Published: Oct. 4, 2005
For a few hours, Thomas Wolfe was wrong. The Bog Carrot reunited for a day of conversation and music, and for a few hours I was 15 years younger.
The Bog Carrot was a Celtic music group formed in 1990 by musicians who met at Quail Hollow State Park music sessions. Tom, Mark and I played traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and Wales on fiddle; various sizes of mandolins, flutes, whistles and recorders; hurdy gurdy, bodhran (an Irish drum) and guitar.
Tom, the founder, invited me to join after he saw my blossoming interest in Celtic music. I had discovered traditional music in 1989 at Quail Hollow, near Hartville, and I was immediately attracted to the Baroque-style music of the Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan, a contemporary of Johann Bach. I didn’t immediately settle on the Celtic style, which itself comprises several styles, because I still found the shuffle-bowed Appalachian style fiddling appealing. But Tom introduced me to music groups such as the bagpipes-driven Tannahill Weavers from Scotland, mandolin-laden Planxty from Ireland, and Ar Log from Wales; the Ligonier Highland Games in Pennsylvania; and instructional material, steering me firmly toward the sometimes haunting, sometimes driving, always emotional music of our Celtic forbears.
Those first couple years of exploring Celtic music were like new love. Every tune was new and unusual, every album was an exploration into new musical territory, and I learned about instruments that were peculiar to the folk music world: the cittern, the steel-strung harp, small sweet-sounding bellows-blown parlor pipes, and Tom’s kist of whistles from a low D to E-flat above middle C. We brought a new tune, learned from books and albums we were acquiring, to almost every practice.
Books were another facet of traditional music that at first overwhelmed me. Celtic tunes are usually diatonic, as was most popular music until the advent of the jazz age. The melodies stay within the scale, without the accidentals used in classical music or the blue notes in blues, jazz, country and rock. The music thus retains a tonal purity to which modern ears are unaccustomed. Keys are normally limited to those of the open strings of the violin — G, D, and A plus occasional F, C, and E; the related minors; and the Dorian and Mixolydian modes, scales with their half steps in different places. With the relatively few number of keys, compared to classical works such as Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” which uses all the keys, it’s surprising that so many tunes have been written, and are still being written, in the Celtic styles. Seeing the wealth of books containing thousands of tunes at the Ligonier games convinced me to specialize in Celtic music and not be pulled in too many directions.
Tom, Mark and I immersed ourselves in the Celtic world. We learned scores of tunes, enchanted by Celtic music’s surprising complexity considering its surface simplicity. We played for private parties, at festivals such as Warren’s Celtic Heritage Fair, and at Burkhardt’s Brewpub in Green for St. Patrick’s Day.
But slowly the flame mellowed, and then it burned out. We got bored and disheartened, and we disbanded in August 2000 after playing two private parties that month, one in honor of Steelers owner Dan Rooney during the Hall of Fame Festival. (Mean Joe Green was there, and he was anything but mean; he hugged everybody, including a little old lady who looked as if she were sitting while standing next to that massive man.) I closed the door firmly on the Bog Carrot. I was getting interested in different approaches to Celtic music, Tom took up flamenco guitar, and Mark had another band to occupy him. All that good music drifted to the recesses of my mind, but recently it started to jab me, pestering me, trying to remind me of past joy.
Another music friend came over recently, and he kept pulling out Bog Carrot tunes that he had transcribed from our playing. While we were discussing one of those tunes, the phone rang: Mark was calling to invite us to a farewell party. Tom had retired, and he and his wife were moving to New Mexico. So we met at Mark’s house in our former practice room, and we played music for nearly five hours, joined on some tunes by our spouses on mandolin, button box and percussion. We found new joy in tunes we had nearly forgotten, and the magic was there, that delirious exultation that accompanies the creative process.
For a few hours I felt I was home, playing the right tunes with the right people. Of course it didn’t last. Thomas Wolfe was right after all. Tom is gone, out West with the tarantulas and scorpions. I enjoyed that short excursion to the 1990s, but I’m ready for the next step, for more good music awaits.