Frankie Gavin was pushed into playing the fiddle at the age of ten by his older accordion-playing brother who thought the two instruments would sound good together. "One day Sean came up to me," Gavin recalls. "He said, 'You know, I think you should play the fiddle.' I said, 'I don't know about that. Doesn't it make a lot of squeaks when you're learning?' But he kept on me so I decided to give it a go. The first thing he made me learn was a tune called 'The Broken Pledge,' which is lovely, but really difficult to play. He said, 'If you can get a really nasty tune off first, everything else will be plain sailing after that.' And it turns out it's true enough."
Although he didn't know it at the time, Sean Gavin had launched his younger brother on a career as one of Ireland's finest traditional musicians. In 1973, seven years after taking up the violin, Frankie won the All-Ireland Under 18 fiddle competition. (He also won top honors for his flute playing in the same competition.) The next year Gavin and his friend Alec Finn formed the innovative band De Dannan, and created a new way of playing Irish dance tunes in a group format, which Gavin describes in The Companion to Traditional Irish Music as "tightly percussive melody lines set against a flowing, contrapuntal background." And the band's cheeky versions of classical pieces such as Handel's "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" and pop songs like "Hey Jude" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" helped remind the world that traditional music doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum.
Gavin also released a handful of solo albums over the years, and he has performed with such disparate musicians as Stéphane Grappelli and The Rolling Stones. In 2001 he recorded Fierce Traditional for Ireland's Tara Music Company. The CD features Gavin playing a selection of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and slow airs on fiddle, flute, and tin whistle with backing by his brother Sean on accordion and his old friends Brian McGrath on piano and tenor banjo and Alec Finn on bouzouki.
"I was inspired to make the CD by working on a recording project with Brian Rooney," Gavin says. "He's not that well known, but he's a beautiful player. John Carty and Brian McGrath were working on his CD, which is called The Godfather, and asked if Alec Finn and I would play on a few tracks. I had never heard Brian play before, so I went up and heard him. His music was so warming I thought to myself, 'I have to do an album of fiddle music like this.'"
So Gavin began rummaging through his vast repertoire and selected a handful of tunes that paid homage to the musicians who inspired him as he was growing up. "She Lived Beside the Anner," for example, was one of his father's favorite slow airs, "The Mason's Apron" was a reel taught to him by the great tin whistler Micho Russel, and he learned "Jenny Picking Cockles" from Jimmy Cummins, a truck-driving accordionist who used to give Gavin lifts home after sessions. But the majority of the tunes are drawn from the 1920s recordings of fiddlers like Michael Coleman, Paddy Kiloran, Paddy Sweeney, and James Morrison, who is a special favorite of Gavin's.
"A lot of the music on Fierce Traditional is firmly based in the 1920s playing of James Morrison," says Gavin. "I have to say he is my all-time favorite fiddle player. To start with, his technique is phenomenal, and his tunes were just wonderful. Even when he played the old schmaltzy, sentimental things, he was really good. He had the complete package."
Gavin came up with the title Fierce Traditional after reading an article that took him to task for supposedly ignoring the old tunes. "The writer thought that in the recent past I had strayed too far from the traditional music with De Dannan," he says. "He thought that we were doing too many covers of '60s pop tune and the like. He decided that my conscience must be eating me, and that I should bring out an album of traditional music because I had gone so overboard. He suggested I call the album Fierce Traditional, which is a term people in Cork use to describe the music. I thought it was a bit of a giggle title, and I like the measure of it, so I used it. Of course, if I felt like recording an album of pop tunes, I'd do it in a minute."
[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of "The Man of the House" as played by Frankie, purchase the Summer 2002 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Frankie Gavin's website: www.frankiegavin.com
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]