My Twisted Journey Into Scottish Music
Years ago I heard a famous rhythm and blues guitarist say something to the effect that Scottish music was the most rhythmic music in the world. I have to agree. Whether it is a reel or an air, the beat is totally infectious.
When my own children were small they listened to the Corries for hours on end, especially their rendition of “Garten Mother’s Lullaby”. Even though we didn’t know what all those strange sounding words were, the soothing sounds lulled them to sleep.
Enter the suppressors
Because we were, at the time, part of a conservative church they frowned upon almost any music that was not part of their little songbook. That forced me to find music that could sort of “fly under the radar”, if I was to pursue my lifelong love of traditional music. Celtic music provided just that sort of avenue for me. After all, how could they complain about a folk music that was rooted in tradition? Yet, this is exactly what happened. Actually, my experience was not isolated, not at all. I was learning how to play guitar at the time and this music had such a strong appeal to me.
The famous Shetland fiddlers, Aly Bain and Tom Anderson produced a wonderful album called “The Silver Bow”. This was a celebration of the revival of Shetland fiddle tunes that had nearly vanished from memory, mostly due to suppression by the church. Sound familiar?
Eventually reason seems to have won out over the suppression and now Scottish music is celebrated the world over. In my own personal travels I have had the pleasure of discovering that musicians everywhere appreciate the lovely melodies and driving rhythms. Meeting new friends and playing with them is an absolute joy.
Why guitarists have a hard time with this music
On the other hand, many guitarists struggle with these jigs, reels, airs and strathspeys. I have played with very accomplished bluegrass players who just cannot seem to grasp the unpredictable chord changes and rhythms. Jigs are especially irksome for some players because of the endless triplets involved.
Most bluegrass tunes are quite predictable, which doesn’t mean easy to play, while Scottish tunes are evasive and unpredictable. Just when you might expect the melody to ascend, it descends. When you expect a chord change, there is none and when you least expect it, the guy you are following has played 3 chords.
That funny Scottish sense of humor
There are numerous great little recordings of Phil Cunningham in which he tells all manner of humorous, somewhat bawdy stories. My favorite is “An Urbane Scotsman In Alaska”. It is actually not a song, but a little story about a man and a bear, truly delightful story. For a people known as terse and stoic, their sense of humor is enough to bring you to tears.
My favorite way to learn how to play Scottish music
Playing along with cd’s and reading sheet music is one thing, but playing together with others is by far the best way to learn. Obviously in the beginning you won’t know how to play the tunes, but just linger to the side and get the feel for the music, watch the others, imitate them and soon you will be strumming along and grinning from ear to ear. Just be careful to not interfere, rather just blend in and follow. Later on you can step up and play by yourself.