Monday, April 18, 2016

"Farewell to Tarwathie" -- a Scottish whalers' song (and Judy Collins hit of the 70s) for the Prairieland Strings

Chris Miles sings "Farewell to Tarwathie" at Whitby Folk Week in England

By request, we're going to play "Farewell to Tarwathie" at Thursday's session of the Prairieland Strings. It's a song I learned, and subsequently got very, very tired of, when Judy Collins covered it in 1970.

We meet from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at Peace Lutheran Church (formerly Atonement), 2800 West Jefferson, Springfield. Links to sheet music (dulcimer tab with notation and guitar chords) below.

In case you don't remember the song, it's the one where Collins was backed by a pod of whales singing in not-quite-harmony. (Link here to refresh your memory.) Nothing against whales -- I developed a taste for whale, which tastes like beef, and I even enjoyed muktuk, a Inuit treat of dried whale blubber, when I tried it in Alaska -- but I think animal sounds on musical recordings are distracting and cloying.

But even with the @#$%ed whales chirping and yowling in the background, it's a nice song with a grand melody, and I found a couple of interpretations on the World Wide Web that I do like. A lot.

One, embedded at the top of this post, is an a cappella performance by Scottish folk singer Chris Miles, a couple of years ago at the Whitby folk festival in England. She's Scottish, and sings in a broad Scots dialect (think Robert Burns), but she has quite a following in Ireland.

"She has been guesting at Derrygonnelly, Slieve Gullion and Inishowen for many years now and has appeared at Ballyshannon Folk Festival on more than one occasion," says her profile on the Innishowen Song Project website maintained by the Irish Traditional Music Association. "Her commanding presence and yet tender rendering of the big Scottish ballads is much loved by all who have had the pleasure of hearing her."

Certainly her style of singing "Farewell to Tarwathie" recalls that of the "big" Irish ballads.

Another is by Mick O'Grady, singing at the Cobblestone Pub in Dublin. His performance is very understated, but I love the way he plays the guitar, finger picking the melody in unison with his voice. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is allowed to get in the way of the music.

If O'Grady plays professionally, I haven't been able to find notice of it on line. But the Cobblestone Pub (more at is a fine pub with nightly musicians' sessions in Dublin north of the River Liffey roughly across from Temple Bar.

Dulcimer tab (lead sheets)

Lead sheets in D, with dulcimer tab below the staff and guitar chords above, are available in two locations on the web:


Chris Miles, by the way, is an MBE (Member of the British Empire), an honor she shares with Sir Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles, Sir Elton John, Sting and other luminaries. But she received hers primariy in recognition of her career as an educator, as John Moulden, himself a singer and scholar of considerable note at National University of Ireland Galway, reported to the Mudcat Café discussion group:

I'm very pleased to report that the Scottish singer, Chris Miles, from Kirkaldy in Fife, habituée of sessions in Fife, Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland, England and Ireland; she has a house near Tobercurry and attends many sessions and festivals in that area, and all over Ireland, has been awarded MBE for services to education and young people. (She was a Nursery School Headteacher [principal] and, until her recent retirement, an adviser to Fife County Council on Nursery Education.)

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