DONEGAL FIDDLE PLAYERS
John Doherty (c1900-1980) was a Donegal fiddler from a long line of travelling tinsmiths and musicians. His forbears are thought to have been in the service of the O’Donnells, one of the most powerful Donegal families, who fled their home at Castle Doe in 1607 during the Flight of the Earls. Certainly John could trace his ancestry back to his great Grandfather Hugh Doherty, who was a fiddler and played also on the Highland and Uillan pipes. John was extremely aware of the musical continuity in his playing, in terms of both style and repertoire. His fund of tunes was vast, and he knew alternative versions of many tunes, for which he knew the source.
Perhaps the most notable feature of his playing style was the power of his tone and forcefulness of his playing. In his excellent sleeve notes on “The Floating Bow” (1996), Alun Evans commented;
The controlled attack in his playing could at times amount to a sustained assault and it made for vibrant, dramatic music”
This forcefulness was emphasized by the frequency with which he used short, separate bow strokes, even on reels which from other players are normally packed with slurs. In modern terms this aspect of his playing was unusual to say the least; sophisticated use of slurs is regarded as essential by most Irish fiddle players. Had he come to me for a lesson I would have thrown up my hands in despair at such a bowing style. This just goes to show that, as we will examine further in the section on regional and personal style, there is no one correct way to play the fiddle.
Slurs in Doherty’s bowing were by no means absent however. On hornpipes he often used “hornpipe bowing”, slurring notes 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 6 and 7 in a bar. He used long slurred bows for his pipe imitations, such as can be heard on the march, jig and reel set opening with the Eniskillen Dragoons. For this he tuned down the G string to an octave below the D, and used this low string as a continuous drone, (which he called the “dragging bow”) while the melody, packed with chanter ornamentation from the left hand, was played on the D string. The illusion of hearing bagpipes is further sustained by the momentary tuning down and then up again of the low string between tunes.
Tuning the whole fiddle down at least a tone was something Doherty did regularly.
The Scottish influence on Donegal fiddling is well documented, and is clearly heard in Doherty’s playing, though, again to quote Evans
“his music was far removed from the formal, bookish approach sometimes associated with Scottish fiddling”
He was a great fan of Scott Skinner, and played many of the Scotsman’s compositions. Doherty’s repertoire, like most other Donegal players, includes pipe marches, highlands and strathspeys. He would often finish a tune with a four string chord, and used the birl or treble, sometimes even playing the double birl (two adjacent birls; one at the start of a bow, the other at the end).
He had many specialized techniques rarely found among other Irish traditional players. He employed “feathering”- a type of vibrato produced by vibration of the bow hand rather than the left hand. He sometimes used a spiccato bouncing bow. He was adept at playing in difficult positions and keys. He also had a rather mysterious technique, the “floating bow” (after which his Claddagh records cd was named). This involved a combination of a long slurred bow, odd syncopated phrasing and a pulsing effect. You can hear it to good effect on Miss Paterson’s Slipper.
On some tunes he would do “reversing”; playing the same melody alternately in two different octaves; if playing with another fiddler they could do this in unison. Suitable tunes for this would have a small melodic range, using only the G and D, or A and E strings. Examples from Doherty’s repertoire include The Mountain Road and Gusty’s Frolicks.
Along with fiddling, he was a noted storyteller, and was able to combine the two with “programme” pieces such as Hunt of the Hounds and the Hare, where he was able to coax uncanny sound effects from his fiddle- the baying of hounds, the pounding of hooves and the blowing of horns.
At his death in 1980 the Donegal Democrat newspaper announced “John Doherty-prince among traditional fiddlers-is dead”. He was said to be “the last of the travelling fiddlers”
Tommy Peoples, from the village of St Johnston in NE Donegal, is one of the best known fiddlers from that county, but is generally recognised as being more of an individualistic player rather than a representative of the Donegal style as a whole.
On moving to Dublin in the 1960’s he joined a Ceili band called The Green Linnet, and made his first recordings in 1969, including some of his own compositions. He recorded with the famous Kilfenora Ceilidh band in 1974, and the following year joined the Bothy Band, playing on their eponymous debut album. A combination of stage fright and some bad experiences with record companies led to him leaving the Bothy Band, replaced by Kevin Burke, and his recording career since then has been intermittent. The High Part of the Road, in 1976 is considered one of his best albums, but his best known is The Quiet Glen, a solo album from 1998.
He has always had a love for Scottish music; he introduced the Laird of Drumblair to the Bothys for example, and popularised the Scott Skinner air Hector the Hero.
In common with many Donegal players he uses mostly separate bows, but does so far more smoothly than, for example, Johnny Doherty. He also shares a certain wildness in tuning with some of the older Donegal players. His reels are played very “straight” rhythmically, with little swing.
The most characteristic feature of Doherty’s playing is his dense use of ornamentation, particularly the amazingly crisp and precise bowed triplets or trebles. These are very distinctive and individualistic. They are so short and sharp that they can be fitted into a quaver instead of the normal crochet. Some are melodic; ie instead of being three of the same note, they may be , for example, two E’s and a D. Sometimes they come out more as a pair of semiquavers and a quaver- more in the way of Scottish players.
Cuts and occasional rolls also appear, and his decoration is often used to create complex syncopated patterns, placing the accent for example as one and TWO and /one and TWO and/ one and two and ONE and two and.