November 1, 2020
Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy performing at the 2019 Summer BCMFest in Club Passim. "We’ve been growing as a duo, and it was just a natural place for our own tunes," says Tracy of the duo's new album, "Golden."
CREDIT: Sean Smith
The New England traditional folk music duo Keith Murphy and Becky Tracy managed a nice bit of symmetry earlier this year: They released their new album, “Golden,” right around their silver wedding anniversary.
Of course, Tracy acknowledges, that’s not how they actually planned it. If things had gone a little differently, “Golden” – their first full-fledged recording as a duo in nearly three decades of playing together – might well have been out in time for their 20th anniversary, perhaps even earlier. But that’s how it is when you are an extremely busy, in-demand musical couple with a full slate of commitments – from New England contra dances to Celtic events, among others – that often pull you in separate directions.
For 18 years, the Brattleboro-based Tracy and Murphy were two-thirds of Nightingale, a ground-breaking trio known for its intricate arrangements and driving rhythmic groove in performing Irish, Quebecois, American, and other traditional folk music. But even after the band rang down the curtain in 2011, there was plenty to keep them busy. The fiddle-playing Tracy is a long-time member of the contra dance and concert band Wild Asparagus and frequently appears at the annual Massachusetts Fiddle Hell festival west of Boston, for example, while Murphy – a stellar guitarist, pianist, mandolinist, and singer – has had numerous collaborations and pursuits, including the annual “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” production in the Boston area.
“We started work on ‘Golden’ several years ago around when we were putting our home studio together,” says Tracy, whose sources of inspiration include Irish musicians like Tommy Peoples, Brendan Mulvihill, and Eugene O’Donnell. “We would block off a week, and we would spend most of the time making the studio right for the sounds we wanted, then figuring out how best to record together. And then suddenly the week would be up, and we’d go off on our individual jobs. So it always seemed to be a case of ‘Where exactly are we with this, anyway?’”
Still, the experience of making “Golden,” however protracted, was an enjoyable and fulfilling one, says Tracy. In doing so, she and Murphy carved out sufficient time and space to affirm their identity as a duo – they’ve performed locally at Summer BCMFest and the New Bedford Folk Festival in recent years — and “Golden” demonstrates a significant evolution in the partnership, where they’ve turned increasingly to composing tunes based on the traditions that fueled their musicality – not only Irish, Scottish, and Quebecois, but Scandinavian and French, to name a few.
“We’ve been growing as a duo, and it was just a natural place for our own tunes,” says Tracy, who grew up in a family active in folk dance and began playing traditional music in her teens. “Keith has been extra prolific in his composing during the past decade or so: He always seemed to be saying, ‘Hey, Beck, will you learn this one?’ We felt more and more inspired to write our own tunes, yet staying connected to the music we’ve been playing for so long.”
Among the highlights of “Golden” is the title tune, a reel composed by Tracy with a definite French-Canadian flavor that leads to a traditional Quebecois tune, “Grande Gigue Simple,” animated by Murphy’s ringing mandolin and podorythmie, or foot percussion. Murphy’s distinctive, pulsating, resonating guitar kicks off a powerful three-reel set – two traditional Irish tunes, “Corner House” and “Siobhan O’Donnell’s,” sandwiching his “Northwest Reel.” The duo’s knack for crafting exquisite arrangements is particularly evident on a track beginning with a march, “Pratt Hall,” that leads to the alternating minor-major key “Spratt Hall Jig” and then into the exotically stirring “St. Croix Jig.”
Another standout is a medley of reels that begins with Murphy’s “Turlutte” – the word refers to what might be the French equivalent of Irish lilting, i.e. vocalizing a melody phonetically – with groove-laden guitar and podorythmie to match, while Tracy plays a shifting counter-melody; if you think it might sound a little like jazz scat-singing, you’re not alone. Tracy takes the lead for the second part of the set with the haunting “Black Rock,” which she composed on an island in Nova Scotia.
There are serene, relaxed passages on “Golden” as well, including “Last Snow,” written by Murphy in tribute to son Aidan, “an indefatigable skier,” and his “Eliza,” on which his piano skills figure prominently.
Joining Murphy and Tracy on several occasions are Boston-area performer Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle), Mark Roberts (five-string banjo), and Mark Hellenberg (percussion). Among other tracks, Heaton’s flute enriches a trio of elegant Murphy reels, “Inspector Smith/French Shore/Treaty of Paris” as well as the “Spratt/St. Croix” set and – along with Roberts and Hellenberg – adds a kick to the “Corner House” medley.
Murphy’s singing is front and center on three tracks, and taken together they represent something of a departure: Instead of dipping into his vast collection of songs from the Irish, English, Quebecois and Canadian Maritime traditions, he holds forth on two veritable contemporary folk classics, Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” and Walt Aldrich’s “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn.” But Murphy being Murphy, that’s hardly cause for complaint.
As originally recorded by Rogers, “Northwest Passage” has always had a sea chantey feel – sung a cappella with zest (and, ideally, a tankard or bottle in hand) – but Murphy tones things down, imbuing it with a tenderness and contemplativeness befitting a song about the human inclination to undertake quests likely to fail. “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn” is an irresistibly mellow, amiably philosophical slice of Americana, and Murphy eases it along with just the right pace and tone. As on “Northwest Passage,” Tracy’s fiddle accompaniment is pitch-perfect, and here she also lends her voice on the chorus.
“Doing the vocal harmonies was quite satisfying,” she says, “I had sung sometimes with Nightingale, but with a duet sound, that was a big marker for me.”
On the trad side of the ledger is “Brave Marin,” a French song in which a soldier returning home finds his wife has remarried – and takes it all quite well. You don’t have to know French to enjoy the sweetly buoyant chanson, Heaton’s multi-tracked, harmonized whistles lilting around Murphy’s graceful mandolin. (“It was fun to have Shannon come in on that; her playing added a real sparkle,” says Tracy.)
A fiddler’s education
Although the Connecticut-born Tracy started out playing classical violin, her family’s involvement in folk dance made it all but impossible for her to avoid exploring folk/traditional fiddle. Her grandparents were part of the New England Folk Festival Association, or NEFFA, one of the longest-running annual folk music and dance festivals in the country (it marked its 75th anniversary in 2019); in fact, Tracy’s grandparents played a key role in moving the festival to Natick, which eventually became its location for 33 years. Tracy also recalls listening to the many 78s that her father used to provide music for community contra and square dances that he organized and called – including fiddlers like Canada’s Don Messer, Cape Breton’s Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, and Hartford resident Will Welling.
While in junior high, Tracy once came upon a book of tunes compiled by Messer and out of curiosity tried to play one that she’d heard on a 78. It was not an auspicious beginning: “I left the room in a huff and said, ‘No way I can play like that.’” But she kept at it, and at 16, she got to sit in on a dance gig with Welling and his partner Bill Walach. “That was a revelation. From there on, I got the sense of how to ‘sink into’ a tune, and to play by ear. I thought, ‘Hmm, there’s something going on here.’”
Tracy went off to Dartmouth to study math and continued with classical violin, then worked as a math teacher for several years. But she didn’t abandon her growing infatuation with fiddle: While at Dartmouth, she joined a bluegrass band and played at contra dances in the area, and when she moved to Portland, Me., for a teaching job, she found herself in “the epicenter of good Irish music in Maine.” She fondly recalls “getting dragged to sessions all the time, and having tons of music thrown my way,” like The Bothy Band and De Danaan, but also Brendan Mulvihill – from a storied fiddling family – who eventually became a regular tutor; and Eugene O’Donnell, a Derry-born master of slow, emotive airs (“He could just slather his feelings all over his fiddle,” says Tracy, quoting another eminent fiddler’s characterization of O’Donnell: “He’s the person who can make me cry.”)
While Tracy gravitated to the “rolling sound” of the Clare fiddle style, a la Martin Hayes, she also spent a lot of time listening to Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples. She had the chance to play with him at a session during her first trip to Ireland, and he left a favorable impression for more than the obvious reasons: He managed to fix her fiddle’s broken tailpiece with some old string (“I kept it like that for a while,” she adds).
As exciting as the immersion into Irish music was, Tracy kept a wider perspective. She certainly appreciated the music for its own sake, but being a contra dance musician – which requires a familiarity with different genres and traditions – she also tended to zero in on those Irish tunes that would work best in that context. She points to a 1986 album by fiddler Frankie Gavin, accordionist Paul Brock, and pianist Charlie Lennon paying tribute to Galway accordionist Joe Cooley – featuring tunes such as “Wise Maid,” “Templehouse Reel” and “Ships Are Sailing” – as providing useful examples of contra-ready Irish music.
“Things get more athletic in contra dance,” she says. “I thought that album had the kind of sound which was well suited for contra.”
Nightingale and now
At some point, Tracy came to realize that music occupied an increasingly larger chunk of her life. “It got to where I felt I couldn’t teach and play music in the way I wanted to, for either thing.” So she gave up teaching, moved back to Connecticut, and became a full-time musician. This led to a period “where I would play with anyone at just about any distance from me,” she says, and it was during this phase where she first met Murphy, a native of Newfoundland, which had its own thriving folk music and dance scene, and his musical partner, accordionist Jeremiah McLane. First impressions being favorable all around, when the two invited her to join them for a gig, Tracy happily accepted.
“They played brilliantly,” she says. “Jeremiah and I would just get synched into the tunes, and Keith had this incredible rhythmic ability.”
The beginning of what would become Nightingale was tricky from a geographical standpoint: At the time, Tracy was in Connecticut, McLane in Vermont, and Murphy in Toronto. They would have to schedule a time to gather for a block of daylong rehearsals. None of them seemed to mind – certainly not Tracy.
“I had no idea how amazing it would be,” she says. “I think each of us sparked the other two, and just made us all better.”
Nightingale went on to release four albums and established a following in both the contra dance circuit and folk music concert scene – their sophisticated sound worked equally well in either one (for that matter, you could go to one of their contra dances and be perfectly happy just sitting there listening). But other too-good-to-pass-up musical opportunities kept coming along for the trio’s members.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want to keep going,” says Tracy, who in 2001 released an album, “Evergreen,” with support from Murphy, McLane, and other frequent collaborators. “But we had more and more difficulty creating time for Nightingale. When you can’t meet the standards you set for yourself – and ours were high – you really have to decide whether it might be best to move on.”
As Tracy and Murphy were to find out, their schedules – joint or individual – didn’t necessarily get any lighter post-Nightingale. Much of what they originally recorded for their duo album wound up being re-recorded, as they continued to work on their home studio and to refine or tinker with the sets and songs they’d put together.
“Finally, I think I just said, ‘Keith, what will it take to get this recording done?’” says Tracy. “And he said, ‘We need a deadline.’ So we worked backwards from that, and things fell into place.”
Although unable to perform in public the last several months due to COVID restrictions, Tracy and Murphy have done some livestream concerts via Facebook or other platforms, and while these were “initially daunting,” says Tracy, she and Murphy felt it important to make the effort.
“People need their community, whether it’s folk music or contra dance or something else. And part of the livestream experience is connecting with that community, so we all know we’re hanging in there.”
Meanwhile, Tracy is enthusiastic about a musical partnership of hers, Eloise & Co., she formed a few years ago with accordionist Rachel Bell that sometimes includes guest guitarists such as one-time Boston-area resident Bethany Waickman. Bell recently moved to Brattleboro, although the relocation coincided with the pandemic, but the two have been able to get together occasionally as an “outside pod,” explains Tracy: rehearsing on porches, farms – even in a graveyard.
“It’s been fun working up the material,” she says. “Rachel has a big fondness for French folk music, so this is a new trajectory. Hopefully, things will get back to some degree of normal, and we’ll see where it goes.”
For more about Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy’s music, see blackislemusic.com.