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The Banshee (G)

Ivory-Headed Flute

Ivory-Headed Flute

The reel entitled “The Banshee” is a session favorite pretty much everywhere.  It was composed by James McMahon (b. ≈1900 – Dec. 1980 RIP), a flute player originally from South Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland.  He married Rose Tally, eventually moved to Belfast, and became an influential flute player there in the 1960’s.  He composed several other well-known tunes, including “The Ivory Flute” (he actually played an ivory-headed flute), which employs nearly the whole range of the flute. McMahon was also a member of the early McPeake’s Ceili Band.  While this tune used to be called “McMahon’s Reel” many decades ago, it is said that he himself called it “The Banshee.” While in Ireland it is once again commonly called “McMahon’s Reel,” it is hardly ever called that in the States these days, except by people recently returning from Ireland.  The tune was recorded on the eponymous Bothy Band album (1975) as “The Banshee.” In some sessions this reel is played ABAB, in others it is played AABB as I have it here.

banshee news article

Banshee news article (1929)

As for the title, a banshee is one of the many Irish/Scottish/Welsh supernatural fae beings — though given different names in different countries.  A banshee is a female fae whose keening will be heard when someone is about to die. In the wee hours she is also sometimes seen washing that person’s blood-stained clothes (or armor).  While a Banshee can portend any persons death, regardless of social status, legend has it that certain well-known families would have a single banshee through many, many generations and that she would keen every imminent death. She would thus sometimes be regarded by some families as a supernatural part of the family. Though all too often portrayed as an ugly hag, or horrifying teeth-gnashing demon, she may also be seen as a kindly spirit who, by foretelling a death, helps family and friends prepare themselves emotionally for loss.  Though admittedly beneficial retrospectively, it is pretty hard to think of it that way prospectively.

Of course, in addition to there being folklore, there is also folklore about folklore; and it is sometimes said that well-wrought tales of banshees can be useful for curing constipated children.

If you want this tune in ABC format, click Banshee

The Banshee, slow tempo (Bob Midden, flute)

The Banshee, med tempo (Bob Midden, flute)

The Banshee, med tempo (Glen Pekin, fiddle)

The Banshee, med tempo



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