How trad players process inventions and innovationsIrish Session Etiquette in Society, Business, Politics, and Home

Missed Manners

Irish Session Etiquette in Society, Business, Politics, and Home
How trad players process inventions and innovationsIrish Session Etiquette in Society, Business, Politics, and Home
Episode Trailer

The weekly Irish music session is a specific niche affair, with a particular code of conduct. Gift giving also has its own rules, at least it has in the past. As older customs like traditional Irish music and wedding anniversary gifts have moved to the new world, have things adjusted? Does modern session behavior reflect wider social trends? Etiquette experts Barry Foy and Zina Lee walk me down the aisle of session (and wedding gift) etiquette, just a year before Barry’s Field Guide to the Irish Session celebrates its silver anniversary.


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


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

Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters:  April Eight Songs & Stories Podcast, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Mike Lagana & Barb Moore, Joe Martin, Melissa Peabody, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, 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, and Chris Murphy

Ep 71 – Missed Manners
Irish Session Etiquette in Society, Business, Politics, and Home
This Irish Music Stories episode aired April 18, 2023

* * * * * * *

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

>> Barry Foy: Writer and musician based in St. Paul, Minnesota and author of The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session

>> Zina Lee: Colorado-based Irish fiddler, designer, and consultant

>> John Williams: Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits

>> Tina Lech: Providence-born, Boston-based fiddle player 

>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production

>> Eoin O’Neill: Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare

>> Brian Conway: American born fiddle player and teacher and leading exponent of the Sligo fiddling style

>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories

>> Jimmy Keane: Chicago-based accordion player born in London of Irish-speaking parents from Connemara and Kerry

* * * * * * *

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

Like how modern customs (like Irish pub sessions… or yearly wedding anniversary gifts) have old roots, even if contemporary and commercial forces have shaped them.

[ Music: “Anniversary Reel,” 

Artist: tricolor ]

So… modern day practice plus some older conventions: how does this all run in the new world, if you don’t spell out the rules? Accordion player John Williams in Chicagoland described the rhythm of his weekly gatherings back in Irish Music Stories Episode 03, Every Tuesday at Nine:

>> John: I think of it, you know it goes in phases. People kind of warm up and then they cool down and it crescendos. Then you actually let some chaos ensue so people can talk and order drinks. That’s important, you know, a lot of it is just reading the crowd.

>> Shannon: Okay, so you can keep things kind of loose, especially when you have a seasoned leader at the helm. You can just respond to the room, play it be ear. But when I asked fiddle player Tina Lech about running a music session in Boston, she admitted that even with some clear leadership, there are some chaotic elements that can be harder to manage.

>> Tina: a lot of work goes into learning the tunes that we’re sitting and playing. So, if somebody came into the session and obviously didn’t know a tune and was trying to play along with it, um, that wouldn’t be really acceptable. Especially on a louder instrument. We’ve had that happen at times, it ends up being a challenging situation.

>> Shannon: A challenging situation for the people who really know that tune… Maybe not so much for the guy who decided to just park it and strum or wheeze along. Like, just seeing people in the corner of the pub playing some tunes, you might not know how in sync and, well, practiced a lot of those players are. A great session can seem so spontaneous. So relaxed and casual. Because when you do have likeminded practitioners together, well, it is.

As Boston producer Brian O’Donovan described, when you walk into a pub with an Irish session… it can beckon to you.

>>Brian: Suddenly you’re hit with a sense of warmth. There’s something going on in there, there’s a conviviality, there’s a bonhomie. There’s traditional music going on just around the corner. And everybody else there, some people really know the music and the musicians. Many people are there for the first time and are kind of bemused that they’re in this great situation where this music is being played acoustically in the corner. It’s enveloping, even if you’re not playing an instrument. It doesn’t require you to take any action whatsoever. Just to enjoy the moment, absorb the tunes, and enjoy the company of other people.

[ Music: “Maids of Mt Kisco,” from Wednesday session

Artists: Rory, Josie, John Coyne, Shannon Heaton, Rosanne Santucci, George Keith, and other Boston musicians ]

>> Shannon: So yeah. If the community vibe and the tunes strike a chord for you, you might want to just grab your guitar and strum along.

>> Tina: We oftentimes encourage somebody who’s got really a lot of interest in playing the music but probably not enough experience to really sit in on the session to bring a tape recorder. I think that’s the way we all learned. And hope that a newer person would get a lot out of that.

>> Shannon: Encouraging learners, reading the crowd, laying down the law: there’s lots of ways to navigate the sneakily sophisticated stylistic and social practices that keep the mood light and the music swingin’ — but not swinging too hard, because Irish music ain’t jazz.

To help demystify the modern Irish music session, writer and fiddle player Barry Foy published the Field Guide to the Irish Music Session. In this episode I’ll chat with Barry… and with fiddle player Zina Lee… about session and wedding anniversary etiquette. Because the Field Guide will be celebrating its silver anniversary in 2024. 

You’re invited to the celebration of this concise, clever little rule book…with the darling illustrations by Rob Adams… written in a question and answer format.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from TK

You’re all invited to the party. No RSVP required.

* * * * * *

The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session came out in 1999. And really, Irish pub sessions aren’t that much older. Playing melodies in unison with a group in a public establishment isn’t an ancient practice. Until the folk craze of the 1960s, Irish music was played at home, with friends and neighbors. People would generally taking turns playing. Maybe accompany some dance steps. There was room for storytelling, song singing, and chat.

There are accounts of solo singers in pubs, like in Samuel Pepys [Peeps] diaries from the 17th century. But the ‘traditional Irish session’ as we know it didn’t become a thing until well after Irish musicians had emigrated to England and America.

[ Music: “My Love is in America,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

The pub session, well… it publicized and commodified Irish music. Some sessions had more singing, some more instrumental tunes (though the boisterous tune sessions usually got more attention). This was Irish-ness on display. It opened the door for more people to tap into the music and into social customs of old, often rural Ireland. Even if people were bringing in guitars and wearing leather jackets with fringe, the music at these sessions was, in many cases, hundreds of years old. 

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

Here’s how Barry defines a session, on page 12 of the Field Guide.

>> Barry: “A session—seisún in Gaelic—is a gathering of Irish traditional musicians for the purpose of celebrating their common interest in the music by playing it together in a relaxed, informal setting, while in the process generally beefing up the mystical cultural mantra that hums along uninterruptedly beneath all manifestations of Irish-ness worldwide.” 

>> Shannon: At sessions, musicians gather to play, or learn, and get deeper into Irish dance tunes (and sometimes some songs) together. Sessions are enjoyable, they’re practice, they can be challenging. But they aren’t purely ‘music’ events. The Irish session is a social occasion. And like Barry said, it is a way to tap into Irish culture. Because the music does come from Ireland. And Irish music practitioners all around the world do tend to try to reflect music and social practices that are common in Ireland. 

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

Like humor (slagging, taking the piss)… Hospitality (taking turns buying rounds of drinks or telling stories)… And having the craic (C-R-A-I-C, the good time). These simple customs can be a link to Ireland.  Or at the very least, having some standard practice—a few rules—can get people on the same page, playing together and having fun, so the hang is easy and the music sounds good. Just like at a wedding: turning off your phone, not talking during the ceremony, and aiming to arrive on time can be a way to do your part to help things run smoothly.

And just like at a wedding, when you have a lot of participants, there are are bound to be breaches in etiquette. Which can be memorable and funny. But there are many ways to be funny. And thoughtless, self centered conduct isn’t necessarily the peak of comedy. 

I assume Barry Foy had encountered some interruptive behavior at sessions, and wrote the Field Guide to try to help people avoid party fouls. But I didn’t want to make any assumptions, because that would probably not be great etiquette.

>> Shannon: So why did you write the Field Guide? Had you, like, encountered some awkward moments? 

>> Barry: Well, there’s the question of democracy and the question of jealousy. The democracy one is about showing up at a session and feeling that it’s all about you, no matter who else is there. And this is something we Americans, you know, we love Democracy. We believe in it. We’re getting a little short of it these days, but, it’s a natural thing for us. And it’s also a natural thing for us that people here hear a music, and don’t necessarily associate it with some kind of cultural message that’s being handed down or shared around. All they know is it’s fun to strum a guitar, and it’s fun to bang on a bodhran. And who’s gonna try and stop me? 

[ Music: “Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust 2016,” from Soundtrack

Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]

>> Shannon: Yeah, as Americans, thinking we’re all equal. So that might extend to the notion that we all get to play, no matter what. But even if it doesn’t look like it, a lot of the best sessions usually have more structure, more hierarchy. People may be welcomed to play… but the more subtle message is that they’d be most welcome to play APPROPRIATELY. And in some cases that might be just listening, observing.

>> Barry: The jealousy question has to do with a fundamental thing about Irish music, which is that it’s about the melody. And as the book says something like this, you know, you could get rid of every accompaniment instrument in Irish music forever, and the music would still be complete. It is a complete music in a single unisonal melodic line. So anyway, you get somebody who maybe doesn’t understand that, and they come in with, you know, some kind of accompaniment instrument. And sometimes it can sound as if they’re jealous of the melody. And jealous of the people playing the melodies. You know, they don’t wanna be outdone, they don’t wanna be out shouted. 

>> Shannon: When the Field Guide to the Irish Music Session came out in 1999, Barry was living in Seattle then. He’s since moved to Minneapolis. And the book has since been translated into Japanese, soon there will be a French version. People seem eager to learn how to participate in Irish music sessions. And Barry’s Q&A brand of instructions might help a few people learn about listening and observing. Maybe just social skills 101. Or maybe you really do need to spell things out. Like what New York socialite Emily Post did in her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

[ Music: “Robert Cormack of Aberdeen,” from Musical Ties
Artist: Troy MacGillivray ] 

Emily Post was born in 1872. She wrote articles about architecture and design, five novels, and humorous travel books, including one about a cross county trip she made with her son Edwin. When she was 50 years old, she wrote the Etiquette book. Suddenly, Emily Post was a sensation. She codified manners, which probably gave more opportunities to more people to participate in certain aspects of society.

Amid all her personal and professional tips in the book, she also included a list of wedding anniversary gifts by year. A few of these (like the “silver” 25th, and the “golden” 50th) had been established in Germany by the 18th century. But to fill in the other years, Emily incorporated other old lists from the Farmer’s Almanac, Webster’s Dictionary, old Phrase and Fable Books. Since her 1922 publication, there’s been pretty consistent agreement on those anniversary gifts. And just like session etiquette, there are a few regional differences and some modern variants. But the broad strokes are there, pretty consistent through different regions, and different decades.

Like Emily Post, bouzouki player Eoin O’Neill has also helped open the door to social engagement. He’s welcomed many musicians to sessions around County Clare.

>> Eoin: I love the people that discovered the music or somehow have come into the music and are so excited by it they can hardly sleep at night. They’re the people I kind of hang out with.

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

>> Shannon: And they’re the people Barry wrote his book for—the people who have come into this music from the outside. Probably not most Irish born people, and certainly  not the ones who were born with silver fiddles in their mouths.

>> Barry: I say at the very beginning, these are things that the Irish either know intrinsically or can find out very easily. They’re practically born with them. You know, it’s, it’s in the air and in the water. For us, unless we’re in a hardcore Irish community and we’re raised in one, there’s no way we would necessarily know these things, you know?

>> Shannon: Even if you live in County Clare, which is a music rich area of Ireland, the Field Guide is still pretty amusing. And there’s helpful info in there, delivered in a culturally appropriate fashion—though humor. And similarly funny people have taken him seriously. Like fiddle player Zina Lee.

21 years ago, Zina wrote about The Field Guide in a thread on the Irish music discussion website ( )

She called the book one of her favorites, and made a travel analogy. She wrote, “If I went to Japan, I’d sure look like a stupid and ugly American if I didn’t bother finding out about their society and etiquette, wouldn’t I?”

I thought it would be fun to connect with Zina today about the Field Guide.. and about wedding anniversary gifts. Bear with me: I’m hoping to pan out a little wider, talk about the broader idea of STANDARD courtesies, and also I think it will be funny. This is how I roll as I assemble these episodes. I have a few different ideas for keeping it relevant to a wider audience, for keeping it enjoyable. Oops, just broke the fourth wall, which is probably not great podcasting etiquette.

Well, I caught Zina on a lunch break. She’s out in Colorado, where I lived for a couple of years in the late 90s. 

>> Shannon: Oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you, Zina. And I believe Zina that in addition to playing Irish music, you know a bit about wedding gift etiquette, right?

Zina: It’s true. It’s true. Actually I was a wedding consultant. I also did alterations on wedding gowns. And I was a bridal consultant for a very large American department store. 

>> Shannon: Right. So you were doing a lot of your wedding work out in Colorado?

>> Zina: Yeah, I was, actually I worked with two other people who were also in the biz. Our adventures were hugely funny. But I could never, ever, ever publish any of them. <laugh>

>> Shannon: Too bad. I would read that book. Amazing. The Emily Posts of the Wild West <laugh>

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

>> Shannon: So when I think of etiquette, I also think of like Emily Post. You know, that book called Etiquette. But in her etiquette book, she also does list wedding anniversaries by year.

>> Barry: <laugh>,

>> Shannon: Which is a lot of fun. And in preparation for today, I just kind of—it’s not laid out this way, you don’t have rule number one, rule number two  But I wrote down,  let’s call it 12 rules. Okay? There are a number of little tips in this book, and I chose 12. 

>> Barry: Only 12?

>> Shannon: You up for running through a dozen or so rules? I’ll hit you on with one and you just respond, pontificate, muse? Yes?

>> Barry: So this sounds like an interrogation. But I’ll try it! <laugh>

>> Shannon: Good!

[ Music: “Lily of the West,” from Lovers’ Well
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Very good. Since this was what I was building the episode around. So here we go: session and anniversary gift etiquette. And also a few old.. and new…  and borrowed… and blue tunes to accompany each point. And yes, some of those tunes will be my own compositions, because I’m also working on a big original tune roundup at the mo. (And folding some of those tunes in here is a way to get me to record and present a few each month—please forgive my forwardness. I’ll try not to shout them.


>> Zina: One thing that’s very important to know about wedding etiquette is that largely it is the etiquette of Victorian upper class English society.

>> Shannon: Huh… Do you care to escort me down the etiquette aisle of wedding gifts? Well  maybe we can also reflect on a few session guidelines too. Since this is almost the field guide 25th <laugh>


[ Music: “Haapvesi,” from January EP
Composer: Thomas Bartlett
Artist: Assembly ]

>> Shannon: So I’m gonna read, 12 rules, in Barry’s book. Of course, he doesn’t lay it out like rule one, rule two, but that’s how I’m gonna do it. Okay. Rule number one: the fact that you are holding a musical instrument in your hands at a session does not automatically entitle you to play it.

>> Zina: <laugh>. Well, Irish session playing is not a democracy. It’s not a democracy. And as he says, just cuz you have the instrument  doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be welcome for you to be playing your instrument poorly during a session. You wouldn’t wanna wreck the session for everybody else, right?

>> Shannon: Yeah. You don’t wanna poop in everybody’s Cheerios. Or in everybody’s Steel cut oats. So first anniversary… Paper. 

>> Zina: There you go. <laugh>

>> Shannon: Toilet paper. Or Barry’s book! 

>> Zina: Well, you know, they always used to say that last year’s Almanac was very good. You just stuck it in the outhouse, and then you tear off a page as needed. <laugh>.

>> Shannon: But it also kind of keeps hoarding down.

>> Zina: After all. <laugh> 

>> Shannon: After all.

>> Shannon to Barry: Okay. So rule number one, rule number one is just cuz you’re holding an instrument doesn’t mean you’re entitled to play it in the session. Right? So in other words, don’t strum along on your guitar if you really don’t know a tune.

>> Barry: It’s not a music that you can just chime in. I mean, you know. No one would ever assume that you could walk into a symphony rehearsal and join in, you know? And yet Irish music, because it’s a little more down at the people’s level, people do make that assumption. And it’s, you know, doesn’t work out.

>> Shannon: Yeah, all right. Good. So let’s say rule number two: don’t bring the bongos

>> Barry: I wrote a little song about Irish sessions, and here’s what it says. 

The pipes and the fiddle, the box and the flute, 

And the slender tin whistle, so endearingly cute 

Plus an old concertina, and a banjo to boot

Are the usually prescribed apparatus. 

The appropriate instruments are but a few

Leave your trumpet at home and your saxophone too. 

And a ban is imposed on the didjeridu

That you’re urged to enforce with a taser.


>> Shannon: Barry didn’t mention congas in his song. Fiddle player Brian Conway in New York had a percussion story back in Episode 03.

>> Brian Conway:  One guy came in with a drum, I think, a conga drum, I’m not sure. And I told him he couldn’t play and he was very offended. And I said, you know, have you been to any other session? He said yes. And I said and they let you play, that? And he said yes. I don’t believe him. No self respecting session would let him do that loud…and it was really loud. It wasn’t just background, you know. 

>>   Shannon: That’s not working with the creative constraints that we were talking about earlier.

>> Brian: Right, right, exactly. It’s having no understanding of any creative constraints. So… 

[ Music: Conga/bongo example ]

>> Shannon: Well.. congas, or bongos…. those feel like real outliers in an Irish session. I mean, maybe if you’re real quiet, or you just SIT on them, and tell some good jokes in between tunes? I don’t know. But there are informed players who pick up unorthodox instruments like the didjeridu—Steve Cooney has done this with Seamus Begley, and Quentin Cooper has done this with the Ceili Bandits

[ Music: “Famous Ballymote,” from Hangin’ at the Crossroads
Artist: The Céilí Bandits ]

This is more in a recording or performance context. They’re working it into the arrangements. Kind of like adding a pipe drone, or a harmonica


>> Zina: And let’s face it, if somebody is a really, really great player, it really doesn’t matter what they bring because they’re gonna know what’s gonna sound good. And what’s going to be able to be….  Tolerated? 

>> Shannon: Dan Singer plays great Irish music on the khaen, which is a free-reed wind instrument, originally from Laos, also played all over the Northeast of Thailand. When Dan plays tunes on these bamboo pipes, you can tell he really knows Irish music. Unusual? Sure. But now, check out his version of Trim the Velvet.

[ Music: “Trim the Velvet,” from home performance

Artist: Dan Singer ]

>> Shannon Great music. And also, Dan seems really chill. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with him over the years. And that’s a big part of it, too. 

>> Zina: You once said something that I have remembered and quoted ever since. 

>> Shannon: Uh oh..

>> Zina: What you said was, have you ever noticed that if somebody is a really good hang and they’re not such a great musician, it doesn’t matter. Cuz they’re such a great hang?  I remembered that ever since. You probably said it off the cuff and never meant it to become a rule, but it did. <laugh>.

>> Shannon: It sounds good. I like it! Which leads me to Year number two: Textiles?

>> Zina: Textiles. So fabrics. Like tablecloths or curtains because once upon a time, you know, it actually was quite a bit of effort to fire up the loom, thread it, and make all that huge expanse of textile. So that was actually a significant layout.

>> Shannon: Any tunes that go along with textiles?

>> Zina: Tear the calico

>> Shannon: Right! Trim the Velvet.

>> Zina: White Petticoat. 

>> Shannon: Hag at the Spinning Wheel, Britches full of Stitches.

>> Shannon: Ooh, and Trim the Velvet, that Dan Singer just played on the khaen. And I’ve written a few textile themed tunes. Pardon me for including some of my own compositions, but I’m in the middle of a big original tune round up. And folding in some of these tunes in here is a good way to get me to record and present a few each month. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna play a bunch of them at a session, because that would be very weird etiquette.

[ Music: “Blue Dress Waltz,” from  from Blue Dress

Composer: Shannon Heaton ]

Artists: Shannon Heaton & Maeve Gilchrist ]

I wrote the Blue Dress Waltz for this awesome vintage dress I have—it’s bright blue, with a layer of lace over the shell. It looks very delicate. But you’d have to have hands of steel to rip it apart, which felt like a cool metaphor—like, strength can come in pretty, or delicate packages. Or something like that. 

Well, a blue dress would be a suitable gift for a SECOND anniversary. But it’s time to move along to year three. 

>> Shannon to Barry: Okay. Rule number three. And by the way, the third anniversary. an appropriate gift is leather, as in a leather apron!

>> Barry: <laugh> As in the bellows on a set of pipes.

>> Shannon: Yes. Perfect. Perfect. That makes more sense to me. The leather apron. I mean I guess if you’re a blacksmith. But a leather apron. That seems like the most absurd wedding gift…

>> Barry: But I’m sure there are, there are certain clubs in big cities where, where people would…

>> Shannon: <laugh> Whips? Leather whips? The Coachman’s Whip?

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

>> Shannon: The Coachman’s Whip is a reel written by Galway flute player Vincent Broderick. And I wrote a tune to commemorate the third anniversary of the online session Matt Heaton and I run. And I called it The Leather Apron.

[ Music: “Leather Apron,” from Living Room

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Zina: The leather apron…

>> Shannon: Yeah, I mean, I think for blacksmiths, you know? But if you married a blacksmith, or if you were a blacksmith, you would hope that like before the first anniversary, you would’ve outfitted yourself with the leather apron, otherwise you wouldn’t have made it that far.

Okay, so rule number three to go along with leather <laugh>: settle into a common tempo. Don’t compete with or slow down the other players.

>> Zina: Yeah I mean we’ve also had all had that experience of somebody who won’t set any tempo. They kind of wander back and forth over many tempos. Which is annoying. Yeah. I mean, and that’s back to again, that whole Irish thing of don’t annoy other people.

>> Shannon: Listen to what other people are putting down.

>> Zina: Yeah

>> Barry: Yeah. This is, this is kind of an aspirational rule. What you want, really, if you’re really into Irish music and you know Irish music is to arrive at a session that’s already going and feel that identity is already established, you know: this is how we’re gonna play ’em, this is how we’ll bring out the best in these tunes, this particular group of people. 

[ Music: “Liffey Banks,” from Wednesday session

Artists: Rory, Josie, John Coyne, Shannon Heaton, Rosanne Santucci, George Keith, and other Boston musicians ]

But you know, on the other hand, if you’re in a session that’s not a bunch of stars or not a bunch of people who play together all the time…. You know, this particular person can’t quite keep up and they need a chance in the course of an evening, you know, stuff like that. So it’s aspirational. We try.

[ Music “Apples In Winter,” from An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas
Artist: Eileen Ivers ]

>> Shannon: Year number four. This one is weird: Fruit or flowers?

>> Zina: Well, in the 18th century, in the 19th centuries even, a lot of people couldn’t afford fruit or flowers. One of the big treats of Christmas was an orange in the toe  of your stocking. So that could be actually quite a big deal. 

>> Shannon: Hmm. Okay. Okay. More precious than I would think looking at our rotting fruit bowl. <laugh>.

>> Zina: I know I have three apples left and I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat them, but I can’t quite bear to throw them out. <laugh>.

>> Shannon:  Little ready for some berries. 

And rule number four, play each tune a few times around, kind of let it soak in for a while. Like you might fruit in into wine. 

>> Zina: <laugh>. I love Sangria <laugh>. My favorite is red.

>> Shannon: Yes. Me, too. Oh, by far. Well, and sometimes you can soak fruit in moonshine.

>> Zina: Yeah, that’s true. <laugh>

>> Shannon: And then make the huge mistake like my friend Eric did once of picking the fruit out of the bottom of the moonshine

>> Zina: And try to eat it.. <laugh> 

>> Shannon: That counts too, bud!

>> Shannon: There are lots of unfermented fruit tunes to savor: Fig for a Kiss, Apples in Winter, Apple Blossom, Blackberry Blossom. Very sweet. And Chicago accordion player Jimmy Keane appreciates the sweetness of rule #4, of taking his time to relish each tune before jumping to the next.

>> Jimmy: I never liked the notion of playing a tune twice and then switching. 

[ Music: “Irishman’s Heart to the Ladies,” from bohola
Artist: bohola ]

I’d like to play a tune 10x at minimum. Because there’s no time to get into the tune yourself—never mind someone listening. I think sometimes that leads to the “sure it all sounds the same.” Yeah because if you’re only playing for 2 minutes and then switching the tune, how are you going to distinguish if you’ve had not seasoned an ear enough, right? So, I found that if you play longer, people can start picking out notes. My wife doesn’t play. She likes music. But she’ll all of a sudden—oh, I liked that tune because it does this. If I played for two seconds, you’d never get a chance to process it. I’ve always liked doing that. And plus you didn’t have to learn as many tunes then!

>> Barry: Yeah, I talk in the book about how generally the number of times tunes are played has kind of shrunk over the decades or over the century. But, it’s nice if learners are coming to the same session week after week, they need to be able to begin to soak this stuff up and pick up these tunes. You know, recording is great. But, you know, you should also just hear it. And two times, which luckily doesn’t happen much, you know, the tune’s gone before they even have a chance to catch up with it, you know? So three, play it four, play it five, It’s all great and local localities will have their preferences too.


>> Shannon: So what do you think? Playing each tune a few times around?

>> Zina: A lot of it just depends. There are some tunes that you’re just done with after two. That’s, that’s all you can deal with. Usually they have more than two parts. And then usually they’re highly repetitive. And you’re done after two. <laugh>,.

>> Shannon: Ok. Fair enough. 

>> Zina: Other times, you know, you just really want to go over that tune again cuz it’s a great tune.

>> Shannon: Some fruits take longer to ripen

>> Zina: Yeah, true.


 >> Shannon: Okay, Rule number five: pay attention to the person starting the tune so you know, when to change and end.

>> Barry: Aha! <laugh>. You have to pay attention to everything in a session. You know, what do you not have to pay attention to? That’s what it’s all about. And your attention is rewarded. You get to hear Irish music.

>> Shannon: Yeah. And I think signposting for people, “Hey, it’s great to pay attention to the person who started the tune so you know when to change and when to end.” is kind of like a nice prompt to get people to just pay attention to one another period. Right?

>> Barry: Well, you know, I was just in Japan about six weeks ago. And I played a nice session there, and they were in the habit of… they would call out the key to the bouzouki player.

[ Music: Chimes reprise ]

>> Shannon: Right, so leading up to a change in tunes, the person leading the set would shout “G” or “D” to the backer.

>> Barry: Obviously the idea was to let the bouzouki player come down on the very first note with a big thing in the proper key, you know, big Bang! Now, that’s, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a concert! You know, there isn’t actually anybody to check <laugh> whether you came in at the beginning or not. It’s a session, you know? The motion is in the music, not in the coordinating of cueing in people and cueing ’em out, you know?


>> Shannon: Well, I like the Big Bang change in a session. It can be fun and so satisfying. Because really, I hear lots of harmonies implied in the tunes when I’m playing melody, just on my own. So having a good chordal player painting those with me… and nailing the changes from one tune to the next… it can be pretty great.

But I get the point of letting the music lead a bit… of letting it be a little looser… of letting it be a session.

But whether you call out keys or not, the core of Rule #5 (about listening to the person playing the tune) feels pretty solid. Like wooden furniture. And the fifth anniversary gift is… WOOD.

Zina: Wood! Well you know, wood furniture, wood tables. One of the things people used to get up in arms about was why Shakespeare left his wife the second best bed. 

>> Shannon: So why didn’t he give her the best bed.

>> Zina: Well, a bed back then was a huge hairy deal. The leaving ANY bed—there’s nothing to sneeze about!

[ Music: “Pipers’ Chair,” from Inside Out

Artist: Mícheál O Raghallaigh ]

So kind of a classy gift. A bed. Or a dresser. Or a chair—you can’t have a session without chairs. And there are some well constructed furniture tunes out there: Mind the Dresser, the Earl’s Chair, or this one: the Piper’s Chair. That could be a good follow up to the person who gifted the uilleann pipe bag on year three.

Also suitable for the five year anniversary: a fine wooden instrument, like an Irish flute or a bouzouki. I wrote The Luthier’s Bench for my friend Bob Suchor, who’s made a number of fine fretted instruments over the last few years. And I wrote Foot of the Hill and Grenadilla Seas for two family flute shops: for the Olwell family and the Von Heunes. Both of these flute tributes are JIGS, because it can be good, standard practice in a session to keep jigs with jigs… and reels with reels.

That’s my idea for rule #6 from the Field Guide to the Irish Music Session. Simply, if you’re playing a jig, like this one (123456, 123456), you plan to go into another jig (123456, 123456). Like with like, that’s very conversational vs. going from a jig [sings rhythm] right into a reel [sings rhythm]. That would be a big rhythmic shift, which could be fun. But not very session. It’s a little too … Show bi z!!

>> Shannon: jazz hands at the end?

>> Barry: Ah, Jazz hands. You know, my book didn’t mention jazz hands, but <laugh> there are things to say about Irish music that you can mention Jazz hands. But I won’t now.

>> Shannon: You do wanna be on the same page, like rule #6, which is keeping jigs with jigs, reels with reels.

>> Zina: Unless you’re recording, of course. And I’m pretty sure why Barry Foy even wrote that is there was probably people who were learning entire sets off of a recording <laugh> and then trying it out in a session, which isn’t really done.

>> Shannon: A session is like a conversation. People share these little related tunes, these little related anecdotes. It kind of flows.

[ Music: “ “ from Wednesday session

Artists: Rory, Josie, John Coyne, Shannon Heaton, Rosanne Santucci, George Keith, and other Boston musicians ]

Imagine, though, if one person suddenly starts reciting Shakespeare while standing on a chair, or on a bed (on Shakespeare’s best bed). Well it would be a bold shift in tone. It might be hilarious. It might be awkward.  And it would probably make an impression. But maybe there are more subtle ways to connect and learn about other people in a session. Sometimes just through the music. Here’s Eoin O’Neill in Clare again: 

>>Eoin: I’ve always loved and I’m fascinated by, and you know this too, is that somebody is across from me and I’ve never met them before. And you spend 3 hours playing music together. And you know them intimately, every now and then, you know them intimately without speaking a word to them. You know their manners, you know what excites them, you know how pushy they are, how modest they are, how humble they are, and how talented they are, what kind of tunes they love. And that says, when you’re a musician, you get to tell an awful lot about a person by, say, if they like G Minor tunes. And that will tell something about them, you know it seems like that, ya know? It kind of defines people. So, I love that, it’s great, it’s fascinating. 

[ Music:  “Cofio,” from Llinyn Arian

Composer: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins

Artist: Delyth & Angharad ]

>> Shannon: There are all sorts of folks, And all sorts of sessions. And of course, there are gonna be exceptions to the rules. Like maybe there is one guy who can really pull off the Shakespeare monologue. Or where one venerable fiddle player starts a waltz and goes into a jig. And it feels very sweet and easy.

But the idea of keeping some consistency—and of listening to one another and not grandstanding… this feels pretty iron clad. And that’s the gift for the sixth anniversary, to go along with jigs with jigs, reels with reels rule.

>> Shannon: Year six: Iron, apparently.

>> Zina: Ah, iron mongery. Iron mongery in the UK and the Isles formally known as British, is something different than it is in the United States. So for instance, in the United States you’ll say, “Hey, where’s the nearest hardware store?” They’re not gonna know what you’re talking about. They will want to give you directions to the iron mongers.

>> Shannon: Okay. 

>> Zina: So, Iron Mongery used to be everything that had to do with hardware.

>> Shannon: Oh, okay. So it’s not just like cast iron skillets.

>> Zina: That’s correct.

>> Shannon: There are some cast iron tunes: that weird little G Minor jig Crabs in the Skillet, which is a lot older than I thought it might be. I have a kind of New England contradance association with that tune, but it started showing up in collections starting with Elias Howe’s manuscript back in 1867. And Tongs by the Fire — sing a bit GBd CAF — that jig first appeared in William Bradbury Ryan’s Mammoth Collection in 1883.

Some good heavy metal tunes for you… And then there are copper tunes—like the Copperplate, which really came into swing in the 1920s.

[ Music:  “The Copperplates Reels,” from Live At Lena’s

Artist: The Lahawns ]

The Copperplate, the Old Copperplate, Molly put the Kettle on, Josephine Keegan’s Copper Kettle. Copper’s a big metal in Irish tunes. And Copper is year 7… to accompany RULE #7:

>> Shannon: Ok, rule #7, don’t play louder than everybody else. It’s like banging copper plates together. Which is the seventh anniversary gift. It’s copper!

>> Barry: Hahaha! Well….you know, most instruments, you don’t have to worry about it. I mean, I like a flute to play as loud as possible.

>> Shannon: That’s the spirit.

>> Barry: But, this is where the jealousy comes in.. a guitar in the wrong hands can make an awful lot of noise. So it is a hazard, you know.

>> Shannon: It is a hazard. <laugh>

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

>> Zina: I remember hearing stories once of a bodhran player who showed up playing incredibly loudly, in an east end of London Pub and was really royally pissing people off. And the session leader finally told the others to just pipe down with his hand sort of thing. And then he started playing a ”solo,” which of course the drummer immediately jumped into. And he ended up playing quieter and quieter and quieter and quieter until the guy finally got the point. <laugh>.

[ music fades and fades ]

* * **

Quick timeout from the etiquette chat. Just want to thank you so much for listening to Irish Music Stories.

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

 It’s my pleasure and privilege to chat about very nerdy details of a niche musical pursuit that I do think pans out much wider than Irish music. This is about learning to get along—or at least to tolerate each other.. and maybe in the process, elevate the quality of the music. If you think a pal would enjoy our etiquette ramble, please share the episode! That’s how people find me.  And to those who have supported me this month—in order to pull all these serious rules together—here’s my kid Nigel to thank you for underwriting Episode 71.

>> Nigel: Thank you to April Eight Songs & Stories Podcast, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Mike Lagana & Barb Moore, Joe Martin, Melissa Peabody, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, 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, and Chris Murphy.

* * * * *

Banjo player Daniel Neely ran a session in Manhattan. He was my guest on episode 43 and dear, dear episode 66. 

[ Music: Tune: “Mrs. Violet Eunson,” from B&B
Composers: Jennifer Wrigley
Artists: tricolor ]

I recently revisited the “rules” that he used to send around—he’d send out these emails to get people to come out to his session: humorous essays, photoshopped stuff, caricatures of guests. And he’d close with the session “rules.” Stuff like:

– play your best

– listen to what others are playing

– songs can be great, but wait to be asked to sing

– no more than one harmony instrument

– ask before you sit down

– if a drink falls over and breaks, do not pick up the glass with your hands…

Dan admitted that the rules were sort of goofy, like are they really necessary? But people followed them. Especially this one, which is rule #9 of my Field Guide roundup:

– be social and have a chat. Don’t be in such a hurry to start the next tune that you interrupt a nice social moment.


>> Barry: The notion of pouncing on the least minute of silence? This is really bad. And we all, you know, we all know those folks. They’re all lovely people. The real problem with Irish music is that they’re all lovely people, you know? So it can be kind of hard to troubleshoot sometimes, because of all the lovely people. That sounded like Eleanor Rigby for a second there.

[ Music: Eleanor Rigby-esque jig, from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

 >> Zina: Some people don’t even talk in between tunes,

Making a little guidebook might encourage more fun? Especially if you spell things out with some style, and some humor.

>> Barry: It’s a very funny book, I think. I mean, that’s the impression I’ve gotten from people. But it’s also, it’s a very serious book actually. You know, it’s iron fist in a velvet glove sort of thing. And the reasoning was, I thought to myself, nobody really has the right to write this little book. You know? I mean, and it makes no sense to kind of try to codify sessions and quantify them in this way, so I’m really taking a chance. So the idea was that if I don’t make it funny enough, people won’t take it seriously enough. And so I, you know, that’s pretty much the way it came together.

>> Shannon: Well, humor is serious business

>> Barry: <laugh>. It is for me <laugh>

>> Shannon: Me Too <laugh>. And having these lovely little drawings in there, and the way the book is laid out, and having it in this question answer format, it does kind of… paint it as a particularly sort of humorous light approach to maybe a vast sort of heavy topic. How do we humans get along and respect one another. And respect something that is, uh, much bigger than any one practitioner?

>> Barry: And what does it mean for modern people to deliberately buy into something old? You know, that’s a strange thing to do.

>> Shannon: Doing something old together—today—has a sort of complexity to it. There are basic practices that are fairly universal—like playing tunes by heart, from the heart, not reading sheet music. You know, just like a conversation, you share stories directly. You don’t read to each other.

Communities who don’t know about, or who don’t follow basic established practices… well, they are missing out on the shared, bigger experience of Irish music. They might be missing some of the juicy social rewards. And also, they won’t be able to participate in most other sessions around the world, which seems like a bummer. Traveling around and visiting sessions along the way can be great way to meet people.

Well, the field guide can help shine a light on things… maybe it can help warm up a few session scenes… like the two bronze light fixtures that we installed in our music studio. I wrote this tune for them, called the 40 Watt Waltz.

[ Music: “40 Watt Waltz,” from Living Room

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon to Zina: I’m excited to share these with you. So in the back are these sconces. Check this out. How pretty are they?

>> Zina: Oh. Oh, look at that. 

>> Shannon: They’re very pretty! 

>> Zina: Anyone who can’t actually see what we’re talking about, she’s got a pair of bronzes there that are, really quite nice <laugh> and

>> Shannon: Year number eight. Bronze.

>> Zina: There you go. Bronze is a lovely thing. …

>> Shannon: You know, it’s sort of like what a joke can do in a social context  . It can really warm things up.

>> Zina: Hahaha! I guess it depends on how good a joke teller you are. Although I have been guilty of, you know, telling a joke that just sort of wanders around and misses the point when a few times. So I can’t really say I blame someone for starting up a tune in the middle, waiting for the punchline <laugh>

>> Shannon: A meandering joke is also very funny.

>> Zina: <laugh>

>> Shannon: But yeah, the hang right, the humor and the hang. The socializing along with the beauty of the tunes and of sharing them. But the whole thing like that is the why of the session, isn’t it?

>> Zina: I think every session has a different reason for being there. It’s kind of like, getting back to wedding things, you know, it’s like in some places giving money for a wedding gift is considered very, very rude. But in other cultures you’re just helping them get started, and it’s very welcome. So it’s really gonna depend, you know, on the culture that you’re in. And, so I think you can draw these really serious parallels between the session into serious society.

[ Cofio reprise ]

>> Shannon: Year number nine.

>> Zina: Let’s go

>> Shannon: Is pottery like porcelain? Is that the same thing?

>> Zina: It could be.

>> Shannon: A toilet.

>> Zina: You know, if someone gave me a really, really nice bidet toilet… You know how expensive those things are? <laugh>

>> Shannon: Or what about a doll? A doll, right. By year nine you might have children. Maybe you want little China doll.

>> Zina: It’s an interesting thing though, actually. Um,  pottery, you know, it’s one of the few things that an archeological dig will look for. Is  pottery, because that will tell them a lot of things they need to know about the society that they’re looking

>> Shannon: And that will tell them who was throwing plates at the person who was telling jokes while someone is singing

>> Zina: <laugh>

>> Shannon: Or yelling, because that’s rule number nine. Don’t yell and tell jokes while someone is singing <laugh>.  

>> Zina: You know, that is a really tough one, especially in the United States. Because they don’t hold the singers in the same regard as they do in Ireland. They just don’t. .

>> Barry: May I quote another little stanza from my song?

“Let’s not forget singing, well, of course, it’s allowed

Of their vocals the Irish are rightfully proud

But you must make an effort to quiet the crowd, 

which could earn you a fist in the kisser.”

So this is another thing people don’t understand a lot of times. Having songs in sessions is very important. But it always has to do with how noisy the room is, you know? So the least the musicians can do if they can’t get everybody else to shut up, then they need to shut up.

Singers in Irish music tend to be somewhat self effacing. Like a really traditional singer will very seldom put themselves forward and say, “Hey, I got one!” Only someone like, like me would do that. This puts things on a very kind of modest footing. So we’re gonna  have to create circumstances in which it’s pleasant and feasible to sing.

>> Zina: So many Irish singers will not sing during a session until the very end of the night usually because the only people left at that point are the people who know.

>> Shannon: Like this performance by Steve Johnson would have been for a small group who really do know and love Irish music. It was a recording live at Mona’s Pub, back when a bunch of musicians used to play Monday night in the East Village until really late at night. So there was time for singing. But you can still hear some pub noises in the background.

[ Music: “I Was a Young Man,” from Live at Monas

Artist: Steve Johnson ]

>> Barry: I’ll tell you how paranoid I get sometimes about keeping quiet when singers are singing. If I’m sitting there and someone’s singing and nobody’s making a peep, if I reach for my beer, I’ll feel like a twinge of anxiety. Like can I take a sip of beer while this person’s singing, you know? <laugh>, I finally decided that I can do it, as long as I don’t slurp, you know? That’s all right.

Whether you’re drinking beer or tea, drinking out of pottery is probably quieter than glass bottles: The Cup of Tea, the Mug of Brown Ale, the Jug of Punch. Lots of Irish pottery tunes.

>> Shannon: <laugh> All right, we’re doing amazing. I would say big rule number 10: let the session organize itself organically with a community of musicians who know and respect Irish music and one another. Isn’t that what this is leading to? Isn’t that the hope?

>> Barry: Yeah. But when you really think about what you view as the ideal session, sometimes it just seems it’s impossible. So we are always, especially outside of what I call the, you know, the epicenters of Irish music, we live in hope. You know, we’re always struggling to make the impossible possible, make it happen. And that attitude, well that enriches things, I think. But once you get out of Boston, things diversify a bit. You know, Boston is self-selecting, sampling, because a lot of great musicians have come there from other places, they intend to be there. Now Boston also has Irish music by heritage. That’s pretty much an ideal situation for the U.S.A. <laugh>.

>> Shannon:  I mean, we still have quite a, a diverse lot. And letting the session organize itself organically? That doesn’t always…. we don’t always hit the mark.

>> Barry: No. And there are many times when it will appear to have organized itself organically. But there there will be one or two strong personalities lurking in the shadows who are nudging things in a certain way. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing, you know? That’s great.

>> Zina: I was talking with somebody in Ireland once, an Irish musician who thought rules for a session were completely silly. Because he thought that they should be organic and just go together themselves. Until we started talking about some of the things that have happened that sessions when you don’t set down any ground rules in the United States. And he just sat there and stared at us without any expression on his face. And then he said at the very end he said, alright, well perhaps some rules don’t go amiss <laugh> 

>> Shannon: I have a friend Una and she used to call someone in the community the Tin Man, At first I said, does he work in tin? Like what’s the story of the Tin Man? Is he gaunt? You know, like the Tin Man and the Wizard of Oz? And she said, oh no… Jesus, if he had a tin can and a spoon he’d bang the spoon against the tin can.

[ Music: “The Tinker’s Daughter,” from Top of Coom

Artist: Conal O’Grada ]

Once people have established some common codes of decency, once people are really listening to one another, it can just kind of organize itself. You can play a jig into a reel then, because everybody knows that’s the exception. But if there are no rules and you have somebody come in with the tin can and a spoon, and the  didjeridu, and is yelling about iron mongery… maybe it doesn’t work organically as well. 

OK, Year 10: Tin.

>> Zina: Tin?

>> Shannon: Tin. I mean like a tin whistle I guess.

>> Zina: I don’t know. Some women would not be particularly impressed with a 10 year anniversary of a whistle <laugh>.

>> Shannon: Mmmm.

>> Shannon: The tin whistle is very affordable. And it’s very approachable. It’s not hard to get a sound out of the thing, so it’s a good entry level instrument…. but also capable of making very high level, sophisticated music. Maybe not a terrible 10 year anniversary gift—the gift of an experience. Of possibility.

[ Music: “Larry’s Favorite,” from The Coming of Spring

Artsits: Kathleen Conneely ]

Well, the anniversary gifts by year go on and on — and there are dozens of ‘rules’ in Barry’s book (which are laid out like questions, not as numbered rules). But before leaving our etiquette experts, I think we’ll just touch on the Silver and the Gold.

>> Shannon: The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session is almost 25 years old. So… silver?

>> Zina: Silver. Yes.

>> Shannon: So this rule maybe? Tip the bartender, <laugh>

>> Barry: Tip the bartender. There’s your proof that this book was not written for an Irish audience. You know, people sometimes don’t fully appreciate how lucky you can be to have a bar owner who a) lets you do what you’re doing. And then in an ideal world even likes what you’re doing or believes in what you’re doing. 

>> Shannon: The session is sort of this social event that extends beyond just this one little corner. So actually the hosts, the bartenders, I mean, it’s kind of like your hosts are part of the session?

>> Zina: Yeah. Reasonable enough. 

>> Barry: if you find a publican who lets you do your thing and even gives you a sense of welcome, it’s very precious, you know? 

>> Shannon: Silver is precious. And just about a silver dollar will get you a copy of the Field Guide for the Irish Music Session. And as the book nears its 25th anniversary, I’ll be thinking of tunes like the Silver Spear, Silver Spire, Silver Slipper, Blessings of Silver.

>> Shannon: All right, before we get to gold, Zina — and are amazing, and you are a champ for doing this — have I I missed any of your favorite Barry rules?

>> Zina: My favorite is probably where he explains the difference of the two ways to play a hornpipe. Probably because my favorite bit of it is where he says “It’s not gonna make any difference. I just wanted you to know that I had observed this, but sitting next to somebody who’s playing the hornpipes a different way is like being poked with a butter knife. <laugh>. It’s not fatal, but it sure is annoying.”

[ Music: “Green Velvet Chair,” from A Very Siúcra Christmas

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Siúcra ]

>> Shannon: Funny that Zina chose this rule. I wrote the Green Velvet Hornpipe after she helped me cover some chairs with green stretch velvet. You see, I’d found these four kitchen chairs in an old junk shop, during the short time I lived in Boulder, Colorado. Beautiful place to live. And GREAT chairs. A comfortable design, a fun bright yellow! But after living with them for a few weeks (or maybe hours), I realized that the color … and the feeling of the vintage vinyl… was going to do my head in. So Zina came over with this velvety fabric and showed me how to cover the chairs. And then I wrote The Green Velvet Chair

If somebody joined me and didn’t match my rhythmic feel, it really would be like being poked with a golden butter knife… 

[ Music: “The Gold Ring,” from Living Room

Artist: Dan Singer ]

Lots of trad tunes mention Gold: the Gold Ring, Crock of Gold, Golden Keyboard, Golden Castle Hornpipe. Gold Stars to Barry Foy for chatting with me and for writing the book and for writing The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session.

>> Shannon: For the 50th, for the Gold

>> Barry: <laugh>

>> Shannon: What have I missed?

>> Barry: Gosh…

>> Shannon: Putting you on the spot, which is not great etiquette. I’m sorry, Barry.

>> Barry: <laugh> Here’s a very short thing. Can I just read a very short thing that might be worth mentioning? This section is called How Boring Irish Music is. 

“The question is—and this book is all a question and answer format: “The question is, despite what you say about the differences between tunes, they all sound alike to me. Is there something wrong with my ears? The answer is not at all. Of course, all Irish music sounds alike. That’s how you tell it’s Irish music. That’s how you know you haven’t walked in on a session of Macedonian or Senegalese music by mistake. That’s how you know that when you walk into a music store and ask for Irish music, you won’t be sold something sounds like Miles Davis or The Kinks. It’s pretty handy if you think about it.”

>> Shannon: Maybe the golden rule in Barry’s book is that consistency is precious. Like Irish music does all sound the same, and that’s what makes it Irish music and not like Carnatic or BeBop, right?

>> Zina:  Right. And this is where he was talking about what you do you do when somebody says it all sounds the same? You know? Well, it it doesn’t all sound the same if you know and love this stuff.

>> Shannon: Yeah. But there’s a real consistency. And that’s what you’re aiming for.

>> Zina: I would hope so. <laugh>, I’m not sure everybody does <laugh> the Hornpipes!<laugh>.

>> Shannon: Yeah. But it definitely has its own flavor. And really learning to treasure it means really learning to hear it and hear the smaller details down to the butter knife..

Establishing etiquette can be a way of sidestepping tension. Maybe it can avoid some of the boorish visitors who ruin it for everybody else? But then, overzealous rule setting can also lead to friction, which is not on the Barry Foys and the Emily Posts of the world. They were just setting out compasses. It’s up to the readers to understand and use the suggestions.

[ Music; “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So as far as etiquette, where have things settled for you? Like, do we still need this little guide?

>> Barry: I don’t think the need for it has lessened at all, to tell you the honest truth. And I’m not just trying to sell books. But the same people are walking in—are straying in to sessions I attend now—as were straying in when the book was written. And generating the same effects, you know? I mean, generally what I’ve found: you would rather have somebody walk in on your session who had read this book than someone who hadn’t. They would know a few things. They would recognize a few things about what they’re seeing. That’s, I guess, all I could hope for. 

>> Shannon: Where have things settled for you? Like do we still need guides like Barry’s? Do we still need wedding anniversary suggestions?

>> Zina: You know, the wedding thing? I think not. I think if you know somebody well enough to know what they would want as a gift or to give them a gift that they didn’t know they wanted, that’s the most important thing. 

Etiquette etiquette is not something you can escape as long as you’re dealing with other people. It’s kind of like politics. Nobody likes dealing with politics until they try dealing with a life without politics.  So yeah, I think Foy’s book has been an incredibly useful thing, at the same time that is not needed at all. So, what’s so different about that and everything else in Irish music? <laugh>

[ Music: “Anniversary Reel,” from Out for the Night

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artist: Battlefield Band ]

>> Shannon: You know, all jokes aside, talking about how to get along  when people are maybe not having a community minded approach…Is very, very difficult. It’s very difficult. And so humor, you know, and being irreverent, and being silly and being flip. 

>> Zina: And just being able to just handle the book as a gift. <laugh>.

>> Shannon: I mean, it’s actually the most serious and the most powerful business of all really, you know?

>> Zina: Well that’s sort of what it is all about isn’t it? Is getting along with each other. I would think most people can find their sweet spot. You know, that sweet spot of caring enough about what other people are doing and still having your boundaries set. 

>> Shannon: Yeah. Yeah. 

>> Shannon: Irish music sessions are displays of social behavior. A real rainbow coalition of conduct. Folks who aren’t accustomed to rolling with a collective might benefit by having standard practices spelled out. And this benefits the music . It keeps the MUSIC good, keeps it strong. 

And in the end, the music probably transcends all the individual transgressions.

>> Barry: I’ve talked to people at times about internal mechanisms that the music uses to keep itself good, you know? In a situation where everybody’s crossing paths all the time from all different parts of the country, the music is gonna do a certain amount to regulate itself, I think. It’s a spirit <laugh>.

[ Music: “Gold Ring” reprise ]

>> Shannon: This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you and congratulations to Barry Foy and his little Field Guide that could. You’re almost 25! Thank you, Zina, for the chat and the chairs. Thank you, Matt Heaton for the production music. Thank you Nigel for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. And thank you to Tina Lech, John Williams, Brian O’Donovan, Eoin O’Neill, Brian Conway, and Jimmy Keane for the session anecdotes. Thank you Dan Singer for sharing the awesome set of reels, played on khaen. And thanks Dan Neely for the back and forth about session rules.

For playlists, transcripts, and sheet music to these original tunes, and to kick in to help make more Irish Music Stories, please visit


>> Zina: It used to be apparently that the husbands would crown their wives with silver wreaths on their silver anniversary, and gold ones on their golden ones.

>> Shannon: Imagine me wearing my gold crown, with my bronze sconces, playing the didjeridu.

>> Zina: In the Key of D.

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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 

Barry Foy


Writer and musician based in St. Paul, Minnesota and author of The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session

Zina Lee


Colorado-based Irish fiddler, designer, and consultant

John Williams


Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits

Tina Lech


Providence-born, Boston-based fiddle player 

Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production

Eoin O'Neill


Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare

New York-based fiddle player and teacher and leading exponent of the Sligo fiddling style

Jimmy Keane


Chicago-based accordion player born in London of Irish-speaking parents from Connemara and Kerry

The Heaton List