New Englander Skip Gorman has been a presence on the traditional music scene for many years. He had the good fortune to grow up in Rhode Island within easy striking distance of the Newport Folk Festival when it was in its heyday. There he was able to hear prominent performers in a wide range of traditions and get to know some of them: Jean Carignan, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Eck Robertson, Muddy Waters, to name a few. Doubtless because of this early exposure to such a diverse palette of music and musicians his own musical path has been quite eclectic. Perhaps best known as a mandolinist, and for his interpretations of cowboy songs, Gorman is also a fiddler of catholic tastes and talents.
Celtic Fiddle Rambles is showcase for the rich variety of his explorations in the worlds of Irish, Cape Breton, Québécois, Shetland, and Scottish fiddling, with a smattering of tunes from his native New England thrown in for good measure. He has spent a good bit of time travelling in the areas that are home to these styles, learning from, and playing with, some of the best exponents of the local traditions. Celtic Fiddle Rambles is a generous package, consisting of two two-CD sets, containing (by Gorman’s count) over 140 tunes across 67 tracks. Gorman notes that the project had a modest beginning when he and pianist Gordon Peery decided to record a few tracks at a friend’s studio in New Hampshire for their own pleasure. To which he adds: “Little did I think then that the project would snowball into enough material to fill four discs, or that for the next eight years I would be joined in the studio by an array of dear friends who are stellar musicians and accompanists.” The list of supporting musicians—far too long to include here—reads like a “Who’s Who” of the best players in the Northeast US and eastern Canada. Suffice it to say that they are all first-rate, and their talents complement Gorman’s fiddling in fine fashion. There is some lovely harmony fiddling on several tracks, particularly some of the slower ones. Jane Orzechowski’s second fiddle work on the set of “Calum’s Road”/“The Sweetness of Mary,” and Randy Miller’s harmonies on the Shetland air “Da Slockit Light,” are especially gorgeous.
The music is a mix of reels, jigs, hornpipes, and slow airs, mostly presented in sets of two or more tunes as is common practice in the respective traditions. Gorman generally restricts his sets to tunes from one particular tradition at a time—that is, a medley of Irish tunes might be followed by a Cape Breton set, which could then be followed by a group from the Shetland Islands or one from French Canada—but occasionally he mixes things up within sets. The music is all very well played, regardless of source, and the album hangs together aesthetically. The age of the material ranges from 18th century Scotland and Ireland to the present. Gorman’s own composition, “The Pandemic Jig,” sits comfortably in a set with “The Fox in the Thatch” from Irish fiddler John Dwyer, reminding us of the vitality of tradition.
The CDs are packaged in two three-panel sleeves, together with a separate brochure of notes and photos. Gorman is to be lauded for including composer attributions for most of the tunes. In the notes he recounts his “rambles” of discovery into the different genres of fiddling featured on the discs. He clearly has great love and respect for the musicians who have influenced him, and for the music they play. In this era when many people learn “traditional” music via the internet, at music camps, or in college degree programs, it is refreshing to find someone who has learned first-hand from great tradition bearers in their home communities. I may be projecting, but to my ears there is a warmth and soul to the music here, qualities that seem to be disappearing in the third decade of the 21st century.
Gorman philosophizes a bit about the music he plays: “…with most of the old tunes I’ve learned I usually walk away humming a catchy melody…one that arouses my passions, whether it is evocative of joy or of despondency. It’s not about speed, groove, and flash, or the ability to guzzle hundreds of tunes. For me, it’s about a sweet melody that tickles me enough to stick in my craw, to live in my soul.” Amen, brother!