The Locomotive played by Joe Skelton

A brief analysis by Sylvain Maillot, 23 January 2003

If you can't see this png graphics image, you need a newer browser!


This clip is taken from Peter Laban's collection of recordings. Peter thinks the player is Joe Skelton, "a flute and whistleplayer from Galway who was always a bit cheeky in his choice of tunes," but since the tape is 15 years old, he cannot be 100 per cent sure. The recording is a set of two hornpipes, the first of which, called The locomotive, is transcribed here. According to Steve, this tune is attributed to James Hill, "a Scottish fiddler who lived in Newcastle and composed many fancy hornpipes."

The words "fancy hornpipe" bring two things to my mind: long triplet runs, a famous example being the 4th bar of The harvest home played (3efe (3dcB (3ABA (3GFE; and accidentals, betraying the influence of classical music, which can go as far as chromatic progressions. They are not usually extremely interesting from a musical point of view, but are rather chosen by players as a support to show their virtuosity, or simply for fun. "Players" here generally refers to fiddlers. Playing such a tune on the whistle is a bit of a challenge, and interesting just for that reason. We will see that Joe Skelton makes extensive and playful use of fiddle techniques adapted to the whistle.


The tune is played twice. I have written a fairly basic transcription, chiefly based on the first playing, and indicated some of the variations separately below.

As I said in the introduction, one important aspect is triplets. JS uses two very different kinds of triplets, which I'll call "slurred" and "tongued". An example of slurred triplets is in the very last bar. In the basic descending phrase AFGE, the intervals are filled in to give (3AGF (3GFE. The whole passage is played legato, and the filling notes, the second of each triplet, are sometimes so soft that they are barely audible. (In fact, listening to the various repeats of this bar, I find it impossible to say exactly when the second note of the triplet is actually played.)

By contrast, in a tongued triplet, for instance the (3Bcd triplet in Bar 3, the three notes are articulated with the tongue, presumably following a "diddle-dee" or "tickety" pattern, so that they are clearly audible. Such triplets can also be descending, as the (3dcB in Bar 4. They are a direct transposition of staccato triplets played on the fiddle by bowing each note separately.

Still following this principle that the tongue is the whistle player's bow, JS imitates a fiddler's treble, that is, a division of a single note into several shorter notes of the same pitch obtained by very quick bowstrokes. This can be heard for instance on the first note of Bar 2, an 8th note f which gets divided into two 16th notes by a quick movement of the tongue, so the first half of this bar could more accurately be written f/f/edc. In Bar 12, the first note, a quarter note e, is (as far as I can hear) divided into three, giving a triplet (3eee continued by the descending tongued triplet (3dcB.

There are a few accidentals: in Bar 6, the highest note in the phrase, a high B, is emphasized by a sharpened A. This slurred b-a#-b movement is echoed by a similar a-g#-a in the first part of the turn. There is also a chromatic progression in Bar 7, where an A flat is inserted between A and G.

In Bar 4 there is an interesting octave change: after e2 (3dcB, one would expect a low A, but we get a high one. Likewise in Bar 16, the expected D is raised one octave. I speculate that on the fiddle, those notes would be played loudly, with a strong bowstrike; on the whistle, you cannot achieve a similar effect on notes in the first octave, especially on low D, without overblowing them. So JS chooses to overblow, somewhat breaking the continuity of the phrase, but obtaining the desired rhythmic effect.

Other octave shifts occur in the tune, the most notable being the displayed variation of Bar 10, where it is combined with accidentals. The effect is a bit strange, maybe not to everyone's taste, but technically quite impressive, especially if you consider that it is probably improvised. Again it reminds me of a fiddler playing in two octaves simultaneously on different strings.

To finish off, I'd like to analyze in more detail the last phrase (Bars 13-16). In most repeats, both Bar 13 and Bars 14-15 feature cuts on the second and/or fourth beats, but the effect is very different.

In Bar 13, those cuts are played tightly and maybe associated with slight diaphragm pushes. The result is to emphasize the notes being cut (both low A's), which adds interest to a somewhat boring sequence of D Major arpeggios. Stressing the second and fourth beats of the bar is particularly interesting here since in the previous bar, as in most of the tune, the strong beats are the first and the third. (For more on the cuts to create subtle offbeat accents, you can listen to Joe Bane's untitled reel.)

In Bars 14-15, the grace notes in the sequence ab{ab}ag|fa{ga}gf ~e2 are played more loosely, and the whole passage is slurred. This gives a flowing effect, which in my opinion is specially efficient being surrounded by two symmetric tongued triplets (3Bcd and (3dcB.

One could also consider this last part of the phrase as echoing Bars 3-4 in a question/answer pattern. Bar 3 begins with a distinctive (3Bcd tongued triplet, leading to the expressive high note g; then there is a legato passage; then a symmetric (3dcB triplet, which is also tongued, leading to A, the dominant of the Key of D Major. The phrase in Bars 14-16 also features a (3Bcd tongued triplet, this time jumping to high A, then to high B, the highest note in the tune, before going down again, first legato, then staccato again on that (3dcB triplet leading to A, but this time goes down further (legato again!) to reach the fundamental note D.

Sylvain Maillot, 23 January 2003