The venerable Australian magazine Going Down Swinging has included my story “The Tune Collector” in Issue #23, out with a bang last month at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. I’m very flattered to have been included in this multimedia publication (there’s a CD in every issue), and thrilled that my anonymity has spread over the ocean and across the equator.
I’m not really sure when I became interested in Irish music and culture; I do remember being disappointed at the age of 8 that my ancestry is almost entirely English, with a touch of Quebecois (evidenced only by my tendency to talk with my hands even when on the telephone). There may be some Scots-Irish blood in the background, but not enough to give me a claim to any sort of genetic Gaelicism.
But that hasn’t stopped me from learning a smidgen of conversational Irish and perfecting a dozen tunes on the tin whistle (which I am not permitted to play at home). This story is inspired by the great Martin McHugh, an accordian player I used to watch with awe at the Irish Well Sunday night sesiÃºns years ago. Martin would come in early, and would often be the only player at the table for about an hour, squeezing out jigs and reels. Other players would wander in and follow Martin’s lead, picking up with fiddle and flute and bodhran his threads of music. Invariably, Tom Dahill would be there, and it was a treat to watch Mr. Dahill, who can be an over-the-top and corny showman (and absolutely worth seeing if you get the chance–he roams the midwest doing Irish music, then crosses the pond to Ireland where he does country & western as Texas Tom; he knows the value of the exotic), playing traditional tunes like a student of Mr. McHugh. With closing time approaching, Martin would still be at the table with a cold cup of coffee, still playing as the others took their leave. It was as if he was the solid rock of Irish music around which the waves of the sesiÃºn flowed.
“The Tune Collector” is set in the 1930s or 1940s, when the first wave of ethnomusicoligists were gathering up the songs of the last wave of 19th century immigrants. Though I’m not sure what the “tinker tune” in the story sounds like–and neither does the tune collector, because it shifts its form as willfully as a playful pÃºca through the night–but I imagine it somehow embodies all the jigs and reels and slip jigs and straesthpys that have travelled around the world for a few hundred years. Irish tunes are slippery things, with a million names and variations, and they’re wildly crossbred–not just with their neighbors in Scotland and Wales, but with the German polkas and Spanish dances and Southern blues they met on their travels. Music is a living, changing stream that is enriched by sharing and improvising, a heady mix of individual innovators and deep history. The best a tune collector can do is capture it in mid-change, and watch with wonder as it changes again.