Remembering Tommy Peoples

A tribute to the great Irish fiddle-player who died on 3 August.

It was 1992. I was 18 and booked into Tommy Peoples’ fiddle class at the Willie Clancy Summer School. As we arrived, he sat on the edge of a table, his fiddle case on one side and on the other a small tin case in which he placed the rolled cigarettes he was working on. Then, when the lesson was to begin, he would shut the tin case with a ‘snap’, and the fiddle case would open.

I can still remember the tunes he taught us: ‘The Maid at the Spinning Wheel’, ‘Spike Island Lasses’, ‘The Fairy Queen’. He said little. Peoples – the man who played music of supernatural complexity – would write a tune on the board without talking, pausing every now and then to take a few steps back and stare at the white dots and lines, conducting the notes in his head with the chalk. Then he would play it once, ask us to learn it, and, later, go around the room nodding at each of us to play it back, providing one line of comment for everyone. ‘Play less notes per bow,’ he said to me, kindly. And he was right.

The enigma of Donegal fiddle-player Tommy Peoples: a quiet-spoken, humble musician whose art left everyone that listened to it saying to themselves: ‘But how does he do that?’

On the Bothy Band’s 1975 album, on ‘The Green Groves of Erin’, his fiddle-playing suddenly appears atop an introduction on clavinet that is gradually speeding up. The fiddle is assertive, stuttering, inventive, refusing to allow any moment pass by without injecting creativity. On ‘Martin Wynne’s’, it again refuses to conform. Focussed, rugged, his fingerwork and bowing muscling their way into the various points of the melody. Where the rest of us see one path through a tune, Peoples finds another. 

Counter-intuitive
When I heard that Tommy Peoples had died at the weekend (Friday 3 August), aged just 70, I immediately felt sad, but also wondered if we will ever now understand his music. On ‘The Newport Lass’ and ‘The Rambling Pitchfork’ on the 
Molloy, Peoples, Brady album from 1978, he inserts countless triplets into the two jigs, in ways that could be completely counter-intuitive to others, but he had a technique and style that he had developed that somehow allowed him to do this.

That ‘Tommy Peoples triplet’ – so distinctive throughout his recordings and performances – is part of what makes his music special, but it is also his virtuosity in fingering and bowing. His performance of ‘Kitty O’Shea’ on the Iron Man album is an outstanding example. Perhaps most important, however, was his idiosyncratic approach to melody. He could rework tunes completely, spontaneously finding new directions in the melody as he played, such as on ‘The Monaghan Jig’on Waiting for a Call.

His original approach to melody speaks strongest to you in his own compositions. ‘The Green Fields of Glentown’, ‘La Cosa Mulligan’ (more commonly known in the tradition as ‘Jackson’s’) and many more have become part of the core repertoire. In 2013, Peoples was awarded the TG4 Gradam Ceoil composer award, making him the only artist to have been awarded twice – in 1998 he was the first person to receive the musician award. 

Ó Am go hAm
I was away in Waterford when I heard about Peoples’ passing, but I knew that at home was his 2015 book, 
Ó hAm go hAm: Tutor, Text and Tunes, which he had sent to me. I had read it before, but I needed to go back to it again now and see what clues he had left for us and future generations as to how he arrived at his otherworldly music. 

The book contains detailed transcriptions and notes. In many instances, he presents the bare bones of a tune, and then presents his own version. Shouldn’t it be easy, then, to work out what he was doing?

I have sat with the book and the words that keep coming back to me when I consider the distance between the skeleton of the tune and what Peoples does are ‘magical’ and ‘supernatural’. He even explains in the book how he plays his famous triplet, and yet knowing and being able to execute are two very different things.

Tommy Peoples’ music is so personal and unique that we will only ever be able to come close to fully appreciating it – its evolution, story and deep significance in Irish culture. But through his recordings, the generosity he has shown in sharing his knowledge through a lifetime of teaching, and the incredible document of his art that is Ó Am go hAm, that great journey of discovery awaits future generations. RIP Tommy, and thank you.

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