Rietmann’s Obscurity Index

Rietmann’s Obscurity Index

Last night at my session it occurred to me that you could rank tunes on how on or off the beaten path they are: a rating of 1 would be done to death amateur hour nightmare fuel like the Boys of Bluehill, Kesh Jig, Miss McLeod, Maid Behind the Silver Blarney Cliffs of Ballydesmond Rights of Harvest. ;) Can you guess I’m a bit tired of playing these?

2 might be, I dunno, Peeler’s Jacket or Sally Gardens. 3 could be something like Trim the Velvet. 4 = Galway Hornpipe. 5 = Hollybush Reel. These are off the top of my head. YMMV. I was going all the way up to 10, which would be something composed last month I guess. The more oddball Reavy tunes could be 9’s. Even crack musos round where I live aren’t familiar with Red Tom of the Hills.

It seems to be a lot more diplomatic to tell someone that the Sligo Maid is a class 1 tune that everyone in the world should know, no exceptions, instead of telling them what you really think. You know what I’m talking about. ;)

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Welcome to the PNW where we go really wide but not very deep.

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The fact that the readership here considers Tam Lin to be more "important" or more "popular" than the Mountain Road isn’t relevant to what I had in mind, actually.

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But doesn’t it all come down to what your local poison is ?

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I rise in defense of Miss McLeod’s as just a crackingly great tune. Boys of Blue Hill, too. Pretty much all of them, if it’s a boring tune when I play it, it’s my fault, not the tune’s fault.

And in a big group, if MissMcSilverSpearedBehindTheStackOfCarbohydrates sounds like boring amateur hour, it would probably sound like amateur hour no matter what tune was played, no?

These standard chestnut tunes are standards for a reason, and it’s not because they’re lame tunes. If I can’t make them engaging as a solo performance even to a veteran who’s heard them many times before, it’s probably because I haven’t put in the work necessary to understand the tune, or I’ve started the tune too fast.

And of course, mea culpa mea culpa on both counts at times. Less and less every year though.

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What’s the old saying, "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure".

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I don’t think the point is how inherently "good" or "bad" a tune is, which is a value judgment and personal taste.

I think the point is how commonly played/widely known a tune is, or how rarely played/rarely known a tune is.

All I know is that at a session I can play ten tunes in a row that nobody knows… they’re not obscure to me, I picked them up at sessions 30 years ago, when everybody was playing them. I suppose time marches on, and the popularity of certain tunes rises and falls.

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Great attitude Jason. If one finds a tune to be dull, maybe one would do well to not play it "dull-ly". Personally I’ve never found bad tunes played often.

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Rietmann’s sense of smug superiority index. That’s the attitude that put me off sessions years ago. (Yes, I was crap, too.)

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"These standard chestnut tunes are standards for a reason, and it’s not because they’re lame tunes." Generally it’s because they were on some famous recording somewhere, no? I mean, if you erased all the tunes from Bothy Band 1975 from everyone’s memories, half the ROI 1 tunes would disappear. (Not that the Bothy Band were the first to record all those tunes… just that it seems to have been an immensely popular album, particularly among people who haven’t gotten that deep into the tradition.)

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To answer your question, Kevin, most definitely yes.

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Richard, could you post a sample of ten tunes you could play at a session which "nobody knows" but they are not obscure to you? Just curious. Cheers!

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An obscurity index. I love it!

I’ve downloaded 1008 albums with 9402 tunes by 317 artists off of YouTube in the last four months. As much as possible, they’re all trad or trad related (There’s more out there, believe me). I’ve looked through that collection (iTunes) and all of the other repositories of recordings on my computer for three tunes I’m familiar with to come up with these candidates for the ROI:

Tune title:………………………… Number or occurrences:
Cape North Jig………………… 1* (medley - Winston Scotty Fitzgerald)
Paddy Fahey’s Reel #26……. 1**
Batchelder’s…………………….. 1

* Plus two other medley collections by other artists that may contain Cape North Jig - or may not. Cape North in title.

** Paddy Fahey recordings frequently lack the specific tune number and indeed, there really aren’t any specific tune numbers unless someone has referenced them to Maria Holohan’s 1995 index. So, there is only one specific instance I’ve found of Paddy Fahey’s Reel #26 by name but there could be others simply carrying the Paddy Fahey appellation. I’m betting that not many of the "unreferenced" Paddy Fahey tunes are of the "Reel #26" variety. Hence, Paddy Fahey’s Reel #26 belongs in the ROI.

Presented as suggestions only. ;^)

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These tunes as melodies per se aren’t all that interesting. How you play in a session is important to be sure, but if there are good players you can be an alright musician and not drag things down. There are various ways of livening things up, you can be a great soloist of course, or make your band/session extra lively in whatever fashion. Or you can have more of a repertoire.

When I was starting out people would tell me to learn as many tunes as possible; being super enthusiastic about things I didn’t need any prompting. The reasoning being that you wouldn’t be left out when someone started something a bit more off the beaten path. These were excellent musicians giving the advice here. Later I obtained a copy of a, ahem, doctoral thesis by Mick Moloney, where he laid out how rank was acquired in Irish music circles: things that lent more cachet are being Irish of course, having seniority, playing the instruments with more respect - pipes at the top, then fiddle. Contradicting this, later on Mick says most sessions are run by box or banjo players. But the pipes are the classiest, let’s say.

The next criterion is how big a person’s repertoire is. One way session leaders would deal with indifferent musicians would be to play a whole rake of obscurities, until the intruding person went away. I’ve seen all these things in play over the years. None of it seems to be common knowledge, either. Barry Foy did his best to write a book about this, even. "A serious player of this music lies awake at night in a cold sweat, terrified that there might be a tune someone knows that he hasn’t learned yet." Or words to that effect.

The basics are covered pretty well by the 3 Comhaltas books. If they ever get around to putting out another 3 it’ll get the job done. Just old warhorses, including, yes, the ones I complained about. And Rakish or Sporting Paddy, Heather Breeze, Dunphy’s, Butcher’s March. How about the list Will Harmon put together here years ago?

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In truth, I don’t have names for most of my tunes.

An example is a four-part jig I picked up at San Francisco sessions back in the 80s. I would play it down here, nobody ever knew it, but eventually a couple people sort of half-learned it. In any case I just stopped playing it because of that. It’s a great tune, but not suitable for sessions evidently.

Then there are a few tunes a friend picked up personally from Micho Russell- he taped Micho playing them- which likewise when I play them I get crickets. I don’t have names for any of them.

I’m sure there’s on the database here, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to find tunes by entering ABC because there’s a practically infinite number of ways the same phrase can be written in ABC.

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so, Silver Spear, Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Pilgrim, Ballydesmond Polka, all good for a laugh? [or a sneer]
so 70’s you know. This is the sort of elitist attitude that really doesn’t do the trad. scene any good.

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I like the idea, but then I didn’t get a negative feeling about the word obscurity. It places no value judgement on the tunes quality, just how many people play it or the odds of finding it at a session. I’ve spent a lot of time at the ITMA tune pages looking for tunes that I’ve never heard before. Gold mine, I enjoy the act of tossing a new tune out, and sometimes others pick it up and it becomes a regular tune. Most often, it is played twice through and we move on. But I keep it going at home.

I have never suffered the idea of having to know all the tunes at sessions. I figure I sit out at least one third of the time listening to and enjoying everyone else playing.

Try out Foxy Mary, aka Huish the Cat, I’m guessing pretty rare, where Queen of the Rushes is a bit less so. Where do Jackson’s Morning Brush and Maloney’s Wife fit?

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@Richard
"I’m sure there’s on the database here, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to find tunes by entering ABC because there’s a practically infinite number of ways the same phrase can be written in ABC."

Have you tried entering ABC here? http://abctunesearch.com/

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"One way session leaders would deal with indifferent musicians would be to play a whole rake of obscurities, until the intruding person went away."

How does one know if this is happening to one, or if one just doesn’t have a large enough repertoire?

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This thread smacks of the cap-in-hand/is-it-alright-if-I-play obsequiousness that appears to be demanded by some session leaders of those lesser mortals who occasionally dare to enter their hallowed space.
I don’t think there’s that much of it about really, and I’d hate to think that aspiring players would be intimidated as a result of reading this. Lots of session leaders are highly encouraging, gracious and helpful. And quite a few of them contribute generously to this site.

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Time to take the plunge I guess. I’ve been following the discussions for over a year on the Session, and playing regularly (and listening FAR more than playing) at a couple of trad sessions for roughly a year and a half, but this is my first post. I gotta say, while an Obscurity Index is a clever idea, as someone new to the tradition reading ,"It seems to be a lot more diplomatic to tell someone that the Sligo Maid is a class 1 tune that everyone in the world should know, no exceptions, instead of telling them what you really think," kinda makes my skin crawl. What do you really think?

The first trad tune I ever heard was the Irish Washerwoman done by some bar band in Las Vegas that also played a lot of "Irish" stuff by U2 and the Proclaimers (this was maybe 15 years ago). I was struck by the tune and asked about it. As a result, it wound up being the first Irish Trad song I ever learned to play. Fast forward to a year and a half ago, it was one of the only trad tunes I knew when I went to my first session. The regulars were were encouraging and indulged me by playing along with some of the Bluegrass and Old-Time fiddle tunes I knew. From that day, at every session I’ve made a point of trying to pick up one of the tunes the regulars play, and I try to be courteous by showing up early and leaving the circle to make room once the heavy hitters arrive.

One of the session leaders always makes a point to ask if I’ve got any new tunes. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The Irish Washerwoman, as I discovered, was not a tune my session was enthusiastic about, so I quietly dropped it, but I’ve made a point to try to learn a lot of the chestnuts: see http://slowplayers.org/tunes-and-info/ for more. I guess these tunes might be scoffed at by some, but I think they are worth knowing.

Case in point - at a recent session we had a young woman from the east coast drop in. She was an excellent fiddler and knew all the tunes that were pulled out in the session until she didn’t. Then she played a set and no one joined in because no one knew the tunes. After an awkward silence I started the Irish Washerwoman, followed by the Swallowtail Jig and I dunno, maybe the Kesh or something. Afterwards, she said, with obvious delight, how wonderful it was to play tunes that nobody plays anymore. I personally treasure that moment because while we were playing those tunes we (she and I, and a few others at the session) weren’t playing "tunes" as such, we were simply playing music together. And isn’t that the point?

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If there is a point, that’s a great point, drboomsexy.

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with you most of the way drboom- personally I don’t care for ‘Washerwoman’ [composed by some hack for the London stage in the 18th c. as a satirical piece depicting Irish peasants] so as well as some dodgy political origins I don’t think its a very nice tune……………anyway back to the main point, yes I ‘ll happily play Harvest Home, Drowsy Maggie, Denis Murphy’s polka or any other old warhorse - the fact is 99% of audiences don’t give a damn whether you’re playing the Kesh or Seamus O’ Donnell’s no.197 [I made that up] as long as its played well………….

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You have "audiences" who know if something’s "played well" ? :)

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hard to quantify Kenny - I think you can get an indefinable feeling from listeners and fellow musos if a tune is flying , or limping along to its end. Occasionally it might crash and burn, in which case everyone can just have a good laugh………

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I love the "chestnuts", the old workhorse tunes that everybody knows. (Even the "Washerwoman", a tune that was what it needed to be in it’s time). I’m annoyed when I hear somebody "phoning them in". These are the tunes that we can all join in with a rousing sense of community and they deserve the best of our ability and high spirit. If I want to hear someone play tunes I’ve never heard with their self-imposed virtuosity I’ll go see a show and do. I go to sessions to feel the inclusiveness, the group vibe. Of course I often enough like to hear and play new tunes too. That’s how they get get passed on, but all night long? No thanks. I’ll sit home and watch Dr. Who re-runs.

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ross- we’ll have to agree to differ over Washerwoman ,[sorry I just cant like it] otherwise your words are righteous indeed. so I guess my tune choices are mainly 1 on the Rietmann Scale……………….

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No problem, Christy. What a vanilla dull world if we all liked/disliked the same things. I’ll bet that if we ever got together to play we could come with a long list of tunes we both like, both dislike, and agree to disagree about. Heck, I’ll bet dollars to donuts, we could spend hours in the first category! Play well and often my friend.

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The best thing about a tune that you don’t like is that it only takes up a couple minutes of your night.