The Compositions of Andy Dickson by Anne Bailie and Danny Diamond

To mark the anniversary of the death of fiddle player Andy Dickson, ITMA presents a special tribute from his partner Anne Bailie and fiddle player Danny Diamond, focusing on his remarkable contribution as a composer within the tradition. The full extent of Andy's composition work only became publicly known after his death in April 2020. His tune collection numbers over 2,200 unique compositions and a further 3,500+ arrangements or versions of traditional tunes.

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Andy Dickson, The Errigle Inn, Belfast, September 2015. Image: Ciaran Kelly

Danny Diamond reminisces about his first meeting with Andy Dickson:

The first memory that comes to mind is my grandfather Joe Diamond’s funeral in West Belfast in 1998. At the afters there was a music session in the Fruithill Bowling Club. I got to sit beside Andy Dickson. To me at the time it was like sitting beside John Doherty, Tommie Potts, Aggie Whyte, one of the heads.
I noticed how Andy's music was deft and intricate, but it also had an edge, and he could combine delicate turns of phrase with an energy that demanded the listener's attention. I had heard him play on tapes, but this was my first meeting in person with the man himself. I remember the ivory frog of his bow and the fluidity of his bowhand, the wire mute pushed half-way up behind the bridge. His quiet rakishness and charm. He humoured me and we even played a few tunes together. Andy's ability to refashion tune versions, his musical poise, the drama of his ornaments had echoes of Tommy Peoples and Frankie Gavin, set alongside an intensity that was all Belfast, and delivered with a flair that was entirely his own.

Andy was born in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, but with his father’s employment, the family moved to different towns in England, before relocating to Belfast in 1957. In his junior years at school his ability in music had already been recognised with a school report recording at the age of 7, “Music – Good, a lovely voice”. A Christmas present of a mouth organ had relations commenting on his ability to play it, for as Andy himself said “There wasn’t a note of music in my family”.

On to ‘big school’ and Andy, like many other teenagers, was influenced by the local music scene. He taught himself to play guitar and formed a band with several of his school friends. To quote Bill Morrison from his book Big Hand for the Band, “Dickson, A M, played a mighty impressive Flamenco tune on a Spanish guitar” and “an Echo Chamber that made his guitar-picking sound like Hank Marvin”.

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Andy Dickson Andy with guitar as a teenager in Belfast

After studying at Queen’s University, Belfast for a couple of years, Andy decided to take a gap year and headed to London. It wasn’t long before he was working as a session musician in various studios and busking the cinema queues. He also got involved in the London folk scene. The gap year became several years, and after travelling to Spain to learn more about Spanish music and culture he returned to London and took a job scheduling airline crews. It was during this time that he sustained a hand injury which severely curtailed his ability to play the guitar as he wished. He decided to return to Belfast to complete his degree.

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Andy Dickson with guitar in recording studio, London.

Before he returned, he got into conversation with a gentleman at a quay side, who remarked on his guitar case, and said that he had something that might interest him, went away and came back carrying what turned out to be a fiddle case. He handed it to Andy, said a few words and off he went. Andy had his first fiddle.

Now the 1970s, and back in Belfast, Andy was completing his degree in Social Anthropology at Queen’s and at the same time teaching himself to play the fiddle. His sources for tunes were many. He would spend hours in the university library pouring through old manuscripts, travelling the country to Fleadhanna and festivals, as well as attending local Belfast sessions in Pat’s Bar in Sailortown, the Old House in Albert Street off the Falls Road, and also sessions slightly further afield in Bangor. He quickly found a central place in Belfast's growing folk and traditional music scene, which provided a cross-community haven for the open-minded, eccentric and creative in the divided city. During the 1970s traditional music in Belfast grew in popularity and the session scene expanded out to new venues including Tom Kelly's in the Short Strand, The Rossa Club in West Belfast, and the Rotterdam Bar also in Sailortown, amongst others.

This was the time that Andy began writing down the tunes that he had sourced and soon had several manuscript books filled. He didn’t have a tape recorder at that time and preferred to carry his ‘little black book’ and a pencil in his fiddle case. If there was a tune, or version of a tune that caught his attention, out would come the book and the tune would be notated, to be transferred later to the manuscript books.

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A sample page from Andy Dickson's ‘little black book’

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s Andy and many other Belfast musicians were going to sessions nearly every night of the week. Word of mouth soon had many visiting musicians coming to the sessions, from all parts of Ireland and further afield. Andy’s manuscript books were expanding rapidly.

Traditional music was now being brought to a wider audience by way of concerts, festivals and folk clubs. During poet and musician Ciarán Carson's tenure as Traditional Arts Officer with The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Andy was often employed as a driver on Arts Council musical tours. Through these travels as well as his own musical adventures, Andy developed deep connections with musical communities in Counties Fermanagh, Leitrim, Sligo, and Clare, which would come to be major influences on his music, and, in time, on his compositions.

The first of Andy’s own compositions were now being jotted down, not only in his now infamous book, but also on matchboxes, beermats, or any other material that came to hand. Nor did it matter where he was, whether waiting for a bus, or sitting at the bar sipping a pint- if a tune came to him, it would be noted down. There was a lot of music and travel until the beginning of the 1990s, when a period of ill-health brought his travels beyond the local session scene to an abrupt halt. At this point his composing became prolific.

By the early 2000s Andy and his partner Anne had moved out of the City to rural Co. Down near Ballynahinch. Although still going to sessions in Belfast and around Co. Down, Andy was focusing more and more on composition, rather than on the actual playing: inspired by his love of gardening and photography, Andy would interrupt whatever he was doing to write down a tune that had just popped into his head. This could be two or three tunes a day, or none for several weeks. Of course, when everything became computerised, and using ABC Notation via the Tunebook application, there was no stopping him.

The full extent of Andy's composition work only became publicly known after his death in April 2020. His tune collection numbers over 2,200 unique compositions and a further 3,500+ arrangements or versions of traditional tunes. This compositional output ranks Andy as the most prolific documented tune composer in the tradition, almost rivalling the famous Gan Ainm. 

As a pilot project Anne and Danny have been working on the first fifty of Andy's compositions over the past six weeks: chatting regularly, passing tunes, files and stories back and forth between Anne’s home in Co. Down and Danny’s in Minneapolis, USA.

Andy's innate musical talent and musical literacy, his background as a guitarist and his deep exploration of Irish traditional music combine to great effect in his compositions. The tunes are fascinating cut glass creations, musically literate and melodically complex, as you can hear in the examples below. Andy revisited and reworked many of his tunes through multiple versions across periods of years, a process which can also be seen below. Comparing the original manuscripts with the later digital scores of each tune gives an insight into Andy’s work process and the changes he made along the way.

In addition to the melodies themselves, Andy appended beautifully-written concise and often dryly humorous stories to many of his scores. Where a story exists, it has been added to the tune below.


The Star in the Kitchen

Interactive Score: The Star in the Kitchen / composed by Andy Dickson

Original Manuscript for The Star in the Kitchen

A rare recording of Andy Dickson playing one of his compositions, The Star in the Kitchen.


The Balloon Pilot

Interactive Score: The Balloon Pilot / composed by Andy Dickson

Original Manuscript for The Balloon Pilot

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The Balloon Pilot and The Sailortown Hornpipe, played by Danny Diamond


The Sailortown Hornpipe

Interactive Score: The Sailortown Hornpipe / composed by Andy Dickson

In recognition of the many years I spent playing in the bars around Sailortown, nearly all of which have now gone. [From Andy Dickson's Notes]

Original Manuscript for The Sailortown Hornpipe


The Pheasant's Nest

Interactive Score: The Pheasant’s Nest / composed by Andy Dickson

Our landlord was cutting grass in the lane and came across a pheasant's nest buried down in the longer grass under the wire fence. The female pheasant wouldn't budge until he was right on top of her with his strimmer, being determined to protect her eggs. [From Andy Dickson's Notes]

Original Manuscript for The Pheasant's Nest

The Pheasant’s Nest, played by Danny Diamond


Back to Ballymote

Interactive Score: Back to Ballymote / composed by Andy Dickson

The point is that I probably never will go back to Ballymote. I was there for a couple of days many years ago and the music was mighty. I remember Seamus Horan and others playing outside in shirt sleeves where the late sun fell across the side wall of a pub, pints of porter set on window sills, and you just wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else in the World. [From Andy Dickson's Notes]

Original Manuscript for The Road to Ballymote

Back to Ballymote, played by Danny Diamond


The Tailor's Chalk

Interactive Score: The Tailor’s Chalk / composed by Andy Dickson

Original Manuscript for The Tailor's Chalk

The Tailor’s Chalk, played by Danny Diamond


Collection resources for Andy Dickson Tunes

View and download the staff notation of all the tunes featured in this blog:
Transcriptions of compositions / composed and transcribed by Andy Dickson

Learn all the tunes from the blog using interactive scores: 
Andy Dickson Compositions

A playlist of audio recordings from the blog: 
Recordings of Andy Dickson Compositions


A planned second phase of work on Andy's collection, beginning in summer 2021, will see his full body of compositional work entered into ITMA's Port interactive score resource. This will be accompanied by an online exhibition featuring crowd-sourced audiovisual recordings of Andy's friends and peers sharing stories and playing his compositions.

For biographical information on Andy, with photos and archival audio please see the ITMA blog written last spring by Dermy Diamond in commemoration of Andy's passing.

Contributors:

Anne Bailie is a musician and music engraver based in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Her work can be seen in Songs of County Down by Jackie Boyce, Joe Holmes – Here I Am Among You by Len Graham, and With Fife & Drum by Gary Hastings.

Danny Diamond is a musician, researcher and sound engineer, based in Minneapolis, Minnestota, USA.

His latest recording, Let Fly, a duo album with Brian Miller on guitar & bouzouki, was released in February 2021. For more information please see dannydiamond.ie 

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Danny Diamond, 2020 Image: Anna Lethert

ITMA would sincerely like to thank Anne Bailie for permission to present Andy Dickson's compositions as Interactive Scores.



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