John Doherty (fiddler)

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John Doherty (1895-1980) is perhaps the best-known of the vibrant living tradition of fiddle playing of County Donegal, Ireland. A travelling tinsmith, he was and is held up by Irish traditional musicians as an example of the very best of Irish fiddlers, easily in the same rank as Michael Coleman and Padraig O'Keeffe, his contemporaries. He had a voluminous repertoire of tunes that he played with an unusual, distinctively "lonesome" style that has often been compared to the highland bagpipes. John--Irish musicians are typically referred to by their given names in this way--was also the source of many tunes. It is not controversial to refer to him as a "fiddler's fiddler."


John Doherty was born in 1895 in Ardara, County Donegal, the youngest of a large family of travellers with a long tradition of fiddle and bagpipe playing. By his 20s he was recognized as a very strong fiddle player. As a travelling tinsmith, however, he plied the family trade. This nevertheless brought him into regular contact with people from all over southwest County Donegal, and in that way he both learned and spread many tunes. John was also an accomplished singer and storyteller, and his arrival in a house or townland was cause for some celebration, because it meant that music, dancing, singing, and storytelling were in store. In the late 1940s, through to the 1970s, music collectors visited John and the result was several albums. The style evident on these albums was, for most listeners of Irish traditional music, completely unusual, and John gained a reputation as the Donegal fiddler by the 1970s. John is known for playing with virtuosity well into his 80s, and he died in January 1980.


As a listener may hear on recordings still available, John Doherty's bowing is powerful and vigorous. He has also been recorded as saying that he took some stylistic cues from the Highland pipes and from fiddle players such as James Scott Skinner and William McKenzie Murdoch. Like the pipes, the tones produced are lonesome-sounding, and yet possessed of a singing quality. His playing does not have the "swing" of other Irish fiddlers, but is more straightforward and driving. His playing is usually one-note-per-bow, which gives his music a brisk, staccato flavor. The tempos at which he plays are also famously brisk, as well. He has rather less finger ornamentation than other players, and it tends to imitate piping ornamentation, with many "cuts" and some trills. Like many Donegal fiddlers, John's primary ornament is perhaps the bowed triplet, which also contributes to the piping sound of the playing. The overall effect is a stark, lonesome, and powerful sound.