Wooden boat gatherings would typically end up as a folk jam session below deck on one of the larger vessels. Music, singing, laughing, eating, drinking, smoking.
My dad would add his guitar to the assembled concertinas, fiddles, spoons, strums, and whistles . My mom was always a proud audience member, “Somebody has to listen!”
With adults overflowing the main cabin, the kids would gather in the forward berths with books and dominoes. An older kid Jesse described a “drunken brawl” once … “braaaaawl” … still funny. He showed us a gallon Ziploc bag packed with weed; we had no idea what that was either.
One morning after in Cass’ Marina found Tom and me with my parent’s friend Rick in the cockpit of Paddy West. Rick had a sleek little boat Adelaide in the same class that he often raced solo.
Waiting for whatever, Rick picked up his concertina and played The Chivalrous Shark for the two of us.
Most chivalrous fish of the ocean,
To ladies forbearing and mild,
Though his record be dark,
The man-eating shark
Will eat neither woman nor child.
He dines upon seamen and skippers,
And tourists his hunger assuage,
And a fresh cabin boy
Will inspire him with joy
If he’s past the maturity age.
A doctor, a lawyer, a preacher,
He’ll gobble one any fine day,
But the ladies, God bless ’em
He’ll only address ’em
Politely and go on his way.
Every sad Irish allegory should be followed by a song like The Chivalrous Shark. It remains a favorite.
Skip is a family friend. He leads a weekly session at Quinn’s Lighthouse. Skip’s recordings nicely capture the concertina. The buttons clack, the bellows wheeze, she takes on air before each phrase then fades until she can breath again.
The sailor’s concertinas I’ve seen operate similar to a diatonic harmonicas: mash all the buttons in one row and push in, you’ve got the major I chord. Same buttons and pull out and you’ve got the associated dominant V9.
Most, but not all, added another row with the V chord on the push and the associated V9 (so the II9 of the instrument) on the pull. This allows a full scale to be played over either chord.
There are many musical limitations with this. When my dad picks up his to play along with me on the piano, we are going to be playing folk music in his key for the rest of the night. He insists anything is possible, but even a Beatles song is going to go sour fast.
Yet, like the drone of a bagpipe, the limitations define the essence of the instrument. The accompaniment comes and goes at the mercy of the bellow movement required for the lead. There’s not enough air in the bellows for more than a few simultaneous notes. Characteristic pauses are inserted as the bellows are reset out or in.
Address these limitations and you have a huge “concert” concertina, or an even larger accordion. You’re going to need a bigger ditty bag. You’ll be asked to play waltzes and polkas. Who needs it!
Confounding gadgets for analytical types, but they’re proven perfect as the clever little foil for a storyteller. Everything needed to play a folk melody, and sit on the root indefinitely as the next verse is recalled, or the previous one is explained.
My mom likes to share how she was spoken to after I tried to lead my suburban Presbyterian preschool class in Bottle O’ Rum.
Or maybe it was Whiskey In The Jar?
Whatever it was, I knew a song and I wanted to teach the class.