I don’t think there’s any other book on my shelves that I’ve ransacked for tunes as much as Kerr’s Merry Melodies (see earlier post), and possibly nothing quite so useful to build a repertoire as hornpipes. They move a lot, so it always sounds like you’re doing something, and because the melodies are suited to the physical characteristics of the violin rather than the piano, there’s something that sounds instantly fresh and different about them. After nearly a decade, I’d got almost everything I could out of the book I bought, and moved on to O’Neill’s 1001 , a collection of, you guessed it, 1001 Irish dance tunes.
Put that (lilt) in your hornpipes and rock them
Hornpipes are usually written as even quavers or semiquavers, but played with a lilt. I’ve written out a suggestion of the lilting by dotting all the tunes, but before anyone writes to complain, yes, I know lilting’s more subtle a practice than that, but it’s better than accidentally giving the impression that they’re not lilted. You can spend hours reading about lilting on the net, but for a brief overview of the topic, see this.
I’m not sure what it is that makes a good hornpipe tune, but I like the ones that have the occasional triplet in, that have a wide tessitura that give you the feeling of a fiddler using the whole of the violin rather than just twiddling about up the top end. Sometimes it’s the name that endears me to the tune (like O’Connor’s Favorite in this set), and the modal ones are a welcome change.
Sometimes, a tiny fragment of melody reminds me of another tune, like the beginning of Fair and Forty, which is just like “Here we go looby loo” which my dad used to sing to me and my sister as children, and I have seldom if ever heard since.
Another example is Whiskey You’re the Devil (or the same tune under different names). The end of the first phrase is identical to the second half of the first line of Out of Town, the theme tune to a programme that I couldn’t stand as a child, but in the school playground we used to change the words to “Say what you will, school dinners make you ill…”
And here’s the song:
As it happens, me and my friend Johnny Dyer were suspended from my C of E junior school for three days, aged 10, for leading a protest march with a few others in Bournemouth with banners written in biro on the side of cardboard boxes saying “School dinners are only fit for pigs!” I don’t think the school dinners really were that bad – we’d seen a group of kids in Southampton on the 6 o’clock news doing the same thing, and we wanted our 15 minutes of fame too.