. 

Gone were the days of the six month wagon journey from the East, through the middle of America, through the mountains, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Now folks could travel from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California in just four days. Or from coast to coast in only a week.

Chug-a-chug-a Chug-a-chug-a-  It’s like an Irish reel. Or an old time tune.

The railway was music. And a source of wonder.

[ Music: “Catherine,” from Into the Dark
Artist: Laura Cortese ]

And it was a source of dread for the Plains Apache, the Cheyenne, the Sioux— all the Native American tribes who counted on buffalo for survival…. those train routes cut through their homes, interfered with grazing bison.

The railway was also a source of survival and of hardship for many, many Irish immigrants. So many Irish Paddies — so many Patricks, and Seans, and Seamuses who had fled famine and were hungry for work. They signed on to cut through mountains and rock, in severe weather, sometimes facing angry sometimes violent indigenous people whose land was being destroyed.

And their experiences sparked MANY songs and poems. Like the song Paddy Works on the Railway. It was first sung as a chantey (an a cappella sea shantey, like all the TikTok people know about. Also ‘shantey’ comes from ‘chanter,’ French for to ‘sing.’)

With or without instruments, many people have sung this song, including Pete Seeger

[ Music: “Paddy Works on the Railroad,” from Frontier Ballads
Artist: Pete Seeger ]

And I probably most associate Poor Paddy Works on the Railway form the Pogues, with Shane MacGowan singing it:

[ Music: “Poor Paddy Works on the Railway,” from Pogues Live
Artist: Pogues ]

And there’s also Paddy’s Lamentation. There are versions of this song from 1798. And it was adapted during the American Civil War , when Irish people were building the railways.

[published in a manuscript magazine in 1864; in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag; Alan Lomax recorded Ernest Bourne singing it in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1941]

[ Music: “By the Hush” AKA Paddy’s Lamentation from A Place I Know
Artists: Siúcra ]

[ Music: “The Golden Ticket,” from The Western Star
Composer/Artist: Eric Merrill ]

After a little while, Chinese immigrants began signing up. They teamed up with the Irish more and more as the route continued eastward. And between 1862 and 1869, the Central Pacific team—by some counts 10,000 Irish workers, and 15,000 Chinese workers—laid 690 miles of track. 

In Promontory, Utah the Central Pacific line met the Union Pacific line. And there they pounded in a ceremonial golden spike, the last spike to complete the line.

After the ceremony, the Golden “Last Spike” was replaced. There was a fear of thieving. It was eventually donated to the Stanford Museum. The spike it still there, safe and sound. But in 2014 at the California State Railroad Museum, someone tried to steal the Lost Spike, which is a twin of the Last Spike. Apparently the display case was damaged, but no artifacts were stolen.

All of this adds even more color to the stories of the human toil: the magic, the absurdity, and the foibles of the railroad. And all this stuff is built into the songs and tunes that rolled out of these experiences. I mean, you’re talking about America during and right after the Civil War. This enormous country, filled with immigrants looking for ways to get by. 

It’s gripping. It’s inspiring. And it’s real wild Wesht-like. 

So there’s your mood. There’s your motivation. And you pick up a banjo and you run through this old Irish tune, The Bunch of Keys…  You work the opening riff. You play around with lowered notes and raised notes, you know the sharps and flats, the accidentals, the ‘mode.’ You homestead on this tune.

[ Jesse/Zan reprise ]

And your instrument affects the approach. But also, all of it: the lore, the mood, the journey. This is what turns an Irish tune into a siren call for a clogger.

>> Agi: I’m obsessed with Paddy on the Turnpike. And that’s a tune that I was introduced to as an old time tune. And then later as a reel in Irish music. So yeah, it’s kind of fascinating how I felt the groove of the other genre when they were playing it. And I kind of craved it. So that’s probably one of my all time favorite tunes right now.

>> Shannon: Agi Kovacs was born and raised in Hungary. And while she did start out with classical ballet and Hungarian folk dancing, she’s dug most deeply into percussive Irish and American dance forms since moving to DC in the late 90s. Irish, tap, clogging, flatfooting….and dancing tunes like Paddy on the Turnpike.

>> Agi: I think I heard it the first time driving. And then, you know, my fingers are going. Then my feet are going. Then— I drive a stick shift, so I can’t really like drum with my feet. But I definitely pulled it up. And then at home I was just, I couldn’t help it. I was just whacking at it, you know, um, throughout the whole house <laugh>. 

And then one day I was at the Irish Inn. And Zan McLeod and Jesse Winch, they played it for me. I just lost it. And I think there is a little Facebook recording of it. Somebody sent it to me…

>> Shannon: This is the video from their Tuesday night session at the Irish Inn. Agi’s holding a beer and dancing. Jesse is playing banjo, Zan is on guitar. And Tina Eck is joining them on whistle. Mitch Fanning is there on fiddle, Patrick Winch too. And you can hear some strains of the Irish version along with the old time version.

>> Shannon: What is it that you like about that tune?

>> Agi: It has this kind of, um, rhythm to it, or pull to it that reminds me of a train <laugh> . I’m European, I’ve taken a lot of train rides. And you know going through towns and watching the scenery. And kind of, sort of having that melody. But then, oh, there is another tree again. Oh, there is a field again. There we go again. It kind of reminds me of that kind of drive and I just get sucked and pulled into it right away.

[ Music: “Where the Moorcocks Crow,” from Lovers’ Well
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: And when you hear a tune that really you want to dance, do you just wanna jump right in, do you let it seep into you for a while? What happens?

>> Agi: If it’s a tune I haven’t heard before. I’m definitely listening. Because I’m percussing! You know, you may never know a ballerina messed up, or a modern dancer. A tap dancer, or anybody who really makes percussive notes with their bodies or feet. It’s kinda, yeah, it’s the real thing! <Haha>

>> Shannon: Well, percussive dance is real. It’s immediate. And it’s intricately wedded to the players, and the tunes. Agi is dedicated to hearing, and feeling, and knowing the tunes. And she’s also a dancer. And sometimes, well, she’s just gonna move! Like when we were in the parking lot waiting to go into a dance, and this Vishtèn track was playing—that’s a great band from Prince Edward Island. When the bodhran solo hit Agi busted a move. Right in the car. 

[ Music: “Hariât,” from Live
Artist: Vishtèn ]

And she’s done this other places, too…

>> Agi: I was at the grocery store and some fun stuff was playing that I wasn’t expecting to hear. You bet I was step dancing in the aisle, trying, coming up with different steps, hoping nobody would see me <laugh>. But they definitely heard me. 

>> Shannon: While Agi dances to Vishtèn and dreams up old-time and Irish reel grooves, I’m gonna have a go at tracing part of the melodic journey of Paddy on the Turnpike.

Like many Irish tunes (because they’re handed from player to player, like a game of telephone), the melodies AND the names morph during the journey. Paddy on the Turnpike, or Paddy on the Handcar, Jenny on the Railroad… I know this tune as The Bunch of Keys.

It appears in the the third volume of The Musician’s Omnibus, which was published by Elias Howe in 1865, in my town of Boston. Elias probably helped circulate the melody around the East Coast; because he had a music shop for a long time at 103 Court street in Boston, where he sold sheet music and instruments.

Here’s how the first part of the tune went, in Elias’s book

[ Music: “Paddy on the Turnpike” example from Howe’s Musician’s Omnibus No, 3, page 264 ]

From this early published version, there’s a lot of playing around with the modes. (There are raised notes and lowered notes.) And that’s why you’re hearing some key clicking on the simple system flute. <click, click, click>

So then William Bradbury Ryan—who worked in Elias’s shop for like 30 years—published his book, Ryan’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes in 1883. He also included Paddy on the Turnpike. Pretty similar to Elias’s version. Here’s how his A part of the tune went.

[ Music: “Paddy on the Turnpike” example from Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, page 43 ]

I’m a little suspect of that third measure… weird. Maybe it was a weird version he got from somebody. Or maybe he just kind of didn’t input it the way he totally meant for the tune to go. In music collections, sometimes the super modal stuff isn’t quite notated the way people actually played the tunes. 

But anyway, in the same year the Mammoth Collection came out, uilleann piper Stephen Grier included it in his collection of melodies. But he didn’t have a name for it. Here’s how his first part of the tune went.

[ Music: “Untitled” example from Stephen Grier music manuscript collection, Book 2, #103 ]

Limerick born fiddle and piano player Francis Roche called the tune the Mills are Grinding. And he included this version in his 1912 collection.

[ Music: “The Mills are Grinding” example from Roche Collection of Traditional Irish Music vol 1, #122 ]

If these four different settings or versions sound about the same, they are. It’s the same tune. Different names. And not surprising that a piper might choose a few different notes from a violin player. But it’s the s ame chug-a-chug-a modally melody.

[ Music: “Travel Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Now, it’s interesting that the railway names of the tune (Paddy on the Handcar, Jenny on the Railroad)—those start to fade by the middle of the 19th century. Even though railway travel was in vogue. And the idea of individually owned automobiles was not totally on the horizon yet. But still,  Paddy on the Turnpike. 

In America the term Turnpike now just means toll road. But originally the turnpike was the toll GATE, where you had to pay your toll before you could use the road. There have been tolls since the Middle Ages: and the funds collected would help with bridge construction. Starting in the 1660s, England charged people tolls to use for road upkeep. And the first turnpike in America went up in 1792. It was a private toll road covered in a layer of crushed stone. It ran from Philadelphia to Lancaster in Pennsylvania.

But I suppose many Irish payed steep tolls in coming to the States, and then building these railroads. Many died of cholera, some of heat stroke or on-the-job accidents. The death toll for Irish and Chinese workers was pretty steep during those construction years. Paddy paid a big toll on the railway.

53 years after the golden spike was driven to connect the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific lines, and 58 years after Elias Howe published the two part version of Paddy on the Turnpike, Sligo fiddle master Michael Coleman recorded a THREE part version in 1922.

[ Music: “Paddy on the Turnpike,” (second in the Sailor on the Rock set) from Ceoltóir Mórthionchair Na hAoise 1891-1945 
Artist: Michael Coleman ]

That third part feels a little third part of the Flogging, like a little extra added bonus..

[ Third part play-through ]

Well, whether it’s a 2, or 3, or 4 part tune, Michael Coleman did help define the Irish sound on both sides of the pond: in New York, where he was recording all those tunes in the 1920’s, back to his natal home of Sligo, where people were poring over and learning from his recordings.

So how do we go from the Irish version of the tune, that Elias Howe and the other publishers, or Michael Coleman and some of the other recording artists of the day helped to make popular. How do we go from that version to a banjo and guitar jamming in a pub in Virginia?

All these tunes from Ireland, Scotland, and England travelled with people when they came to North America. They morphed in as they were played and passed around in North Carolina, and Kentucky, and Cape Breton, ad Montreal.

I saw that mandolin player Bill Monroe played Paddy on the Turnpike. Bill was born in Kentucky—he was like the daddy of Bluegrass music. But what he called Paddy on the Turnpike doesn’t seem like the same tune at all. Turns out he was playing the West Virginia version, which is almost a different tune. Not the Kentucky/North Carolina version. Even though Bill Monroe was from Kentucky.

Anyway, Jesse Winch learned it from his old bandmate Pete “Doc” Adland. They used to play in an old-timey band called  “The Fast Flying Vestibule.” And Jesse thinks that Pete picked up at a fiddler’s convention possibly in Union Grove NC. 

He’s still playing that tune, and he said he loved the tune from the start. Partly because you can tune the 5-string to an open G. That’s what Pete Seeger called “mountain minor.”  And from there, Jesse said, the tune plays itself. He and Zan got Irish fiddle player Brendan Callahan to play the tune with him, and Brendan also references the Irish version along the way. 

The tune has travelled up north, too, to Quebec. There they call it the Plumber’s Reel, or Reel du Plombier. Joseph Allard recorded it in Montreal in 1929. It’s the same tune.

[ Plumber’s Reel played by Joseph Allard in Montreal in 1929 ]

And what makes the tune Quebecois? Or American? Or Irish?

It’s about instrumentation—fiddle and feet in Canada. Banjo and guitar in North Carolina. Flute and fiddle in Ireland. Although a flute player could play the Quebec version, and a banjo could rock the Irish version.

So it’s also about approach, intent, style, mindset, groove. The bowings or tunings or ornaments you might use. The amount of articulation. Melodic variation.

Playing a tune that’s rooted in one approach over another, in one culture over another, it’s about feeling. And imagination.

It’s about the humours—the vibe, even the smell of a place. 

Maybe it feels like peat fires, smoke rising through cottage chimneys in the green fields of Ireland. 

Or maybe the tune feels more like the mist, the spray, and the hiss of the St. Lawrence River, in northeastern Canada.

Or maybe it feels like the smoke and steam rising from fireboxes through pipes and stacks, on those first train trips across America. Chug-a-chug-a

No matter how or where you play it, it’s about movement. That’s the thing about living traditions. The tunes keep getting passed on, and they keep changing. The toll or the price of passing these tunes along is change. 

Living traditions are about change. And movement. And propulsion. As tunes roll along from one town to the next… from one turnpike to the next… from one country to the next… from one player to the next one… 

[ Tune: “Lorient,” from キネン (kine), translation: Anniversary
Composer: Koji Nagao
Artist: tricolor ]

>> Shannon: Thank you, Agi Kovas and Jesse Winch, for sharing your railway (and grocery store) stories for this episode, which was produced by me, Shannon Heaton.  Thank you Matt for the production music. Thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. 

>> Nigel: Thank you to Laura Johnson, Frank Krygowski, Lynn Hayes, Mike Voss, Bob Suchor, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, John Ploch, Matt Jensen, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Brian Benscoter, , Finian McCluskey, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Matt Jensen and Suezen Brown.

>> Shannon: Thanks a lot, everybody. For playlists, transcripts and more, please visit IrishMusicStories.org 

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

Agi Kovacs


Hungarian-born, D.C. based percussive dancer who performs with Footworks

Jesse Winch


Bronx-born, Maryland-based multi-instrumentalist who shared his recordings and stories about Paddy on the Turnpike

The Heaton List