My seafaring lassie will smile on the Bard of Armagh

"Bard of Armagh" ballad sheet

In putting together 5 shows for the summer that will require two complete sets, and doing it with an Orchestra that resides, Famously, in 6 different cities in 3 different states, I’m spending a lot of quality archive time digging through old file folders (manila and electronic) and old hard hard drives to dredge up or create reference material — lyric sheets, chord sheets, lead sheets, arrangement notes, scratch recordings, etc. — that I can pass on to everyone else via email and, now, via the wiki I’ve started putting together for the summer for just this purpose.

Thankfully, the rest of the Famous Orchestra appears to suffer from the same archive fever that I do. And now all kinds of great material is starting to show up on the wiki: lyrics to Tre-P’s “Drunk Bus” contributed by Ed Burch, chord changes for “Winnebago Bay” and other songs contributed by Riley Broach. And this: a page of sprawling handwritten notes for “My Seafaring Lassie,” developed in situe as we were pulling together this then very fresh piece of hardtack for a couple of shows during the summer of 2002 (I’d finished writing the song on the treadmill on the cargo ship on which my wife and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on our move back from Turkey just weeks before).

Here’s the notes:


And, just for reference, here’s a recording of “My Seafaring Lassie” from a solo show I did in December 2008 at the Home Grown Coffee House in Accokeek, Maryland:
(click here to download the mp3)

The contributor of the notes is Rob Henn, as will be apparent from what he calls the “admittedly trombone-centric (but still helpful!)” transcription of this arrangement. What I really like is the economy of these notes — there’s a lot being recorded here, and it’s a little bit of a fly thing all on one page: everything from the basic structure of the song, to snatches of lyrics, notes on vocal harmonies and punctuation, built-in contingencies for live playing (all those question marks!), bits of melody transcription, and references to inside jokes (such as our use of the “Picardy 3rd” to end the song).

At the tail end of the piece, you’ll also see:

Assorted phrases, Irish brogue talkin’, whatever…
— On my signal, I sing, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh! (Armeagh!)”
All, very lock-step in rhythm, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh!”

This was about as inside as jokes get. It could be excused only by the vaguely Irish (though, truthfully, English West Country) feel of the song. And the joke was basically this: Rob Henn had once had a dream in which, I think, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra were playing; and we either had to sing, or were watching, some Irish music performance in which the “bard of Armeagh” line cited in the “Seafarin’ Lassie” notes were sung. Rob had vividly remembered the lyrics, the melody, and the end-of-chorus turnaround from his dream, and so was sufficiently astounded some weeks later, while at the Hideout in Chicago, to discover a flyer for an upcoming performance BY the Bard of Armagh, which turned out to be the moniker sometimes applied to the late and great, hearty and hellish Tommy Makem — though I can’t believe it was actually Tommy Makem who was coming to the Hideout.*

So — to rip off Peter Stampfel here — we put it in the song! And sang it! And closed the song with it! Hurrah for The Viper and His Famous Orchestra! Hurrah for Rob Henn! Hurrah for Isaac the Bartender! And Hurrah for the Bard of Armeagh!

* Though a quick search turns up that Tommy Makem was, in fact, scheduled to play in Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Festival in July of 2002. And, in fact, “The Bard of Armagh” turns out to be an actual Irish ballad about a travelling 17th-century harper named  Phelim Brady, recorded at least once by Tommy Makem, and — the resonances start to pile up pretty thick here — set to the tune used by a song occasionally performed by The Viper, “The Streets of Laredo,” though there is no “smiling upon” going on in either song)

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