Recently I received a request to tab out an arrangement of the Irish fiddle tune, “The King of the Fairies.” I was not familiar with this tune, but always like a challenge. This is a beautiful tune in a minor mode with many note runs up and down the scale. It is an old tune and was played in Ireland in the 1800s as a “set dance.” As with many of these tunes, it is known by quite a few different names. In America, hammered dulcimer player, John McCutcheon, played a very similar tune entitled, “Scollay’s Reel.” The tune, however, is not easy for mountain dulcimer players to play because of all the extended runs. I decided to attempt to make a variation of the tune.
“King of the Fairies” Tune
Since I don’t know what a “Fairy King” might look like, I’ll use my imagination and substitute garden butterflies lacking any real “fairy king” images. I am imagining that a mythical Irish fairy king might be strong-willed person with red hair and a boisterous or mischievous nature. Fairy kings are actually extremely popular in British and Irish folklore. For this tune, as recounted on the website, Celtic Wedding Rings, “According to folklore, ‘King of the Fairies’ is a song to summon the fairy king. If you play it three times in a row during a party, the king must appear. However, the king will decide whether or not he likes the shindig; if he does, he joins in the revelry. If he doesn’t, he will cause mayhem.” (https://www.celtic-weddingrings.com/fairy-stories/king-of-the-fairies)
According to some music collectors, “King of the Fairies,” is derived from derived from a Jacobite tune called “Bonny Charlie.” Jacobite’s were supporters of the Scottish Kings, James Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender, and his son Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender (or Bonnie Prince Charlie). The followers wished to return the throne from the oppressive British monarch, George I, House of Hanover, back to the Scottish Kings. Unfortunately, they did not prevail and Charles Edward Stuart was defeated in the battle of of Culloden in 1745 and forced back into exile in France. Interesting history. Great Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes!
Simplifying a Tune, “Abridged Version”
It is rewarding to play fiddle tunes on the mountain dulcimer, but not always easy. The tune, “King of the Fairies” is an example of a more difficult tune for dulcimer players. I decided to see if I could make an easier arrangement of the tune while still staying true to the melody.
Since I wasn’t familiar with the tune, my approach was first to learn it by listening to recordings on the internet. Then I simplified the tune for the dulcimer by cutting out every other eighth note in the runs. Lastly, I added back some of these notes into the arrangement which were important to the melody. Although the approach sounds just a little crazy, it worked. While you certainly can’t apply this technique to every song or tune, many of the “passing notes” in eighth runs of a fiddle tune can be skipped. The melody is on the beat, not the off beat. So, my “abridged version” is “achievable” for intermediate skill dulcimer players. And it really “sounds like” the tune which is played by fiddle players.
Dulcimer Tuning for “King of the Fairies”
“King of the Fairies” is played in a minor mode. On the dulcimer, you can achieve this in several ways. The first way is to place a capo at the first fret and play in the Key of E minor. The second way is to tune the dulcimer to DAC tuning and play in the Key of D minor. Both ways have advantages with slight differences in the “feel” of the tune in each key. Which tuning you use is really a matter of preference. I tried both tunings and decided on a DAC arrangement. So, from the DAD tuning, just lower the melody string one note to “C” for a DAC tuning. You don’t have to turn the tuning peg very far, perhaps only half of a turn — turn gently. It is just one note difference! Use a tuner.
Playing the Tune
For this tune, strum/flat pick across all the strings with a “back and forth” motion, especially on the eighth notes, and with a lilt. Tap your foot while playing to keep the beat and a dance rhythm going. I did not include chords; the song is played entirely on the melody string (except for the melody notes which cross to the middle string). The tune does have dotted quarter notes, try to strum these notes in an inward fashion to maintain the “back and forth” strum. Especially in Part B in measure #18, these dotted quarter notes give a “lilt” and help make this song unique.
The tune does not use a “1-1/2” fret, but it does include both the “6” fret and “6-1/2” frets. Pay attention to the tab. The melody goes up and down the fretboard, use several fingers and use your fifth finger as an anchor.
Set dances are typically 32 measures long. In my “abridged” arrangement, Part A is repeated but not Part B. Fiddlers may have other configurations to playing the parts, but I’ll keep it simple.
The tempo of this tune varies and the song can an be played at different speeds. It is a dance tune and can be played slow or quickly; and often with a hornpipe-lilt. Sometimes fiddlers play the tune slowly for several rounds and then speed up. Apparently, in Irish or Scottish dance set dance competitions, more advanced dancers will use a slower tempo since they include more complicated dance steps. On the dulcimer, I prefer a moderate tempo, otherwise it sounds like a dirge. However, I think it is always wise to play slowly until you learn a tune.
I love learning a new tune and played this one over and over. It was a great distraction from all the election “what if” vote counting scenarios on television networks this November.
Attached is an image of the song as well as a PDF file for you to download and play. Enjoy!