Musicians gather to play Celtic music in Littleton, surrounding areas – Littleton Independent

Elisabeth Slay

In a crowded tavern in Downtown Littleton on a Thursday night, 10 musicians gather around a table with their penny whistles, fiddles, guitars and drums and listen intently to each other to create the sounds of Celtic tunes.  

With only their musical talents and memory to rely on, the musicians are a part of a community of people throughout Colorado who often gather at various events and pubs, such as the Tavern in Littleton, for “sessions” to play Irish gigs, reels and hornpipes.  

Host of local sessions, John Hammer, said he has been playing music, including Celtic tunes for over 30 years.  

“What we’re doing is emulating the true Irish Celtic music session, which is (when) you show up at a place, you don’t usually get paid or you sometimes get drinks for it, and whoever shows up is the group for the night,” Hammer said.  

Hammer, who’s a “rebel” of the group, often leads the local sessions and plays the hammered dulcimer which is not traditional to Irish music.  

He said those in the session have a common knowledge of various Irish tunes and because of that they can play together anytime.  

Eron Johnson, fiddle player and antiques dealer, said to partake in the sessions one needs to have the knowledge of all the different tunes. 

“You have to know the tunes ahead of time but it’s kind of a universal wide language of music,” Johnson said.  

Johnson said the sessions are based on an Irish tradition of performing in taverns and pubs in which musicians would play portable instruments such as fiddles, bodhrans and penny whistles. 

He said there are thousands of Irish melodies, and some are more popular in certain areas, but each melody is replayed based on a musician’s memory. So, while there are common tunes, Celtic musicians all know, the songs can sound slightly different based on how they’re remembered and interpreted by the musicians.  

“Historically this music was transmitted from generation to generation and town to town by sitting and listening and learning,” Johnson said. “We’re all doing our own interpretation at the same time.”  

Hammer said the tradition began as a way to express Irish heritage and continue the culture.  

“The reason they do it is because the British were so strict with the Irish when they took the country over that they didn’t want any of (the) culture left,” Hammer said. “So, you were memorizing the tunes to preserve this culture.”  

Johnson said he specifically learned to play the violin after stumbling upon a session while grabbing a beer in Boulder about 15 years ago.  

“We’re sitting there and there’s a group of people playing this music,” Johnson said. “I just was fascinated for two reasons. I like the melodies and that character of music but also the comradery.”  

Johnson said he admired that no matter who it was a “new player could walk in the door” and “they would immediately start playing whatever was happening” 

“I thought that was totally amazing and I wanted to learn more about it, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Johnson said.  

Comradery within the community seems to be what most musicians love about the Irish music craft.  

Denver resident and violinist, Mary Ball performs frequently with fellow Celtic music players and has for over 20 years. 

“It’s just joyous. (I love) the joy of sharing music with friends and it’s always happy,” Ball said.  

Penny whistler Jane Martin, of Jefferson County, said she heard penny whistling on a record over 30 years ago and loved the sound.  

“A friend and I both bought a penny whistle and started learning it,” she said. “(I love) the comradery and this type of music. It has so much energy.”  

On average Hammer said there are about three to 12 different people who play in the sessions.  

John Bieberly, of Jefferson County, said he discovered the Celtic music community after attending another session in east Denver, which led him to seeing members perform at the Tavern as they do every Thursday night.  

Bieberly said he’s been working on memorizing the tunes and playing his penny whistle for the last eight months so he can join the others in a public session.  

“I had one (penny whistle) already and now I have a whole collection,” he said. “I’m hoping sometime in the next year that I’ll be good enough.”  

Bieberly said right now he can play some of the tunes and he currently attends practice sessions for beginners.  

“It’s a connection to my heritage and it’s different than what a lot of people listen to now and it’s just interesting and I like it because it’s different,” Bieberly said.  

Hammer said the community performs throughout Littleton, Englewood and the Denver metro and they all connect through social media, email and phone calls.  

Residents and family members Shirley, Walt and Barbara Hime, of Douglas County, said they love Ireland and Irish music.  

“It’s almost spiritual I think,” Walt said.  

Between Shirley and Barabara, they have been to Ireland a total of seven times and Barbara said they love the fast impromptu music.  

 “Some would start, and they all just join in and (I love) the different instruments,” Barbara said.  

For more information on local sessions reach out to Hammer at 

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