Annotation:Blackbird (1) (The)

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The Old Pretender

BLACKBIRD [1], THE (An Londubh). AKA and see "Once on a morning of sweet recreation," "Bonny Lass of Aberdeen (The)." See "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine" for an American version of the same tune. Irish, English; Slow Air, Set, Long or Country Dance (4/4 time), Reel, Hornpipe. D Major (Allan, O'Neill/1850): D Major/Mixolydian (Cranitch, Moylan, Mulvihill, O'Neill/1001): D Mixolydian (Breathnach, Johnson, Kennedy, Kerr, O'Neill/1915 & Krassen, Raven, & Roche). Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Moylan): AAB (Johnson, Kennedy, Raven, Roche): AABB (Allan, Breathnach, Cranitch, Mulvihill, O'Farrell, O'Neill {4 editions}): AABCBC (Roche). The original song from which the instrumental versions take the title was written c. 1707 in praise of the Old Pretender, according to Grattan Flood (1906), who found reference to it as early as 1709 and who noted its printing by Allan Ramsay in 1724 in his Tea Table Miscellany (Ramsey records that he took the song down from an Irish participant who took part in the 1715 revolt). Other sources date the words from the war of 1688–90. So well understood was the nickname The Blackbird as applied to James I, Flood says, that the Jacobite Earl of Thomond, in 1704, had a horse of that name. Caoimhin Mac Aodha points out that the image of the blackbird, An Lon Dubh, is that of a melodious harbinger of joy in Irish folklore, unlike the raven, crow, rook or jackdaw, which are all associated with death and misfortune. In this spirit of hope the 'Blackbird' name was applied after the Old Pretender to the later James II and, in the 19th century, to Charles Stewart Parnell.

The melody itself became known as a harp air of the latter Jacobite period. Cooke included it in his Selection of Favourite Original Irish Airs arranged for Pianoforte, Violin or Flute (Dublin, 1793), but in 1806 O'Farrell was already printing it with the note "Very old." O'Neill (1913) finds a simple setting of the melody in A Pocket Volume of Airs, Songs, Marches, etc., vol. 1, published by Paul Alday at Dublin about 1800–1803. Breathnach (1963) printed a verse of the song that was in his source's (George Rowley) family:

The Maytime is come and the gay flowers are springing,

The wild birds are singing their loving notes o'er;
But all the day long through my lone heart is ringing,
The voice of my blackbird, I'll never so more.

An easily singable major-scale version of the melody was still common in the mid-19th century, as evidenced by its inclusion in Civil War-era fife collections, Elias Howe's 1860Hibernia Collection (as "The Black Bird," p. 22) and as the air used by lyricist and playwright Ned Harrigan for his satirical variety theater number "Since the Soup-House Moved Away" - Since the Soup-House Moved Away Songster (A.J. Fisher, New York, 1874), sheet music published the same year by E.H. Harding [1].

The melody also gained currency as a solo showpiece for fiddlers and pipers, and as a set-dance tune. Scottish editor Kerr noted that the tune was the "Chef D'oeuvre of all the Irish fiddlers" in the latter 1800's, although he never heard any two of them play the tune exactly alike. He claims his version to be a composite of the styles and embellishments he heard. About the year 1930 an itinerant schoolteacher told a young John Kelly: "There are a lot of people playing 'The Blackbird' who can't play it right, but I'm warning you, my boy, never play 'The Blackbird' unless you have all the parts right and the proper tempo. It's the one tune you will always be picked up for if you play it wrong" (quoted in Dal gCais, 1979, p. 35). James Cowdery (1990) states that it is one of the few tunes found in all parts of Ireland with the same title and the same melodic structure, though variations abound[1]. Donegal fiddler Neillidh Boyle (1889–1961), for example, played an intricate version of "Londubh (An)" which included a birdsong imitation generated by playing the melody on the bottom strings with the bow and fingering and plucking chords on the top two strings with the left hand at the same time (Mac Aoidh, 1994). An interesting tracing of the aural tradition was outlined by Mac Aoidh who remarks that southwest Donegal fiddler Frank Cassidy learned the tune from the lilting of John Lyons or Teelin. The famous musician and collector Séamus Ennis learned this version, which in turn was passed onto fiddler Tommie Potts, who made a historic recording of the tune. Elsewhere Mac Aoidh states that in south Donegal the air/hornpipe is associated with John and Mickey Doherty and James Byrne as well as Cassidy.

In modern times the song is seldom sung, though the tune is frequently played as a slow air as well as a set-dance and in other settings. In Irish tradition "The Blackbird" is one of the four tunes called the Traditional Sets (i.e. set dances), along with "Job of Journeywork (1)," "St. Patrick's Day" and "Garden of Daisies (1) (The)." Breandan Breathnach (1971) states that the original set dance was "said to have been composed by Keily, a Limerick dancing master, over 150 years ago." Cowdery (1990) points out the set-dance's structure—fifteen bars for the 'A' part and thirty for the 'B'—is unique in Irish traditional music. Reel and hornpipe versions are not nearly so widespread in this century, "until some recent recordings (such as "The Bothy Band" in 1977) brought them to more prominence" (Cowdery). Cowdery provides extensive musical analysis of a number of different versions of this tune and tune family in his work The Melodic Tradition of Ireland. Sliabh Luachra fiddler Denis Murphy was renowned in Ireland for the way he could play "The Blackbird" on the fiddle and dance at the same time (Donal Hickey, Stone Mad for Music, 1999).

"The Blackbird" was famously recorded an a 78 RPM by piper Leo Rowsome (recorded with "St. Patrick's Day"). Rowsome's recording has a story associated with it, as told by Sean Reid in the sleeve notes to "Leo Rowsome Volume 1" (Ossian OSS 66), to the effect that "it was an impromptu studio session where Leo wrote out the music on the back of an envelope for two English musicians, who had no knowledge of Irish music, but who just happened to be there and ad-libbed their way through some truly great music" (communicated by Anthony Buffery). Buffery says that, according to Reg Hall, "in reality, Rowsome had been invited to London specifically to play at dance hall ceilis, and on those recordings the fiddle player and the two drummers were highly competent Gasra na nGael London-born Irish musicians who knew the tunes inside out. They would have had plenty of opportunity to rehearse during the ceilis. Sean Reid probably got the myth story from Rowsome after a few drinks back in Dublin." Others corroborate at least part of the myth: Rowsome was known to have had the ability to quickly write out music in musical notation on the spot.

Additional notes
Source for notated version : - Chicago police sergeant and fiddler James O'Neill, Francis O'Neill's collaborator, who learned the tune from his father in County Down [O'Neill]; fiddler George Rowley/Seoirse Ó Roghallaigh (Ireland) [Breathnach]; James Cowdery, in his book The Melodic Tradition of Ireland, has transcribed fifteen versions of the tune from Irish musicians (some contributed more than one version); biography:Teresa Halpin (1894-1983), “a dancer and fiddler from Limerick" [Hardebeck]; New Jersey flute player Mike Rafferty, born in Ballinakill, Co. Galway, in 1926 [Harker]; whistle player Cathal McConnell (a slow-air setting credited to a Fermanagh musician Pat McKenna), fiddler John Kelly (a slow-air setting learned from Donegal fiddler John Doherty), fiddler Denis Murphy, piper Paddy Keenan, piper Seamus Ennis, fiddler Tommy Potts, flutist Peter Broderick, fiddler Michael Coleman, piper R.L. O'Mealy, and piper Johnny Doran. The piece is a popular slow air in County Donegal.

Printed sources : - Breathnach (Ceol Rince na hÉireann vol. 1), 1963; No. 207, p. 84. Cotter (Traditional Irish Tin Whistle Tutor), 1989; 85. Cowdery (The Melodic Tradition of Ireland), 1990; pp. 134–168. Cranitch (Irish Fiddle Book), 1996; No. 95, p. 164. Hardebeck (A Collection of Jigs and Reels, vol. 2), Dublin, 1921, p. 23. Harker (300 Tunes from Mike Rafferty), 2005; No. 296, p. 97. Johnson (Kitchen Musician No. 5; Mostly Irish Airs), 1985 (revised 2000); p. 15. Kennedy (Fiddlers Tune-Book, vol. 2), 1954; p. 6. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 1), early 1880's; p. 41. Mallinson (100 Enduring), 1995; No. 100, p. 42. McDermott (Allan's Irish Fiddler), c. 1920's, No. 111, p. 28. James Morrison (How to Play the Globe Accordion Irish Style), 1931; No. 34, p. 27. Moylan (Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra), 1994; No. 230, pp. 132–133. Mulvihill (1st Collection), 1986; No. 2, p. 109. O'Farrell (Pocket Companion, vol. 2), c. 1806; p. 132. O'Neill (O'Neill's Irish Music), 1915; No. 386, p. 184. O'Neill (Krassen), 1976; p. 222. O'Neill, 1910; No. or p. 343. O'Neill (Music of Ireland: 1850 Melodies), 1903; No. 1793, p. 336. O'Neill (Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems), 1907; No. 985, p. 169 (set dance). O'Neill (1913), p. 131. Raven (English Country Dance Tunes), 1984; p. 172. Roche (Collection of Traditional Irish Music, vol. 1), 1912; No. 56, p. 28. Roche (Collection of Traditional Irish Music, vol. 2), 1912; No. 270, p. 29.

Recorded sources : - Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí, CNF 005, Frank Cassidy - "Níl gar Ann!" (2008). Claddagh Records, James Byrne – "The Road to Glenlough." Folktracks Records, John Doherty – "Pedlar's Pack." Folktracks Records, Neilly Boyle – "The Fairy Fiddler of Donegal." Gael-Linn CEF 045, "Paddy Keenan" (1975). Green Linnet GLCD 3097, Joe Burke, Andy McGann & Felix Dolan – "A Tribute to Michael Coleman" (1994 reissue of the 1966 Shaskeen album). Intrepid Records, Michael Coleman – "The Heyday of Michael Coleman" (1973). Leader LEA 2004, Martin Byrnes. North Star NS0031, "Dance Across the Sea: Dances and Airs from the Celtic Highlands" (1990). RCA 09026-61490-2, The Chieftains – "The Celtic Harp" (1993). Sage Arts Records, Cathal McConnell & Len Graham – "For the Sake of Old Decency" (1993). Shanachie 34002, Denis Murphy – "The Star Above the Garter." Shanachie 97011, Duck Baker – "Irish Reels, Jigs, Airs and Hornpipes" (1990). Shanachie 79093, Paddy Glackin & Robbie Hannan – "The Whirlwind" (1995. Slow air and set dance/hornpipe). Shaskeen Records OS-360, Andy McGann, Joe Burke & Felix Dolan – "A Tribute to Michael Coleman" (1966).

See also listing at :
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [2]
Alan Ng's [3]

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  1. The set dance to "The Blackbird" is one of the few set dances danced with the same steps all over Ireland.