Richard's Guide to Irish Traditional Music

by Richard Marmorstein - September 18, 2019

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My favorite genre of music is Irish Traditional Music. I don’t talk about this much, I feel a little impostory because my claim to Irish heritage is relatively weak – you have to go back three generations to find a fully Irish ancestor, but this genre has made up the majority of what I choose to listen to for fifteen years or so, and I can play some of the most popular dance tunes on my mandolin.

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation of what tracks to listen to in order to become more familiar with Irish traditional music.

First, I recommended that he become familiar with a phenomenal website which allows you to list tunes by popularity, and to find gatherings of Irish musicians.

Then I put together this playlist.

Richard’s favorite tracks (in no order)

  1. “The Pipe on the Hob / The Hag at the Churn” by the Bothy Band. When most people think of bagpipes, they think of “Highland” bagpipes, which I don’t like very much. They come from a tradition of military instruments designed to encourage you in the act of human slaughter. This track begins with solo Uilleann pipes, which I really enjoy listening to. I also get really excited by the prominent quarter tone the musicians choose to play. The track repeats the tune maybe a little too much.

  2. “Green Brooms / The Humours of Kill Clougher” by Danu. I had listened to this track kind of passively for years, and enjoyed the catchy, upbeat tune and “brooms, green brooms” chorus. Then one day, I actually paid attention to the words and… it changed everything. I crack up every. single. time.

  3. “Raggle Taggle Gypsy / Tabhair Dom Do Lamh” by Planxty. Planxty really excites the mandolinist in me, because in their style the mandolins/bouzoukis aren’t confined to plainly strumming the rhythm, or doubling the melody, but they’ve got this whole counterpoint thing going on, against the melody (voice in the first section, uilleann pipe in the second section) and each other.

  4. “Uncle Rat” by Altan. This track is a good illustration of the simplicity and subtlety of well-performed Irish music. The lyrics are a nursery rhyme set to a simple-tune. If some singer-songwriter type took his acoustic guitar out at open mic night and began to sing this, it wouldn’t be long before I’d start looking for something sharp to poke my eardrums out. But Altan manages to keep it interesting. This track also illustrates how, in constrast to e.g. bluegrass where the chord progression is more or less set and the melody is up to interpretation, in Irish music, the melody (sans ornamentation) is set and the chord progression can be played around with.

  5. “Raglan Road” by the Dubliners. Luke Kelly is simply a phenomenal vocalist. He sings the lyrics of the (sappy) poem here like they’re actually important and you’re supposed to listen to them – unlike say, Ariana Grande, who I don’t think has learned about consonants yet. are.

  6. “The Moving Cloud / Ril Gan Ainm” by Danu. Showcases the button accordion, one of my favorite instruments in Irish music. Often you’ll hear it doubling the fiddle, pipes, or flute, but here it gets the melody to itself. Unlike “The Pipe on the Hob / The Hag at the Churn” which are jigs (in 6/8) these are reels (in 4/4).

  7. “Seven Drunken Nights” by The Dubliners. I’d never put this on repeat, but it should make you smile the first time you listen to it.

  8. “The Blacksmith” by Planxty. What blows my mind about this one is how Andy Irvine is playing his counterpointy mandolin and singing at the same time. The musical equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. More than any other this track is the origin of my fascination with Irish music.

  9. “Sligo Reel” by Flook. I don’t know a whole lot about the irish flute tradition, but I definitely enjoy listening to Flook. I’m not sure if it’s completely traditional – they play around with melodies, and have flutes playing in harmony with each other, It’s extremely high energy and enjoy listening to it.

  10. “Rambling Irishman” by De Dannan. For me, this track is all about Alec Finn on the Bouzouki. It’s fascinating. I’ve listened on repeat dozens of times and I just cannot wrap my head around it.

  11. “Sweet Viledee” by Dervish. Dervish is the number one group I want to see in concert. The mandola counterpoint is a little more polished than you find in Planxty’s songs, and Cathy Jordan has a very pleasant voice. I enjoy the story in this track a lot.

  12. “Casadh an tSúgáin” by The Bothy Band. This is an absolutely beautiful song in Irish that I think is about unsuccessful wooing. I particularly enjoy the trio harmony.

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