Over the past few weeks I’ve been to two folk sessions in Castle Douglas, and one in Kirkcudbright, run by the same guy. At the last one, I heard tell of a session every couple of weeks in the pub in Corsock (a remote village so small that the pub is also a post office), but it carried a warning.
“They’re a bit hardcore up there,” said the mandolin player supping his Guinness next to me. I have noticed that there seem to be an excessive amount of mandolin players at these sessions – by excessive, I mean more than one and/or when they outnumber the guitarists. Time was I would get an extra level of respect turning up with a mandolin, and it allowed me to avoid the heavy competitiveness that goes along with playing a guitar - mandolins were rare but guitarists were always three-a-penny.
“Hardcore?” I raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“Real musicians” he replied, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “play a lot of Irish music. No singers…”
I let out a long slow breath; not quite a whistle. “Intimidating?” I asked, although it was a statement more than a question. He nodded.
Meanwhile the fiddle player had struck up another tune so we returned to the music and nothing more was said.
At the folk sessions I’ve been attending, while there are some traditional fast-fiddle type pieces, there are also a fair amount of songs, both traditional and some composed by people who attend. The advantage of song-focused folk music is that the mandolin is then an accompanying instrument. You can either join the guitarists in playing the chords (rarely more than 3 or 4 in any song), which is easy stuff, of you can follow the tune of the singer, which is unlikely to be anything too complicated.
But with instrumental folk music, the fiddle is usually playing complicated fast twiddly stuff and the mandolin is expected to keep up!
It is here that I start to feel like a bit of a fake. I came to the mandolin from the guitar, and always listened to rock, heavy metal, punk and the odd bit of blues; I have no folk history. When I first got my mandolin I used to listen to some of my wife’s folk tapes and played along, but I never bothered to learn the names.
Think of it this way: some games, like chess for example, are far more fun to play than to watch unless you are a real aficionado. For me, folk music has always been very similar in that respect. It’s great sitting in amongst a group of folk musicians playing live, joining in where possible, but I don’t have CDs full of the stuff to listen to when I’m driving.
So I knew I was letting myself in for it by heading up to Corsock last night, and as I walked into the bar with the mandolin over my shoulder, there was a voice screaming in my head, “Turn around now! Get back in the car! Don’t be so stupid, you’re just going to make a complete fool of yourself. Leave now before you embarrass yourself and everyone here.” However, the reality is that any folk session can only survive if new blood comes in, and as long as I wasn’t so crap that I actually interfered with the ability of the other players to concentrate, then it was unlikely I’d be snubbed.
As it turned out they were warm and welcoming, although they were all vastly superior players. Several of them actually have a Ceilidh band together, so had a huge repertoire of tunes that they all knew, and I didn’t.
Once or twice across the evening I led with one of the half a dozen tunes or so that I can play without making a fool of myself and everyone else joined in. When asked afterwards what the tune was called, I had to confess that I had no idea, but had just picked it up somewhere. They were kind enough not to snigger.
While I was relieved that there were no other mandolin players, one guy did turn up with an Octave Mandola, which is like a larger mandolin, but tuned an octave lower. He let me have a go: it was a beautifully crafted instrument, with a fantastic resonate sound that vibrated in my chest as I played.
When I praised it he proceeded to tell me that is was built by Spinoza or Spiro-Agnew, or some such name, and then looked at me with an expectation that I should be really impressed. My lack of credentials meant that I had never heard of the name before (and as you can see, the name didn’t stick in my head either), but to get the point across he continued that it had cost “two-two” when he bought it three years ago. I guess at this point he meant £2,200 (about $4,000), so I made sure that I had the appropriate respectful and impressed expression on my face.
As I went up to the bar to buy myself drink, another fiddle player walked in. At this point the landlord leaned forward and said, with reverence in his voice, “That’s Nigel…” and at this point I cannot recall the surname but, once again, I was evidently supposed to be impressed. I contorted my face into what I hope was a expression of deferential surprise. When Nigel Whatisname played, I wasn’t aware that he was necessarily better than the other fiddle players there, but he had an air of self-assurance that suggested he didn’t feel like a fake.
Did I feel out of my depth? Yes. Did I feel like a fake? Yes. Would I go back? Yes.
Ultimately, if I keep going, I will learn the tunes and my playing will improve, and several of them did seem like genuinely friendly people. When Maggie and I decided to change our lives and move here, one of the things we wanted to do was meet more creative people, and this seems like a good way of going about it.
Eventually I hope I'll stop feeling a fake.