Irish Music, Roots and Branches

The affinity between Irish traditional lyric and musical forms and those of Scotland, England and Wales (not to mention North America) should surprise no one. Irish traditional song reflects the cultural cross currents and historical conflicts that long have linked Ireland and the British Isles. Their respective song, instrumental and dance forms are closely entwined, and share much with their analogues elsewhere in Europe and America. So what makes Irish traditional music Irish, and for that matter, what might distinguish it as Celtic?

No full-blown discussion of the connotations of “Celtic” is possible here, either in historical terms (the Bronze Age civilizations of Europe — known mostly through archaeological evidence — that gave way in the early Christian era to Roman, Anglo, Saxon and Viking occupations), or vis-à-vis persistent Celtic cultural and linguistic manifestations in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and America.

The question is culturally and geographically complex. No ethnomusicological criteria exist to qualify a particular music as Celtic or not, and the comparative analysis necessary to distinguish between various traditions remains mostly to be done. The Celtic tag is a nomenclature of convenience, reflecting a particular sense of musical feeling, perhaps the best we can say to identify the music addressed here.

Instead of asking what Irish music is, consider the history of its genres, musical conceptions, lyrical texts, vocal and playing styles, instruments, melodies, rhythms, modes of learning and cultural transmission, dance forms, performance contexts and — as Raymond Williams might have put it — the structure of musical feeling. All that is beyond this essay’s thrust, but what we know of Irish roots music comes from the work of aficionados who have asked just those kinds of questions, while listening carefully to and documenting older folk forms to appreciate what might qualify a given music as distinctively Irish.

The historical recordings considered here helped spark Ireland’s folk music revival of the 1950s: A renewed interest in ballad forms; concerted efforts to collect, document and disseminate traditional music; the intelligentsia’s response to the U.S. folk revival; and the innovations of talented younger composers and artists working in traditionally inspired genres at home and abroad. The Piper’s Club, where legends like uilleann piper Leo Rowsome and fiddler Tommy Potts loomed large, was an important site of Dublin folk ferment, and the Dubliners were a seminal group. Overseas, the success of the emigrant Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (themselves inspired by the Weavers) on the Greenwich Village circuit made their music integral to the developing U.S. folk scene.

Seán Ó Riada was a key figure, a classically trained composer and musical director of Radio Éireann, the national radio service. He organized the prominent Ceoltóirí Chaulann ensemble in 1960, crafting a hybrid classical-folk repertoire for uilleann pipes, fiddle, harpsichord, concertina, button accordion, flute, tin whistle and bodhrán frame drum. In effect — and true to the dynamic character of folk process –Ó Riada effectively invented what we now think of as traditional Irish music, drawing extensively on the long-neglected music of blind harper Turlough Ó Carolan (1670-1738), rightfully resurrected as a giant of Irish traditional music.

Party to that early scene, piper Paddy Moloney organized the Chieftains, who first recorded in 1963; they would popularize Ó Carolan’s music, and inspire the Irish second wave of the 1970s and thereafter: Altan, Mary Black, the Bothy Band, Boys of the Lough, Kevin Burke, Clannad, Seamus Connolly, De Danaan, Maeve Donnelly, Seamus Egan, Martin Hayes, Horslips, Andy Irvine, Dolores Keane, Seán Keane, Donal Lunny, Matt Molloy, Mick Moloney, Christy Moore, Moving Cloud, Moving Hearts, Martin Mulvihill, Triona NiDhomhnaill, Maura O’Connell, Robbie O’Connell, Michael O’Domhnaill, Iarla O’Lionaird, Patrick Street, Planxty, Reel Union, the Sands Family, Davy Spillane, Sweeny’s Men, Tir Na Nog and others.

The Chieftains toil on, of course, recording with popular artists around the globe, including Van Morrison, naturally, a singer in his own spiritual orbit who has channeled the Irish-American soul of Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson to worldwide audiences. The Irish third wave includes Afro-Celt Sound System, Anam, the Cranberries, Enya, Hothouse Flowers, Kila, Lúnasa, Sinéad O’Connor, the Pogues, Solas, U2, the Young Dubliners and, one could add, the Riverdance phenomenon. Then there are the overseas transplants and offspring: Patrick Ball, Black 47, Liz Carroll, Cherish the Ladies, Green Fields of America, Eileen Ivers, the Irish Rovers, the Irish Tradition, Susan McKeown, Brendan Mulvihill, and so on — an Irish musical mélange.

But all that came long after Radio Éireann set up a mobile recording and broadcasting unit in 1947 to document, preserve and promote Irish traditional music, inspired partly by the prolific efforts of father-and-son team John and Alan Lomax at the U.S. Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. The transatlantic convergence began with a chance Manhattan street encounter in which the younger Lomax convinced a Columbia Records exec to bankroll his vision to record what would become the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Contract in hand, Lomax left for Paris, strolled into the café where American folk singer Robin Roberts was performing, and as she tells it, “announced that he was going to record the whole world of people’s music. He asked, ‘Where do you want to start?’ Without hesitating I said ‘Ireland’, being under the false impression that I knew a great deal about the country and its songs”.

Even if Americans do know everything, listeners today can be glad that Lomax and Roberts went to Ireland in January 1951 to document the roots of Irish folk music. Interested in oral and lyrical traditions, seeking old Gaelic songs, epic ballads, hornpipes, jigs, reels and other dances, lullabies, work songs and the keening death laments, Lomax hooked up with the BBC folk music documentation office, and engaged Dublin native, folklore collector and virtuoso singer and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Ennis as his Irish research collaborator.

The result of their fieldwork became the first widely available audio document of traditional Irish song. Released on LP in 1955 as the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Volume Two: Ireland, it now has resurfaced in digitally remastered CD form. Its 34 diverse selections represent a mid-.century slice in traditional time, with solo vocal performances, fiddle tunes, céilí band music, Ennis himself (with examples of singing, tin whistle, and uillean pipes), and an unadorned version of “She Moved through the Fair” by busker, pub singer and banjo player Margaret Barry, whom Lomax returned to record and interview, and to present on BBC TV and radio broadcasts.

Barry’s I Sang through the Fairs, a mix of studio and live tracks cut between 1952 and 1957, documents the singer’s melancholic vocal passion, as musically spare as the Lomax Irish overview. Interspersed are excerpts of his conversations with Barry about her life and music, revealing an affecting songsmith with a remarkable memory for folk tunes, an articulate philosophical outlook, and an uncompromising commitment to her musical vision. Barry became an acclaimed folk-revival figure, recording and performing with the likes of Irish fiddler Michael Gorman and Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie (whom Lomax also recorded), touring internationally as well.

In an earlier kind of scholarship, the common ground between Irish and British traditional music and lyrical forms emerged in ballad research pursued from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Prominent early figures included England’s William Chappell, and Francis James Child, an American. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads established a classification by subject matter and textual style, a template for Lomax in compiling and annotating his own two-volume Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland. Originally collected in the 1950s, and released on LP in 1961, the CD update (two volumes and 51 digitally remastered tracks) includes tunes logged by Lomax and his BBC colleagues between 1949 and 1968.

Thoroughly annotated and with updated notes, along with compelling period photographs and illustrations, extensive bibliography and discography, it is a must for any research collection, and any serious student or interpreter of the folk music of Britain and Ireland. Presented in the order that Child annotated his originals, the collection begins with Irishman Thomas Moran’s unaccompanied 1954 rendition of “Strawberry Lane (The Elfin Knight)”, probably the most widely found of early English-language riddling ballads in Europe and the United States. North American listeners will recognize the tune as “Scarborough Fair”, and they will be struck more generally by the collection’s broad intersection with the American folk oeuvre.

Lomax worked methodically, juxtaposing renditions from around Britain and Ireland according to Child’s cataloging scheme, presenting sequentially as many as five recorded versions of a given narrative ballad. The result confirms the complex relationship between folk traditions across the English-speaking world. The collection repudiates the fool’s errand of trying to distinguish and maintain boundaries between musics that, defying politics and cultural ideology, have long acted upon one another, and continue to do so.

These unaccompanied ballads, airs, work songs, sea shanties, dance tunes, love songs and children’s rhymes are particularly fascinating in light of variants Lomax found throughout the American South, tunes known to Irish singers, including “Barbara Allen”, “Edward”, “The Cruel Mother”, “The Green Wedding”, “The Cuckold’s Song (Our Goodman)”, “The Farmer’s Curst Wife”, “The Keach in the Creel”, “Lord Bateman”, “The Gypsy Laddie” (Woody Guthrie’s “Black Jack Davy”), and “Lord Gregory (The Lass of Loch Royal)”. For example, the father of folksinger and Americana collector Jimmie Driftwood, Neil Morris sang a version of “The Lass” to Lomax when he scouted Arkansas in 1959 (heard on Southern Journey, Volume 1: Voices from the American South).

One hears cross-cultural echoes as well on Playing with Fire: Celtic Fiddle Collection, a daunting survey of many of the best players of the last two decades, including Kevin Burke, Seamus Connolly, Maeve Donnelly, Eileen Ivers and Sean Keane. Equally Celtic but harder to classify is the ethereal harp playing of classically trained Alan Stivell, son of a Brittany harp maker whose life mission was to revive the Breton harp. Stivell’s Renaissance of the Celtic Harp (1972) is now a collector’s item, although several other of his releases are available on CD.

In a final twist, consider the influence of North American finger-picked guitar on the Irish-Celtic saga. As English folk revivalists looked for inspiration to live and recorded music of the American South and beyond, the romping styles of Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Snooks Eaglin, the bottleneck tunings of the Mississippi Delta, Hawaiian slack key, and the picking techniques of ragtime, country blues, bluegrass and clawhammer banjo — all these infiltrated European acoustic idioms. Just listen to Davey Graham, Martin Carthy, Dave Evans, Bert Jansch, Nic Jones, Ralph McTell, John Renbourne and Richard Thompson. The open-range explorations of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, John Fahey, Stefan Grossman, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang and Eric Schoenberg also cannot be overlooked. The hybrid cosmopolitan result is gloriously audible on Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar, a two-volume array of some of the genre’s most prominent innovators: Duck Baker, Steve Baughman, Pierre Bensusan, Pat Kirtley, Tom Long, El McMeen and Martin Simpson. Not strictly Irish, certainly, but knowing no national boundaries, the patron saints of music — Paddy included — play on, borrowing, selecting, synthesizing, reworking and transforming sounds from elsewhere, soaring free as the music itself.

Referenced Recordings

Various Artists, World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Volume Two: Ireland, The Alan Lomax Collection, Rounder 1742

Margaret Barry, I Sang through the Fairs, The Alan Lomax Collection: Portraits, Rounder 1774

Various Artists, Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland, Volumes 1-2, The Alan Lomax Collection, Rounder 1775 & 1776

Various Artists, Southern Journey, Volume 1: Voices from the American South, Rounder 1701

Various Artists, Playing with Fire: Celtic Fiddle Collection, Green Linnet 1101

Alan Stivell, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, Rounder 3067 (out of print)

Various Artists, Ramble to Cashel: Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar, Volume 1, Rounder 3156

Various Artists, The Blarney Pilgrim: Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar, Volume 2, Rounder 3157

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