Sunday, October 04, 2015

A tune by Turlough O'Carolan for Tuesday's Prairieland-Clayville jam session -- Planxty (Col. John) Irwin

Blast email sent this evening to everyone on the Clayville and Prairieland Strings mailing lists --

Hi everybody –

We had a wonderful time at Saturday’s slow jam and song learning session at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop – five of us were there, and after we ran through our songs for Advent, we put away the sheet music and played fiddle tunes and (mostly) Irish airs by ear. It was so much fun, I’m planning to bring Mark Nelson’s Celtic music book and Shellley Stevens’ collection of tunes by Irish harp composer Turlough O’Carolan Tueday (links below). I think we’re ready to start using one or both of them, along with Stephen Seifert’s gospel jam book, as we branch out a little.

Our “first Tuesday” session of the Clayville-Prairieland Academy of Music is from 7 to 9 p.m. at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson in Springfield.

Hope to see you there!

Planxty Irwin, The Dubliners © Film Shona McMillan ©

PLANXTY IRWIN by Turlough O'Carolan. Recorded on 19.02.11 at The Dubliners gig in Aberdeen, this set featuring Michael Howard (guitar), John Sheahan (fiddle) and Barney McKenna (banjo)

Attached is a Carolan tune that I don’t find in either book, but I think it’s a good introduction to his music. I copied the notation from the Pub Session Tunes website at

... and there’s mountain dulcimer tab at

Both, of course, are in D. (It’s also commonly played in G, and Carolan wrote it in C.) You’ll notice the suggested guitar chords are a little different, and one version is in 6/8 while the other is in 3/4. Carolan wrote it in 6/8, but it’s commonly printed today in 3/4.

There’s a discussion of this point on the website at

Says English fiddle player fidicen, “I shan’t delve deeply into the rights and wrongs of the time signature of this tune except to remark that, to me, it cannot be other than compound duple time (6/8) and certainly not a 3-in-a-bar waltz. We play it either in G, if there are flutes or whistles playing, or in D if fiddles only.”

[*Please see note below, especially for Appalachian dulcimer players, on learning to play the tune in both keys.]

One of the nice things about Irish traditional music, at least the older trad music, is that it came down by oral tradition. There are no automatically “right” answers.

So let’s play “Planxty Irwin” a few times till we’re comfortable with the melody – it’s simple, but catchy – vary the tempo a little, listen to each other and see how it all fits together.

Turlough O’Carolan was a fascinating guy, and his music was lovely. If you want to know more about him, there’s a perceptive bio by Lesley Nelson-Burns, aka “the Contemplator,” at

… and the Old Music Project has Carolan’s complete works transcribed from a “flea market find” copy of Donal O’Sullivan’s “Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper” at

Planxty Irwin, which O’Sullivan called “Col. John Irwin,” is No. 59.

Here are links to the music books I want to start using:

-- -- Stephen Seifert, “Join the Jam: GOSPEL EDITION”

-- -- Mark Nelson, “Celtic Dulcimer”

-- -- Shelley Stevens, “O’Carolan Harp Tunes for Dulcimer”


* NOTE FOR MOUNTAIN DULCIMER PLAYERS: If you feel like you're ready to break out of the DAD lockstep, learn to play "Planxty Irwin" from the notation in DAA. (That way your low C# is on the 2nd fret of the melody string, and D -- your key note -- is on the 3rd fret.) Once you learn those left-hand positions, you'll be able to transpose the song to G by retuning to DGD and playing the same frets. Since the tune is so commonly played in G, this is a skill you'll want to develop for other jam sessions.

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