Irish Banjo for Valentine’s Day or a Song to Make Grown Men Cry
- Please find lovely close-ups of Finbar playing banjo (for the TV mix) at 1:56 and 3:15 at this link: Top of the Pops | BBC | When You Were Sweet Sixteen - The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur (1981)
Notice how he uses the 5th string, and also take note of his fretting-hand ornaments.
Notice the similarities to and variations of the original version, also his unique finger style accompaniment down the neck. The banjo is tuned to open G.
Notice the audience—not just couples—holding hands and swaying from side to side.
Is the audience bothered that he’s not playing a tenor banjo? What is it about the 5-string; why does he play that instrument?
The 5-string is not considered an Irish instrument, and certainly not an ITM instrument. Ah, sure, but it’s a much older travelling community instrument known well in the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) today, thanks to people like Margaret Barry, Pecker Dunne, Finbar Furey, and The Dubliners' own Luke Kelly.
Finbar was a record-setting-champion uilleann piper as a child. He learned to sing and pick banjo from his mother and father, and learned uilleann pipes from his father. They were travellers, and the 5-string banjo was used by travellers to back songs before the tenor came into fashion. Along with his parents, people like Pecker Dunne, who was a cousin of Finbar’s mother, and Margaret Barry, were friends and big influences on Finbar, as were other travellers who played a variety of instruments—whatever instruments they could get their hands on.
Okay, below is a 2010 version with Davey Arthur (please see interview) playing a tenor banjo, and it’s lovely in its simplicity. Davey’s version is economical, leaving out notes and the rich ornamentation that Finbar plays. It doesn’t pull at one’s heartstrings like Finbar’s 5-string version does, though there’s nothing technically wrong with it. (Hold on, which Furey is it singing this time?)
Here’s a dismissive comment about Finbar’s 5-string work that one might expect to find at The Session - Sweet sixteen banjo abc or tab?:
“There’s nothing specifically ‘5-string’ about it that I can hear. It’s all single string notes, no cross-picking or 5-string banjo rolls…. There’s a certain tone or twang that the Fureys get by playing with fingers or fingerpicks, but I saw Davey Arthur do it quite satisfactorily with a tenor b. in one of his solo shows many years ago. (Finnegans, Abu Dhabi, 1998 - ya hadda be there.) Sorry I can’t be more helpful but I don’t have my banjo at work!”
And. for the craic, guess who wrote this classic?
Enjoy ~ Tom and Denise Hanway