A QUICK Independence Day Week post paying tribute to the Spirit of American Music — and the willingness of musicians everywhere to cross borders, b(l)end genres, venture into the metaphorical musical wilderness a-lookin for the elephant guided only by those inner voices whispering “Over here… come on over here, pilgrim…”

Cronin’s HornpipeDiddy Wah DiddyGlen AllenMama’s Getting Younger

— from the 1984 album Late Bloomer by L.E. McCullough (Kicking Mule Records).

Ernie Hawkins – guitar (Cronin’s, Diddy-Wah-Diddy), vocal (Diddy-Wah-Diddy); Doug Anthony – guitar (Glen Allen, Mama’s Getting Younger); Larry Edelman – mandolin; Sam Waterkotte – acoustic bass; L.E. McCullough – vocal (Mama’s Getting Younger), harmonica, tinwhistle, clarinet, bones

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The Man from Bunclody

A birthday celebration was held this past Sunday for button accordionist/fiddler Tom Dunne at the weekly Irish music session he and fiddler Tony Horswill have been co-hosting for several years at St. James Gate Publick House in Maplewood, New Jersey. A great time was had by all. Exceptional carrot cake. Flowing beverages. Appreciative listeners. It should happen every week!

The only thing I could think to bring to the festivities was a newly composed tune, a hornpipe. Tom has a very deft touch with hornpipes, and I’m hoping the tune sits well on his box or even the fiddle.

I called it “The Man from Bunclody”, this being the habitation in County Wexford from which Tom originally hails. Maybe if enough people play it here and there, it’ll someday meld into the tradition as “Tom Dunne’s Hornpipe”.

Tom Dunne is one of those traditional musicians you encounter who, within five seconds after they start playing — you know it’s the Real Deal. Because it just sounds right.

I realize that’s a shockingly non-objective way to describe his style. But it just is. Because he just does.

What I enjoy best about playing with Tom Dunne is knowing that whenever he plays, I’m hearing some part of the music I’ve never heard before … in a way I’ll likely never hear it again.

When we play a tune I’ve played a thousand times, I know his version is coming out through a convection of musical roots that twist down into the deepest, richest core of the tradition. A musical culture so far distant from our modern aural universe that the only way it can ever be heard even faintly is as an occasional echo through a player like Tom Dunne.

You can judge for yourself by listening to his two CDs to date:  Musical Memories with the late Joe Banjo Burke and A Fiddle Tribute To Paddy Cronin. There are rumours of a third CD in the works produced by Hearts Content, Tom’s trio with Iris Nevins (guitar/harp) and Linda Hickman (flute/whistle).

Encourage these rumours and spur them into digital reality… Tom turned 65 yesterday, and with the shape he’s in, he might only be around for another 50 years.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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Fleadh Season Is Upon Us

The Mid-Atlantic U.S. Fleadh Cheoil took place last weekend at the spacious Hilton Hotel in Parsippany, New Jersey. And it was superb.

This was a qualifying competition for performers of Irish traditional instrumental and vocal music. The first- and second-place winners in each category are entitled to compete in the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann — the All-Ireland traditional music championships that bring thousands of musicians and a quarter million onlookers from around the world to a small town in Ireland each August.

Beyond the competitive aspect showcasing the talents of some astonishing young musicians, a local fleadh serves as a barometer of the music’s overall health. The polished, recital-level performances testify to the skill and dedication of teachers and students; competitors and visiting players from possibly anywhere on the planet commingle in impromptu sessions throughout the hotel all weekend.

A good local fleadh can get you feeling pretty optimistic about the future of Irish Traditional Music.

I remember my first:  May 5, 1974 … a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in Chicago at Hubbard High School on the southwest side. I competed in the Over-18 Tinwhistle category and was awarded 1st Place.

A miracle of sorts, considering I’d been playing the music just under two years. In addition to qualifying for that summer’s All-Ireland contest, I received a trophy (pictured right) — a true modern marvel of Neo-Constructivist Kitsch Deco styling that, sadly, has not survived the decades.

But I have retained my participant copy of the Official Adjudication Sheet with scoring filled out by the Official Music Adjudicator. Who on that particular day was the even-then legendary Clare fiddler Seamus Connolly, now the distinguished Sullivan Artist-in-Residence at Boston College.

1) Jig:  good traditional style; make sure to end tune properly.

2) Slow Air:  nicely played; phrasing not at all times correct.

3) Reel:  nicely played; watch the rhythm & phrasing when ornamenting!!

4) Hornpipe:  very well played; best tune; lovely ornamentation.

I still look at these comments from time to time. Because they’re as good advice now as they were then, no matter how long you’ve been playing.

And because I vainly wish to believe I can still render a hornpipe as well as I did 37 years ago.

Of course, when I’d started playing ITM, competing was the furthest thing from my mind. Hadn’t thought much about performing the music in public beyond learning enough tunes to credibly participate in a general session and have something to offer musicians kind enough to share their time and knowledge.

I was, after all, merely a budding ethnomusicologist whose mission was to analyze and describe this unique musical culture to the non-Hibernian world. The idea of putting myself forward as a musical equal to established players from the roots tradition was inconceivable.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fleadh … restrained academicism got banjaxed by unfettered passion.

During the previous few months, I’d been privileged to meet half a hundred veteran players in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. All had graciously shared books, tapes, records, stories – whatever might help an outsider better understand the music that occupied such a central role in their lives.

Yet it became clear that fact-founded analysis alone would never suffice to tell the full story of this tradition. To convey even an iota of what it might mean emotionally to its exponents, I would need to become as passionate and devoted a player as the musicians I was chronicling.

Total objectivity could only be attained from total subjective immersion.

After a few weeks of intense woodshedding, I entered that first fleadh just to see how far I was off the beam. Winning wouldn’t mean I was a real Irish traditional musician; on that one day playing those particular tunes, my performance had simply sounded okay enough to translate into points along a sliding grade matrix. Like weighing a stack of lunchmeat on a scale … visible quantity but no clue to the intangibles of taste or quality.

What it really did mean wouldn’t sink in until the post-fleadh céilí at Hibernian Hall on W. 63rd Street. The weekly Irish Hour radio broadcast hosted by Martin Fahey, Sr. on WOPA-AM had just concluded, and dancers were gathering on the floor.

“Larry McCullough!”

Through the crowd noise, someone called my name. I turned and saw Seamus Connolly approaching.

My first thought was:  Yikes! They realized they made a scoring mistake, and I have to give back my beloved Neo-Constructivist Kitsch Deco Over-18 Tinwhistle Trophy.

He shook my hand and spoke in a serious but friendly tone. “You played well. You’ve got a good traditional feel.”

I stammered out a surprised thank-you. Then, awkward, congealing silence. “Umm… is there anything else I should do?”

He smiled and beckoned toward the bandstand. “Play some tunes for the céilí.”

Probably the best ITM wisdom I ever received.

Some might think a local fleadh is an ordinary thing. This committee does that, that committee does this, etc., just a mundane myriad of details to grind out the task of processing a few dozen musicians to the next level of competition.

But when I walk through a local fleadh, it tells me the music is Alive in a Big Way. Because of all the people who care about it enough to make it happen — competitors, organizers, adjudicators, volunteers and especially the audience.

People who realize the seeds of tradition don’t get planted by themselves. Who show their respect for heritage by making it possible for neophytes to excel and grow into master musicians. Who understand the power these humble melodies have in making our world a more joy-filled, more humane place.

Because of you mighty fleadh-mongers, the 2011 Mid-Atlantic U.S. Fleadh Cheoil is History.

And a vital part of the Future.

#  #  #

p.s.:  check the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest fleadh websites for details on how to become a volunteer… or for information on how to join one of your local Irish traditional music clubs.

Check here for info on other North American regions:  U.S. Northeast, U.S. Southern, U.S. Western, Canada East, Canada West.

** The 2011 All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil is in Cavan, Aug. 13-22.

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Drift Away

On a chilled, rain-sotted evening a couple weeks back, I saw Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely backed by guitarist Ted Davis perform a concert at the gracious home of Mike and Rose Flanagan in Pearl River, New York – a town just across the New Jersey border that’s become a veritable whirling nexus of Irish traditional music activity the last few years.

Through some sort of cultural kismet, Pearl River and its environs have attracted an ever-expanding core of adult ITM players and a half dozen music and dance schools nurturing Irish folkways among a new generation of super-talented youngsters.

The local Shoprite even has a special Irish section in the “International Foods” aisle.

And this is a Good Thing.

I’d seen Kevin and Cillian before with their sensational regular group Lúnasa, of course. The two sets this night were largely drawn from their 2009 album of flute-pipes-whistle blendings, On Common Ground (BallyO Records).

It might be assumed that because I play the music, and even several of those tunes, that I’d have spent the evening mentally comparing my versions to theirs. Studying their technique. Focusing on minutiae of phrasing, embellishment, variation, etc. Every musician does this subconsciously. Can’t help it. It’s how our minds are wired.

But this night was different, and not just because of the intimacy of the Flanagan parlor or superb accompaniment by Ted Davis. I wanted to let the music take me to a SUB-subconscious level. No analysis. No scrutiny. Just seeing if the sounds could burrow down and strike a level of deep, heretofore unfathomed Ur-Craic.

When the first tune kicked off, I leaned against the rear wall, closed my eyes and sank into tantric breathing mode … breathing to relax, relax and detach … relax to where just one brain synapse pushed artfully ajar would be enough to let the music travel along a whole new path to a mental part of Me I’d never been before.

I can’t say for certain at what point in the set (possibly the twin-whistled Man from Moyasta medley) that I felt the music changing … not changing speed or timbre or texture … but changing dimension … mass … volume even … like the way you hear sound when your head is under water, the sonic waves altering in location and amplitude as they pass from one medium into another (air into water) to be perceived wholly anew in every aspect by your sensory field — in this case translating audio stimuli into visual and tactile form.

Only the music wasn’t muddled; it was voiced with searing clarity and infinite nuance, phrase after phrase after deftly-framed phrase rippling out agile, pulsing note swells that merged seamlessly with the drumming raindrops outside. It was music that allowed my mind to wander into a borderless, timeless aural space where I could feel Everything and Nothing at once. And not worry either way.

[This is where I need to mention that the only pre-concert substances I had imbibed were tap water and a slice of Charlie Sporn’s tasty homemade soda bread, spiked moderately with sugar and butter.]

What’s most remarkable is realizing I’ve been playing Irish traditional music for nearly forty years, and it still has the power at any given moment to seize hold of my internal gearbox and torque me straight into a riveting out-of-body in-body experience words can never really describe.

But that’s all in the music’s DNA, most likely. A gift from the ancients to us stressed, frettish, anxious moderns.

Chroniclers say that the ancient Irish had three classes of music: one with the ability to inspire sadness, the second for sparking joy, a third for inducing sleep.

Listening to the Kevin-Cillian-Ted trio this night, I’d be tempted to add a fourth category:  music to let yourself just drift away to wherever it is you need to be.

And that is truly a Good Thing.

*  *  *

DRIFT AWAY — vocal by Dobie Gray
(author/composer:  Mentor Williams)

Day after day I’m more confused
So I look for the light through the pouring rain
You know that’s a game that I hate to lose
And I’m feelin’ the strain, ain’t it a shame

Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Beginning to think that I’m wastin’ time
I don’t understand the things I do
The world outside looks so unkind
I’m countin’ on you to carry me through

Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

And when my mind is free
You know a melody can move me
And when I’m feelin’ blue
The guitar’s comin’ through to soothe me
Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
Rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You help me along, makin’ me strong

Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Dobie Gray himself, 1974 with some English cats on BBC

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Sound of One Fipple Chiffing

The Flute was asked:  “What virtue do you possess that you are allowed to touch the lips of Krishna?”

The Flute replied:  “I have one virtue. I have made myself void of all matter. I have emptied myself of non-self so that you may fill the void with divine breath.”

Sri Krishna Chalisa (Hymn to Lord Krishna)

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Shubh Diwali!

Celebration of the annual Hindu/Sikh/Jain religious festival of Diwali has been happening bigtime throughout our part of Central Jersey this weekend.

The first day of the festival marks the vanquishing of the demon Naraka by Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama (pictured below, post-vanquishing).

Krishna is almost always portrayed holding and playing a flute. And the flute is often used in Hindu devotional music, heightened perhaps by the belief that the instrument’s tonal vibrations produce a mental state that helps the listener move forward along the road to Pure Awareness. Which is a good thing.

Started wondering: is anybody using the whistle to play Irish Traditional-type Music to get deeply in touch with Higher Power-type feelings?

Would love to hear about it!

Not talking about feelings you get when you play or hear a slow air that gets you teary or spacey. I mean whistle music that you yourself strictly play to move your mind into a deep meditation zone.

Like the music played on the ney for Sufi ceremonies,
or the shakuhachi used in Zen Buddhist meditation.

Or some of the Native American religious ceremonies that used a variety of wind instruments.

About twelve years ago, I was very lucky to have gotten to play a bit with Dennis Sizemore, an amazing performer of all manner of Native American flutes and whistles. He has immense knowledge about wind instruments and the earliest music on the North American continent.

And it’s interesting that the mythic Kokopelli — nomadic, storytelling, trickster deity of the Anasazi people of the ancient Southwestern U.S. — is depicted as playing the flute or whistle of some type.

[Perhaps there was some sort of sacred wind music employed by the Druids in pre-Christian Ireland. Haven’t come across anything in the literature, but you figure some part of the crew must have had a fipple stuck in their belt and occasionally used it during a ceremony, maybe when the harper couldn’t make it. Guess we’ll never really know.]

Only contemporary I’ve heard consistently creating a Celtic spiritual music and using some flute is a fellow named Seamus Byrne, who’s assumed the contemplative life of a modern monk and lives near Wicklow.

About the closest I’ve come is a tune I composed last year called Salim Halak — en anglais, Give Yourself Up. . . meaning give up/surrender unnecessary attachment to the habits that are bugging you, holding you back, etc. Here’s a brief listen.

But if anyone reading this does play the whistle or flute in any sort of transcendental mode, I’d love to hear about it.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate,
the Buddha called to him.
“Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”

Manjusri replied,
“I do not see myself as outside.
Why enter?”

“The Iron Flute” (Genro, 18th century)

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E-Harmony Doesn’t Always Have the Answer

Bluezette Update.

by L.E. McCullough
© 2010 L.E. McCullough

In the eleven years since the passing of Bluezette, people have occasionally asked: did I ever find a satisfactory replacement?

Actually, a few suitors have emerged.

As mentioned earlier, I love the Burke B natural beyond all reason, especially when I play bossa nova. The sensuosity is utterly thrilling. I feel like Paul Desmond and Stan Getz floated into my soul and seized control of my fingers. It’s just a delicious timbre altogether. And sounds very nice on Irish slow airs.

Back in 2001, Pat O’Riordan sent me a zippy little hybrid, one of his original brass whistle heads slipped onto a key of D nickel Generation body — Der FrankenWhistle!!

Darned if it doesn’t sound superb. A warm, hollow sound in the low-register, cool and crisp in the upper. And, like the others, nicely in tune in both octaves.

I was introduced this year to the tweaked whistles of Jerry Freeman, and I have been enjoying his tweaked Blackbird Key of C.

It’s a sweet sound, light and clean. I used it to record the St. Patrick Was a Cajun/Paddy Bless the Gumbo medley on the Hanging Out to Dry recording this past spring. Check it out here.

And I’m finding that for my general session use, the John Sindt brass D blends well with everyone. The subject of a whistler having to deal with an occasionally wide-ranging tuning spectrum at sessions is a topic we can get into later… (awhile back accordionist Tom Dunne took me aside and expressed his thoughts on the subject, and they were somber ones — he observed that so many players at a session now tend to tune to their own electronic tuners and phone apps when they should be tuning to whatever “anchor” instrument present, an accordion or concertina that isn’t going to vary appreciably in tuning and therefore should be the standard pitch for that particular session; he’s correct, but when did Logic ever rule over New Gadget Fixation?)

The Sindt seems to have just the right range of overtones to accommodate this variance. It’s like an all-purpose umbrella — you’re covered for whatever wacky weather might happen by.

All these are beautiful whistles. But, alas, they just aren’t Bluezette.

I’ll keep looking, though. Destiny can pop around the corner when and where you least expect her.

. . . or it may be that, as we grow older, the imagined murmur of distant memory is the sweetest melody of all.

Best — L.E.

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Elegy for a Whistle


















~ Peering discreetly from a well-placed pocket, Ms. Bluezette meets a new friend ~



Bluezette, R.I.P. (1975-1999)


by L.E. McCullough   © 2001 L.E. McCullough




Dale, I don’t think I can write this article for you. I know I’ve promised it for well over a year now, but with what’s happening in the world today, writing about the death of a tinwhistle as if it were a human being seems kind of, well, you know. . .

On the other hand, it’s been just over two years since Bluezette passed, and — plainly speaking — I really miss her. I’ve yet to find anyone to take her place. She was, for 24 years, pretty much the mainstay of my life, pure and simple. We were life partners. Soul mates. Our hearts beat in tandem, etc. Or at least in duple and triple meter.


We were never more than a few yards apart at any time, anywhere. I have spent more hours in the direct presence of this musical instrument than with any single person in my entire life. Whoa. . .

Maybe I’ll just stop here. After all, it’s only a tinwhistle, right? Just a basic blue-tip, nickel-plated, key of D Generation tinwhistle I bought for $2.25 U.S. on a trip to Dublin en route to the Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann in Buncrana, Donegal.

The first time I played her was at a pub session during the fleadh, at which I remember being surrounded by no less than nine bodhrans. A few hours later, I played her in earnest in the Over 18 whistle competition. We were inseparable from then on.

No, sorry, Dale, this whistle obit idea is too weird, I can’t go on. I mean, think about it:  half my life has been defined by a 10-inch metal tube. My personality has been subsumed into a fipple. I’ve had complete strangers tell me they heard a whistle on a record or a soundtrack and knew instantly it was me. I smile and nod, outwardly pleasant as befits my public persona grata. But, in truth, it wasn’t me they really heard, it was her.

The tone of that tinwhistle had a sweetness, a suppleness, a sleekness I’ve not heard before or since. The timbre was clean, crisp, concise, cool yet warm. There was no “fuzz”, no rasp to the tone. . . unless I put it there purposely. And I could make pretty much any kind of sound I wanted with that whistle.

My fingers could slide into notes with ease, I could half-hole on a dime, leap from octave to octave without a squawk, dance in and out of ornaments and never fear losing my balance. She always came through. Anything I asked from that whistle, I got. And I got much more than I could ever have imagined upon our first meeting at the music store counter.

Bluezette opened up a window into a world, many worlds. She took me to biker bars and mansions, street fairs and zoos, glittering shopping malls and maximum security prisons, Renaissance Faires and restaurants.

We played for senators, governors, mayors, the President of the United States, some of the wealthiest humans on the planet, some of the poorest and most abject humans on the planet, pretty much everyone in between — drunks, lunatics, strippers, actors, large animals, politicians, witches, nuns, carnies, soldiers, blind people, deaf people, dying and just-being-born people plus virtually every existing business and social club convention from Presbyterian insurance adjusters to Veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

We played for about eight hundred weddings, a couple divorce parties, numerous wakes and funerals and family reunions, countless old folks’ homes (thirty in ten days back in 1982 as part of a federal block grant in the Western suburbs of Chicago) and the complete run of holiday parties from Christmas and Hannukah to St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth and Earth Day.

Bluezette and I made music in dead silence, to the chatter of television, the roar of traffic, the soft whisper of a mountain breeze, the brittle tinkling of cash registers and ice cubes, the shrill whine of factory whistles, the surging echoes of a country church choir.

We stood together, she and I, on massive stadium stages, in dark corners, in basements, in penthouses, on riverboats, trains, buses, elevators, treehouses, up-underneath-in front of orchestras and standing on pool tables squeezed between a drummer and oversize bass amp taking extreme care to not spill the beer pitcher on the table below.

We played nearly every sort of private and public gathering except a cockfight and an exorcism, and I can truthfully say I would forego the former no matter what the fee. We exist photographically in several thousand scrapbooks, several hundred videos owned by complete strangers who will never be encountered again.

The millions of notes we dispersed into the air reside on tapes, records, CDs, in the crackling memory synapses of yet more strangers I’ll never meet but who may well retain (or be plagued by) fragments of our melodies up to their very last conscious moment on earth.

No, I’m telling you, Dale, this isn’t something I can write about in any coherent way, so we better drop it.

People start reading an article like this, start reflecting on the role music’s played in their lives and the really deep emotional connections we develop with the act of coaxing sounds from an inanimate object, sounds that resonate with our subconscious, our inner psychic core, our repressed, hidden selves that yearn to see the light and experience life in a whole different way — who knows where all that self-knowledge and empowerment could lead?

So, let’s bag the whole idea, lest people get to thinking I’m a little, you know, idiosyncratic or something.

We’ll leave it at this: Ms. Bluezette was a great whistle that brought smiles and tears to thousands of people and helped me make friends in a world where at the end of the night, friends are sometimes the only thing you’ve got to show for all your effort.

I was lucky to have her grace my life. Now it’s time to move on and make more music with new whistles.

Start spreading the news. . . there’s an opening for Musical Soul Mate in McCulloughVille. Successful applicant must possess two-octave range, tuneable head, solid build, good handling, strong bottom D.

And willingness to travel to places known and unknown.

Yours truly,

LEM Signature

— originally published in the Chiff and Fipple newsletter
masterfully edited by Dale Wisely
on the magical internets

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A Joyfalutin Whistle Moment

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.

Time to shout out with some Joyfalutin Whistle Thoughts!

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.

Write in if you can remember what made you want to play the whistle. An especially riveting live or recorded performance.

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

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Where The Music Lives

Disturbing Trend Watch:

Every now and then I gaze around during a session. Most of the sessions I’m playing in these days are populated by a good few folks who are pretty much beginners or, if they have been playing awhile, don’t know many tunes. I see them sitting, instruments at rest as the session wave tosses out tunes they haven’t yet learned.

Sometimes I see people sitting round the session circle who can play maybe less 10% of the total tunes in the session.

And yet I see no recording devices in evidence. No cassette recorders. No palm-size pod gizmos. Nobody with their whatever-e-thing recording the tunes they don’t know. And clearly need to learn if they want to grow in the tradition.

When I started out in ITM, I recorded the entire session. One, to learn tunes I didn’t know but were being commonly played.

Two, to get different versions of tunes I did know so I could compare and possibly improve my setting.

Three, to record some amazing players whose music would never be otherwise documented.

I suppose these days Number 3 is less critical; it seems every hour brings forth a new commercial recording of ITM somewhere in the world, and the airwaves and archives are bursting with aural examples of great players. So it’s not like the music is inaccessible anymore.

But a modern ITM session is thoroughly open and the players highly sophisticated. Nobody’s going to upbraid you for “capturing their soul” with your little recording thingy. Nobody’s going to be worried you’ll bootleg the session and exploit their artistry.

It’s not just sessions, either. I taught at a wonderful music camp last summer, which shall remain named — the outstanding Pipers Gathering at Killington, Vermont www.pipersgathering.org. Over the weekend I had 12 students in my workshops. Only 2 of the 12 brought tape recording devices.

I thought, “You people have paid serious money and traveled great distances to take these workshops… you have master musicians at your personal disposal… and you’re not bothering to record any of it?”

I wasn’t insulted; I was just curious. At the workshops I remember attending 30-some years ago, everyone was recording.

And don’t believe it’s laziness. I mean, if those students and the folks I see at sessions were lazy or didn’t give a hoot, they wouldn’t be there at all. Clearly, they love the music.

Maybe folks taking up Irish Traditional Music now figure they can learn tunes from the scores of available tunebooks or from Youtube or any of a hundred internet tune databases. Or an instructional DVD like the kind I make or the hundreds of commercial recordings with thousands of ITM tunes, more than anyone could ever learn in five lifetimes (except Paddy O’Brien, possibly).

So why in the 2010s should anybody bother recording tunes at a session?

Because that’s where The Music lives.

Before Irish Traditional Music was a performance art safely rendered on Broadway and PBS, it was a music that exemplified the culture that bred it. It was a little subversive, sometimes dangerous, always brutally honest at the core.

That culture is pretty much gone. The Ireland that birthed the music in past centuries, even the stellar musicians of the early 20th century we know and cherish — it’s all vanished. . . that time and place and those legendary players we celebrate are mere wisps floating through the songs and tunes we hear today.

The session isn’t just about tunes. It’s about what happens collectively when musicians — often complete strangers — meet and perform this music together in a fluid, totally unpredictable context that never was before and never will be again.

If a musical idiom can be said to possess something of an Essence or a Spirit, you’ll come closest to finding it at a live session. It’s the session’s very randomness and spontaneity, the warp in the weave, the molecules moving among the aural wormholes, the oceanic ebb and flow from which an epic wave can arise at a second’s notice. . .

The session is where you’re going to find yourself playing things you never thought possible. Things you never even thought about thinking were possible. And there they are. And there you are.

For a few tantalizing, exhilarating moments you’ve let that ancient culture slip inside you and shazam! It reached across the ages and spoke its truth and beauty and pride and defiance in your voice.

So that’s what you might be able to record at a session. Not every session, of course; certainly not every minute of the session.

But it’s there, if you want it.

I’ve been playing ITM for 38 years. Know what? I still record tunes at sessions.

I’m funny like that.



* My friend and bandmate from high school, Barry Foy, wrote a great book called Field Guide to the Irish Music Session: An Authoritative Guide to Enjoying Irish Traditional Music in its Natural Habitat http://www.frogchartpress.com.

I haven’t read it in a while but think I’ll open it up tonight. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s humorous but has a lot of insight into ITM and the session format.

Maybe it’ll get you jazzed about your next session.

** players in photo above at Hoban’s Tavern, Chicago, 1974:  (l-r) Seamus Cooley, John McGreevy, Pat Cloonan, Jimmy Thornton.

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Let the Revolution Begin…

Let the Revolution Begin…

by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2010

Can we take a quick poll? I don’t want to be the one to change centuries of Irish musical tradition, but how many would be in favor of moving standard pitch down so that the cherished bottom D cran is actually a B?

That’s right, just make the B natural below middle C the new bottom D on a whistle, thereby shifting pitch and fingering for several tens of thousands of airs, dance tunes, ballads.

Would that be too much of an inconvenience for the global mass of ceoltoiri?

This modest, half-serious proposal rises from a totally selfish motive. . . my most favorite-sounding tinwhistle for the last few years has been a B Natural Composite made by Michael Burke.

The official brochure description of “mellow and smooth and ultralight weight in black Bakelite Composite” hardly suffices to convey how satisfying this whistle is to play and to hear.

It is indeed lightweight but with a strong, solid timbre with a sort of inherent resonance, especially in the bottom D (B, actually).

No, I don’t know what “inherent resonance” is. But it’s the only thing I can think of to describe the fullness of sound that dwells somewhere between the standard wooden whistle and a wooden flute.

The Burke B Natural Composite projects a tonal quality all its own. It sings, nicely.

And when you hit the upper octave, it’s smooth and even more rich, with an extremely powerful, achingly pure high C natural that just wails when you slide into it.

If Irish music were pitched a minor third lower, I could play it a lot more than I do.

Anyone want to start a revolution? Or at least a whistle flash mob?

Round up a couple dozen players armed with Burke B naturals and we’ll meet at random sessions, take them over and maybe change the course of musical history.

Is ar mhaithe leis féin a dheineann an cat crónán. It’s for his own benefit the cat purrs.

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