Trad sessions

Once upon a time, in a land far away from here in every possible sense, a “trad session” meant that various musicians would get up in a pub and play from a list of songs known to everyone. I lived in Ireland during my college years and trad sessions were just part of the usual routine. A big Friday night was often relieved by a greasy breakfast, Guinness and a trad session. It was our culture, our pub culture. People would just show up to listen, to talk with one another and, of course, sing. Always over a pint. It was a lovely way to socialize. After a few pints, folks would start to dance. There were inevitably young Irish girls step-dancing. Occasionally there would be an American tourist or abroad-in-Ireland college student who could hold their own step-dancing, much to the surprise of the locals.

There would typically be a core group playing. Others would come and go. These were songs they all grew up singing, but each session had its own flavor. Songs may be played at different tempos or with different instruments. Some groups would feed off each other and stray this way or that. Others stuck to more accepted styles. Trad sessions would last for hours.

As a slightly older young man, a “trad session” has taken a different meaning altogether. There are three distinct flavors of rock climbing: top-roping, sport climbing and trad. Top-roping has an anchor above the climber, secured to a tree, rock or perhaps a set of bolts placed in the rock. This is how everyone starts. A fall has fairly minute consequences. The climber isn’t going very far. Top-roping also allows top-down exploration of a route or piecing together the required sequence of moves prior to attempting it as a sport climb or a trad climb.

Metal bolts with steel hangars can be placed directly into the rock. The hangars form a route to be followed, a path to the top. The climber must clip each hangar along the way, attaching the rope to the bolt and subsequently the climber to the wall. It carries an increased risk level versus top-roping. A climber will fall twice the distance to the last hangar. It can generate tremendous forces when the rope stops the fall. But the bolts and hangars are pretty reliable. They aren’t coming out of the rock.

Finally, once a climber has gained comfort with sport and top-roping, there is “trad” climbing. In top-roping the risks are minimal. In trad, the risks are the highest. But, the freedom to choose how you will climb the route is entirely up to the climber. Protection is placed in the rock, in various nooks, crannies and cracks, along a path of each climbers choosing, as he goes up. The protection is then removed by the climber following at the other end of the rope. In theory, a climber will only fall twice the distance to the last piece of protection placed. However, that is assuming the piece stays where it was put, which It may not. There is often a predetermined route, but deviation is always possible and adds a distinct flavor to each climb.

My cousins, Galway roommates and other miscreant Irish-American friends have seen to it that I’ve mastered the Irish trad session. I can walk into just about any Irish bar in the world and be perfectly at ease. A ranting, perpetually five o’clock shadowed Jewish-Italian has been teaching me the climbing trad session.

The library at McMurdo Station is in my building. I’ve found that a few books have a couple copies on the shelves. Apparently we all have had the same literary preferences for seemingly some time. Tonight, as I moseyed down to the library for a fresh book, there were four musicians setting up. Some knew each other, some were introduced around. Clearly none knew each other intimately. Two guitars, a fiddle, a banjo. I was witnessing the beginnings of a trad session. They were tuning to one another and working on their harmonies. And playing from that same song list, specifically the Fields of Athenry.

I started singing along without meaning to. I couldn’t help it. I stayed and listened for a bit. Then I checked out a book about a mountain and was on my way.

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