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Organic Intelligence XXI: Fox Chases In Transatlantic Folk Music

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 pa…

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