Emulate, assimilate, innovate, part 2a: Ella Fitzgerald and ‘The Irish Washerwoman’

The Irish Washerwoman‘ is a lively jig melody which is either Irish or English in origin. It is often played to accompany country dances such as the one seen on the video to which I linked at the beginning of this post. Scholars who claim that this tune is English in origin point to its similarity to ‘The Dargason’, a tune that Gustav Holst used as the basis of the fourth movement from his Second Suite for Band (where he juxtaposes it contrapuntally with ‘Greensleeves’.)

The Irish Washerwoman was part of the vast vocabulary of melodic phrases that Ella Fitzgerald used to construct her solos. As it happens, Fitzgerald used this quote in three solos, each a year apart, in 1960, ’61 and ’62. Like the solos of many great improvisers, Fitzgerald’s solos were in some cases completely improvised and in other cases made up of a combination of ‘set pieces’ that were premediated to some extent and other sections that were improvised. A case in point is her legendary solo on How High The Moon from the 1960 album Ella In Berlin, in which she begins with the three scat choruses from her 1947 recording of the song and adds an additional four minutes of improvisation. Somewhere in this new material is an Irish Washerwoman quote that emerges gradually. Fitzgerald first quotes only four notes of the tune, and then sixteen bars later quotes a two-measure fragment of the tune which she immediately transposes to another key, resulting in a four-bar phrase derived from the tune. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing in the video where this longer Irish Washerwoman phrase occured.

Fitzgerald’s version of Perdido from the album Twelve Nights In Hollywood,, recorded in 1961, includes a quote of the Irish Washerwoman somewhere near the middle of her solo. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing in the video where this Irish Washerwoman quote is heard.

A third Irish Washerwoman quote is heard in Fitzgerald’s solo on her version of All of Me from the album Ella Swings Gently With Nelson. Leave a comment if you can find the timing of this quote.

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