The New Rough Deal

The New Rough Deal

How old music becomes new

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Bill Whelan (banjo), Dermy Diamond (fiddle) and friends at the Cobblestone bar, Dublin

So much of our understanding of music is based on memory. At a basic level, listening to a piece of music, we become aware of repeating patterns, tropes and motifs: when they recur, they jog our memory of having heard them before, and how they might have changed slightly this time round. The simple eight-bar structure of most traditional music is a mnemonic anchor for both learner and listener, each bar a division in a mental filing cabinet. We get the shape of the tune, comparing and contrasting it with other tunes. We find our bearings in the musical landscape. Then again, music can act as a powerful acoustic perfume to evoke other occasions on which we heard that tune, that song.

I’m listening to the Rough Deal Stringband playing ‘Sugar Hill’ on their eponymous CD. It’s a typical American old-timey breakdown, played here with great drive and wit by band members Bill Whelan on five-string banjo, Tim Rogers on fiddle and vocals, and Ben Keogh on fiddle and vocals. The vocals are important – unlike the vast majority of Irish dance tunes, many American tunes carry words, often of a mischievous, laconic nature. As the chorus has it,

If you want to get your ride uptown
If you want to get your fill
If you want to get your head knocked off
Come to Sugar Hill

And I often wish that Irish music had more in this genre, more sarcasm and fun perhaps, the words delivered or shouted deadpan from the corner of the mouth.
The last time I heard ‘Sugar Hill’ played live, it was by these musicians and others in the Cobblestone Bar in Dublin. The last time before that, if my memory serves me right – and it’s not that often I get to hear live old-timey music, as opposed to the many scores if not hundreds of LPs, tapes and CDs I’ve listened to over the years, so it’s probably accurate – was back in 1998 when I was on a poetry reading tour of the eastern United States, and I found myself up in the mountains in Boone, North Carolina, courtesy of Appalachian State University. Cece Conway, resident musicologist, five-string banjo expert and great party organiser, had rustled up some young local musicians, among them a wonderful fiddle-player called Lucas Pasley, and this big raw-boned mountain girl playing clawhammer banjo, and a guitar player and a mandolin player. Pasley’s name resonated particularly with me because of its Northern Irish connotations, and there’s an argument to be made that much of Appalachian music has been influenced by Northern Irish emigrants; most of the fiddle-work done with the bow and not the left hand, the ornaments rhythmic rather than melismatic. Anyway, there was some good Appalachian grass and rye on the go, and the music sounded great. I knew a handful of the tunes – standards like ‘Kitchen Maid’, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, and ‘Sugar Hill’ itself – and I joined in on the flute when I could. Cece was delighted. ‘Hey!’ she said, ‘you’re playin’ clawhammer banjo!’ If by that she meant I was playing with some attack and ‘crack’, I was flattered.

Clawhammer is a defining characteristic of the old-timey sound, individual notes knocked out with the back of the fingernails against the thumbed G-string drone in counterpoint to the strokes of the fiddle-bow. To my ear – to my mind – it is much more attractive than the more popular three-finger picking style developed by Earl Scruggs between the 1940s and 1960s, which tends to flatten the melody out into a rolling blur of same-sounding riffs. As clawhammer is to old-timey, Scruggs is to bluegrass. Both spring from the same roots, but come out fundamentally different in spirit. Bluegrass is often thought of as the more ‘progressive’ music, but to me it’s rhythmically inert in comparison to old-timey, and, in its stereotypical ‘folksy’ or ‘country’ associations – Scruggs is the banjo-player on the Beverly Hillbillies theme tune – it loses the cutting edge humour of the ‘old’ music, which is really new because it deals with the articulation of ongoing musical moments, played for now. It’s not a comfortable fiction. It’s got interestingly rough edges to it.

So, back to the Rough Deal. It’s a freezing November day in Dublin in 2008 and Deirdre and I have arranged to meet our American friends Guinn Batten and Dillon Johnston, the founder of Wake Forest University Press, which publishes my poetry in the USA – indeed, it was he who was ultimately responsible for my being in Boone in 1998. Some Irish friends have alerted him to the Saturday afternoon old-timey session in the Cobblestone – ‘Bill Whelan and friends’, as it’s known – and that’s our ostensible rendezvous, but in fact we all meet up by accident in a nearby café, all of us seeking respite from the wind-chill factor before proceeding further. So already the occasion seems serendipitous. All the more so when we get to hear the music. Besides the Rough Deal personnel, there’s a couple of other five-string banjos, a mandolin and another guitar. And another couple of fiddle-players, including Dermy Diamond of Belfast, now long resident in Ashbourne on the outskirts of Dublin. We haven’t seen him in quite a while. As it happens, Dermy began his musical career on the tenor banjo, and it could be said that some of the articulated attack of that instrument has found itself into the fiddle; and that suits old-timey very well. The Cobblestone is an L-shaped bar, and the musicians have settled into the handy session niche of the short end of the L, under the window that gives out on to the street. We, the punters, are in the long end, but near the action.

The music drives along, full of lift and joy, and before long I find myself compelled to dance to it – not, I hope, occupying too much room, but jigging about in time to it, on the spot. And, as I do so, I remember other occasions on which I found myself similarly moved, on several occasions in the USA along with Dillon and Guinn, in High Gap, North Carolina, for example, where I ended up dancing on a board with an old-timer, each of us from seemingly different planets but united in our compulsion to do something physical about the music. And as I write now, some months later, I find myself remembering other occasions again: listening to old-timey music in the Eagle Tavern, New York, for instance, some time in the late 1970s. Brilliant music again, and I could not help but utter the odd whoop or holler in response to it, whereupon a woman in front of me turned around and scowled disapprovingly at me. ‘You’re spoiling my recording,’ said she, and I realised she was not really listening, but saving the experience for later, by which time it would be well gone. For real music exists in the now, with all its circumstantial glitches. For all the times you’ve heard it before, and all its train of memories, it’s new because it’s now. It’s the New Rough Deal.

The next instalment of this column, as promised at the end of my last instalment but not yet delivered because I got so carried away with this one, will explore some further links between Irish and American old-timey music. And perhaps other musics. It will be called ‘Around the World for Sport’.

Published on 1 June 2009

Ciaran Carson is a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player, and the author of Last Night’s Fun, a book about Irish traditional music. He is is Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast.

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