Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

Hi,
Wanted to start a new thread on this topic. Originally discussed 9 years ago here: https://thesession.org/discussions/24095

Here’s a list of notable works compiled from the previous discussion. Anybody have more to add?

* Last Night’s Fun by Ciaran Carson. A wonderful poetic book (not fiction per se, more a memoir) on a number of topics related to trad music, even the Ulster fry. See my review here: http://chiefoneill.com/last-nights-fun

* The Good Servants by Johnny Brennan. Unfortunately seems to be out of print but available online here: https://www.smashwords.com/extreader/read/385941/1/the-good-servants. A humorous look at the lives of session players in Dublin.

* In Search of the Craic by Colin Irwin - Also not fiction but an account of the author’s pilgrimage to holy spots of Irish music such as Milltown Malbay. He also meets iconic musicians/singers like Christy Moore along the way. https://www.amazon.ca/Search-Craic-Crawl-Through-Irish/dp/0233002944

* The Bodhran Makers by John B. Keane - John B. is always good and this one is on my to-read list. Set in 1950s County Kerry with a controlling priest trying to quench the tradition of wren boys and their music. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/896054.The_Bodhran_Makers

* Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. It really is a classic, being one of Hardy’s early works. Very pastoral and not nearly as depressing as his later books. The scenes with the church musicians are lovely. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/825901.Under_the_Greenwood_Tree

* The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This is a fantasy work which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is beautifully written, however, and the main character’s relationship to music and playing in a local tavern will resonate with anyone who enjoys ITM and a session. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/186074.The_Name_of_the_Wind

* Chief O’Neill by Ronan O’Driscoll. Yet to be published novel on the life of Francis O’Neill. He was the Chicago Chief of Police who saved Irish Music. His life was a fascinating one with many wonderful facets mostly forgotten today (he was shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific!). It was a pleasure for me to research and write about. See http://chiefoneill.com/the-book for further details.

Re: Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

Hi, I was about to suggest "Under the Greenwood Tree", too. There is an English band dedicated to Thomas Hardy’s songs and era called "The Mellstock Band" which actually has an album by this name: https://thesession.org/recordings/6198
The very modern UK book The Getaway Girls by Dee MacDonald briefly mentions a Jimmy Shand record. I also feel like Charles Dickens might have referenced the slip jig "Sir Roger de Coverley" once, but I can’t remember in which book.

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I was once very keen on the many references made by Thomas Hardy as well as with his own passion for playing and for the music. There was a lot of good first hand history in his novels. Unfortunately I will have to refresh my memory before making any further contribution to this post. Meanwhile I will be reading with interest.

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Re: Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

Actually, it was quite funny: In the modern book, The Getaway Girls, that I mentioned, three British women (two from England and one from Scotland) take a trip to Italy but first take a very long time to explore France. One of the Frenchmen they stay with, upon learning that the one woman was from Scotland, then immediately asked her about Jimmy Shand and said he had a record of his at home.

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The Little Country by Charles de Lint. I’ve indexed the tunes, many of which are used as chapter titles, in the recordings section here. Other of his novels also feature or mention traditional music.
https://thesession.org/recordings/2361

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I think The Little Country was the first clue I had there was such a thing as a session. Trad music is a huge presence in that book.

There was another, more recent (though probably nearly two decades old now) de Lint book where the protagonist’s button accordion playing is a major portion of her life. Don’t remember the name of it now, though.

Then there’s The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, where a major portion of the book is a protagonist trying to remember how Dowd’s #9 goes…

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I’m not much of a mystery reader, but it seemed to me that there should be some mysteries featuring Irish trad. Sure enough, a quick search uncovered Sheila Connolly’s An Early Wake. From the blurb:

“Expat Maura Donovan is determined to keep Sullivan’s Pub in the black as the days grow shorter—but how? When she hears that the place was once a hot spot for Irish musicians who’d come play in the back room, she wonders if bringing back live music might be Sullivan’s salvation.

“As word gets out, legendary musicians begin to appear at the pub, and the first impromptu jam session brings in scores of music lovers. But things hit a sour note when Maura finds a dead musician in the back room the next morning. ”

I suppose I’ll have to find a copy.

There are a number of novels featuring Scottish trad, some of which I have read. And there are the Outlander books (what are they up to — 10?) in which Scottish music features prominently. Or so I am told. I haven’t read them, or seen the tv series, but thanks to some ardent fans, I have been able to put together an entire concert program of Music of Outlander.

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Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier features Appalachian fiddle and banjo music [the fiddle is played by Brendan Gleeson in the movie version] and Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx features variously Zydeco, Quebecois and Tex Mex music played on the instrument of the title.

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Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman, too. Also Dermot Bolger’s Father’s Music, although it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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Wow, thank you all! I’m an avid reader and always looking for new books! Never thought we’d talk about books here though!

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I mostly read books taking place in either the US or UK, and am not familiar with modern Irish authors whatsoever.

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Yes the New Policeman came to mind, but there must be a good many others.

Re OP though, Chief O’Neill ‘He was the Chicago Chief of Police who saved Irish Music’ - now that’s surely a bit of a wild claim!!! I’m sure knowledge of Irish trad is the better for Chief O’Neill’s efforts but I’ve no doubt it would have survived without, one way or another.

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Two more Hardy references for the moment: he mentioned a tune called "Miss McLeod of Ayr" (obviously "Miss McLeod’s Reel") in his novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge". He also wrote a short story called "The Fiddler of the Reels". Herman Melville also wrote a short story, called simply "The Fiddler". I read a young-adult novel once called "Fiddle Fever" by Sharon Arms Doucet, about a young Cajun would-be fiddler, set ca. 1914-15.

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One that features a session is DrSilverSpear’s début novel, which is well worth reading for its other merits.
See under https://thesession.org/members/13255

In the original discussion I mentioned Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, which I would describe as very notable even if the OP wouldn’t. ;-)

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Erin Hart has written some mysteries that heavily feature Irish music (she’s married to Paddy O’Brien after all).
http://www.erinhart.com/books.php

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How about the Red Hanrihan story by Yeats which features the old song "The Twisting of the Hay Rope"?

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Red *Hanrahan, that is. Excuse my horrible spelling.

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I’m reading "The New Policeman" now. I can’t get enough of those hidden references to tune titles, including the title of the book itself.

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Wow! I never expected to get so many responses. Thank you everyone. Lot’s of great reading suggestions. I can’t edit the initial list but I will add all the new suggestions below. Maybe I will do a blog entry at http://chiefoneill.com with the full list along with your comments. As to whether Francis O’Neill saved Irish music, there are many who make that claim. I hope you can read my book some day to decide for yourself ;)

* The Little Country by Charles De Lint - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/186445.The_Little_Country
* The New Policeman by Kate Thomson - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/287886.The_New_Policeman
* An Early Wake by Sheila Connolly - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22668773-an-early-wake
* Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10920.Cold_Mountain
* Father’s Music by Dermot Bolger - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/596378.Father_s_Music
* Erin Hart’s Cormac Maguire books - http://www.erinhart.com/books.php
* In the Canyons of Shadow & Light by Emily Donoho - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/151205268X/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
* Fiddle Fever by Sharon Arms Doucett - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2099852.Fiddle_Fever
* The Twisting of the Rope by William Butler Yeats - https://americanliterature.com/author/william-butler-yeats/short-story/the-twisting-of-the-rope
* The Pint Man by Steve Rushin - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7264805-the-pint-man

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I wish you well with your novel Ronan, but presumably being a novel, it’ll be somewhat fictional? The claim on your blog that ‘This is due to the immense contribution he made to preserving traditional tunes just as they were fading from popular memory’ is probably correct from an academic POV. And a very worthy and laudable legacy, there are doubtless many musicians from recent decades who have mined his collections for material.

However there have also existed a cohort of traditional musicians in Ireland & musicians who emigrated, to whom Francis O’Neill’s work would have been completely irrelevant. These people didn’t and don’t read or write a note of musical notation - they carried the music in their heads and passed it on. These musicians are the equivalent of the ‘silent rump’ - the ordinary people whose collective efforts go undocumented and therefore unnoticed.

Just as valid a claim for saving ‘Irish music’ could be made for the many individuals like Michael Coleman and the various bands that recorded 78s and which recordings made their way back across the Atlantic to be played here and from which tunes were learnt.

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, not about Irish music, but the role of music in earlier times as well as the emotions, skill and feelings when making music are described very well. If you like fantasy books I would highly recommend it.

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Re: Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

Kilcash, for what it’s worth, Frances O’Neill also didn’t read or write music… Actually he did a lot of work to document the very musicians you describe, with some notable holes (accordion, concertina for example). Just food for thought…

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Re: Fiction/Novels that Feature Trad and/or Sessions

In At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian, the narrator’s uncle and his friends argue about whether waltzes have a place in the Irish repertoire - anticipating thesession.org by - what? 75 years? … !

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Thanks, Michael, for the mention.

Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx. Big, sprawling novel, follows the life of a button accordion through early twentieth century American immigration. People who own it tend to meet a bad end, and the box ends up with someone else, and on it goes. I think it gets picked up by someone who plays Irish music for a brief bit of a chapter.

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I don’t disagree Nico, Irish trad is the better off for the work of O’Neill but I also think that like Sean O’Riada, their importance can be overstated too.

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also in At -Swim -Two -Birds, describing a Gaelic League Sports event - ‘there were my men at the fiddles and pipes, playing away at the jigs and reels ……………Oh I know said Shanahan, the national music of our country, Rodneys Glory, Star of Munster and Rights of Man. The Flogging Reel and Drive the Donkey, you cant beat them said Furriskey.

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"A Jig Before Dying," "Fortune Turns the Wheel," and "With His Dying Breath" are mystery novels written by my friend, Danny Carnahan. They are fictional but based on characters in the San Francisco trad scene of the 80s and 90s.

http://www.dannycarnahan.com/writing/novels.html

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Hi Phantom, I didn’t know that "Fortune Turns the Wheel" was a tune that ended up in my wonderful state of California. I thought it was strictly a Newcastle/Tyneside tune, because it is in one of my High Level Ranters albums but that is the only place I have seen it.

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Oh, I think I misread that! So the titles are not based on tunes but the scenes are. The song I was thinking is definitely very specific to Tyneside.

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Hi Kilcash, thank you for the contribution on O’Neill. Yes, the novel is closely based on the facts of O’Neill’s life but has some extrapolation here and there. I wanted to highlight the facts of a very interesting life and not just the famous stuff of his contribution to music.

On your point above, I agree that there were many musicians that didn’t read or write music and as Nico said, he was an important chronicaller of their lives (with some exceptions). I.e. he wrote books about the tradition as well as the famous collections of tunes. From O’Neill’s point of view however, he saw that the kind of people you mention were a dwindling minority and the music he loved was being abandoned wholesale by most in North America and back in Ireland. His project was to preserve as much of the tradition as he could based on the means he had at his disposal. True, he wasn’t a strong transcriber of music but had many friends who were (notably James O’Neill- no relation). He also wasn’t above hiring good musicians to the force and assigning them music related tasks. Of course, Coleman and other early recordings were important to preservation but I would argue that they too were influenced by the previous work of O’Neill. Check out the Dunn collection of Edison Wax Cylinders that O’Neill made: http://chiefoneill.com/dunn-family-collection

All of this would make for a very interesting separate discussion, which perhaps I will start separately!

Thanks to the others who are posting new suggestions. I am really looking forward to dipping into this list of Irish music related fiction over the summer.

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Just remembered, the book "Twisting the Rope" by R A MacAvoy centers around a trad band. I read it before I had any clue about ITM, so I don’t really have a feel for how accurate it was or what it references. I mostly remember it as the okay sequel to the great "Tea With the Black Dragon." Keep on meaning to reread it, though…

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I quite like the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. It is a fantasy series. The protagonist spends some time as a travelling entertainer playing the flute, and music and songs feature throughout the series. There are a lot of tune names that sound very familiar, like The Wind That Shakes The Willow, Fluff the Feathers. He also takes time to note that the same tune often goes by many different names…!

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I started reading Wheel of Time years ago but never got that far. Maybe I’ll go back to it… Nice to have undertone of trad music in such a popular series.

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Just got "The Good Servants" on Kindle and enjoyed it very much! Gave me a powerful thirst though.

Give the Wheel of Time a crack, you can get the whole lot on Abebooks for less than 30 quid. The main guy is like Kvothe if he wasn’t an arsehole.

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One of the attractions of Kvothe is he is a bit of an anti-hero but Wheel of Time sounds like a rewarding investment. I might dive in.
Thanks SJ.

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One more from WB Yeats:

The Fiddler of Dooney (https://www.bartleby.com/146/11.html)


WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

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I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

He damn well better not bring that book of "songs"(#$% - they’re TUNES, ya #$%$ dimwit!) to my session!!

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That poem is from 1899, not long before O’Neill was putting together his book of "tunes"
:D

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I just saw the above poem mentioned in the "Rosin the Bow" tune discusssion.

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It was from awhile back LOL, I was just reading back about that tune.

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Walter Macken: The Bogman
Michael Sands: Tadhg and the Pockel

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Dirt Road by James Kelman is about a 16 year old Scotish boy, who is an accordion player. After his mother’s recent death, sixteen-year old Murdo and his father travel from their home in rural Scotland to Alabama to be with his American aunt and émigré uncle for a few weeks. Stopping at a small town on their way from the airport, Murdo happens upon a family playing zydeco music and joins them, leaving with a gift of two CDs of southern American songs. “Ye meet people and they have lives, but ye don’t,” thinks Murdo, an aspiring musician.

While at their kind relatives’ house, the grieving father and son share no words of comfort with each other, Murdo losing himself in music while his reticent and protective dad escapes through books. The aunt, “the very very best,” Murdo calls her, provides whatever solace he receives, until his father comes around in a scene of great emotional release.

As James Wood has written in The New Yorker, “The pleasure, as always in Kelman, is being allowed to inhabit mental meandering and half-finished thoughts, digressions and wayward jokes, so that we are present” with his characters. Dirt Road is a powerful story about the strength of family ties, the consolation of music, and one unforgettable journey from darkness to light.

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Some of Thomas Hardy’s best music stories are in A Few Crusted Characters, including Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir, where the drink-befuddled band plays The Devil Among the Tailors during a church service.

I recently re-read The Bodhran Makers - a fine novel.

A couple of references so far to Father’s Music. It opens, as I recall, with a torrid sex scene during which the woman listens to reels through headphones! Bolger’s well worth the read.

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