Old Man Rocking the Cradle (The)
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OLD MAN ROCKING THE CRADLE, THE. AKA - "Rocking the Baby to Sleep." Irish, Air (3/4 time). G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AABC. This is a song tune related to "Seanduine (An)." O'Neill (1922) says it is a descriptive piece wherein an old man gives voice to his woes, punctuated by the wailing of a peevish child and its calls for its Ma-ma. Skillful fiddlers and pipers would imitate those cries. The fiddle was lowered in pitch and the fiddler would lightly touch the bridge with a large door key held in his teeth to simulate the tones of human expression." Donal Hickey, in his 1999 book on Sliabh Luachra musicians, Stone Mad for Music, confirms that the great Kerry fiddler Pádraig O'Keeffe (1887-1963) performed this trick: "...he made the fiddle intone 'mama, mama'...For this novel tune which is based on a lullaby, he would put a large door key in his mouth and use it to mute the fiddle: the 'mama' sound. Like that of a baby crying, would result." O'Keefe was recorded playing the tune in 1952, which can be heard on the Topic Records album Kerry Fiddles (1977).
O'Keeffe was by no means alone in employing this trick, which was once fairly well known. Chief Francis O'Neill, in his book Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (1910, p. 81), explained:
Few (have been) born in Ireland who have not heard of the song named "Rocking the Cradle," or, as it is sometimes called, "Rocking a Baby that's None of My Own." Both song and air are now almost entirely forgotten, and it was a matter of no little difficulty to get a setting of the music. In preference to an unsatisfactory version of my own, we selected a setting found in an American publication of over fifty years ago. A fair version was also printed in Smith's Irish Minstrel, published in 1825 at Edinburgh.
It was quite a trick to play this piece to suit the old Irish standard of excellence, in which the baby's crying had to be imitated on the fiddle. To bring out the tones approaching human expression, the fiddle was lowered much below concert pitch. The performer held firmly between the teeth one end of a long old-fashioned door key with which at appropriate passages the fiddle bridge was touched. This contact of the key produced tones closely imitating a baby's wailing. Miss Ellen Kennedy, who learned the art from her father, a famous fiddler of Ballinamore, County Leitrim, was very expert in the execution of this difficult performance.
O'Neill may have been referring to a tune in Boston publisher Elias Howe's Musician's Omnibus No. 1 (1863) called "Mam Mam Ma" that was printed with the following directions:
The imitation of the mam, mam, ma, is obtained by a common door key held by its handle betwixt the the teeth of the performer, with the other end resting on the tail-piece of the Violin. At every imitation he moves the end of the key to touch the bridge slightly, to and fro, at pleasure.
Source for notated version: piper Willie Clancy (1918-1973, Miltown Malbay, west Clare) [Mitchell]; the Rice-Walsh Manuscript, a collection of music from the repertoire of Jeremiah Breen, a blind fiddler from North Kerry [O'Neill].
Printed sources: Mitchell ('Dance Music of Willie Clancy), 1993; No. 130, p. 104. O'Neill (Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody), 1922; No. 4.
Recorded sources: Topic 12T309, Padraig O'Keefe, Julia Clifford & Denis Murphy - "Kerry Fiddles" (1977. Recorded in 1952).