The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Subscriber Area

Organic Intelligence XXI: Fox Chases In Transatlantic Folk Music
Jacken Elswyth , June 22nd, 2023 14:12

In this month's antidote to the algorithm, Jacken Elswyth of Shovel Dance Collective takes us up hill and down dale with a fascinating selection of interpretations of folk standard, the fox chase

I first stumbled across the fox chase on one of those long lockdown evenings, hopping with a drink through YouTube or Bandcamp or Spotify. I'm not sure what route took me to Finbar & Eddie Furey, and I can't remember whether I was listening to a whole album of theirs or had just landed on a lone track in some playlist or other. I do remember that I had to check what I was listening to, as the trad pipe tune that was previously playing had suddenly transformed into something that sounded like Evan Parker. At the start of that track, Finbar Furey explains the fox chase as "one of the most traditional tunes that we have in Ireland," which moves from an opening melody to musical imitations of "the sounding of the hounds-master's horn, the galloping of the horses, the letting loose of the dogs, the yelping of the fox through the fields," and so on, ending with a "lament for the poor dead fox".

That track entranced me, but I didn't at first connect it with other instances of the same or related tunes, despite having already encountered one. Around the same time, I had learned a banjo tune from a video of Dink Roberts' weirdly clipped and fixed playing, and included it on my album Six Static Scenes, the only one played pretty much verbatim rather than used as a jumping-off point.

Other than the shared name, there was nothing to suggest a connection between the honks, flutters, and melodic flow of the Fureys' 'Fox Chase', and the close-fisted repetition of Dink Roberts' 'Fox Chase'. But then I started spotting others: Roscoe Holcomb has one that was actually well-known to me as well, played on harmonica; so does Reverend Garry Davis, played in a similar manner but with additional calling out of the action. There's an interview on YouTube with fiddler and banjo-player Frank Fairfield where he's excitedly describing a fox chase in his shellac collection, pointing out the goal of the tune: to convey the sounds of the pursuit, which is exactly what the Fureys are doing in theirs.

Listen to our Fox Hunt playlist on Spotify, TIDAL or Apple Music

From there, the whole firmament of fox chases dawned on me, with a few distinct constellations, but all definitely sitting in the same part of the trad cosmos. At some point last year I made a Spotify playlist called 'Three Hours of Fox Chases', which is exactly that. This is a whole category of traditional playing to itself, in which a combination of sections of written melody and sections of freer non-melodic playing come together to describe the action of a fox chase – yapping hounds, galloping horses, domestic and wild animals interfered with along the way, the demise of the poor fox. It's a party piece and a show of skill, incorporating unusual extended techniques to onomatopoetic effect, and it's found in Scotland, Ireland, and across in America, in folk and blues traditions, played on bagpipes, banjos, harmonicas, and fiddles.

Finbar and Eddie Furey – pipes & guitar

Finbar Furey's 1968 rendition on uilleann pipes is pretty representative of the fox chase in Irish traditions. As he explains, it ranges through a number of distinct imitative sections, before heading into a "lament for the poor dead fox" and finishing with a jig. It's a demonstration of the full range of the pipes and the skill of the piper.

Sonny Terry – harmonica

Here's an amazing bit of video of Sonny Terry doing a harmonica fox chase in 1972, passing palm and fingers over the reeds to alter the sound, and yelping and yapping to imitate the dogs as he blows. It's weird and maybe a little disturbing, and is stripped-back to focus on just the chaos of the hounds rather than the whole range of sounds featured in the Irish versions.

Mickey Doherty – fiddle

Some real virtuoso fiddle playing from Mickey Doherty, who called this track 'The Hounds After The Hare', but clearly modelled it closely on pipe renditions. Recorded in 1949, he skips the lament that the Fureys play and heads straight into the jig after the death of the fox.

Stanley & Hattie Hicks – banjo & voice

Another weird bit of video, this one from 1982: Stanley talking us through the chase that he plays on one of his hand-made mountain banjos while his sister Hattie provides the dog yelps next to him.

Elizabeth Cotten – guitar

Guitar renditions of the fox chase seem quite rare. There's plenty of recordings of American harmonica, fiddle, and banjo versions out there, but the only solo guitar performance I've come across is this one by Elizabeth Cotten, recorded in 1967. It's beautiful and a little hypnotic.