This hornpipe, “Boys of Bluehill,” or “Buacailli Ua Cnoc-Gorm” in Irish, is a session favorite. Our old friend Chief O’Neill reported that the melody was unknown to Chicagoland Irish musicians until he transcribed it from the playing of a seventeen year old fiddler named George West, a gifted musician suffering from penury and without his own fiddle. West had formed a musical relationship with a fellow named O’Malley, who owned a fiddle and scratched out a meager living by playing house parties despite the loss of a finger on his left hand. Apparently O’Malley was only good until around midnight, when his lack of sobriety would too greatly constrain his bowing hand. West would then take over and finish the night’s engagement. O’Neill concludes, “thus lived the careless, improvident but talented Georgie, until an incident in his life rendered a trip to the far West advisable.”
This tune is in both the American tradition and the Irish tradition. Of course, there are “Blue Hills” all over the place, since hills and mountains will have a blueish hue from a misty distance. There are a few places in Ireland called “Blue Hill” or “Cnoc Gorm” or “An Càrn Gorm.” There’s one in Scotland. There’s an area of Chicago with this name, a place in New York called “Blue Hill Farm,” and a town in Maine named Blue Hill. The name is familiar in Massachusetts as well, near Milton and Canton, where Blue Hill Brewery opened around 2008. The tune is known by other names, however, and there’s no consensus as to which of the names is oldest. In the American tradition the tune is almost always played as a reel rather than a hornpipe, and it is familiar to many American fiddlers not directly influenced by an Irish repertoire. It appears in publications such as Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (1883) as “The Boys of Oak Hill,” which is also its title in one of the Scottish Kerr collections. There are a number of American variants. The earliest American printing seems to be as “The Two Sisters” in Knauff’s Virginia Reels (1839). Over a hundred and fifty years later Appalachian fiddler Sherman Wimmer played a version titled “Twin Sisters,” a tune also played by Ernie Carpenter. In southwestern Virginia and north Georgia it is often called “The Old Ark’s A-Movin’” — Taylor Kimble’s version is an example of that variant. Paul Tyler, while collecting tunes in Pennsylvania, found this tune in an 1842 notebook from Ohio, and the title was penned as “Silver Lake.” Ira Ford – who wrote the now classic Traditional Music of America (1940), a book mostly about Missouri old-time music – plays a Mid-West variant called “Lonesome Katy.” On a side note, Missouri native Jimmy Gilmore once warned a young Missouri fiddler to hide the fact that he could read music, since being able to read music branded you a violinist rather than a fiddler, and consequently you would be an outcast in the old-time community, especially in the Ozarks. The Kentucky variant “Jenny Baker” was played by the Jimmy Johnson String Band. The Ozark fiddler Vesta Johnson’s “She Oughta Been a Lady” is very similar, as is Mel Duham’s “Pussy and the Baby;” and the tune “Birdie in the Snowbank” by Ozark musicians Lee Stoneking and Fred Stoneking (b. 1933, Missouri) is another close variant (Beisswenger & McCann, Ozark Fiddle Music, Mel Bay, 2008). Clay Smith of Star City, Indiana, plays a similar melody calling it “Hell on the Wabash” – a name actually given to many disparate tunes. Some early American recorded versions, on old brittle 78s, give the title as “Boys from the Hill” and “Slieve Gorm.” The earliest recordings of the melody yet uncovered are by Charles D’Almaine, where it is paired with other tunes in his “Favorite Hornpipe Medley” (March 15, 1905), and William B. Houchens (1884-1955), where it appears on his Turkey in the Straw recording (Sept. 18, 1922). Fiddler Tommy Dandurand, who haunted Chicago and Kankakee, Illinois, recorded the melody as “Beau of Oak Hill” in 1927. More recently Gearoid O’hAllmhurain, the author of a great little book called A Pocket History of Irish Music, recorded this tune on his CD Traditional Music from Clare and Beyond (1996) – and so implies that its origin is Clare, or perhaps beyond.
With all this said, the fact remains that the provenance of this tune is unknown. It has been argued to be (1) an old Irish tune, and (2) originally a Scottish tune, and (3) an old American tune that was brought back to Ireland and then Irish-ized. Interestingly, there’s some evidence of the melody travelling back and forth across the pond, contrary to what O’Neill and O’hAllmhurain imply. It comes from Pádraic Mac Mathúna’s CD Blas na Meala (which is lit. “Taste of Honey”), transliterated as Hives of Honeyed Sound (Scotland 1994), where a reel called “Keep the Old Ark Rolling,” seemingly a variant of “The Boys of Bluehill,” is paired with “Tennessee Waltz” on track 12. The liner notes for the CD were written by Séan Potts, and the part about this tune reads. . . this is one of the many tunes brought to the US by Irish immigrants. The titles and rhythms were often changed to suit the American country style. The melody is almost identical to the Irish hornpipe, The Boys of Bluehill. Pádraic got the tune from two musical friends in Cork, Matt Cranitch and Noel Shine.
As it turns out, Matt Cranitch (who has also produced a number of Irish tune books) played in an old-time string band in Cork for a time, and seems to have picked the tune up from an American player. If so, then the tune may have in the past passed repeatedly over the foam, thereby occluding its true tidal trajectory.
For the ABC click Boys of Bluehill
Boys of Bluehill, slow tempo (Turlach Boylan, whistle)
Boys of Bluehill, slow tempo (Jim Wendels, flute)
Boys of Bluehill, med tempo (Jim Wendels, flute)
Boys of Bluehill, the dots