Remembering Good Music, and Good Friends

Remembering Good Music, and Good Friends

Irish Studies musicians pay tribute to tradition, and to those who have helped pass it along

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

A staple of academic life, the book launch is often a low-key affair, marked by readings from the author and quiet mingling and conversation afterwards.

Irish Studies Program Music Director Seamus Connolly and part-time faculty member Laurel Martin. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
But when the book in question is a compilation of traditional Irish music pieces, and the authors are two superb, well-regarded fiddle players, the phrase "low-key" simply doesn't apply.

So on Sept. 10, Boston College's Connolly House took on the atmosphere of a good old-fashioned ceilidh as Irish Studies Program Music Director Seamus Connolly and part-time faculty member Laurel Martin celebrated the release of their publication Forget Me Not: A Collection of 50 Memorable Traditional Irish Tunes.

A packed audience of colleagues, friends, students and other well-wishers looked on as Connolly, Martin and an ensemble of fellow musicians galloped through an assortment of jigs, reels and other tunes, many of them to be found in the new book and its accompanying CD. Connolly played his familiar role of emcee and raconteur, warmly introducing and sometimes cajoling a musician to take a solo or at least a bow.

The Connolly House event aptly reflected the spirit of the book project, which began as a teaching tool but evolved into something far more, say Connolly and Martin. Forget Me Not is a tribute not only to the music the duo play and teach, but to the people who, over the years, have shared their love of the tradition with Connolly and Martin - and by doing so, helped to pass that tradition along.

"There's so much interest in Irish and Celtic music nowadays, and so many fine, exciting young musicians who play in that genre," said Connolly in a recent interview. "But we felt very strongly that it was important and necessary to recognize and appreciate those musicians of past generations, some of who, sadly, have left us already.

"That's why, for each entry in the book, we included notes about the people from whom we learned the tunes or who helped make them popular. There are stories that go along with each tune, and those stories need to be told."

Said Martin, whose decade-long association with Connolly began as his student, "As the tunes have been passed down over the years, they've absorbed the character, the spirit and the emotions of the musicians who've played them. So the theme of this project is remembering - not forgetting - the tunes, the people and the experiences."

The impetus for the Forget Me Not project came a few years after Connolly and Martin began teaching fiddle classes at BC. Selecting a repertoire for students, the two found that their way of playing tunes often differed significantly from the printed versions in available texts of Irish music.

"It got to be kind of embarrassing at times," said Connolly. "We'd say, 'Okay, you're going to learn this jig,' and then when we made copies of the sheet music there would be inconsistencies or mistakes - wrong keys, wrong notations. So, we thought, why not have our own versions in print?"

But there was a deeper purpose to their work, say the authors. A musician often puts his or her own stamp on a tune, adding ornamentations or other variations, some of which may end up being passed along to other musicians. Connolly and Martin therefore decided to include two versions of each tune in the book, a "basic" rendition and another with the variations notated.

"It's a way to show how a particular fiddler, a flute player, an accordionist or other musician will add a certain shade or embellishment to what's there," said Martin. "These interpretations may have to do with individual technique, or the style of the region in which the person grew up, or other influences. But you can get a sense of how the tradition evolves and changes as it is passed along."

Forget Me Not assures Boston College a place in that remembrance. Students from Connolly's and Martin's BC classes appear on a few of the CD tracks, while other contributors to the book and CD have taught at BC's popular Gaelic Roots Summer School and appeared at other campus events. Connolly and Martin also dedicated the book in part to the late Prof. Adele Dalsimer (English), co-founder and co-director of the Irish Studies Program.

"Adele was a major inspiration to me," Connolly told the audience at the Sept. 10 reception. "I am who I am today because of Adele."

Celtic-Irish music aficionados are grateful Connolly is who he is, according to Brian O'Donovan, host of WGBH-FM's "A Celtic Sojourn." "Seamus is, of course, a stellar musician and teacher, and that is attested to by his peers regularly," said O'Donovan. "But in the past several years he has moved into even more significant roles, organizing Gaelic Roots, lending his assistance to other efforts that promote Celtic music, and now, with the book and CD.

"Irish and Celtic music is arguably more popular today than it has ever been, and has a presence in mainstream culture. So it is fortunate indeed to have someone like Seamus around, a true patron spirit of the tradition."


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