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Random Thoughts On Random Tunes 4 - The Torn Jacket and The Flowers Of Limerick


Sometimes I've felt like giving the music up ... the hours put into learning this or that tune, experimenting with ornamentation and variation and so on just don't seem to be paying off.  You work with a tune all week and there you are at a session and decide to give it a lash and it breaks down.  Or those ornaments which you've worked into the tune just don't happen and you're forced into playing the tune "straight" and it sounds clumsy and unmusical.  And all around you there sit fantastic players who glide effortlessly from one tune to the next, from one set to the next, while you struggle to keep up.

So, sometimes for weeks at a time, I've let the instrument sit in its case, brooding in a corner of the room.

When I hit these barren stretches, it's more than I can do to even listen to the music.  I'll listen to other stuff, sure.  But not THE music.  I won't, can't, think about THE music without a feeling of mild despair, a small but insistent nagging in the pit of my stomach.  (I know ... I should loosen up ... but, there you go!)

I wandered into the latest of these "deserts" about a year ago.  Two, three weeks passed before I could bring myself to listen to a few tunes (picking up the banjo was still very much out of the question).  This CD?  No - nothing captured my attention.  That one?  No.  The other?  Sorry!

And then I dug out The Smoky Chimney by Harrington, O'Sullivan and de Grae.  I've always had a gra for this record; it's laid-back, but full of passion and commitment.  I'm always reminded of John Prine's line in "Storm Windows" when he sings of "...a country band that plays for keeps/They play it so slooooow".  So, I'm listening away and they make the change from "Rolling In The Barrel" to "The Torn Jacket" (aka Connie O'Connell's to whom we're all indebted for this fine composition)  and my ears pricked up.  To my mind that change is one of the most beautiful, intense moments of music I have yet to hear.

And the tune!  I'm sure that all people who play this music have "epiphanies" from time to time.  I've certainly had many moments where "the scales have fallen from my eyes" and truly GETTING this tune was one of those.  I had to, had to, HAD TO learn it.  It was a tune which would not simply extend the quantity of my repertoire by one tune, but one which would surely improve the overall quality...

And then, of course, there's the tune which comes after, "The Flowers of Limerick", more commonly known as "The Mills Are Grinding".  Yet another electric change and yet another tune that's played at a smooth lope.  So, why stick at learning "The Torn Jacket" ... I had to get the next one as well.

So, out with the banjo and practice, practice, practice.  I got "The Torn Jacket" fairly quickly and, to my surprise, "The Flowers Of Limerick" came to me quite quickly as well.  (Alas, rather too quickly ... having played it a session some little time after, I found that I'd mislearned the first part and it took some patient coaching by one of my colleagues before I had it properly.  Same thing happened when I picked up "The Milliner's Daughter".  I thought I had it learned properly but was exposed in a pretty top-drawer session in South West London.  Could have been a "curl up and die moment", but a veteran box player leaned across to me and said "I think I have a different way with that tune than you do.  Play me your setting again."  I did ... slowly.  "That's an interesting take.  But I think you'll find most people have learned it this way." And he played the recalcitrant phrase two or three times slowly, motioning with his head for me to join in.  I did, eventually ... feeling self-conscious to begin with, but quickly realising that his intervention was meant as a helpful bit of coaching, rather than a public admonishment.  And it sunk in ... many thanks!)

I haven't hit an arid spell since.  But when I next do, I'll remind myself a) that these bleak moments pass and b) that sometimes it takes only a mere spark to rekindle the fire.  I'll remember the way in which "The Torn Jacket" and "The Flowers of Limerick" broke through the last log-jam and then - perhaps - I might just enjoy the break!

All feedback very welcome, by email to aidan@paythereckoning.com

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February 2010


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