Sarah McQuaid – DADGAD in Bad Honnef

harrison3I was greatly looking forward to hearing a blond haired Spanish American Irish lady who currently resides in Cornwall in South West England. I’d heard Sarah McQuaid being interviewed and snippets of some of her songs on Mike Harding’s BBC Radio 2 show of folk, roots and acoustic music last November. Having studied Elizabethan history at A-level and having lived in Derby for five years and being a great fan of the Derbyshire countryside in the English Peak District I was amazed that at least three of her own songs on her latest CD were either set in this beautiful county or in this fascinating time period, or both. Playing the guitar myself I was also intrigued to learn that she plays exclusively in DADGAD tuning, which is becoming increasingly popular, especially for folk guitarists, as it allows one to play melodies with simultaneous rich chordal accompaniments much easier than with conventional guitar tuning. The downside is that one must re-learn the guitar almost as a new instrument as nearly all the chord shapes are different.

Sarah McQuaid concert Friday 22.03.2013  FiF Folk in Feurschlösschen, Bad Honnef

– Review/photos by John Harrison

Although she owns a Martin D-28 guitar Sarah McQuaid stands before us with a custom built cutaway acoustic guitar by one of Europe’s foremost luthiers, Andy Manson, and it is evident from the sound on the very first song why his guitars are so revered. Sarah uses a thumb pick with naked fingers which gives more power to the base strings whilst maintaining the natural soft tone on the higher strings. One thing Andy cannot take any credit for however are Sarah’s rich dulcet tones. With her very varied cultural and geographical heritage it’s no wonder that her accent is difficult to pinpoint accurately, suffice to say it’s mildly transatlantic with the Irish brogue remaining, but with the rough edges somewhat chamfered off. She’s a voice that’s a delight to listen to, and as we are about to learn, especially when it’s singing and its power and volume is let off the leash.

To open, Sarah chooses a well known traditional song dating back to at least the 17th century “The Sprig of Thyme“ a song of warning to young maidens everywhere about young lads stealing their thyme, as in the herb of the mint family growing in the garden and with a pun on time in the sense of beware: tempus fugit @ all times.

True folk songs, it is said, are learnt on a mother’s knee and this is the case with “The Chickens They Are Crowing” an American song from her second CD which is capoed right up to the 7th fret giving an almost harp like sound to the guitar picking accompaniment to her voice. The theme is the same vein, however, maidens squandering good time on good-for-nothing men.

“The Sun Goes On Rising” is one of several contemporary songs which Sarah has co-written with Gerry O’Beirne from County Clare. The perennial “wolf at the door” representing the struggle against a harsh economic climate. A lilting melody almost belying the serious daily toil of keeping the, ever hungry wolf at bay until the dawn of the new day brings fresh hope, at least for a few short hours.

“Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” is one of Sarah’s own compositions from her latest CD “The plum tree and the rose” This is the first song of the evening without a capo. One of the side effects of using DADGAD tuning is that the use of a capo is more essential than with “normal” tuning, where some purists spurn its use completely as a matter of principle. The depth and the richness of sound available with DADGAD tuning as opposed to the normal EADGBE tuning, however, far outweighs the disadvantage of having to rely on a capo more often though in my humble opinion. The capo Sarah uses so effectively incidentally is a G7th capo from the innovative Leicestershire company of this name  These are the de rigueur capo of choice for modern acoustic guitarists and I remember recently hearing BBC Radio 2 DJ Mark Radcliffe (Mike Harding’s replacement since January on the folk programme) proudly relating to a rather nonplussed Richard Thompson, who was a performing guest on his radio show early this year, that they both “shared the same piece of music equipment”, i.e. a G7th capo!


“Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” allow us the first opportunity to appreciate fully the delightfully rich bass tones of the Andy Manson guitar. The song is equally as delightful, and penned by Sarah, about the formidable Elizabethan lady Elizabeth Shrewsbury, “Bess” of Hardwick, builder of the famous Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire which bears her initials “ES” on the roof and which can still be seen from miles away today, well over four hundred years later. One of the attributes of a good songwriter, or indeed any successful human being for that matter, is to be able to think oneself into the shoes and the mindset of another person, so that you can understand them so well that you can feel what they feel and how they react, and more importantly, why they do so, almost as if one were hard wired with them. Sarah has certainly achieved this with her song “In Derby Cathedral” which is a sequel to “Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” and is the place where Bess of Hardwick is buried. Astonishing is the only word to convey the depth of feeling in this song, one is conscious of the spirit of Bess not only entombed in this cathedral, but also walking around it with the listener. Once you have heard the version from the CD featuring the immaculate trumpet accompaniment of Bill Blackmore, however, the live version, good as it is, is slightly disappointing. The live version is enhanced though, due to the handiwork of “Magic” Martin Stansbury, in charge of sound, who uses live recordings of Sarah’s voice and “Mainsave” software to produce live tap delays, enabling magnificent canons at the end of the song, and the effects thus created (totally without backing tracks or overdubs) compensate somewhat for the lack of Bill Blackmore’s stunning trumpet.

The capo is back out again and on the 5th fret for “In The Pines” a well known traditional 19th century song from America and a favourite of Lead Belly, with a truly canine chorus. Lead Belly recorded this song in 1942 and it is certainly the mark of a good musician if he can “sing himself out of jail”, and all the more so when he’s in on a murder charge, and that’s exactly what Lead Belly did, with a little help from a certain Mr Lomax.

“What Are We Going To Do” is another song writing collaboration with Gerry O’Beirne, written in a pre-WW II style when songs were real songs and invariably love songs, with powerful chord structures, swing and good story lines.

“Aquí Me Pinté Yo” is a song from a different song writing collaboration, this time with Zoë Pollock, who had a hit record in the early 1990s with a song she wrote “Sunshine on a rainy day”, and is now a neighbour of Sarah’s in Cornwall. The pair have been somewhat audaciously described as “two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison”, a rare accolade indeed! “Aquí Me Pinté Yo” has a likeness to Donavon’s “Ballad Of A Crystal Man” with the melody rising right at the end of each line with” I am tired, but I am happy”


The final song of the first set is “Lift You Up and Let You Fly”a song from Sarah’s latest album and the written by her about her own daughter, highlighting the difficulties every parent faces in letting go and allowing their children the increased independence that they both crave and require, as they grow up from being initially totally dependent upon their parents into little individuals in their own right.

Despite it not having rained during the break, the second set kicked off with “So Much Rain” written in collaboration with Gerry O’Beirne, both in Dublin and Dingle during a wetter than usual Irish summer.

“Uncloudy Day” has the capo right up high on the 8th fret of the fretboard and this is a song written by Josiah Kelley Alwood and set in 1879 about the golden city in heaven which lies beyond the rainbow.

After the capo is slid back down to the 2nd fret there are two old American songs, again learnt from her mother, and played as instrumentals, “Shady Grove & Chuck Old Hen” featuring some delightful finger picking from Sarah.

The next song takes us way back in time again to Elizabethan England for “Can She Excuse My Wrongs” which was written for the lute in 1597 towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign by John Dowland. Sarah has transposed it for the guitar with such craft that its temporal integrity is fully maintained and one can close one’s eyes and still hear the lute playing. The words were reputedly written by the Earl of Essex, a luckless suitor of Queen Elizabeth.

We remain firmly in Elizabethan England for the third of Sarah’s trilogy of her own Elizabethan songs on “The plumtree and the rose” album. This song is called “Kennilworth” and refers to the castle in the town of the same name, in Warwickshire, or more accurately to the most beautiful and salubrious garden which Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester created in the grounds of his castle there in 1575 in order to woo Queen Elisabeth I. Alas, the Earl of Leicester had as much luck as the Earl of Essex with his courtship, for this queen had, very early on in her forty five year reign, already selflessly pledged and betrothed her heart to, in her mind, an altogether more worthy suitor, her people.

We fast forward almost exactly four centuries now for the next song written in 1973, which is related to two of the foremost folk singer/songwriter guitarists of the second half of the 20th century. “Solid Air” was written by the late John Martyn reputedly about Nick Drake who died tragically of an overdose aged only twenty six. Sarah’s solo version is hauntingly soulful, but if you get the chance do listen to the studio version from her latest CD for another dose of the amazing and haunting solo trumpet playing of Bill Blackmore.

The role call of second half of the 20th century folk guitarists and singer/songwriters

is extended now to include the legendary Ewan MacColl with a fine rendering by Sarah of his song, “The Joy Of Living”, with the capo on the 2nd fret Sarah sadly recalls playing this song at a funeral once. The refrain is a veritable celebration of life itself, “drink ‘til you are drunk on the joy of living, sing of the hurt and the pain, and the joy of living.“


The last song, is one of Sarah’s own about a mother and her daughter, as Sarah laments how her own mother died a year before Sarah’s daughter was born and so did not experience the joy of holding her in her arms, and was called quite appropriately “The Last Song”. This taken from her ” I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning” album with a sweet “Froggy-went-a-courting” refrain contained within the lullaby. Sarah reminds us how one often opens one’s mouth to say something to a child, only to hear the words of your own parents emanating from your lips, “are you still awake?”. A beautiful song and of course we all were still wide awake and eager for an encore. The capo was placed on the 6th fret and the Ewan MacColl classic “ The First Tme Ever I Saw Your Face” her favourite song in the whole world, and what a wonderful world, the musical world of Sarah McQuaid is, and what a wonderful rendition of this beautiful song. We could all still smell the Thyme from the very first song of the evening and what a great time we had all had this night as Sarah gave us an a cappella version of “The Parting Glass” to see us on our various ways into the night and far beyond.

I have described the songs of this evening in some detail as Sarah, kind as she is, has made them all available to listen to in full on her website

You can also find most of them as videos on her own YouTube channel  and there are many others uploaded by other people available on YouTube too.

Please do not let her generosity prevent you from buying her latest CD “The plumtree and the rose”, however, which contains all the lyrics as well as detailed and illustrated sleeve notes to the songs.

Sarah (is there no end to this woman’s talents?) has also written and illustrated and published “The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book “ which I have on good authority is still one of the definitive books of its genre, despite having been written nearly twenty years ago. It contains many songs in DADGAD with notes and tabs and many useful chord diagrams and explanations for further exploring this particular guitar tuning, equally suitable for both the beginner and the already initiated.

So Sarah McQuaid is a very multi-faceted folk diamond, and makes a both courageous and successful attempt to converse with her audience in German, and judging by the odd Dutch words which creep in sometimes, she tries to make the people in the Netherlands, from whence she has come on this tour, and where she is headed to next, equally at home and at ease. Early on in the evening Sarah brought out an Anglo-German phrase book, which must have been at least half a century old, if not even older. Younger motorists in the audience weaned on modern motor cars with self-lubricating joints were somewhat at a loss with the request at a garage, “Mein Wagen muß geschmiert werden” / “My car needs greasing” . So totally superfluous today that the word in both languages is now more commonly known for a form of unsalubrious pecuniary lubrication, but greasing was nevertheless an essential task to be performed every few thousand miles for motorists in those days.


One of the wonders of a good folk evening is that one is minded to remember things which less fortunate people have neither the time nor the chance or perhaps the inclination to, and that is seldom a bad thing, as history can often impart on us again, not only nostalgia, but also otherwise long forgotten wisdom from bygone ages.

Sarah unfortunately only played three gigs in Germany on this particular tour, but if you have the chance in future, and the chances are good as she tends to spend half of the year on the road, do go and see her and listen to her finely crafted and sincerely performed emotive songs.

You’ll certainly not regret it.

John Harrison

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