Polka Amnesty!

Polka Amnesty!

After a long time playing mostly Scottish folk music I am forcing myself to do 2 things I’ve always avoided. Play the ruddy whistle and learn some of those ever so commonly massacred, beginners tunes that were always beyond the reach of my pipe scale. Mostly it’s fine, I’ve heard the tunes so many times anyway that they are already in the wet RAM and I just check a couple of phrases or bars out and I’m away. Sadly it’s mostly these "bedrock" tunes that are played in these parts anyway, sessions are presently thin on the ground and the more accomplished players it seems don’t venture out much anymore. Where ever you go these parts though these ruddy polkas will surface, you know the ones, everyone knows the ones…everyone except me who has never learnt the ruddy things and is trying to now. I’ve a big problem though, I absolutely detest them, no matter what I do I can’t get them to stick and I can’t begin to start, hearing myself doing it is like listening to finger nails on a blackboard or biting tinfoil with a filled tooth.

I wouldn’t dream of ever playing Scotland the Brave, Bluebells or any number of Scottish beginners tunes, anywhere ever, let alone a session. The only place for them really IMO is in lessons. Can’t we just quietly drop the darn things? Leave them in the early lesson draw and never take them beyond, please can we get a little more aspirational in our music? After all’s said and done when was the last time anyone even danced a flipping polka?!

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I would suggest that your opinion of these tunes is shaped by your attitude towards them as beginner tunes. These tunes have survived not because they are useful only for teaching but because people like them and they possess musical merit of their own. Try to forget the flogging they have received at the hands of beginners. Look for the musical possibility they have and what you can do to elevate them. Could your dislike be driven in part by not understanding how to play them well?

I also think you should reevaluate your opinion on polkas and their utility. They are quite popular still for dancing.

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Doesn’t it go without saying that if anyone’s playing a tune you really can’t bear at a session, that is a good time to get the drinks in or go for a pee?

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There’s music for us and music for them. And it’s good to be able to play both. Yes, anyone who listens and plays a lot gets sick of those polkas, Scotland the Brave and Galway Girl. But for the great un-washed who don’t spend their lives immersed in trad music those are the tunes they know and respond to. If you’re playing at a wedding or other general event you can bring out the intricate reels and strathspeays that you love, and you’ll be met with blank stares. Bash out The Irish Washer Woman or Mhairi’s Wedding and they’ll all be up and dancing. learn both, play the good stuff when you can, and the hackneyed tat when you have to.

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Tomb, if they all sounded like that mate I’d be very happy to eat my words/hat and get on it. Not feeling the dance thing though at all, I’ll be honest Kenny that bash could be one of the chambers of my personal hell.

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Matt, I would mate but the only session these parts is a drive away, the place is practically empty and I’m not going to take the chance with my licence. I’m only even contemplating these ruddy things as there ain’t much by way of alternative! I’m a good few hundred miles away from session nirvana I fear.

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I am fortunate to be able to play regularly at a fantastic session in Montpelier, Vt.. We’re talking about a very high level of play here (well, me excluded). A few non-chestnut polkas or barndances appear in almost every session. Lovely, interesting tunes.

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One of my favourites is " The Liberton Polka", fantastic tune, with a wicked internal rhythm. I’d give it up though to hear the end of the 8 bar wonders that get the regular slaughtering and fuzz my head when I try and play them 🙂

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Polkas are a great way to get onto playing at sessions. The first set I was asked to start was polkas.
You may tire of the usual suspects but there are some crackers: fast and furious.

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‘when was the last time anyone danced a flippin polka?’- this last Saturday night at the ceilidh I was playing,
and probably clubs, marquees and church halls throughout the UK and Irish Republic, particularly Cork and Kerry - although apparently not in your neighbourhood, Steve.

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"when was the last time anyone even danced a flipping polka?!"

If you mean the popular 19th Century ballroom dance, I’m sure there are still some enthusiasts around the world dancing them. But *polka sets* are integral to the Cork and Kerry style of set dancing. As someone ignorant of the finer points of things terpsichorean, I don’t know how much relation these bear to the ‘original’ polka step, but they are certainy danced to polka tunes (these taking the place of reels in the other set dancing, I think). Rather than wrting these tunes off as ‘beginner’ tunes, I suggest you have a listen to some players like Padraig O’Keefe, Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, Jacky Daly, Seamus Creagh, Matt Cranitch, Seamus Begley, Brendan Begley…

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‘Beginners tunes’ are only beginners tunes if you play them like a beginner.

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I played GHBP for some years. People expect and love "Scotland The Brave". Culture and tradition. And when one performs one is there to play for the audience, what the audience wants to hear.

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Scotland the Brave is a march. What’s this about?

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Nah Gobby, some tunes are just nursery rhymes, in fact some tunes are trumped quite firmly by ruddy nursery rhymes. There are polkas and Polkas obviously but like I say I could see the lot at the bottom of a smoke filled, firey pit, just to rid the world of some of the more obvious and never hear the darn things getting murdered again.
Scotland The Brave, a march? Now who would have thought of that eh, really?! Try reading a little before posting perhaps.

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By the way I’ve nothing at all against give the audience what they want. Such as it is in anyway relevant to this thread. What I am absolutely certain no audience wants is another daggy version of some hacked up polka played with no sense of timing, understanding or finesse. But that’s just me, some people obviously don’t see it that way as my current associations with some of these tunes sadly attests.

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Yeah Steve. I guess as I don’t play I’m sessions I have the luxury of playing whatever I want, and sometimes even nursery rhymes seem good to me. I’ve been working on renovating an old theme from ‘Noddy’ for years! Personally though, whenever I’ve played at my local pub on a Saturday night. I’ve never seen a drop-off in dancing when I play polkas. Probably the opposite in fact. People love them. I do admit however, that I understand your personal anxiety as a session player.

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It’s a bit of a gripe born part in jest but part from the genuine difficulty I have of actually committing to these tunes as whenever I hear them played they are most likely being systematically torn a new one. Perhaps there is merit there hidden between the over run phrases, poorly timed and misplaced notes. I just find it painful to even approach the stuff though. It’s all a bit Pavlovian really. Woof!

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Follow Creadur’s advice and listen to the masters of the Sliabh Luachra style - if you still despise polkas after that, ok there’s really no hope.

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At our session we have one good player who absolutely adores polkas, one good player who absolutely detests polkas, and everyone else who just enjoys playing the music and treats polkas like the other tune types. Our beginners don’t start out on polkas more than any other tune type; they learn the tunes that they hear and they like, as it’s more motivating. I wasn’t even aware that beginners typically start out on polkas until I’d already been playing for a year or two.

And there’s definitely not less dancing going on when you play a polka at a céili/bal folk! The last time I danced a polka was two weeks ago. As CreadurMawnOrganig mentioned, they are enjoyed in certain parts more than others, notably the southern part of Ireland which is big on polkas.

I highly recommend playing what you enjoy playing/what will allow you to participate in a session with others, and not being bothered by passing through "beginner tunes" first!

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Very few musicians compose "Beginners’ Tunes". Many are very well known and are, arguably, "suitable" for beginners to learn but this isn’t the reason for their existence or longevity.

There are exceptions, of course. Some tutors may compose simple tunes as "excercise pieces" for their students but very few of those will stand the test of time, I’m sure.

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Kenny I can listen to that quite happily and fetishize the electric double bass all day long but truth told I’d still toss them to the dogs of hell to never hear another "John Ryan’s" or the like again, sorry folks.

CaitMurphy I think you might have a point there regarding the expected route of learning as followed sometimes. I believe there are no short cuts to being able to play an instrument although there are many approaches. What sometimes happens is in a rush to play tunes technique is abandoned or relegated when it needs to be the priority IMO. When learning is tune first, technique after these "simple" and "beginners" tunes take the brunt of it. They are then wheeled out ever after at pretty much every opportunity. Well I’m pretty plain on how that affects me anyway.

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Is this on the whistle or on some other instrument Steve T? In my opinions on the best way to deal with dreary polkas is to sit next to someone who really plays polkas and plays them at pace with loads of energy. The britches full of stitches for example becomes a magical tune when people who know what they’re doing really let her rip. Or to drive them along yourself if it’s not too much of an imposition on the person starting them.
Alternatively, they often offer lots of opportunities to make up variations, double on the low octave, even start double stopping and playing chordy bits, although the whistle doesn’t necessarily lend itself to All of those things.
The only times I really have to grit my teeth through polkas is when the guitarists and Bodhrán players just don’t get them and drag back the rhythm.
Anyway, I guess you’re stuck playing them unless you can find a session that broadly shares your opinion of them. Those do exist. I tentatively asked if I could start a set of polkas at a session in England once, and they told me that it was a west Clare session, not a sliabh luachra session so they didn’t play polkas. I was gobsmacked!

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Yes, get stuck in playing with people who know how to play polkas well, you’ll find yourself enjoying them more.

If that’s not likely to happen, listening to Jackie Daly playing polkas will help immensely with your appreciation and ability to play them if you a) learn the tunes well, and b) try to play along with recordings of Jackie in full flight.

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I’m now not only struggling with my perceptions of polkas but also some nightmare visions of a Harry Palmer, Ipcress Files type induction programme of worthy polka playing, "the horrors"…

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X: 1
T: Steve T’s Favourite
R: polka
M: 2/4
L: 1/8
K: Amix
z2 zz | zz zz | zz zz | zz/z/ zz |
z2 zz | zz zz | zz zz | z2 z2 :||
zz zz | zz z>z| zz zz | zz z2 |
zz zz | zz zz | z/z/z zz | z2 z2 :||

It’s the ultimate feel good polka for all ages, give it a go next time you fancy playing one 😉

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Polkas were the first group of tunes that I latched onto, for listening at least, from a tape brought back from a family trip through the Ring of Kerry. Something to be said for those musicians taking such humble starting materials as a simple polka and turning them into something thrilling!

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"Humble starting materials"? Polkas? Never … my favourite tunes, along with hornpipes. J B Milne, Bluebell Polka (with all it’s original four parts), Primrose Polka, Babes in the Wood, Jenny Lind, Looking for a Partner, See me dance the Polka - the list of ‘em is endless! Sorry Sam, you’ve got me on a roll! Like you, I love ‘em.

Chris B.

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A polka loving morris man and a polka hating bagpiper, it’s really just a question of which one of us gets to sit at Old Nick’s left hand first really Chris!

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Nobody likes me,
Ev’rybody hates me,
I’m going down the garden to eat worms ….

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A famous flute player from Cork has said: You can have too much of a good thing, but too many polkas is just about right. Some days I agree with him.

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Being honest AB never heard of the guy before. If it’s that clean cut every note has its place stuff I tell you now I won’t like it. Was thinking of starting another thread on this as it struck me listening to something above that although it was being played brilliantly etc I just didn’t like it. Why if the musicians are good? My thinking and this is something I’ve had as a feeling before with certain acts and bands, it’s just too clean cut. I like my music closer to the edge. I’ll give your man a go if I can find any recordings, I don’t buy anything out of the blue these days. I might be surprised.

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Cheers! You can probably find the Harry Bradley album on Spotify. On track 13 he plays a tune named "My Love is but a Lassie" which I like. Let me know what you think if you get a chance to listen to his music.

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SteveT - Harry’s first recording , "Bad Shoes And Horseshoe Bends" is downloadable on "iTunes" for £3.99 - possibly the best £3.99 you’ll ever spend on Irish music [ not just flute-playing ].
"I like my music closer to the edge". - Harry’s yer man.

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Re: Polka Amnesty!

Last time I saw a polka set being danced was yesterday 😉

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