Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Irish Eyes Are Still Smiling

St. Patrick's Day Jam Materials
With Saint Patrick's Day coming up you might want to add a few Irish songs to your gig or jam.  In fact, Bluegrass music is a direct descendant of Celtic music.  Many songs we like to do in Bluegrass are simply adaptations of old Irish Fiddle Tunes.  A few examples of Bluegrass tunes taken from Irish Seisuns are Old Joe Clark, Cripple Creek, The Girl I Left Behind, Soldiers Joy and Shady Grove. Other fiddle tunes like Leather Britches and Pretty Polly actually have Scottish roots.
Hal Leonard's Big Book of 75 Irish Songs!

If you listen to and play a few of these, you'll appreciate the Celtic heritage that is at the core. In fact, there are about 120 fiddle tunes that make up the average Irish Session repertoire whereas you can get away with about 50 for Bluegrass. Another difference is like Jazz, Bluegrass allows for each jam participant to "take the lead" in what's known as a breakdown.  Each player has the opportunity to embellish on the melody and add some fast licks and improvisation on the spot.

Musicians such as Merle Travis raised the breakdown to a highly sophisticated art form so much so that while traditional Celtic music does not allow for this, Bluegrass has flourished on its account.  There's something about having poetic license to create on the moment that appeals to the soul of most musicians.  There's something incredible about taking that break and doing something amazing with it!

Musicians Who Have Defined the Genre
When you think of Bluegrass, you have to list Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis among the first generation of artists who shaped the sound. Many Bluegrass artists hail from Appalachia among the Blue Ridge mountains where our Scottish, Irish and English ancestors first landed when coming to America.  The backbone of the music was Celtic but the flesh was shaped by a fusion of African (banjo) and uniquely American influences
Thom Bresh, son of  Bluegrass pioneer, Merle Travis
Today, punk rock fusion bands like Dropkick Murphys
have aggressive elements of traditional Celtic music blended in.  Ever checked out an Electric Autoharp? Have you ever heard a rock-bagpipe?  It's being done and it's fresh and exciting to hear what newer artists are coming up with.  They are pushing the limits of what we would recognize as core Irish & Scottish music. However, the challenge is to be true to who you are without simply regurgitating the same songs from the past.  Check out NewGrass too.

I think once you become familiar with the origins of a particular musical genre, there is no stopping what innovations you will come up with.  This St. Patrick's Day, take the time to play a few Irish tunes and see where they take you!

Playing our guitar and Autoharp at the Belmar, NJ St. Patrick's Day Parade

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