Miss McLeod's reel played by Jim Donaghue

A brief analysis by Steve Jones, 22 July 2002

The clip is from the album Music from the Coleman Country originally released by Leader Records in 1972, recently re-issued as a CD. I haven't yet sought permission from the publisher to post an excerpt, by the way, but I regard this as a promotional exercise: I encourage you to buy the CD for the full track and all the other great music on it, and I trust the publisher and distributor won't mind. Here's one place you can get it.

I chose this track because it has fascinated me for years. It is also an interesting example of the way a Scottish tune (also very well known in North America) can mutate when a skilled Irish musician does a job of work on it.

Jim Donaghue, who died a number of years ago, was from the Gurteen area of Co. Sligo, often known as "the Coleman country" because it was the birthplace of the enormously influential fiddler Michael Coleman. Donaghue was apparently an influence on many younger musicians, especially flute players, among them Sťamus Tansey and Matt Molloy. This little jewel of a track shows Donaghue as a master stylist. He is accompanied by his son Sťamus on "tambourine".

Donaghue plays a modified Clarke C whistle with a very distinctive sound: in the higher octave, most of what you hear is lower octave, as you will see. In The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (ed. Fintan Vallely, Cork University Press 1999), p. 140, we are told that Jim Donaghue used a heated hacksaw blade to modify the fipple of his whistle!

There are two clips, both of the first time through the tune (Donaghue plays it three times on the record), once at full speed and once at half speed. I slowed down the playback rate a touch to bring into approximate tune with my Clarke C whistle.

I could have spent more time on the transcription and I may have made a mistake or two - I'd be grateful if anybody spots any and lets me know.

Here's the tune, followed by links to the clips, and a bar by bar commentary pointing out the things that strike me most about JD's playing.

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MP3 clip of tune at normal speed (177K)

MP3 clip of tune at half speed (352K)


The track starts with a two-bar "intro" which is basically the same as bars A7 and A8a. The first note, a long D, starts with a quick C# grace that almost gives the effect of sliding into the D. (It is worth noting that JD does not use glissando, or sliding into notes.) The intro then gathers speed and in the bar marked "i1" you can hear some nice relaxed long rolls on high e and f. JD's rolls are, as far as I can hear, pretty much straight "dah-blah-blah" - even note lengths, with perhaps a touch of delay on the first note in some of the long rolls.

JD uses very little tonguing, but he tongues both the last note of bar i1 and the first note of i2, which is also graced. He uses a similar tonguing pattern on a number of occasions to give the tune a kick along, and I have marked these notes with a small "t" to indicate that they are tongued.

Bar A1 starts with what most people would call a "short roll". (I've written out the rolls in the first two bars, then used the ~ symbol.) Notice however that the "pick-up note" at the end of bar i2 is not an F#, as we might expect, but a G. Since the roll at the start of A1 is not tongued, there is a feeling of a long roll slurred across the bar line, giving a very characteristic swing.

The 2nd beat of A1 begins with an A, rather than the B one might expect. This is an example of what Peter Laban calls "melodic range compression", a device is commonly used in Irish dance tunes, in various forms. I marked a grace note here, although on the first time through the tune it's hard to tell if one is there. On subsequent repeats it is quite clear, however.

The 3rd and 4th beats of A1 are taken up with what I like to call an "off-beat roll", for obvious reasons. Very often such a figure would be transcribed as an eighth note G followed by a short roll on a quarter note G. I prefer to avoid the term "short roll" for these figures, since as you can hear, there's nothing short about the way it sounds.

In bar A2 I have marked a "^" sign above the C to indicate that its pitch is distinctly sharp, as are all Cs. I surmise that JD might be playing it by covering only one hole, the second or B hole. On the repeat, the second note of this bar is sacrificed for the purposes of taking a breath.

Bar A3 starts with a short roll that sounds more like a short roll than its counterpart in A1, because the pick-up note is different. Otherwise the bar is the same as A1. On the repeat, JD eschews the "range compression" and plays a B after the roll rather than the A shown here.

In bar A4, JD invariably takes a breath where the rest is indicated.

Bar A5 consists of two long rolls and eighth notes. In bar A6 there the two Bs are separated with a cut, and a rest where JD usually breathes.

Bar A7, with the long rolls we heard in the intro, is another departure from the usual range of melodic patterns we hear in this tune, particularly the F# roll. The segment is almost a signature for JD's playing of this piece. At the end of bar A7 and start of bar A8a we see the tonguing pattern I mentioned in bars i1 / i2. On some of the subsequent repeats the first note of this bar is not tongued, however.

Bar A8b contains an unusual feature - a roll that is not so much on an off-beat, but straddling the 2nd and 3rd beats. You can see how odd this appears by looking at the shorthand used for the same figure in bar B8a. Strange as it looks in this position, it's a roll, no doubt about it.

Bar B1 begins with a shortened eighth note high G, shortened for two purposes: to allow a breath, and also to put some lift into this crucial bar at the start of the "turn". It is followed by a short roll on the same note. The last four notes of the bar are another interesting melodic variation.

In bar B2, JD conspicuously avoids playing a long roll on the first B, but plays a straight quarter note/eighth-note pair, with a cut to separate them.

In bar B3, because of the way JD's whistle sounds, it's very hard to tell whether he intended to sound high or low notes. So I've marked in both octaves, and if you play this tune you'll find that either version sounds fine. Playing the whole section low runs counter to our expectations of the tune, but that may be just what JD intended. Or perhaps he liked the ambiguity?

The tonguing pattern for the first half of the bar is fairly typical practice - the tonguing is on the second note of each pair rather than the first, in this case the Bs, which are melodically less important. This gives a swing effect as JD slurs into the main note. On the repeat JD sacrifices the first of these As to take a breath.

B4 could easily have been played high. As it is it sounds intentionally low. The twin-tonguing figure we have already seen twice is again employed.

Bars B5, B6, B7, B8a and B8b consist of bits we've already seen. B8a features the curiously placed roll on a B, and B8b ends with a G, so that JD can slur nicely into his G roll to start the second time through the tune.

The remaining repeats of the tune do not introduce much in the way of variation, other than the odd grace and breathing space. The only significant melodic variation occurs in bars A6 and A7 on the repeat, the last time the tune is played. This variation is shown below the last line of the tune.

These are my main observations. Please post any of your own as replies on the C&F ITM forum, and point out anything I may have mistranscribed or misidentified. Two or more heads are better than one.

Steve Jones