Whitby Folk Week

I’ve been back from Whitby for nearly a week, and, as usual, it’s taken me that long to pick up the pieces.

The undoubted highlight, for me, was Robin Huw Bowen playing the Welsh triple harp. I’ve read lots about it, but I’ve never even seen one before, let alone heard anyone playing it, and playing it so superbly.

I especially remember the comment he passed on, from an old harpist that he had been learning tunes from, who said “Now, you’re getting there. You’ve got the notes, now you need to learn the music.”  That’s a piece of advice that many session players could take heed of! All too often we seem to be just playing the notes, with no sort of feel for the music. I get particularly annoyed when the source material, and the feel of the tune, clearly indicates that there should be a brief gap between the notes – the source notation shows a rest there – but it gets filled in, either by joining the notes or adding an extra one to fill the ‘gap’. Paddy Carey is a clear example.

I didn’t go to so many sessions this time. I decided there were more interesting things going on than sitting in a session playing the same tunes that we always play. People seem afraid to start off tunes that they think others won’t know, and if they do, so many people just sit on their hands and don’t even try to join in. I even heard someone grumble about people playing tunes they didn’t know. For me, that would be a cause of celebration rather than grumble. I want to hear, and hopefully learn, ‘new’ tunes. Otherwise there’s no point in going all that way, except that it’s cheap entertainment.

Furthermore, many of the tunes exist in a number of variants, one of which has become dominant, usually because some band has recorded that version. If you try to play a different version, the chance are everyone will try to play the ‘standard’ one and you will get swamped. Even worse, you may be told you’re playing it wrong! That did happen to me, when I was just starting out, and I was too new to the game to argue. If anyone tried it now, I would point out that if I start a tune, then everyone should try to play the version that I’m playing. If I start it, that’s the ‘right’ version. The focus on ‘standard’ versions of a limited number of tunes means that we are missing out on the tremendous variety of tunes, and versions of them, that exist.

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