A Joyfalutin Whistle Moment
by L.E. McCullough
© 2010 L.E. McCullough
SAMHAIN EVE EVE — It may be that these posts have been a little frettish lately. A little dour. A little nicknacky about ornaments and whatever.
Probably everyone playing the whistle has experienced a special moment when the siren call of the fipple first grabbed their ear, then their heart.
Do you ever try to remember what was it that made you like it in the first place?
My initial encounter was hearing it played by an unknown busker on Grafton Street in Dublin in the autumn of 1971. Whomever, wherever you are, busker gan ainm — thanks!
Of course, I knew so little about ITM that he could have been playing reels, jigs, a klezmer tune or just musical babble made up on the spot — all the same to my undiscerning ear. At first glance it reminded me of my recorder, which I had tried out a while back on some oldtime Appalachian tunes. . . interesting, but it didn’t rock my core.
A week or so later I heard it played for the first time in a traditional venue. A drizzly October night when I stumbled — literally — into the Thursday session at the fabled O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row.
Jammed into the corner by the front window, completely surrounded by a pulsating crowd, were John Kelly, Sr. and Joe Ryan on fiddles, Peter Phelan on uilleann pipes, Paddy O’Brien (from Offaly) on accordion, Mick O’Connor on flute, Owen Pender on guitar — and Mary Bergin on tinwhistle. I’d come across one of the hottest sessions in town, and I’ll never forget the way the music thrilled me in that instant.
(Curiously, it was October 3, 1971, the same day the great Irish composer and traditional music revivalist Seán Ó Riada died in London. I’ve always had this crazy thought that as his musical spirit was leaving the world, a small part of it was maybe floating down into me.)
Unfortunately, it was impossible that night to hear Mary Bergin clearly amid the ensemble roil; it would be some while later before I’d be able to give her superb music the study it deserved (and I wouldn’t actually meet her again in person until July 17, 2010!).
Thus it wasn’t until a few months later when I’d returned to the States that I had the true soul-stirring fipple experience — courtesy of the few but mighty whistle tracks Willie Clancy played on The Minstrel from Clare album.
I’d bought the record to hear Willie’s legendary uilleann pipes. And those tracks were stunning, indeed. But what shook the lemons off my tree were the whistle renditions of these tunes:
- Templehouse Reel-Over the Moor to Maggie
- Killavil Fancy-Dogs Among the Bushes
- Caoineadh an Spailpín
- The Legacy Jig
Aching sweetness mixed with wild abandon… precise fingering driven by explosive articulation… a relentless profusion of incredible variations bursting from every phrase.
Also, the album was made “in the field” — i.e., not in a recording studio, most likely Willie’s house or that of a neighbor. It wasn’t reverbed or flanged or tinkered with in any way; no chord backing, no percussion — just the pure Willie coming through the grooves.
To a nascent whistler, it was truly a Revelation. I doubt when people today hear me play the whistle that the name “Willie Clancy” pops into their brain, but truthfully, it was those few tracks that made me want to really play the instrument in a totally serious way. I already knew I could. Willie Clancy made me want to.
Have you ever gone back and listened to a recording you liked a long time ago… but found it wasn’t so enthralling when you heard it again? Like certain bits of wardrobe you once thought made you look superfly and now seem — let’s be kind — somewhat dated. (like the “superfly” reference…)
I tell you this: every single time I hear one of the whistle cuts from The Minstrel from Clare, it’s like falling in love all over again. You know, with somebody that you’re still in love with. Those tunes have only sounded better to me as we’ve both aged.
Your own personal Joyfalutin Whistle Moment.
Originally on Topic, The Minstrel from Clare has been re-issued by Green Linnet. Check it out.
And piper Pat Mitchell’s book, The Dance Music of Willie Clancy, has wonderful insights into Clancy’s music and piping style.
Footnote: apparently the expression “busk” comes from the Spanish root word buscar, meaning “to seek” — buskers seeking monetary reward, sustenance. . . buscar in turn evolving from the Indo-European root bhudh-sk (to win, conquer) via the Celtic word boudi (victory) … possibly re-appears later as the name of 1st-century CE warrior-princess Boudica of Celtic Britain. Source: The Internets