Geordie McAdam - 1938-2021

Tue, 06/01/2021 - 15:36
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His role in the local music scene and further afield cannot be understated. He was a highly skilled and versatile musician who never stopped striving for an even higher standard. His presence was captivating, and he was the best of company with a renowned sense of humour. His enthusiasm was boundless and he loved playing with and encouraging younger musicians.

Geordie McAdam lost his battle with cancer on 28th February 2021 and is deeply mourned by the traditional music community. Originally a flute player, Geordie became a fiddle player of great renown in both the traditional and old timey style. He was also a master craftsman and made an indelible impression on everyone he came in contact with.

Geordie was born in 1938 and the family was evacuated to Portadown during the War. Passing a music shop, he spotted a plastic whistle in the window and persuaded his father to buy it for him. He learned Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, This Old Man and Happy Birthday. Back in Belfast, a workmate in the shipyard who played in a flute band encouraged his father to buy Geordie a flute. So he got his first flute, a Crown B flat, and at nine years old began his involvement with a series of flute bands - Britannia, Hillview Rising Star, Edenderry Flute Band. The first tune he can remember playing was Shanghai Lil, which was basically the Swallowtail.

Geordie’s mother died when he was 11. His granny who lived in Ardoyne made the Sunday dinner for his father and the four boys who were living in Palmer Street (off the Shankill). Geordie then brought the washed dishes back to her, and on his way home passed Holy Cross Church. From an adjoining hall he could hear the strains of ceili band music. He would stop to listen and was captivated. On one occasion the Parish Priest came out and invited him to come inside to listen, which he did even though he wasn’t sure if his father would approve! That was the moment, according to Geordie, that he fell in love with traditional music. He began to tune in to Ceili House on Radio Eireann.

He then left the Edenderry Flute Band and joined Duncairn to concentrate on musical theory, sight reading, harmonies, counter melodies etc. He had now progressed to the F flute and with a friend, Laurie Johnston, formed a folk group with the aim of raising money to buy silver flutes for the band. At times they featured four flutes which was a forerunner to the group, Fluters 5. In this format they played a lot of O’Carolan and recorded two albums.

They started to hear other groups featuring different instruments and Geordie volunteered to give the fiddle a go. He bought his first fiddle from a man in a nearby street for £8, using money he made from tying flies (fishing was always a passion for Geordie) to be able to afford it. He went to the School of Music in Donegall Pass to get some basic instruction. He wanted to learn to play jigs and reels so went down to McBurney’s Record Shop in Smithfield to enquire about recordings to learn from. He came home with a Sean McGuire record and almost gave up there and then! But he persevered and subsequently bought a record of another idol, Martin Byrnes.

Geordie heard about a session in Tom Slevin’s bar, The Old House, in Albert street. In times of sectarian tension, it was a place Geordie would have been anxious about, but he went with a Catholic friend, Davy. On his first visit he was thrilled to see Sean McGuire, Josephine Keegan, Leo Gormley and Sean McAloon. Geordie was transfixed and returned each week to learn from “The Cream”, as he called them. Sean McAloon played fiddle as well as pipes and Geordie really admired him. By this stage he was totally hooked on fiddle playing.

Geordie’s group was now called The Dacent Folk and he remembered playing in The Ferryboat, Moonshiner, Duke of York and the Golden Jubilee, where he heard of serious rioting around the Shankill and, as it transpired, the burning of Bombay Street. He continued to play throughout ‘The Troubles’ and was threatened a few times for playing ‘that kind of music’.

His fiddle playing was continuing to develop and although he could read music and learned some tunes from O’Neill’s collection, he knew that listening to the top players was the only way to learn ornamentation and phrasing, e.g. putting in rolls and triplets.

One evening, The Winnowers were playing in the Ferryboat and Geordie approached fiddle player Tom Hickland (who sadly passed away a year ago) about a lesson. He had four lessons with Tom, the only formal teaching on the instrument he ever had. There were not many players around at that time to learn from, but Tommy Baxter and Charlie Monaghan were influential. Along with the piper Trevor Stewart he joined North Belfast Comhaltas and was enthused in the company of fiddlers Alec Crawford and Fergus McTaggart.

Pats Bar in Princess Dock Street was Geordie’s introduction to playing in a session. At first he was apprehensive as his repertoire was limited. He went to a fleadh in Dundalk where he met Co Down fiddler Jackie Donnan, and this was a big turning point. He invited Geordie down to Balloo House near Killinchy, and under the influence of himself, Dennis Calvert, Bobby Davey and Geordie Anderson, Geordie’s range of tunes expanded rapidly. He acknowledged the huge contribution of Jackie Donnan particularly, and played with him for 18 years, being especially influenced by Jackie’s bowing and timing.

About 1977 Geordie went into McCourt’s record shop in Smithfield. For the first time he was introduced to the world of old timey/bluegrass music and was blown away by it. He heard JP Fraley from East Virginia and got hooked on the sound. The following week, he returned and saw Bluegrass Fiddles On Fire. He bought it and an obsession was born. He started to learn the tunes. “Double stops, no rolls or cuts suited my technique.”

Geordie learned a load of these tunes from LPs and at the start he did not appreciate the difference between old time and bluegrass. On a trip to Virginia with Ronnie Crutchley, he was asked by a man in the street to play a tune. He put a bluegrass lick into Ragtime Annie and was told, “Hey we don’t play bluegrass around here!” Geordie regarded himself as old timey from then on. The emphasis on the bowing hand, double stopping, and the drone effect appealed to him.

Geordie played old timey in various line ups – Dacent Folk, Appalachian Strings, Broken String Band and, most recently, in an informal weekly session with long time collaborators Bernie Stocks, Gerry McCartney, Spooly Kelly and Wilson Davies. Add to those occasional guests like Rus Bradbird from New Mexico. Geordie had also played in traditional sessions such as the Kitchen Bar, Duke of York, John Hewitt and others too numerous to mention. And he was a regular visitor to festivals in Tobercurry and Girvan, usually in the company of Wilson and Seanie Lavery.

He named his favourite fiddle players as Martin Byrnes (traditional) and Bruce Molsky (old timey). “I love to play with fiddlers like Donal O’Connor and Shane McAleer who dig into the fiddle rather than tickle it.” He named his preferences as 1. playing in a traditional session, 2. playing in an old timey session, and 3. practising new tunes.

Away from the music, Geordie had acquired great skill as a craftsman. He was primarily a metal worker and trained as a blacksmith. He worked on building sites, was a milkman and latterly achieved a great reputation making stained glass windows and artefacts. He recalled in our last conversation how much he enjoyed coming up to my school to talk to the A level Art pupils about making stained glass.

Geordie made musical instruments which attracted great interest and admiration. He made a large number of fiddles, including hardangers, and an amazing collection made from matchsticks and lollypop sticks - and also a matchstick mandolin and flute!  In recent years Geordie operated from a little shop/workshop on Grays Hill, Bangor. There he worked away repairing fiddles, selling some instruments and making the instruments I have referred to. And he loved other musicians coming in to play a few tunes and have a chat.

The latest sessions he was involved in were at Fealty’s in Bangor and the old timey one in The Sunflower. His role in the local music scene and further afield cannot be understated. He was a highly skilled and versatile musician who never stopped striving for an even higher standard. His presence was captivating, and he was the best of company with a renowned sense of humour. His enthusiasm was boundless and he loved playing with and encouraging younger musicians. People used to comment on his twinkling eyes – especially when he was being admired by female fans!

It cast a dark shadow when Geordie was diagnosed with terminal cancer and we were totally unprepared, but very pleased, when he turned up at the Tradfest fair just before Christmas. For most of us, it was our last meeting with our dear friend, and his playing was as delightful as ever when he was persuaded to perform a few tunes. We will dearly miss Geordie but memories of the man and his music will not fade. Sincere condolences to his wife Gretta, his daughter Janet and sons Alan and David.

Fergus Woods