"Star of Munster" Variations
I'm not going to claim to have one favorite tune, Celtic or otherwise, but if I were making a list of a few favorites, "Star of Munster" would most likely be on that list. It is one of my favorite tunes to play -- and I've used it to set some verse to -- so I've been spending some time listening to variations of it.
However, I'm a bit embarrassed. Searching the Internet, I found references to at least 80 different recordings of "Star of Munster." And unless I missed a few, I have only six of them in my collection of Celtic CDs and cassettes -- and I went through everything I have. On the other hand, just the six I have on hand demonstrate the wide range of styles that embrace and are embraced by Celtic music.
The "Star of Munster" played by Oisin on Bealoideas (I.D. Records) is a solid, straightforward version with fiddle, backed by guitar and by bodhran with a key change halfway though being the only real flourish. However, this is a well-played, basic rendition of "Star of Munster," which provides a good baseline to work from.
Martin Hayes's unaccompanied version, on his self-titled, first solo CD (Green Linnet, 1993) is the most subdued version I have heard. His fiddling style was inspired by the older fiddlers he listened to when he was growing up, and when he adds his own embellishments, the effect is rather baroque. The result is a light, airy version that is less of a dance than a stroll down a dirt road. It's both pleasant and technically skilled, but it's not what I tend to think of when I think of "Star of Munster."
On Angel on the 7th Stair (Ceol Na Feinne, 1999), Beyond the Pale makes "Star of Munster" the third in a set with "The Tamlin" and "Princess Morgan." The entire track is a straightforward, up-tempo, fiddle-and-guitar set. "Star of Munster" is set off from the other tunes, as the guitar is dropped during the first time through the first half of the tune. When the second part starts up, the guitar returns, along with whistle sharing the lead with the fiddle.
Jim Lilliquist and The Gypsy Guerrilla Band pair "Star of the County Down" with "Star of Munster" in "The Star Set" on Ernie's Breakdown (Sunshine Company, 1987). To call it a set may be a stretch, since there is a distinct pause after the sentimental, slow waltz-time version of "Star of the County Down," before launching into "Star of Munster." Going from "The County Down" to "Munster" is a complete mood swing as Jim Lilliquist plays a hot hammered dulcimer with Bob Bielefeld on flute and whistles and Malcolm Smith on fiddle keeping up the pace when they take the lead. The dulcimer is probably the main reason this version has more of an Appalachian feel than other arrangements. There is also a distinct jazz-blues feel to several of the runs through the tune.
Hot also describes Boiled in Lead's version. Paired with "Bank of Ireland" for the "Bank & Star" set on Hotheads (Atomic Theory 1987) and later collected on Old Lead (Omnium, 1991), BiL's version is rocked up with some excellent all-around playing, especially Todd Menton on banjo and David Stenshoel on fiddle. Except for the rock backing, however, it is a rather straightforward rendition. Like much of BiL's work, it's great driving music.
As good as the previous five versions are -- and they are all quite good -- the most superb version I've heard is Eileen Ivers's incredible rendition on Wild Blue (Green Linnet, 1996). The set starts off slowly with a lovely version of The Destitution Reel (which gives the track its name, "Destitution"). It builds slowly through an unnamed (at least in the liner notes) reel that was written by Paddy Fahy. Then comes "The Star of Munster."
Pause. Flashback. In March of 1992, Eileen Ivers came through Gainesville with two other musicians -- I'm pretty sure Mick Moloney was one of them; I can't recall the other. During the concert, she played a version of "Star of Munster" that is a unique musical experience for me. For the first and (so far) only time in my life, I stood to applaud at the end without bothering to see if anyone else did. The fact that a half-dozen other people still beat me to my feet I can only attribute to having a bad ankle and twenty or thirty pounds of excess weight.
This recording is even better than my recollection of the concert. I'm not sure I can adequately describe it. It's hard to credit any other styles, as Ivers riffs on whatever catches her fancy. Jazz and African traditions certainly have their influence. But this is more a case of Ivers taking the tune, her instrument, and herself to their wildest limits. Credit also goes to her back-up musicians, especially bass player Kasim Sultan.
Take a classical composition too far and it destroys the composer's intent. Take a rock and roll song too far and it ceases to be rock and roll. Take a Celtic tune -- or most other traditional and folk genres -- to its limits and through the wildest jazz riffs or most precise baroque embellishments, it remains true to itself.
Certainly, these six arrangements of "Star of Munster" keep their identity, not in spite of, but no matter what musical realms they are taken through.