18 March 2012

Why did St Patrick not play 'Foggy Mountain breakdown'?

Thanks to Colin Henry (left), who opens this subject for discussion:

Our editor’s recent St Patrick’s Day interview with Chris Stuart on Bluegrass Today got me thinking about the relationship of Irish traditional music and Irish bluegrass music. One sentence by our editor struck a chord: 'it is not usual to hear the two [trad & bluegrass] played at the same event.' Well, the chord struck must have been a seventh, because it led me on to thinking of one regret I have, which is that there is not more of a crossover/collaboration with Irish trad, particularly at sessions. The similarities between the two musical genres are obvious. Bluegrass has one or more of its roots in Irish trad, as is well documented. Both have the fiddle, guitar, and mandolin as standard instruments. The banjo is there too, albeit one is a four and one a five. Many tunes are common to both ('Red-haired boy'/'Jolly beggarman'). Why then do we not manage to play together much more often?

There are, I think a number of reasons for this, and I might look at some of these in another post; but one of the possible causes of the problem is that bluegrass players cannot/do not play trad well, and vice versa (with some limited and gifted exceptions); and so when you have both genres represented in (say) a session, each tends to play their own tunes, with the other not really able to participate. The instrument and the skill needed to play it in a particular style are an important factor in this. Both styles require a very high degree of ability to play well and thus a great deal of practice in that genre is required, leaving very little time to gain a skill in the other. I can speak with authority only in my own chosen instrument; so on a dobro, for instance, Irish music does not fall as naturally as on, say, a fiddle. To play jigs and reels on a dobro is a difficult thing to do well, and in the main each tune needs to be worked out rather than played on the fly. All of this takes a lot of practice time, which is not readily available after honing my skills on 'Fireball Mail' et al.

My experience is that bluegrass musicians like trad and trad musicians like bluegrass, so it’s not a rejection of the other’s music. It must therefore be something else and playing skill may be a major factor. Just a thought, and maybe food for some further thoughts. Comments welcome.

BIB editor's note: Please do comment, but note that because of the 'moderating' process mentioned at the head of the BIB, your comment won't appear at once. It has been received, so there is no need to resend it.

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At 1:10 am, Blogger phantompicker said...

A great chord indeed, from a highly respected player. I find the similarities are equaled in Dance music. Dance is an art form that is equally available and takes a lot of practice. "The Grid" is one great banjo tune, or some may find a great Dance music tune. Thanks Colin, insightful.

At 5:43 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

Notwithstanding what bluegrass and Irish music may have in common, I feel that the differences can present a challenge. Even playing with other bluegrassers can be unsettling, if (regardless of choice of material) their tempos and timing are different to what one's accustomed to. And for similar reasons, even playing with old-time musicians - whose music is several steps closer to bluegrass than Irish music is - can be tricky for the bluegrasser who is trying to fit in.

I have at times played with Irish musicians, with results that pleased me (and apparently didn't displease them). Musicians of the calibre of Bela Fleck, Tom Hanway, or our own Jonathan Toman, who are thoroughly familiar with the tunes, tempos, and ornamentation of Irish music, can play melody on such tunes as it needs to be played. I can't do that. What I do instead (benefiting from the convention in traditional music of not taking breaks) is to attempt to fit in, first by avoiding conspicuously 'American' phrasing and timing, and secondly by playing rolls in such a way as to support the rhythm and provide texture. If I can hear notes of the melody that can be played at appropriate points, I'll do that; otherwise, I try not to clash with it.

This obviously does not result in playing in anything that can be called a traditional style; but it can at least work in the context of a casual session.

At 6:14 pm, Blogger Colin Henry said...

I agree with you Richard and follow your example also by trying to 'fit in' rather than 'compete'; the latter being doomed from the start with me!


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