Sometime around the fall of 2016, Pete and I took matters into our own hands. First, I began handpicking Scottish pipe tunes―a mix of pibroch and session tunes, some a bit lost and weary―and attempted to convert them into Appalachian-style waltzes and hoedowns. But recognizing these new incarnations had only gotten as far as an ethnomusicological no-man's-land, stranded in the midst of the Atlantic, I invited Pete to further refine them and bring them ashore to the New World. Pete, equipped with fiddle, banjo, and a half-century of hoedown experience, more fully rounded the edges, streamlined the fingerwork, inserted some familiar turns, and added more swing and the odd melodic quirk, all of which gave these old tunes an authentic-sounding drawl. It was then that Brad Kolodner, with an affinity towards genre-mixing and precision banjo playing, was enlisted for the final distillation. And so, with the process of appalachification more or less complete, these new-old tunes have perhaps found a new life.
This certainly isn't the first time Scottish tunes sailed westward and woke up speaking Y'all. Much of the existing Old-Time canon grew out of dance tunes that came over with the early Scots-Irish settlers, and, over the span of two hundred years, mingled with the traditions of enslaved Africans (among other populations) to become a distinct genre of traditional music. Pete and I, along with Caleb Elder, explored several such tunes in our 2012 album, The Piper in the Holler. But The Birds' Flight may be the first project dedicated almost entirely to the deliberate transmogrification of tunes from the British Isles. The result, so we like to think, is a relatively natural expansion of Appalachian Old-Time repertoire, with authentic-sounding tunes that possess both the depth of antiquity and a refreshing newness. Along the way, there was some conceptualizing of a distinct Appalachian bagpipe and style of piping: bass drones were muted, grace-notes were reduced, simplified, and shifted to the offbeats, high-Bs were added, and swing, pitch bends, and melodic variations were wholly embraced―most of this played on pipes made by American pipemakers who sourced numerous components from the Northern Appalachians.
Our trio settled on "The Birds' Flight" as the project title for a few reasons in addition to it being the name of one of this album's offerings. First, there's the associated symbolism of migration―be it bird, tune, song, or dance―of crossing the sea to a new homeland. Second, it references a concept once offered by Pete Seeger, whereby a folksong transcription is analogous to a photograph of a flying bird: in both cases, one assumes the subject matter, in the moment it was 'captured', had come from somewhere else, and had already continued onward by the time the printed version was in hand. Of course, capturing a tune by means of a microphone is no different. The tunes on this album, it is fervently hoped, will continue to take wing and explore new territories and flavors, perhaps even returning back to their place of origin to be caught and released once more.
And a rebuttal:
In this dark age of competing versions of the truth, it is impossible to overstate the importance of sticking to one’s own version of said truth. And so it does seem imperative that I—the bringer of the fiddle dish at this potluck for your ears, not to mention eldest of all contributors here by a good generation—weigh in on the thorny question of where these tunes actually came from. I know that my esteemed colleague Mr. Cummings has prepared an impressive defense of his conjecture that each and every one of these melodies has a traceable antecedent in Scottish piping, whether a reel that kicks serious ass (easier in a kilt by the way), a jig that turns you into your own bobblehead figure while attempting to lull you into the belief that its supposed “four parts” are nothing more than the standard two with a little sleight of hand, or a slice of a most dolorous and potentially endless pibroch.
Well. As Uncle Joe himself is wont to say, “Malarkey!”
These are, in point of fact, actual Old-Time fiddle and banjo tunes painstakingly gathered from some of the last of the old generation, supplemented by hours pouring over manuscripts in dusty special collections presided over by nodding undergrads racking up work-study hours. Yes, I’ve been a deep-sea diver hunting a pearl, and have been hassled by many a bored shark along the way. But I digress. The fact that these tunes resemble—sometimes uncannily so—this or that Scottish melody merely gives weight to the indisputable fact that the good folks of the Appalachian Highlands, and their community music, remained mostly untainted by the glitter and polished twang of modern country music—a train forever intent on pulling away from the station—being slowly and beautifully filtered instead through fortuitous interactions with the African banjo and its champions black and white.
This is all settled fact, and the study of it has provided what in this day and age passes for a living wage for folklorists at the state and national levels for a number of decades. Yet half-baked theories will continue to sit in their cold ovens, patiently awaiting the re-kindling of the pilot light, and so to pour a little more water on the sputtering fire of Cummings’ assertions, I will state unequivocally that at no time did he and I take one single purebred Scottish tune and “monkey around with it”, "jam on it”, or otherwise "take it to the dance”. We certainly did not do this over a period of several years, allowing a kind of organic process to unfold similar to what might have happened back in the day. We most definitely did not do this while imbibing anything stronger than a decent cup of green tea. We did not do it with a fox. We did not do it in a box. Need I go on?
Hoping you’ll enjoy our most singular portrayal of this timeless and well-traveled music.
South Burlington, VT
Tim Cummings is a Vermont-based composer and multi-instrumentalist (chiefly a piper) who enjoys an uncommonly diverse repertoire. His music spans from contemporary and sacred genres to the traditional melodies of the British Isles, Appalachia, Cape Breton, Brittany, and beyond. He holds degrees in music from the College of Wooster (Ohio) and the New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī. Today he operates Birchen Music & Publishing while also remaining active as a performer, teacher, and workshop leader. www.TimothyCummings.com
A warm-voiced singer/songsmith, accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and veteran of many great bands, Pete Sutherland is known equally for his potent originals and his intense recreations of age-old ballads and fiery fiddle tunes. A prolific composer and record producer, Pete has been on staff at dance and music camps coast to coast and is a widely known year-round teacher and performer at home. www.PetesPosse.com
Baltimore-based clawhammer banjoist Brad Kolodner represents the next generation of Old-Time musicians pushing the boundaries of the tradition into uncharted territory. Regarded for his delicate touch, expressive style, and original compositions, Brad has rapidly gained national attention for his unique approach to the banjo. He regularly performs across the country in a duo with his father Ken Kolodner, a world renowned hammered dulcimer player, and with the acoustic roots quartet Charm City Junction. www.BradKolodner.com
Campbell's Farewell to Red Gap • Carmichael Gal arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (smallpipes: C), Brad (banjo: gCGCD), Pete (fiddle: FCGC)
Donny's in the Slop • Katy Bess of Tennessee arr. Cummings/Sutherland Tim (Border pipes), Pete (fiddle: AEAE)
Sheep in the Clouds • Helluva Fish arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (smallpipes: A, Border pipes), Brad (banjo: aEAC#E), Pete (fiddle: GDAE)
Vance No More
trad. Appalachian, from John Morgan Salyer (Kentucky) via Bruce Greene & Loy McWhirter arr. Sutherland/Cummings Pete (voice, fiddle: GCGC), Tim (smallpipes: C)
MacGregor of Roaring Fork arr. Cummings/Kolodner Brad (gourd banjo: eBEAB)
MacAulay's arr. Cummings/Sutherland Pete (fiddle: FCGD), Tim (smallpipes: C)
Chatterin' Horse • And I Wish'd I Hadn' a-Seen It arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (Border pipes), Brad (banjo: aDADE), Pete (fiddle: ADAE)
Farewell Dundee • Babe of Bethlehem arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Brad (banjo: aEADE), Tim (smallpipes: A), Pete (fiddle: GDAE)
MacKenzie Creek arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Pete (fiddle: GDAD), Brad (gourd banjo: dADF#A)
Jackson Falls arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (Border pipes), Brad (banjo: aDADE), Pete (fiddle: AEAE)
trad. Appalachian, from Maggie Hammons (West Virginia/Virginia)
arr. Sutherland/Cummings Pete (voice, fiddle: DCGD), Tim (smallpipes: D)
Lexie MacAskill arr. Sutherland/Kolodner Brad (banjo: aEADE), Tim (drones)
Briar Rock • Geese in the Clover • Come Along Billy arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (smallpipes: A), Brad (banjo: gDGBD), Pete (fiddle: GDAE)
Kilmarnock arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Pete (voice, fiddle: GCGD), Tim (voice, smallpipes: C), Brad (voice)
Money Musk arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (Border pipes), Brad (banjo: aEAC#E), Pete (fiddle: AEAE)
The Birds' Flight arr. Cummings/Sutherland/Kolodner Tim (smallpipes: D), Brad (gourd banjo: dADF#A), Pete (fiddle: ADAE)