My Other Birthday Cake Is
Made Out of Chiff
(with a Dab of Fresh Fipple Icing)
by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2010
No, it’s not my birthday, or my wedding anniversary to my beloved bride, Lisa. Not even our cats’ birthdays. Or wedding anniversaries.
July 3 is the day I learned and fully memorized my first traditional Irish tune on the tinwhistle: Tabhair Dom Do Lámh (“Give Me Your Hand”).
I recall July 3, 1972 starting slow… another ordinary work day for my 20-year-old self on a grounds maintenance crew at a detergent factory.
But it turned out to be a Momentous Day.
The latest Pakistan-India War ended … Blues guitar legend Mississippi Fred McDowell died in Memphis. … 400 miles upriver in St. Louis, suave bad-guy actor Matt Schulze was born.
In New York City, jazzmeisters Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Kenny Burrell and Mary Lou Williams recorded a superjam at Radio City Music Hall … Badfinger was in Akron, Ohio playing the Rubber Bowl.
From a film set in Los Angeles, actress Joan Crawford wrote a letter to a fan in Uruguay named Lillian.
In rural Massachusetts, two dozen witnesses reported a translucent, triangle-shaped UFO hovering for almost one hour (7-8 p.m. EST) in the sky over Hanscom Air Force Base.
July 3, 1972 was busy all over the world.
And in the second-floor bedroom of a small split-level ranch house on the Westside of Indianapolis, Indiana, I got busy learning an Irish air composed by harper Ruairí Dall O Catháin in the early 1600s.
Tabhair Dom Do Lámh might seem an odd choice for a first tentative toe into the teeming ocean of Irish music. It’s long (52 non-repeating bars) and can’t quite decide how to end. It’s asymmetrical in melodic structure and has a capricious rhythmic pace. It’s got four consecutive shrieking high Bs in the middle section and a shiver-wild, fork-fingered F natural raring up out of nowhere in the second-to-last cadence.
The tune spoke to me somehow, and I had it more or less burned in my brain, sizzling quietly until I felt emboldened to pick up the whistle and lay into it.
I sat next to a cassette recorder my parents had bought me for Christmas and studied the uilleann pipe version by Liam Óg Ó Floinn on the first Planxty album.
I proceeded phrase by phrase — listen-play-zzzzpprewind, listen-play-zzzzpprewind a hundred times maybe more — until I finally got through the entire tune once without stopping.
I looked at the clock; it had taken two hours to discern the melody, get in it my fingers and breathe it into the world complete. It was the first time I’d truly memorized a discrete piece of music since piano lessons in grade school. A celebration was in order: I downed a cinnamon pop tart and mug of bad instant coffee.
And started in playing the bloody air over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And then a few more rounds to keep it fresh in mind.
I wager that if I ever, godforbid, fall victim to the clutches of bitter Dementia, the very last crumbs of memory to scatter away will be the notes to Tabhair Dom Do Lámh.
Recently, I was talking to a local fiddler and mentioned my tune-iversary. He was astonished and, I think, a bit amused I could (or would) remember something like that.
But learning Tabhair Dom Do Lámh that summer night sent my life spiraling along a serendipitous path that’s led to meeting at least a thousand amazing people and undergoing hundreds of incredible experiences — all of them subtly defining the human being I became over the last 40-plus years.
Which is more than you usually expect from your typical 17th-century waltz.
I’m not sure if I believe in the soul finding its destiny, but learning Irish music was like being born again.
And being re-born and re-born over and again with every tune you learn.
By the next July 3, I had come to know scores of Irish musicians whose accumulated decades of musical craft became my new DNA.
My mind, my personality, my complete inner landscape would be radically re-shaped the next few years by a steady infusion of reel and jig, roll and cran, seisiún and fleadh.
I’m inclined to believe that’s been a good thing. As I’ve meandered through life for the most part with eyes wide shut, I realize now that of all the mentors and influences I’ve encountered, it’s been the pure, proud, poignant notes of Ruairí Dall — Blind Rory — that have reached across the centuries and given me the clearest direction to follow.
When the end of June rolls around, I feel like a little kid who can’t wait for his birthday. I’m thinking I should start using July 3, 1972 as my official birthdate … the day the Irish Music Me was born.
At this point, it never hurts to knock a few years off the old résumé.
* Tabhair Dom Do Lamh – L.E. McCullough