Tommie Potts

Traditional fiddle music from Dublin


1. Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (air) / The Rocky Road to Dublin (slip jig);  2. The Repeal of the Union (reel);  3. The Wheels of the World (reel);  4. My Lagan Love (air) / Unnamed (Tommie Potts composition);  5. Speech: Tommie’s Musical Upbringing;  6. Banish Misfortune (jig);  7. The Humours of Scarriff (reel);  8. An Chúilfhionn (The Coolin) (air);  9. Paddy Ryan’s Dream / Ballinasloe Fair (reels);  10. The Braes of Busby (reel);  11. Speech: “I prefer tunes in minor keys”;  12. The Blackbird (air) / Julia Delaney (reel);  13. Boil the Breakfast Early / Bunker Hill (reels);  14. Coppers and Brass (jig);  15. Ryan’s Rant / Paddy on the Turnpike (reels);  16. The Ship Comes Home (lullaby);  17. The Trip to Durrow (reel);  18. Martin Wynne’s / Jenny’s Chickens (reels);  19. The Queen of May (reel);  20. Farewell to Erin (reel);  21. Speech: “I am very selfish ...”;  22. Poll Ha’penny (hornpipe);  23. Unnamed Slip Jig (Tommie Potts Composition?);  24. The Morning Dew (reel);  25. Apples In Winter / The Trip to Sligo (jigs);  26. The Kerryman’s Daughter (reel);  27. The Walls of Liscarroll (jig);  28. The Dear Irish Boy (air);  29. Drowsy Maggie (reel);  30. The Tarbolton (reel);  31. The Monaghan Jig (jig);  32. The Moving Clouds (reel);  33. The Kerryman’s Daughter (reel);  34. The College Groves (reel);  35. The Broken Pledge (reel);  36. Speech: “I have a liking for tunes in D minor ...”;  37. Julia Delaney (reel);  38. Maudebawn Chapel (Ed Reavy’s) (reel);  39. The Dear Irish Boy (air) / The Boys of Ballisodare (reel);  40. Sporting Paddy (reel);  41. Toss the Feathers (reel);  42. The Girl Who Broke My Heart (reel);  43. The Dear Irish Boy (air) / The Steampacket (reel);  44. The Yellow Tinker (reel);  45. The Bunch of Keys (reel);  46. Speech: “I’ve nothing else ... only the music”;  47. The Fermoy Lasses (reel).

Back when Musical Traditions was a paper publication that dropped through your letterbox on an infrequent and erratic (but always very welcome) kind of schedule, and I was a callow young reviewer for it, I wrote a review of an album by Sean Maguire (Portrait, Gael Linn CEF 137).  It's one of the comparatively few I've written that I really wish I hadn't - quite simply, it was rude and crass.  Maguire still isn't a musician whose work I tend to listen to, but I've long since grown out of the idea that there's only one way to play traditional music, and that anyone who strays away from an approved path is guilty of 'destroying' it.  Any tradition that deserves to have a future will be one that's robust enough to encompass a range of different approaches, and any musician has every right to explore whatever approaches he or she likes, to be inspired, to be an individual.

Having got the mea culpa stuff off my chest, what does this have to do with Tommie Potts?  Potts, born in 1912 in Dublin, where he was also to die in 1988, came from a family of musicians, stretching back several generations.  He played from an early age, was steeped in the Irish tradition, but he also listened to, enjoyed and understood other forms of music: classical, jazz, popular.  It seems evident that such external factors did have some influence on how he played, but also most likely on his sense of the possibilities of developing ways of playing variations based on the setting of a tune.  The most obvious example of outside influence is where he prefaces the reel Martin Wynne's with an introduction learned from a Fritz Kreisler recording of one of his own compositions.  But I'll also mention the fact that from time to time I felt, listening to this album, that the experience was in some distant sense, like that of listening to a performance of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.  I've never thought that before when listening to a traditional Irish fiddle player.  I don't mean at all that what he's playing sounds like Bach, or that he sounds like a classical player.  He doesn't - his heightened imagination notwithstanding, he is a traditional musician, through and through, but his confidence in the quality of the music he's making all by himself can be striking in a very similar kind of way as that required for Bach's solo pieces.

Nor was I suggesting, in my introductory paragraph - far from it - that as a fiddle player Potts had a great deal in common with Sean Maguire, but he was a musician with his own view of the tradition and the ways in which it should inform his playing, and a determination to make music according to his own lights.  In the excellent booklet provided with this disc, there is the following quote from Potts's own notes on the sleeve of the only album of his music released during his lifetime (originally released in 1972, now available on CD as The Liffey banks, Claddagh CC13CD):

This sense of a tune offering opportunities to express the player's own thoughts and feelings, by stepping outside of its apparently fixed structure or setting, but informed and inspired by a very profound and close understanding of that setting, comes across very strongly in the playing of Tommie Potts.  Of course, such an idea seems familiar enough from other musical forms, including other traditions, but it is one that has some trouble with acceptance in some Irish music circles.  A discussion (which predates the release of the present CD) of Potts's music, on The Session website, is headed Tommy Potts: Genius or Charlatan (sic - his name is spelt Tommy on the Claddagh album, but he apparently preferred Tommie, which is used for the RTÉ release), and the lead post states: 'He was almost completely shunned by the establishment in his lifetime.'  To have read this far might have been to have gained the impression that Tommie Potts indulged in wild improvisations that left the tradition far behind.  On the contrary, his variations always seem to be designed to draw out more of the essence of his tunes, even as he recasts them in quite distinctive ways.  In his annotation to the tune The Dear Irish Boy, in the booklet here, Sean Og Potts (grand nephew of Tommie, and son of Sean Potts of Chieftains fame) writes: 'A free space' is perhaps not something you hear very much about in Irish traditional music, but while we're not talking about the kind of musical freedom that a John Coltrane might have striven after, a sense of release does come across very strongly in the piece.  The way Potts approaches the tune is very different to how a traditional Irish singer would, but the result is arresting and quite beautiful.  There are three different versions of Potts playing the tune here, offering an opportunity to observe his creative processes in action.  In the playing of an air, this kind of variation is perhaps more readily apparent, but of course, most of what is included in this album are the dance tunes that form the core of traditional Irish fiddle-playing.  Again, in his notes, Sean Og Potts draws attention to Tommie's playing of the tune Julia Delaney, suggesting that 'in many ways (it) defines his approach to music', pointing out how different his version is to the one in O'Neill's Music of Ireland, and going so far as to add that 'he was prepared to create a different tune from the original melody.  A testimony to Tommie's wonderful innovation is that his adaptation became the standard for most of his successors.'  Again and again listening to this album, you're brought up short by some powerfully unusual departure - just as I was typing those words, Potts's extraordinary take on Farewell To Erin came on and had me stopping to marvel.

You might make the distinction that Potts - at least when playing solo - was a creative musician making music for listening to, rather than for dancing to, and some have suggested that this even takes him back to the earliest days of Irish music, before the imperatives of the dance came to dominate.  Certainly, there are times when dancers might have problems with the way he will vary the beat count, or otherwise introduce timing variations, but listening to his breathtaking rendition of The Moving Clouds - however much he departs from standard setting and melody, and he does, triumphantly - is all the evidence you need that he could drive a tune along with all the power and lift that a dancer could wish for. 

The recordings are taken from both private sources and the RTÉ archives, so sound quality is a little variable, if you care about such things in the face of music as great as this.  Half a dozen of the 47 tracks consist of Potts talking, and short as these are, they're a real pleasure to hear, and offer sharp little insights into both man and music.  The booklet is of handsome design and its contents well-written and extremely well-informed.  Whereas I've quoted above a source that emphasises how Potts's unique style was rejected by the 'establishment', another online source states that he 'gained iconic status in traditional Irish music circles for his virtuoso musicianship and highly individual take on the Irish music tradition.'  He was clearly a man who divided opinion, which is true of almost anyone who has ever had something interesting or different to offer, in most walks of life.  Tommie Potts's music was both interesting and different, and it was often extraordinarily beautiful.  This outstanding tribute to him demonstrates this again and again, and is warmly recommended not only to lovers of Irish fiddle stylists, but to any who feel they might treasure the work of a man who described what he aspired to make as 'The Unbroken Music of Heaven'.

Ray Templeton - 12.1.13

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