Sometimes, before I open the door, I can hear the music within.
It might be a muscular reel, a bouncy jig, or a lilting hornpipe. My pace and pulse quicken. A smile sprouts. In a moment I will see the musicians, and the faces I meet will tell me they’re glad I came, and a space will open to absorb me into the circle.
Though I do not believe in past lives, playing traditional Irish music is the one experience that makes me feel like I might have had one. On second and fourth Mondays we gather for session, which means playing whatever tunes we feel like with whoever shows up. Last Monday it was Peggy on guitar and drum; Justin on pennywhistle; James on flute and whistle; Ellen on tenor banjo and whistle; Carol on whistle; David on guitar, recorder, and drum; Jeff on fiddle; the new guy on guitar; Jim on guitar; Al on button accordion and drum; Eddie on drum; Weesa on flute and whistle; and me on flute and whistle. I know this not because of photographic powers of recall, but because of my little notebook, which I carry at all times and where I jot all manner of notes in what may look like obsessive behavior to others. It has a wreath of people’s names along with the names of some of the tunes we played that night, new songs I want to learn, and old ones I’d forgotten the names of.
Someone starts a tune. If you know it, join in. If you don’t, listen. If you listen well enough, and we play it slow enough or long enough, you might try it and have most of it by the last run-through. We string tunes together in sets. Sometimes it’s just two like “Smash the Windows” and “Off She Goes,” aka the vandalism set. And sometimes, in the most transcendent sessions, it’s tune after tune after tune — a volley where the ball is never dropped, an auditory Jackson Pollock swirl of color and line, a flock of birds wheeling for the joy of it, a long train of cars carrying us through the dark evening.
Some of us know hundreds of tunes and can play almost anything someone starts. Some of us can count the tunes we know on our fingers, so we do a lot of listening, until one of ours comes around.
That was once me: I couldn’t have picked a jig or reel or hornpipe out of a lineup. After a few years in Arkansas, I lamented to my friend Sally in Pittsburgh that I missed playing music with people. "There are people out there who would love to play music with you," she said. "You just have to go and find them." She gave me homework and a deadline: find these people and report back in a month.
The newspaper's weekly arts calendar had a listing for an Irish session meeting at the familiar cathedral of Barnes & Noble. I called the contact number and got a little information. When the night came, I packed up my instruments, had a fortifying dinner with my family at a nearby restaurant, and bravely walked into the café. I was warmly welcomed by Scott, an accordion player I'd spoken with on the phone; Ellen, who offered me a copy of the tune book she had compiled — sheet music of many of the tunes the group played and many more they hoped to learn; and Peggy, who got up now and then for a four-hand reel with some of her Irish dance classmates.
More than 15 years later, we’re still playing. Scott, Ellen, and Peggy are still here, as well as many others who have become friends, and in some instances extended family. These days we meet mostly at Khalil’s Pub & Grill, which used to be Julie’s Place, where the session first started before I found my way to it. Sometimes we play pick-up sessions at a little wedge-shaped pizza place called Damgoode Pies, or at Hibernia, a new pub which has very quickly taken on the feel of a neighborhood hangout — a peaceable kingdom of the music folks, the sports-watching folks, and the Irish immigrant community. After the bookstore, we played at the Oyster Bar, with its red-checkered oilcloths and time-darkened wooden floors; the Flying Saucer, known for its vast array of beers on tap; Sufficient Grounds, a neighborhood coffeehouse; Cregeen’s, a sports bar that fronts as an Irish pub; and Studio Joe’s, a combination recording studio/coffeehouse/performance space that’s now vacant.
So, the venues have changed. At least four bands have been formed out of session musicians, and three eventually disbanded. People have come and gone. But the glue that binds this musical tribe together are the tunes themselves.
The creators' names are mostly lost to history, but it's not hard to imagine the situations that inspired the tunes, that moved some long-ago fiddler or flutist or piper to preserve a simple moment of life by making a tune out of it and giving it a name. It's a playful taxonomy of grains (“Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Rolling in the Rye Grass,” “Stack of Wheat,” “Harvest Home”), birds (“Pigeon on the Gate,” “Lark in the Morning,” “The Swallowtail”), possessives (“Gillian's Apples,” “Jenny's Chickens,” “Langstrom's Pony”), food and drink, or at least drink (“The Glass of Beer,” “Cup of Tea,” “Mug of Brown Ale,” “Drops of Brandy,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast”), imperatives (“Scatter the Mud,” “Toss the Feathers,” “Shoe the Donkey”), garments (“The White Petticoat,” “Frieze Breeches,” “The Peeler's Jacket,” “Her Mantle So Green”). Some of the tunes depict their titles in sound: the syncopated banging of the anvil in “The Merry Blacksmith,” the swells of rough water in “Ships Are Sailing,” the precipitous drop in “Cliffs of Moher.”
At some point, we will play “John Ryan’s Polka,” which might a ring a faint bell for anyone who saw Titanic; it was the tune playing when Leonardo DiCaprio took Kate Winslet to the lively party in steerage. We’ll probably sing “Wild Rover,” and when the line “I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son” comes around, drummer Joe, who is as close to me as a brother, and who is also fiercely Catholic, will tease me by turning up his volume and singing “Protestant Son.”
Al will probably start “Cooley’s Reel,” and at one phrase I will hold a long harmony note, my own lament that’s linked in my mind to the sadness after one of us left the band I used to be in. Scott (who used to own the accordion that Al now plays) might start “Green Fields of America,” and I will think of Zane, the old guy who used to come to session when his wife Melinda was still alive, and who loved to play that tune on his bouzouki. James might start that reel whose name I can’t ever remember but that I learned from a Cherish the Ladies CD; I’ll jump in, thrilled that someone else knows it. Someone will play an achingly beautiful air. There will be jokes all night, much laughter, and at some point I will probably be doubled over or slipping off my chair in a fit of mirth.
We used to have a dulcimer player who was also an obsessive note-taker, and from his chronicling of tunes played at the sessions he attended, we know there is one tune that gets played every time. If it gets played, we’ll say, “Now it’s a real session.” If it hasn’t been played when we are well into the evening, Weesa will ask, “Shall we make it a real session?” and start the jig “Road to Lisdoonvarna.” And I will think, The town where I crossed something off my bucket list.
On my family’s vacation to Ireland, we stayed just down the road from Lisdoonvarna, a spa town known for its autumn matchmaking festival. We ventured up for dinner one evening, and went into an intriguing café only to learn they were closing. But the hotel next door had a little bar and grill in the back, they said. Not marked from the outside, the kind of place you find by luck or grace.
There happened to be a session that night. A lively old gent named Tom — accordionist, singer, and raconteur — got it started. He played something I knew. I happened to have a whistle in my backpack. When I held it up to ask, “Can I play?” he nodded enthusiastically.
Before long, Eddie, a dapper fellow with his own accordion, slid into the corner booth with Tom. When they saw I knew the tunes, they invited me into the booth with them. When Eddie launched into “The Foxhunter’s Reel,” a long five-part accordion tune, I could keep right up because I had learned it from sitting beside and listening to Scott. After a while, a guitarist from England sat down beside me. Completing our group that night was a shy fiddler from Sweden. This is the beauty of music largely handed down by the aural tradition: he spoke little English, but he was fluent in the language we all knew.
Play in a session in Ireland: check. Play in a session where five musicians represent four nationalities: check. Serendipity.
At the session back home, we’re all Americans, but we’re diverse in other ways. We span at least five decades in age. We run from deep blue to bright red on the political spectrum. By profession we include an accountant, an engineer, a teacher, a student, an editor, a marketer, a biologist, an airman, a secretary, a doctor, and a few I haven't yet learned. Some are self-employed, some retired. In the circle, none of that matters. We are the most egalitarian congregation I have ever been a part of.
For me, it’s officially a session once we play another beloved jig, a tune whose first few notes appear across the logo for the Arkansas Celtic Music Society (a more formal but somewhat overlapping group), a tune that summarizes what the communion of music allows us to do for a few hours: “Banish Misfortune.”
Before mp3 files, compact discs, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, or pressed vinyl or wax cylinders — before there was any means of recording music and hearing it again when we chose — there was this. When people needed music, they made it themselves. Some tunes surely must have come from those gatherings around the hearth: “Last Night’s Fun,” “Round the House and Mind the Dresser,” “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part.”
When our own parting time comes, there are thank yous, hugs, and lingering conversations. “Safe home,” we tell each other, a blessing and benediction. Always, after we close the door, we carry the music within.
Laura Lynn Brown plays Irish music and works for a newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas. The original tunes she contributes to this tradition include “Bloomfield Air,” “Mowing the Lawn,” and “Fire Ant Polka.” Her fantasy dinner party guests would include her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Patrick Gallaher, who left Ireland for America in the 1780s.