Chicago Fiddler's Music Is a Hit in Ireland

Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll joins guitarist John Doyle on her latest CD, In Play. Her music made it from the American Midwest into the canon of Irish traditional tunes. Carroll talks to Melissa Block about the satisfaction of hearing her songs played at Irish fiddle sessions.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Some of the best new Irish music is being written by an American. Fiddler Liz Carroll is from Chicago. Both her parents are from Ireland. Her father plays accordion. So Irish music was always around the house. Liz Carroll started writing tunes when she was about six. She'd go with her parents every week to listen to music at the pub Hanley's House of Happiness on Chicago's South Side.

Her latest CD is a collection of duets with guitarist John Doyle from Dublin. When she came by our studio she brought another friend, her new fiddle.

Ms. LIZ CARROLL (Fiddler): You'll like this one. It's kind of like The Red Violin.

BLOCK: How so?

Ms. CARROLL: Oh, it's just pretty.

BLOCK: Why did you decide to give up your old violin?

Ms. CARROLL: Well, you know, here, I'll pass it to you. But you mostly play in session with people. I mean aside from if you're out doing concerts, it's all about playing tunes with people. And I don't know what's been hapPiening over the last couple years, but people are getting louder and louder fiddles. And my fiddle was a little quiet one. And so in a session you were feeling like you couldn't even contribute. You'd play a nice note and look around and no one had even heard it, because it was so quiet.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could demonstrate something for me. When I'm listening to your music, you're doing something which is I think pretty common in Irish fiddle music, and it's sort of a fluttery, stuttery thing with the bow.

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah.

BLOCK: I don't know if it has a name.

Ms. CARROLL: You know --

BLOCK: With the bow and with the fingers.

Ms. CARROLL: What did you call it, stuttery fluttery? That's as good a description as anybody comes up with. It's really just a straight-ahead triplet. Let's say the tune just went --

(Soundbite of fiddle music)

Ms. CARROLL: So a lot of Irish players love the idea of, you come up and you have a quarter note, and then they make that into a triplet. So then they can put them in places like this. Depending on how attack-y you are. I mean if you're going fast, of course you can just play it --

(Soundbite of fiddle music)

Ms. CARROLL: You know? And some people, they like to do a, like almost like a scrunch, I call it. The first of the three notes is going like really clear.

(Soundbite of fiddle)

Ms. CARROLL: The next one is actually --

(Soundbite of scratching noise)

Ms. CARROLL: And then the third one is this.

(Soundbite of fiddle)

Ms. CARROLL: That's going to sound really good on the radio. But so when you're doing that one, then it's like this. So you see, you can vary them.

BLOCK: And when I watch you do that, the bow is really digging into the string and stalling a little bit there.

Ms. CARROLL: Yes, it is. It's scrunching. It's funny that you would point it out, because, you know, we run into a lot of blue grass and old-time players, and mostly that's the one ornament in Irish music that they really like, too. They just go, How do you do that one?

BLOCK: Let's listen to one of the slow songs on your album. This is a song that you wrote call The Island of Woods.

(Soundbite of The Island of Woods)

BLOCK: This is an air for Ireland.

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah. The Island of Woods was an old name for Ireland. And it was called that because at the time there were a lot of trees. And mostly when people go to Ireland now they think about green fields.

BLOCK: Hmm.

Ms. CARROLL: Many different shades of green fields.

(Soundbite of The Island of Woods)

BLOCK: Now, these flutters that we're hearing in this song, that's not bowing, I'm thinking now. That's something you're doing with your fingers on the fingerboard, or is it both?

Ms. CARROLL: It is, it's a fingering thing. And this is a very typical move that Irish fiddle players do. They're called rolls.

BLOCK: Can you show us a little bit?

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah. So you have a chant, like there in that tune.

(Soundbite of fiddle)

Ms. CARROLL: Well, if I do a roll on that note, I'm going --

(Soundbite of fiddle)

Ms. CARROLL: It's nice, isn't it?

BLOCK: Yeah.

Ms. CARROLL: Like I say, it's just, it's one of the fun things to do. And I mean I always loved doing ornaments. You see dancers that really love, you know, I mean they may have liked dancing, but then when they get to do a big jump and a kick in the air, well, then they're hooked.

BLOCK: That's the fun?

Ms. CARROLL: Yes. And so I like the tunes playing plainly, and I know what the melody is, and once I know that, I love to put in the ornaments.

BLOCK: And what is it about it that you love? What does it add for you as a player? Or when you're listening to music?

Ms. CARROLL: The tunes are really simple. And it's as if you just want to figure out different ways of saying it. So it's like the person saying I'm going to have a slice of pizza. I'm going to have a slice of pizza. Or I'm going to have a slice of pizza. It's the musical equivalent of that. So you know, not only can you do ornaments, but you can change tunes. And in that way I think it's very like jazz. And what's nice is that when you are in those sessions with people, they'll keep the tune going, but you can try out all your different little licks and changes, and see what happens.

BLOCK: A lot of the songs on this new CD are ones that you wrote yourself. When you're writing songs in this form, are you mindful of either trying to make them sound like traditional songs or ways to make them not sound like traditional songs?

Ms. CARROLL: A lot of people will tell me that a lot of them do sound traditional, and they're like, Wow, that's like old, that's like it's always been around. And I've definitely made up tunes where at the end of it I go, Wow, I just can't believe that doesn't already exist.

BLOCK: Haven't I heard that somewhere before?

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah. It just fits in. But it is not, it's not another tune.

(Soundbite of fiddle playing)

BLOCK: What do you think it takes for a new song, maybe a song you write at home in Chicago, to become sort of part of the canon, to become a standard?

Ms. CARROLL: I would like to think that maybe the tunes are likable enough that they hopped from person to person. Somebody would have heard it at a session and said, What's that? And they pick it up.

One of the nicest things that's happened to me is that I can sit in a session and they'll go into a tune that's my tune. I assume that they're doing it for my sake. Maybe they just, well, Liz is sitting there and they'll play her tune now. But instead I'll look around and they're all very seriously belting away at playing that tune as well as they can, and they don't know it's mine. So there's a real satisfaction there. I just go, All right, okay, this is terrific. So it's kind of made its way into the tradition and, you know, it doesn't have to be that I'm sitting there.

BLOCK: Liz Carroll, thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. CARROLL: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: The new CD from fiddler Liz Carroll and guitarist John Doyle is titled IN PLAY.

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