When you visit White Horse Black Mountain on a Tuesday night, you’ll find a group of musicians sitting in a circle around a small table. One of them starts an Irish jig on his four-string tenor banjo, and after he’s played a measure or two, a fiddle joins in. Then another. Then a flute. Then a bodhran, which is a Celtic frame drum.
Soon the entire circle recognizes the jig, and their fingers fly over the notes of “I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave.” The song morphs into “Palm Sunday,” and then “The Burnt Old Man.”
White Horse started hosting Irish sessions about five years ago, not long after the venue opened. A session, or “seisiún” in Irish, is an informal gathering of people playing traditional Irish music.
“A session is for people who love to play music,” said Doug Murray, the unofficial leader of the group. ”We sit around and play, whether anyone is listening or not.”
But people do listen. And they are impressed by what they hear.
“This is the best thing in town; I can’t believe it’s not standing room only,” said Sandy Booth, a South Carolinian who spends summers in Black Mountain. “They are so good. Black Mountain is just a magical place.”
The musicians play a mixture of slip jigs, regular jigs, Irish air, reels and even Irish polka. Some songs are hundreds of years old, others were written in the last 20 years. Murray said a lot of the time you can’t tell whether a song is old or new because they are all written in a similar style.
The instruments have changed, however. The banjo, which Murray plays, was adapted only in the 1960s.
“(Irish music) is flexible enough to accept new things. Some get taken up, and some get thrown out. But the banjo has stayed,” Murray said.
He said the individuality is one of his favorite things about Irish music.
“There’s a commitment to tradition,” Murray said, “but (there is) also a lot of room to put in your own ideas and instrumentation. Within limits, of course. It’s not jazz. But there is a lot of room for personality.”
In addition to banjos, flutes, fiddles, guitars and percussion instruments, a session also includes singing.
On a recent Tuesday night, Robert Boer, a music professor at Montreat College, leads the group in “Will You Go Lassie Go?” The others join the chorus:
“Will ye go, Lassie go?
“And we'll all go together
“To pluck wild mountain thyme
“All around the blooming heather
“Will ye go, Lassie go?”
When White Horse Black Mountain owner Bob Hinkle was approached about hosting an Irish session, it was an easy decision, he said.
“I was a big fan of Irish music to begin with, so I didn’t have to think about it long,” he said. “I like the joy that’s in the music for people who have had a rough time. It’s an escape. Or a lot of it is, anyway.”
Tuesday night sessions at White Horse are for both musicians and onlookers. In between songs, they sip local beer from the bar.
“A lot of Irish sessions have trouble finding a home and move around a lot,” Murray said. “We’re very grateful to have White Horse.”
The sessions start at 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday. They’re followed by open mic nights at 8:45 p.m.