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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 16 October 2020 -- Ballydesmond Polkas

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

ndlxs - Posted - 10/16/2020:  05:26:45

The tune of the week for October 16, 2020 is something a little different: it is a set of 3 Irish Polkas, all from the little town of Ballydesmond, located in County Cork in southwestern Republic of Ireland.  This town was established as a model community in 1830 by the British and was known at Kingwilliamstown, a name was oddly unpopular with the local residents.  The surrounding area is known as Sliabh Luachra, an area which is famed for its traditional Irish music and culture.  Polkas are very popular in this part of Ireland.

The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, and are typically played with an off-beat accent. (From Wikipedia)

These three tunes are widely played together, in sets of 2 or 3.  No one really agrees on the numbering of the tunes or which order they are played, though.  As far as I am concerned, the Red Clay Ramblers are the official version of this set and their numbering is final. They recorded it (with the late Tommy Thompson on banjo) on “Stolen Love” in 1975: it can be heard here:;t=1573s

I believe this version by Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford is where the Ramblers got it:

Listen to the delicious slides on the fiddle on this.

About five string banjos in traditional Irish dance music: you won’t find 5 strings playing Irish instrumental music much in Ireland, I believe.  They are used for songs, though, by the likes of the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers. Players such as Ken Perlman here in the US have become skilled in playing Irish jigs and hornpipes clawhammer style; it is pretty difficult to play IMHO.  Minstrel banjo manuals from the middle of the 19th century actual have “stroke style” arrangements of jigs in them; “stroke style” is a fancier version of clawhammer.  The real problem at sessions is that they might look at you funny with a 5 string, and you will have to keep up with their speed.  These 3 polkas  are pretty easy to play up to speed, though.

Here is my tab of this tune:;v=24559

The drop thumbed notes have a “T” over the note.  I play this with the second part of the first tune as an introduction, and then I play each of the three tunes twice.

Here is the musical notation you can share with the fiddler, mandolin player, or saxophone player of choice:

Here is a  video of me playing it in 2016 with the gifted bodhran player, Bryan O’Gihara:

If you live in Madison, WI, you might search for Mr. Ogihara, he also plays bouzouki quite well too.

Here is another version filmed in front of my house in Sacramento on the morning of the Buffalo Chips Running Club 5 mile run on July 4, 2011, including the aleotoric (look it up…) drumming styles of young Cruz across the street:

Extra credit for the motivated student: figure these three polkas by Planxty out; all three are in D:

They are not quite as fun as the Ballydesmond Polkas, mostly because they are hard to tell apart from each other.

The notation for these are here, set #11:

Have fun with these, let me know how they work for you.




Hay-on-Wye - Posted - 10/16/2020:  10:38:27

Great choice for TOTW! You don’t hear many clawhammer players playing traditional Irish music apart from those you’ve mentioned in your post. I think Irish music sounds sweeter on the 5 string rather than the plunkety plunk of the tenor banjo. Players like Barney McKenna and Gerry O Sullivan being exceptions of course. It is a lot harder to get the triplets and ornamentation without the flat pick but it can be done if you have the skill or the cheats to get the same effect. Ken Perlman does the triplet with his m finger in an up down up fashion which at speed is nigh on impossible. An English bloke called Dan Walsh is pretty good at clawhammer Irish tunes having been bought the wrong banjo when he was a kid by his parents when he told them he wanted to play like Barney McKenna. They bought him a 5 string not knowing Barney played a tenor. So he adapted his clawhammer playing to be able to play jigs, reels, and polkas on the 5 string.
Here’s a clip of him playing a couple of polkas. They are at about 17 mins and 30 seconds

Hay-on-Wye - Posted - 10/16/2020:  10:49:11

Here he is playing reels

Hay-on-Wye - Posted - 10/16/2020:  11:45:50


ndlxs - Posted - 10/17/2020:  06:53:17

Thanks, Neill.  I'll give those a listen.  I used to have a video that my mother did of Ken Perlman playing backup for the fiddlers of Prince Edward Island; I taped over it, though.  He is skilled at that.  Perlman financed in part his work there by running expeditions through a group called EarthWatch; my mom went on one of those trips. 

John D - Posted - 10/17/2020:  09:39:02

Hi Nd,

Thanks for introducing me to the word aleotoric! Now I'm obsessed, wondering what an aleotoric CH Banjo tune might sound like. And what would an aleotoric contra dance look like? It's all your fault.
Really enjoyed your take on the Ballydesmond Polkas. Especially the first one.
They have been on my must learn list for decades but just haven't got around to them. I did, however, do the extra credit and learn the Planxty Polkas earlier in this century:

John D

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 10/17/2020:  12:59:59

Hi Janet. To answer your emailed question:

The BallyDesmond Polkas are not included in the tabs Tommy Thompson worked on in the 1970s with Patrick Couton.

The tune does not appear to have been mentioned in any of the documents included in The Tommy Thompson Collection at UNC's Southern Folklike Collection.

Nor did I find a tab or mention of the tune in any of the private papers that his daughter Jessica shared with me while I was working on a writing project about Tommy.

But I do have some notes on "Stolen Love", the 1975 Red Clay Rambler LP - stuff from the cutting room floor, so to speak.

So as not to jam up this TOTW with tangential and perhaps irrelevant comments, I've put them on my BHO Blog:

Feel free to vote with your delete button.

Play hard,


ndlxs - Posted - 10/17/2020:  13:06:57

Thanks, Lew.  It's nice to hear from an expert.


ndlxs - Posted - 10/17/2020:  13:12:46

I actually saw the Red Clay Ramblers perform once, at the Vancouver, BC Folk Festival in August, 1980.  I took the Amtrak all of the way up there from Southern California; it was quite an adventure.  I frankly don't remember much of their set, though...I think they closed out one of the nights.

JanetB - Posted - 10/17/2020:  15:00:28

Andy, you give us a most challenging tune and play it like you've known it forever.  John, I like your medley, too, and am familiar with the first polka, though can't remember the title yet.  Maybe you've motivated me to give them all a try. :)  Thanks, Lew, for your research details. Your book on Tommy Thompson opened my mind to a hitherto unknown part of old-time history. The blog link you included reminds me how eclectic and talented were the Red Clay Ramblers. 

I found Ballydesmond Polkas played in the key of G, so I arranged it via a group called Áine, founded in 2016 in Payson, Arizona. Not exactly an old source I know, but they have a nice full Celtic sound: Áine playing Ballydesmond Polkas.  The amount of parts means a lot more practice to learn, but it sure grows on you and would be doable.  It would be nice to add cello banjo or guitar to my arrangement, so perhaps later this week....


ndlxs - Posted - 10/18/2020:  08:20:48

A duet with regular banjo and cello banjo would be nice, you could switch off between taking the lead.  They'd have to be in two different tunings.  

As for the polkas, the Key of G  not just indicates the normal G major scale, but the A Dorian mode scale (A to A with one sharp) and the E Aeolian mode scale. 

The relative minor scale is the same as the Aeolian mode; the Dorian mode is also a minor scale but it has F sharp, rather than the F natural of the Aeolian mode.  

I looked that up.  I have not memorized it. The nice thing about old-time fiddle just play them and don't hyper-analyze them.

Jack Baker - Posted - 10/18/2020:  08:31:52


You've lost me and I teach theory at a Major University. All this just for a banjo Polka.wink..J  p.s. which and relative minor Keys are you talking about?

Edited by - Jack Baker on 10/18/2020 08:35:48

ndlxs - Posted - 10/18/2020:  09:08:26

The relative minor to the key of G, E minor...E to E with F sharp.

If I have lost you, it is only because my understanding of musical theory is that of someone who has a science degree and picked it up as I went along the way.

Really, though, the only reason these scales are used, is that they were probably first played on diatonic flutes...or, for violins, they knew only the G scale, D scale, and sometimes the A scale. All variations in minor sounding scales came out of modes of those major scales

rickhayes - Posted - 10/18/2020:  09:50:25

Fine choice Andy. Enjoyed both of your versions as well as Janet's rendition, and of course John's energetic work on the extra credit polkas.

I'll also join him in thanking you for the new word. It's got me wondering whether all of my compositions and playing in general are wholly aleotoric, and not in a good way.sad

ndlxs - Posted - 10/18/2020:  11:39:52

The easiest way to play Aleotoric Clawhammer Banjo is not only to just not tune your banjo, but in fact to actively mistune your banjo in spectacular ways. Then, you can just play your regular repetoire and the notes will come out in completely modern (as in mid-20th Century classical music) ways.

JanetB - Posted - 10/18/2020:  19:56:30

Here is a first (and rough) attempt to add the cello banjo with strums, picking, and plucks for accompaniment, my goal being to complement its deeper voice with the regular banjo. In the tab I've added chords, except on the cello banjo they were transposed from the A dorian mode to D dorian. My chords were fairly similar to yours, Andy, though the Red Clay Ramblers' version uses major chords in the first polka, as in your musical notation, and I used the minor ones heard in another recording.

My meager understanding of modes comes from a gadget called Circle of Kit's, invented by my husband. The movable disks, along with his explanations and my knowledge of banjo chords in G tuning, helped me learn. The white mask is movable over the chromatic scale notes and provides the whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half intervals of the scales.  The Notefinder template in the photo was in a book, which I discovered after Kit had finished his work -- a total coincidence by creative thinkers.

At first I thought of the mixolydian mode in these tunes because of the back and forth movement of the A to the G, or the Am to the Em, or the Am to the G, but because of the minor I wasn't sure how this could apply. The mixolydian scale doesn't offer the correct notes in these polkas (except perhaps in the Red Clay Ramblers first polka?). Still, I think of that typical Celtic sound portrayed in the Ballydesmond Polkas -- going back and forth from the I chord to the VII. Any further explanation you can give will certainly be helpful.

Edited by - JanetB on 10/18/2020 20:06:37

ndlxs - Posted - 10/19/2020:  06:51:39

Both the wheels and the high 5th to A version are clever....clawhammer players don't use that tuning enough.

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