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Musical Journeys

Latest update: 3rd Feb 2018

Musical Journeys

The Fairy Dance

The origins of The Fairy Dance can be traced to the early 19th Century. In 1809 Nathaniel Gow, celebrated son of the famous Scots fiddler Niel Gow, published a four-page foolscap sheet under the title Largo's Fairy Dance, a suite of two tunes: The Fairies' Advancing - a slow march - and The Fairy Dance, a tune he had composed for the Fife Hunt Ball in 1802. The former tune is now forgotten, but the latter has become a standard tune in Scotland, is known in a few settings in Ireland, and in North America different settings - and names for the tune - are found in abundance.

Scotland: The Fairy Dance (Nathaniel Gow)

The Fairy Dance

It's one of those tunes that most people in Scotland recognise when they hear it. It's a rare traditional musician who doesn't know how to play it, and it can be heard at dances and ceilidhs across the country. The setting above is fairly standard, but there are small differences and variations from setting to setting. The fiddler James Scott Skinner published a number of variations on the tune (which he called Largo's Fairy Dance) in his 1903 collection Harp & Claymore. I have heard Shetland fiddler Aly Bain in a dual with American fiddler Mark O'Connor, each playing variations to The Fairy Dance.

Ireland: The Fairy Reel

The Fairy Reel

Versions of the Irish variant of The Fairy Dance - known as The Fairy Reel can be found in the repertoires of some of the most influential traditional players. The West Clare piper Willie Clancy (1918-1973) played it under the title An Buailteoir Meidhreach (The Jolly Banger). His father learned it from another piper of legendary status, Garret Barry.

The Donegal fiddler John Doherty played a number of Scots-origin tunes, amongst them The Fairy Reel in the key of D. More recently, Kevin Burke (fiddle) and Jackie Daly (button box), two of Ireland's greatest contemporary traditional musicians, recorded it on their popular album Eavesdropper (1981).

The setting given above is from the album 'Kitty Lie Over' by Mick O'Brien and Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh (2007).

USA: Old Molly Hare

Old Molly Hare

The tune is very well known across America. Fiddlin' John Powers and Family, one of the first mountain string bands to record, released it on a 78rpm disc in 1924. On that record he said that it was "an old song that was lost in the building of King Solomon's Temple and in later years has been resurrected, and we call it Old Molly Hare." The lyrics contain such gems as

Old Molly Hare, what you doing there,
Sitting on the hillside eating on a bear?
Old Molly Hare, she took a spell,
Kicked my liquor jug all to Hell.

Other US variants have been noted under titles such as Rustic Dance and Grandma Blair:

USA: Grandma Blair

Grandma Blair

Nigel Gatherer, Crieff, Perthshire |