19 Nov

The Fair at Bonlaghy

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a little wee pig,
I rolled it up in my pocket,
And it danced a swaggering jig.
Then it’s hi for the top o’ the heather,
And hi for the root of the sprig,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a wee slip of a pig,
And as I was passing the poorhouse,
I whistled the Swaggering Jig.
Then it’s hi for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As I being down by the poorhouse,
I whistled so loud and so shrill,
I made all the fairies to tremble,
That lived near McLoughrim Hill.
Then it’s Hi! for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As a lover of Irish dance tunes and the Irish song tradition, I have long been on the lookout for jigs, polkas, barn dances and other tunes that have a history of being used both as dance tunes and as the melodies for songs. They are rare birds within the instrumental tradition but these “singable” tunes are some of my favorites.

In the 1930s, the great County Derry song collector Sam Henry collected “Bellaghy Fair” sung to a variant of the slip jig called “The Swaggering Jig” (aka “Give Us a Drink of Water”). Around the same time, Ohio collector Mary Eddy collected a fragment of the same song in Steubenville, Ohio from Mary M. Cox (nee Marion) whose parents were born in Ireland and who learned several songs from an Irish uncle. The Ohio version has Bonlaghy instead of Bellaghy. Bellaghy is a village in Derry. Bonlaghy did not come up in my Google Maps searches of Ireland but Google Books led me to The Gentleman and Citizen’s Almanack for the Year of our Lord, 1732 which lists Bonlaghy, County Longford as the site of one of the “principle fairs of Ireland” happening on July 15th of that year.

The Ohio melody is unique from “The Swaggering Jig” as played by tune players and as sung by Sam Henry’s (unknown) source.  It is also only a fragment—missing the second part. The above melody is my attempt to stretch the Ohio melody out over the two parts.  I also blended the Ohio text with the Sam Henry text.

22 Nov

Riley and I Were Chums

One day as I went out for a walk, myself and my chum Johnny Riley,
The air it being kind of damp and the weather rather dryly,
Just then the cop caught me by the ear he says, “Young man there’s a warrant here,”
And I took the warrant with the greatest of fear and I handed it over to Riley. -Chorus

One day I picked up a watch and chain going out with my chum Johnny Riley,
Riley always looked for his share, he was so awfully wily,
But as by a lamp we chanced to pass, it’s then I saw by the glimmer of the glass,
That the watch was gold but the chain was brass so the chain went over to Riley. -Chorus

Last Saturday night I married a wife and my best man there was Riley,
I thought she’d be the joy of my life, she looked so very shyly,
But soon I found it was no fun, one day she chased me with a gun,
I said, “Now madam, with you I’ve done” and I handed her over to Riley. -Chorus

After an inspiring week of music at the All Ireland Fleadh this past month, I had the chance to spend a day at the amazing Irish Traditional Music Archive on Merrion Square in Dublin. There, I dove into the ITMA’s incredible collection of field recordings from Newfoundland made in the 1970s by Aidan O’Hara. The ITMA recently launched a digital exhibition of O’Hara’s Newfoundland material on its website that I highly recommend checking out. This month’s song is one that you can listen to directly from their website—easier (though less fun) than a trip to Dublin!

I was delighted to come upon O’Hara’s recording of Newfoundlander Frankie Nash giving a spirited rendition of this comic song! I encountered it first several years ago as performed by Crandon, Wisconsin traditional singer Robert Walker who was recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1937. Walker’s version (available here) is nice but to me it is Nash really brings “Riley” to life. Digging around online, I was also happy to discover that the New York Public Library has unearthed and digitized an 1892 song sheet version titled “I Handed it Over to Riley” which you can also access online. In Newfoundland, the song is attributed to local songsmith Johnny Burke. NYPL’s song sheet, and the style of the song itself, would seem to suggest that it most likely originated on the stage (the composers are listed as Albert Hall and Felix McGlennon) and was then, like many stage songs, adapted into tradition by others.

Interestingly, the Newfoundland, Wisconsin and song sheet versions of this song all have rather distinct melodies from one another. The above transcription is based on the Newfoundland melody though I drew on all three versions to fill out the text.