A spiritual bond with nature is integral to Christine Hedden’s music and dance

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

For Boston musician, singer, dancer, and composer Christine Delphine Hedden, memories don’t always reside solely in the mind. The red bow adorning her fiddle’s pegbox, for example, is a remembrance of her second visit to Ireland, where she attended “Willie Week” – the Willie Clancy Summer School, Ireland’s largest traditional music summer program – and made some cherished friendships, including one with the bow’s previous owner.
The music Hedden plays also is often an evocation of people, places, and events, or periods of her life, that have shaped her personal and artistic development. Perhaps it’s a tune from Irish tradition, or from renowned Irish fiddlers like Tommy Peoples and Vincent Broderick. Or a composition of her own, drawing on her manifold interests and influences, including not only traditional Irish or American but contemporary classical, jazz and electronic music.
Hedden showcases the traditional/folk facet of her oeuvre on her recently released first CD, “When the Aster Blooms,” comprised primarily of original tunes and songs. Other tunes include Peoples’ “Black Pat’s,” Broderick’s “The Milky Way,” Sean Ryan’s “The Nightingale” and a traditional reel, “Bea Mae’s.”
“It just seemed to make sense to put an album together,” says Hedden, who moved to Boston four years ago and has performed locally at Club Passim, The Burren Backroom, BCMFest, and Somerville’s Arts at the Armory. “I had all this material that I’d written over a long period of time, but there are not a lot of opportunities to share your own stuff in a session; it’s just not the right place. And while I might perform them in concert, sometimes I don’t specifically identify the tunes or songs I’ve written – besides, concert memory isn’t always forever, so the audience might not recall the ones that are mine.”
Some of Hedden’s tunes and songs, such as the title track, convey a bucolic, rural impression just by their names: “The Firefly,” “Rainwater’s,” “Downriver,” “Catskill Mountain Road,” “Cunnigar Blackberries,” “Kellogg Street Peaches.” And listening to “The Firefly,” for instance, a leisurely paced jig played by Hedden in her characteristically lyrical style, it’s quite easy to visualize a summer evening on the edge of a vast meadow; or, with the reel “Rainwater’s,” to imagine seeking shelter under a tree during a sudden shower – Hedden’s percussive dancing enriches the rhythm and sounds not unlike the spatter of rain drops.
These pastoral landscapes also form the backdrop – and sometimes become characters in and of themselves – in Hedden’s songs.
Here we are together
Walkin’ slowly by the river
And down the hill from sunset cliffs
And by the oceanside

Here we are together
Sittin’ down beside the river
And in gardens full of roses
At the top of slow inclines
(from “When the Aster Blooms”)
Lovely lady walk with me
Through the flowers and the fields
Take my hand and run around
And we’ll see what time reveals
(from “Downriver”)

Casting lots with ivory bones:
Acorns, flowers and old pine cones.
You left me here upon the sea
With only angel’s wings for company.
(from “Ivory Bones”)

Taken together, these tunes and songs attest to Hedden’s spiritual bond with the natural world, a component of her childhood in western Connecticut. Growing up on a Christmas tree farm on the edge of a woodland, Hedden loved to run around in the fields and – inspired by her father Dan’s readings of Tolkien – “pretend to be a hobbit.” Having a pair of biologists for parents – and Dan in particular, with his knowledge of the area’s geography – also helped inform her sense of place and appreciation for nature.
“That whole environment was just so important to me,” she says. “Having the freedom to explore, literally and metaphorically, the world and its natural features became a big part of who I was, and am today.”
But it’s not just nostalgia of youth that explains Hedden’s affinity for flora and fauna. Those romps in the fields also fueled her musical imagination, and early on in elementary school she began writing songs to help bring her fantasy adventures to life. This led to music lessons, and to her taking up viola. By then, having heard enough Irish traditional music to be thoroughly smitten, and “with a fifth-grader’s logic,” she says, Hedden thought she could play a viola just like a fiddle – despite the fact that the viola is tuned a fifth lower.
Not long afterwards, she and Dan, a guitarist whose musical background included a stint with “Up with People,” began going to a weekly slow jam session of New England contra dance and related music (“I would do my homework in the car,” she recalls, “but I was allowed not to finish it”). Later on, when Hedden was in college and had become well immersed in traditional music, she and Dan formally began to play as a duo, Headin’ Home; they still work together now and then, and Dan appears on three tracks on “When the Aster Blooms.”
Over time, even as she became more engaged in Irish traditional music and the fiddle – studying with the likes of Martin Hayes and Boston-area fiddler George Keith, among others – Hedden found herself drawn to other genres, and to contemplate how their individual characteristics and traits might be more widely understood and appreciated: “Can the nuances of traditional music be translated in classical notation?” she says. “Can people in one musical community experience the dignity, complexity, and beauty of music from other communities?” These questions continue to energize her work as a musician and composer.
Another important strand in Hedden’s life is dance. She started out very young on ballet, but at six she went to see the original production of “Riverdance” and was captivated. The show was a major catalyst for her interest in Irish music, but also drew her to Irish dance.
“There was no way not to be stunned by seeing Michael Flatley, Jean Butler, and the others,” she says.
Although it took several years before she was able to find an Irish dance school, Hedden danced competitively throughout high school. In college, she began learning the improvisational style of Irish dance, under the tutelage of Nic Gareiss and later Kieran Jordan.
It is these various experiences of artistic and personal growth – some that came with risks and costs – Hedden channels on “When the Aster Blooms.” But the timeline also covers the recent, not just the distant past.
The album’s two final tracks relate to the connection – one that goes beyond musical – that he has forged during the past few years with Caoimhín Ó Fearghail, a multi-instrumentalist from Co. Waterford and former TG4 Young Musician of the Year who is one of the more in-demand accompanists in Irish traditional music nowadays. On “When the Aster Blooms,” he plays flute and bouzouki on two tracks and guitar on four others.
Hedden’s song, “The Druid,” is named for that storied Cambridge pub where she and Ó Fearghail first met, and is followed by the instrumental medley “Suite for Caoimhín/Under the Accordion.”
“Caoimhín happened to be on tour, and he and I both showed up at The Druid, sat down next to each other, and the rest is history,” she says. “The tunes in the suite express the memories and feelings of those first four days of knowing one another. There is an accordion hanging on the wall above where we were sitting, hence ‘Under the Accordion.’”
Even before meeting Ó Fearghail, however, Hedden felt Boston Irish’s music scene was special.
“It has a very familial feel to it. In some other places, you’re more on your own,” she says. “From the start, I loved how the sessions and other Irish music events in the Boston area were a procession of generations who felt a kinship through the tradition. There’s a camaraderie here that is so welcoming and supportive.”
For more about Christine Hedden, see christinedelphinemusic.com.