Commemorating the ordinary with jigs and reels

Tea, Turf, and Wooden Spoons

Commemorating the ordinary with jigs and reels
Commemorating the ordinary with jigs and reels
Episode Trailer

Lunch routines, laundry, kid art supplies, spoons, and teacups are details of domestic life that don’t usually make it into the photo albums, or the tune titles. But they shape lives. And in the midst of the thousands of jigs and reels out there, the simple (and profound) cup of tea.. and the basket of turf are represented. Here’s a meditation on tunes with prosaic titles and the stimulating stories behind them.

For SHEET MUSIC, downloadable recordings, and videos of all the ORIGINAL TUNES in this episode, just visit my Original Tunes Page.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Jocelyn Codner, Karin Kettenring, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss,  Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast

Episode 69-Tea, Turf, and Wooden Spoons
Commemorating the ordinary with jigs and reels
This Irish Music Stories episode aired February 21, 2023

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Sheehy: Boston-based accordion player from West Limerick
>> Louise Bichan: USA-based Scottish musician and photographer
>> Matt Heaton: Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player 
>> 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: “Cup of Tea,” from Lost In The Loop (in a set with “Sevens”)

Artist: Liz Carroll ]

…like how small aspects of domestic life add up. The lunch routines, the laundry, the kitchen implements, the kid art supplies—these things shape lives, even though they don’t usually make it into the photo albums, or the tune titles.

But there are thousands of traditional Irish tunes. And in the midst of all those jigs and reels, there are some with prosaic titles.

The “Cup of Tea” might be the most famous one. Because also, a cuppa tea is kind of a big deal in Irish and Scottish circles. It’s a custom, a nicety. In Asian countries, you usually take your shoes off when entering a home. In Irish homes, you put the kettle on. That’s the story for accordion player Sheehy, growing up in West Limerick and living here in Boston.

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

>> Sheehy: A cup of tea for me is a really important break from life. And it’s a minute to slow down. But it can be a lot of things. It can be a way to start the day, but it’s always—I mean, people are into mindfulness now. And I always try to drink my tea mindfully. And I have a gratitude journal, and more often than not, what I’m grateful for is tea. It’s just that important to me.

>> Shannon: Ditto for fiddle player Louise Bichan, who grew up in Orkney, the group of islands 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland. We were all talking about tea at last month’s Boston Celtic Music Festival.

>> Louise: For me, yeah! Well, I think for most Scottish people I think tea is when you’re sad, it’s when you’re happy, when you’re celebrating, it’s when someone’s died. Every occasion is marked with, you know, you need a cup of tea. Hahah. So yeah, I start my day with an Earl Grey and finish it with a chamomile, and I probably drink like a million cups of mint tea in the middle, especially in winter. You know, tea is just like a massive part of my life.

>> Shannon: The Cup of Tea tune is also has a lot going for it. It’s a reel, which means it’s got a chug-a, chug-a rhythm to it. That nestles in with the pattern of dancing feet. The first time it appeared in print, in Stephen Grier’s manuscript collection from 1883, it had just two parts.

Okay, so this is how it appears in Stephen Grier’s manuscript from the late nineteenth century.

[ Music: example from page 172 of the online version or the Grier Manuscript, book 2 ]

By the time Francis O’Neill included the Cup of Tea in his Dance Music of Ireland, almost 25 years later, it had three parts. That’s how Michael Gallagher recorded it in 1924, as a three-parter, which is usually how it’s played today. 

[ Music: “Cup of Tea” recorded after Lucy Campbells, from the Alan Morrisroe Collection (Public Domain), April, 1924

Artist: Michael Gallagher, uilleann pipes ]

So here’s the first part of the tune (the A part). It kind of gets right to business, in the key of E Minor. Then the B part, it moves to D. It has a few longer notes, maybe it settles for a moment. And then we’re into the C part, the third part… which is just like this little, playful, rhythmic jam.. Then we’re back to the top again.

Now on most occasions this tune would be played AABBCC. But this recording is from 1924. And back then there was limited space on those 78 RPMs. You had to state your case succinctly. Even with the Cup of Tea, this symbol of hospitality and warmth. 

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

But still, it’s just the Cup of Tea. It’s not the Flowers of Edinburgh, or the Chicago Reel, or the Women of Ireland. It’s the every day cup of tea.

Then there’s the “Basket of Turf.” This jig was in circulation at least as early as 1883, when it started showing up in printed collections.

Ryan’s Mammoth Collection from 1883 (p 106 as Bundle and Go) & O’Neill #735

Sometimes it’s called Bundle and Go. But a bundle or a basket of turf is basically a bunch of dried dirt. Turf or ‘Peat’ is spongy, decomposed earth that’s been dried out to burn. It used to be the central fuel source in Ireland, where there are peat bogs that date back to the Bronze Age. 

And because peatlands are so ancient, all the layers of moss and vegetation are these amazing archives of palaeo environments. They’re chock full of carbon dioxide; they’re really efficient at absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon and flood water run-off; and once they are cut, it takes several millennia for new peatlands to form. 

Which is too bad. Because the smell of turf or peat burning in fires and stoves is pretty special. It’s much sweeter than the coal fires my husband Matt Heaton and I used to light in Clare.

>> Shannon: All right Matt Heaton. After spending so many winters in Ireland around smelly coal fires, what’s your association with peat, and peat fires?

>> Matt: Mmm.. a nice fire inside, in a fireplace is a wonderful thing in any setting. And there is nothing like that smell. It is just a really, really… it’s a wonderful smell. It’s a very homey, very inviting smell. 

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

And there’s something about it, knowing that it’s this kind of unique fuel source that kind of connects you to the past in a weird way. I t’s something that has been going on for an awfully long time. And in addition to that, it puts out an amazing amount of heat.

>> Shannon: So, it’s hot. And it smells nice. And for generations, turf-cutting has been a way to make a living. Buying peat turf from a local cutter was affordable. It was a way of life, especially in rural Ireland. There were turf cutting championships, where people would be slinging turf with a wing sleán [wing shlan], this sharp shovel. And cutters would be judged on speed, the shape of the cut, the tidiness of the banks.

But restrictions went into place in October 2022 to protect the peat bogs, since these bogs are so effective at offsetting carbon emissions, and since burning turf and smoky coal is so rough on the lungs. So the Irish government is urging people to upgrade their home heating systems to cleaner energies. Shops and petrol stations will no longer sell turf. And as of 2024, those Bord na Móna peat briquettes we used to buy at the corner store will no longer be made. 

For now, people can still cut turf from their own property or buy it from their neighbors, as long as it’s not advertised or sold over the internet. And they can still put turf in a basket. Which is small consolation for the turf cutters. Maybe some of the big corporations can also cut some of their environmentally harmful practices…

Well, the tune, Basket of Turf has this slightly charming and warm opening. It’s friendly, like some of the old turf cutters I’ve met. This is Michael Coleman’s recording from 1924

[ Music: “Up Sligo,” from Ceoltóir Mórthionchair Na hAoise 1891-1945

Artist: Michael Coleman ]

So on the Coleman 78 rpm, the title given is “Up Sligo,” which seems like a misname, because Coleman went into a tune that is actually known as Up Sligo. It seems like a record label goof. But you can still hear the moodiness and depth, almost a smokiness to the tune.

There are a couple of other fireplace- and cooker-themed tunes: Tongs by the Fire. The Pipe on the Hob.

And there are tunes that name other domestic items and household habits, like White Petticoat, Connemara Stockings, New Potatoes, Get up Early, Tea in the Morning (there’s tea again).

And Little Wooden Spoon… Actually that’s one of the tunes that I wrote. It’s an A Minor jig that I wrote on the accordion. And it sits very naturally on the box, maybe even more so than on the flute, which is where I write most of my tunes.

[ Music: “Little Wooden Spoon,” from Living Room session

Composer/Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

Full disclosure: throughout this season of the show, I’m gonna talk about a few of my original compositions (as well as plenty of well-worn traditional tunes), because I happen to be working on a big composition roundup and I’ve only got so many hours in the week. But also, because I think it’s cool to consider the DNA of modern Irish music. Whether it’s something I wrote—or Liz Carroll, or John Dwyer, or Ed Reavy wrote—new tunes composed in a traditional style usually have some of the same essential elements.

Like, with instrumental dance tunes, a composer usually might uses patterns and phrases of traditional dance forms, like the jig. The reel. The hornpipe. The waltz. And then come up with melodic and rhythmic moves that work with the particular steps. You can still design your own sound, but the creative constraint might be to fit with the framework of the dance, with the meter: Waltzes are 3/4 time (123, 123)… Reels are common time (chug-a chug-a, chug-a chug-a, like a train)… And jigs, 6/8 time (daidle-dee, daidle-dee, 123 456) like Little Wooden Spoon.

Maybe you also have some repetition and symmetry in the melody, something for the dancers to cut into and grab. And if you’re following these standard dance rhythmic patterns (jig, reel, hornpipe), you might construct the tune AABB, like Little Wooden Spoon.

[ Music: walk through the AABB parts of Little Wooden Spoon:

It starts with the first A part … 5678… second A part… 5678

B part … 5678… second B part… 

So when I wrote this tune, I tried to use super classic elements: —the AABB structure. And even melodic phrases that might show up in any old jig, but maybe turn them in my own little way. Just like my friend Tom Frederick did with the beautiful California maple, when he made that little wooden spoon. 

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

Using a classic form like AABB, well I imagine it’s like building a house. If you follow tried-and-true recipes, it’s likely your roof won’t fall on your head. Or on all of the dancers. But from there, if the posts are sunk deeply in concrete, maybe you don’t have to do AABB. Maybe you could do ABB or ABCDE. There are tunes like that. And there are houses with kitchens in the front. Now there might be a reason to have the kitchen near the garden, or away from the street, and that could be why many houses are built this way. But sometimes a front porch kitchen—or a tune that goes AABBCC—— is just the thing. That works great for the Cup of Tea.

But even with the three-part or the five-part trad reels, for the most part they still have 8 bar phrases. But there are also traditional tunes that are totally asymmetrical. Like music from the Métis in Canada—they have a lot of tunes with 5 beat phrases. And Québecois tunes also have ‘extra’ beats, sometimes because the tune is based on a song with a three-bar phrase (which apparently  is common in French songs); and even with newer Quebecois tunes: sometimes it’s just because that’s how the band wanted to put it together, like in this arrangement from back in 2005 with the band Genticorum. Here it comes

[ Music: “Cascou,” from Malins Plaisirs

Artists: Genticorum ]

5+5+6+6, 5+5+8+8: I mean, you could count it any number of ways. But you get the idea. Asymmetry!

When you’re hunting for tunes with irregular structures, you can’t swing a cat without hitting some mention of the old English jig Black Joak (J-O-A-K), played here by the Canadian Trio Puirt A Baroque.

[ Music “Black Jock,” from Kinloch’s Fantasy

Artists: Puirt A Baroque ]

It was a hit back in the early 1700s, a street song about female genitalia, which is always fun. It was in a play called the Beggar’s Opera. And people couldn’t get enough of it. It was so popular that Morris dancers came up with dances to fit the structure of the tune. So the tune came first, and the dancers fit around the six bar A part, and the 10 bar A part.

Crooked tunes is big in American fidding, too. Some of this has to do, again, with the singing (like if there’s a song that has lyrics which don’t conform to 8 bar limits). And some of this had to do with adapting the music for the stage: in the early days of recording, singers crowded around a single microphone. And they’d add a few bars between verses to give the next singer time to get up to the mic. So a lot of bluegrass bands still use the one mic. It looks kinda cool and ‘traditional.’ And when you have a different sound person every night, using just one mic and regulating your own sound can usually be a much better, quicker, and more consistent approach. But even away from the mic, people will still play the tunes crooked. They’ll still add the extra bars or take bars away.

Here’s fiddle player George Wilson demonstrating crookedness with a melody that most people might know. Try singing along with this one. You might be laughing all the way!

[ Music: “Jingle Bells,” from the 2009 Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend

Artist: George Wilson ]


You can also find asymmetry in Irish set dances. Like “The Blackbird” has a ‘missing’ neat at the end of the A part. It’s kinda like a half-bar:

1-2    1-2     1-2     1-2 

1-2    1-2     1-2     1

[ Music: “The Blackbird,” from Cover the Buckle

Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean Mccomiskey, And Kieran Jordan ]

And a lot of the set dances have uneven lengths, like the B part is longer than the A part (the Job of Journeywork, King of the Fairies, Ace and Deuce Pipering..)

And Donegal players sometimes play tunes with extra—or missing beats. But it’s not just a regional things. Individual players can come up with eccentric versions of tunes, like piper Tommy Reck and fiddle player Tommy Potts, both from Dublin. They both recorded the hop jig “Top it Off” with extra beats at the end of the A part, and fewer beats at the end of the B part.

[ Music: “Top it Off,” from The Master Pipers – Volume 4

Artist: Tommy Reck ]

When I first heard this tune, I knew something was interesting, but it didn’t really register as crooked. So I think you can have encounters with these types of tunes in a very organic way, not a ‘counting’ way. And maybe that’s how they cane to be played that way. The person was just playing what felt natural.

But when I stepped back and I did count it, here’s what I came up with:

1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-3-4

1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-3-4

1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-3    1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-

1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-3    1-2-3    1-2-3     1-2-3     1-2-

It’s cool. But it’s exceptional. asymmetry is still less common with Irish tunes. So when I’m writing something intended to snuggle alongside other trad tunes, a standard shape… maybe an accessible key signature, like G Major, D Major, E Minor, A Minor, or B Minor. And maybe sometimes a timeless name. Some days this seems like a good M.O. Keep it country. 

[ Music: “Bunch of Basil,” from Living Room session

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Like the Basket of Turf. Or the Cup of Tea. Or the Little Wooden Spoon. A bit of utility and solid construction. Because there is beautify and reassurance in the ordinary.

Before 2020, I’d written a few tunes inspired by simple home and family life. But after a lot of time at home, while weathering those early Covid months with my family of three, I started commemorating more of the small items and habits that perhaps I’d overlooked before. Things that brought comfort or a a smile

I called this jig “The Bunch of Basil,” inspired by my friend Eamonn’s bumper crop of… basil. Our own herb garden was also flourishing, so we started experimenting in the kitchen: basil fried chicken (pat ka prow), basil simple syrup, and the winner: peanut butter basil toast. One of our favorite snacks that we’d prepare while we would meet with friends and family on Zoom. 

(And just to be kind of clever, the “Bunch of Basil” is in B Minor. Not a lot of jigs in B Minor.

Then I cooked up a reel in D called Chicken Dinner after our friend Pat wrote about the meal that he was cooking during one of our online sessions.  While we were playing tunes, he was struggling with cooking times and temperatures. Later he shared a photo of the burned bird. Poor Pat. Poor chicken.

[ Music: “Chicken Dinner,” from Living Room session

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Pat’s chicken dinner might have been a little scorched. But I think it was edible. And really, as long as things are cooked through, any home cooked meal can be a gift to your family. Almost 10 years ago, we had this late lunch habit: Matt and I were both teaching for Comhaltas, and our kid was really little at the time. So we’d pass the baby… and then the toddler.. back and forth through the long morning. And by the time we got home, we were exhausted—and hungry. Hang.

We started making soup in advance, to have something to come home to. And it really got us through. When Matt stepped back from the school to hang with Nigel, we kept the soup ritual going. For me, coming home to that pot of soup every Saturday made life easier, at an exhausting stage in the parent game. Just one less decision to make. Just one more reassuring constant. I wrote this hornpipe Saturday’s Soup to commemorate and celebrate the simple and transformative power of routine. 

[Music: “Saturday’s Soup,” from Oil for the Chain 

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Writing “Saturday’s Soup,” was a way of recognizing  that a lot of what life is about is soup… and spoons… and laundry.

We used to have this old clothes dryer. We bought it used (very used). And we moved it twice. Like we moved it ourselves. Kind of banging it around to try to get it from out of one apartment into the next. When we moved it into our house and hooked it up in the basement, it started to make this funny noise. It made the whole house hum a little bit, and there was this slightly irregular rhythmic thing. Like an uneven spinning sound. I really liked the sound of it. And I was weirdly sad when it finally started to die. I composed this swan song for our dryer, while doing a load of diapers. And I called it Waltzing on Wash Day, to go along with the rhythm of the appliance.

And if you have good headphones, you might be able to hear the owner of the diapers crying upstairs.

[ Music: “Waltzing on Wash Day,” from Basement Session

Composer/Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

Right beside the washer and the new dryer (which I don’t like as well as the old one), we have a little cabinet. In 2020 we started keeping extra toilet paper rolls in there. They were hard to come by then. Remember? When there was a toilet paper shortage? 

When we hit 2021, toilet paper was no longer in short supply. And our kid had gone back to school. Our friend Sarada was helping  with the after-school art program, and she asked if we had any toilet paper rolls to contribute for one of the art projects. We had a couple, and I asked a few families on the block if they could save theirs for a few days. And together we filled a small bag of loo rolls for the kids in just one weekend! 

So I wrote this jig, “The Bag of Rolls,” to celebrate the amazing things we can do when we work together.

[ Music: “Bag of Rolls,” from Livestream on VGS

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

So here I am, writing tunes in an Irish style. Like a lot of people who play Irish music end up doing. Makes sense: we spend a lot of time with these little melodies. We’re familiar with the classic constructions. And maybe others enjoy, as I do, the small scale. The form is tidy—you can stretch it out a bit and play around with the rules. But even if you go with the compact AABB structure, you’ve got a little space for reflection, commemoration.

Of course a tune doesn’t have to be about any specific event, or item, or person. But that’s what usually prompts me to write a tune. It’s like writing a little poem about something that’s moved me… or amused me.

There’s a lot of amusement… and frustration and poignance in raising a kid. Parenting is, like everything, a practice in impermanence. There’s always a new challenge, and the really sweet moments don’t last long. 

And some of the really sweet moments happen when you least expect them. And some of the really sweet moments happen when you least expect them. Our kid actually enjoyed online Fourth Grade. And that’s in large part because of the incredible job Ms. Silberman did connecting with all those squares of kids. But also, hearing the laughter coming from one side of the house while I taught remote flute lessons a few rooms away, that was a good thing. I appreciated it while it was happening. And I wanted to remember it.

I know I’m not going to be able to remember everything about our kid’s childhood. But I really wanted to memorize that moment. That’s what inspired this waltz, called the Last Days of Fourth Grade.  

And speaking of asymmetry, the form of this tune is ABB: the first 16 bars are played just once; and the second 16 repeat.

[ Music: “Last Days of Fourth Grade,” from Living Room 

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Here’s my kid Nigel to thank this month’s Irish Music sponsors:

>> Nigel: Thank you to Jocelyn Codner, Karin Kettenring, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss,  Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast

[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,”  from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

When I set out to play my flute, I usually play a few notes to warm up my tone. To check my pitch, to check my mood, to check how my hands and my breathing are feeling. I’m usually after a good, strong low end of the instrument, without tension in my hands. If I’ve got that going on, I’m usually okay.

But also when I’m leading a session, I want to make sure I’m close to the standard tuning frequency of A440. Let’s see where my Hale Electro Fork has A440…

[ Music: Tone of tuner and tuning notes ]

I started asking Matt, during the Virtual Guided Session that we started on YouTube, “are we In Tune with Reality?” The VGS is intended as a play-along event, so I wanted to make sure that the fixed pitch instruments like accordions and pianos could play along easily. But also, I really sometimes wonder if we have a grip on ‘reality.’ Sometimes we think stuff is funny that other people don’t find amusing at all. Oftentimes we worry about things that don’t seem to trouble anybody else. Like, are we missing something?

Well, to check the reality of our instruments, and where they were sitting relative to standard 440 tuning, Matt would get his guitar in with the tuner. And then I’d play a few notes against Matt’s D chord. I realized I usually play this.

[ Plays tuning riff ]

Starting with that tuning riff, I came up with a reel in D, which I called it In Tune with Reality. Here’s Chicago fiddle player and prolific composer Liz Carroll playing through it once around.

[ Music: “In Tune with Reality,” from Voice Memo from Liz

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artist: Liz Carroll ]

“In Tune with Reality” isn’t really a simple title. But the act of checking your pitch and warming up the instrument—it’s a basic ritual, an essential part of playing, especially with other people. It’s even a bit boring. But tuning leads to something deep. Playing music with other people, really listening and locking in with other players, getting in tune, in every way.


A cup of tea is simple—and also deep, meaningful, transformative. Especially when it’s made using a handmade spoon.

A common item can bring uncommon joy, and comfort.

An old tune with a simple title can inspire new twists and turns.

Innovation can be great, and modern tunes with new constructions can be super exciting. But new tunes can also follow classic constructions, and still resonate today.

Write new tunes, but keep the old. And sometimes, the big sassy, silly titles might say less than a simple bowl of soup, or the little wooden spoon, or as Liz Carroll called this tune of hers, the Hole in the Sock.

[ Music: “The Hole in the Sock,” from Liz Carroll

Composer: Liz Carroll

Artists: Liz Carroll and Daithi Sproule ]

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you Sheehy and Louise Bichan for the chat about tea. Thank you Matt for the production music and the thoughts about turf; thank you, Nigel for acknowledging this month’s sponsors; thank you, George Wilson for sharing crooked Jingle Bells; thank you, Liz Carroll for the great music and for playing In Tune with Reality; and thank you Tom Frederick for the little wooden Spoon. For playlists, transcripts, and sheet music to these original tunes.. and to kick in to help make more Irish Music Stories, please visit

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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 



Boston-based accordion player from West Limerick

Louise Bichan


USA-based Scottish musician and photographer

Matt Heaton


Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player

The Heaton List