Fiddle Tune Poems

These “fiddle tune poems” are part of my book of poems Quarry Cross. In the book, you will come across them here and there, poems in their own right that work with the rest of the poems in the book. When you see these fiddle tune poems in Quarry Cross, you’ll find that they are accompanied by the music scores of the tunes that inspired them. You’ll also find information about them in the book’s final Notes. But here on the site, you can hear these poems combined with the music.

As a flute and penny whistle player, I’ve played traditional fiddle tunes a lot—so many times, in fact, that my favorite tunes, along with their distinctive titles, began to stay in my head. Sometimes, I’d “hear” the music and the words of the titles like an inner soundtrack while I was writing. I was influenced by each tune’s sound—its rhythms, major or minor key, its melody and phrasing—that creates an underlying mood or background, and also by the images or narratives suggested by the titles.

The “fiddle tune poems” have the same names as the tunes that inspired them. Most of these tunes are traditional. One of them, “Bus Stop Reel,” was composed Anita Anderson and is used here with her kind permission. The settings for all music notation were provided by Susan Songer and (with the exception of “The Rights of Man") are included in The Portland Collection: Contra Dance Music in the Pacific Northwest, rev. ed., © Susan Songer with Clyde Curley. Many thanks to the musicians who gave their time and talent to make these recordings in the sound studio at the University of Alabama School of Music.

The Fiddle Tune Poems are featured on Plume Poetry along with "Music and Poetry: Fiddle Tune Poems and Quarry Cross An Interview with Robin Behn by Chard deNiord."

Read the Interview

Jil Chambliss, flute and singing. Jil is an internationally-known Celtic flute player and singer.   Contact Jill

Robin Behn, spoken word, flute and penny whistle. Contact Robin

Dan VogtDan Vogt, guitar. Dan is a versatile guitarist and owner of the Guitar Gallery. Contact Dan

Roger James, violinRoger James, fiddle. Roger is a professional violinist in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra who moonlights as a fiddle player.Contact Roger

David MyersDavid Myers is an audio engineer at the Moody School of Music. He plays trumpet as a freelance musician in the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham area, and is in pursuit of his D.M.A. in Music Performance at the University of Alabama. Contact David

The Star Above the Garter

At an old village hall, sometimes called a grange, “The Star Above the Garter” is being played by the band. The dancers are arranged in long lines, and as the caller calls out the sequence of figures over and over, every couple dances once through the sequence with every other couple as they come down the line. There are actually two tunes here: the second is “County Clare Waltz" by contemporary composer Andrew Levin. County Clare, it happens, is where another of these poems, “The Cliffs of Moher,” is set.

Listen to the poem and tune
She is waiting for him outside the dance hall. In deepest snow. She has changed into her boots, the brown ones, the brown leather ones the color of a chestnut horse. Stamping there. Breathing in little swords and whips, the air snapping in half from the cold. Her dance shoes over her shoulder tied together by long laces in a clumsy epaulet...

Bus Stop Reel

Waiting at a bus stop, the speaker has this tune in mind and finds herself caught up in its spikey, syncopated rhythm. “Bus Stop Reel” is a contemporary tune by Anita Anderson.

Listen to the poem and tune

Some times whilst waiting for the      bus, my feet start to move and it is not, in the least,      ever so slightly subtle. Feet start-to start-to move. Better set-my shop-ping down-cause. Feet start-to start-to move. Get-ting real-em bar-rass ing-but feets. Start-to start-to go. Back to their true origins. In mist. Or as hooves or claws. Who knows what they’re plotting...

The Quarry Cross

“The Quarry Cross” can be a lively tune when played for dance, but here, it’s slower and more contemplative. Traditionally, “quarry cross” meant a road or path leading to a quarry. In this piece, the lovers dreamily recall having taken a path to a quarry, and the idea of cross circulates as both a shape and a sign of sacrifice.

Listen to the poem and tune

My head on your shoulder,
my leg thrown over,
your hand in my hair,
your other hand, there. ...

The Cliffs of Moher

Huge waves crash against the Cliffs of Moher that rise 702 feet from the sea in County Clare. What would words sound like, crashing into the ear of someone who had never heard human language before? And this old Irish reel? A churning of gulls in the misty updraft.

Listen to the poem and tune

What if someone took such
a large bite out of you
your crying swelled out
to the end of the world? ...

The Rights of Man

This poem is titled after the rousing hornpipe “The Rights of Man,” and speaks directly to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, who wrote “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”

Listen to the poem and tune

Here you are again, Tom Paine,
constructing from scratch like a cake
the elaborate organized layers,
concept upon concept, creed upon creed, ...

Mairi's Wedding

"Mairi’s Wedding" is a popular folk song originally written in Gaelic

Listen to the poem and tune
The part I woke up singing was the chorus, the jaunty heft, Mairi’s long hair not flowing so much as writing on the air for it was an aire and I was playing in a band, a band of villagers and a rubber band and a band with an and and a pick-up band, I was playing my wooden flute, the one I’ll get in deepest Asheville, a town made all of ashes of the druid tree they torched to extract the one pure flute they make replicas of now...