By Blair Jackson
The first time I encountered the unforgettable name Turlough O’Carolan and heard a sampling of his music was on Fairport Convention’s Full House album back in 1970—the lively, oh-so-Irish, mandolin-driven instrumental medley dubbed “Flatback Caper.” O’Carolan (1670–1738) was a blind Irish harper, composer, and performer who roamed around Ireland playing and singing both his own pieces and other traditional tunes. Through the years, his profile has increased steadily, as more musicians have been beguiled his timeless melodies and challenged to create transcriptions from the 200-plus harp pieces he wrote (nearly all of them published posthumously). His works have been performed on guitar, mandolin, piano, banjo, fiddle, accordion; you name it, and by many different combinations of instruments. There are literally dozens of books dedicated to transcriptions of his works, including a fair number for guitar—both steel-string and classical—and he turns up in countless anthologies of Irish music.
Once Upon a Harp
Now we have guitarist Steve Baughman’s wonderful collection Once Upon a Harp, made during the pandemic lockdown. Baughman is certainly no stranger to O’Carolan’s oeuvre. He’s played O’Carolan pieces for many years and his popular book Celtic Songs for Fingerstyle Guitar contains several O’Carolan numbers found here. But the album represents a much deeper immersion. Despite one brief flirtation with what Baughman calls “harp mimicry” at the beginning of the opening track, the guitarist writes in the liner notes that “the rest of the album makes no pretenses of harpyness. All I can authentically offer here are 14 Turlough O’Carolan tunes arranged for a single steel-string guitar and tinged with a hodgepodge of the musical influences that, however unidiomatic to 17th-century Irish harp music, have infused my soul.”
No apology is necessary! Baughman’s playing has the perfect combination of a light touch, rhythmic surety, and the deeply melodic sensibility necessary to deliver these instrumentals beautifully and with spirit. The styles range from moving laments to spry dance numbers and pastoral portraiture, and Baughman effortlessly glides through the tempo shifts and textural variations to the point where everything sounds like it could have been written for six-string. Listening to the crystalline guitar sonics on Baughman’s album, and ultra-clean fingerpicking, I was struck for the first time by how much Irish folk music like this must have influenced the early Windham Hill sound of guitarists like Will Ackerman and Alex de Grassi.
At any rate, this is a glorious and thoroughly satisfying collection. As for which of his guitars Baughman used on the recordings, “I decided I would only use one guitar for the entire album,” he tells us. “It was a difficult choice because I have some nice ones. So I used my old war horse: the John Slobod Circa Guitars Steve Baughman 7/8 dreadnought profiled in Acoustic Guitar’s Great Acoustics column in the December 2018 issue. —Blair Jackson