View Full Version : The Internet and "Celtic" Music

Mar-14-2004, 3:52pm
The Andy Irvine CGOW got me thinking about whether inviting/subjecting specific notable Celtic players to a Celtic Q & A on Mandolin Cafe would be a good idea. Would that be a good thing? Given that we don't necessarily speak a standard Celtic musical language, it might not. Puzzling about this led me to this question:

Radio and Recordings had a great impact of developing awareness of Celtic musics. On local levels, though, these same mediums contributed to the disappearance of some regional styles and to the development (this is a broad, sweeping generalisation with some notable exceptions like Donegal) into "standard" repertoires and "national" styles - for lack of better terms.

There remain some distinct flavours to Irish, Scottish, Shetland, Donegal, Cape Breton, Ottawa Valley etc.. styles of playing, as well as some variations within these "national" styles. Add in players that don't necessarily come from a given local, regional or national tradition, so to speak, who have less specific core repertoires (again there are always exceptions - and this isn't a bad thing), some might say that traditional music is changing faster than the normal "negotiated" change within traditions normally happens.

With the ease of global communications will these broad national styles eventually blend? Could "Celtic" actually become a style of playing? If yes, is that good or bad? If no, why won't that happen? Is this discussion pointless? Does a rising tide float all boats?

I'm just curious what people have to say.


Mar-16-2004, 4:59pm
Matt, I have a feeling it will go both ways- there will indeed be more homogenous blending, but there will always individuals who create new ways of doing things. I think "Celtic" is a marketing term rather than a good stylistic description- as we know, there are so many sub-genres just in Irish music, let alone Scottish and the other styles lumped under "Celtic".

As a player, I have tried to absorb stuff from old recordings, stuff like Michael Coleman, Andy McGann, Denis Murphy, Paddy Keenan, etc. I have also had the pleasure of learning directly from master players like Joe Derrane, Paddy Cronin, Seamus Connolly etc. I find it very important, regardless of the genre, to dig back into the roots of what you are trying to play, be it bluegrass, irish, jazz or whatever. The fun is in finding out what makes the music "tick"- all the special things that defy notation- in short, the unique soul of a style of music.

We are lucky to live in a time with easy access to recordings, new and old, so you can hear the "regional styles" (which often center around one player and their followers) of Donegal, Sligo, West Clare, Kerry, etc. all of which have very distinguishing characteristics. There are reissues of stuff from the beginning of the recording era on down, so we can hear what was going on back then (a lot of mighty melody playing and some horrid backing!) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

I love hearing unaccompanied solo players, which is something you don't hear much anymore. There are great bands out there, too; but you tend to hear more band stuff these days that is, well, to my ears anyway, rather similar...but it's good to see bands that can draw people in, make a few bucks, and turn more people on to the music. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

Mar-16-2004, 7:29pm
John, do you continue to model your traditional playing off of these particular musicians? Or having developed a tradition-based style, are you able to take just about any tune and make it "fit" ? I have a great tape of Buddy MacMaster solo in a train station from the '60's - sweet stuff, by the way.


Mar-17-2004, 9:15am
I do still draw from the same sources, more or less. I prefer learning tunes by ear than from the page, although I do read and will use O'Neills and other books from time to time. There is a lot of fun in working with absorbing other instruments styles and pecularities. For example, I learned a set of tunes from box master Joe Derrane and slowed it down to 1/2 speed to figure out his ornamentation. There are things in there i would never have thought of myself, and I try to apply them to the mando where practical. Almost anything can be done, it's a matter of effectiveness whether a technique gets developed further. A lot of it means shifting position to get ornaments. In "The Old Copperplate" I do a G to B triplet figure on string 3, frets 5 and 9, which is a quick shift up and back. A fiddle wouldn't do that one, but it works great on the mando, and when we play the tune together, I can cop what he's doing and the phrasing is tighter than it would be otherwise.

Likewise for pipe tunes- I worked out a Leo Rowesome piece called "The Independant" that goes mad with triplets. I applied the Sam Bush idea of pick/slur/pick to each triplet, which I prefer to picking every note- not becuase it's hard to pick, but because (to me) it sounds more like typing!

The octave mando presents scale length challenges as well, so I often puzzle out alternate fingerings for passages to make them sound and feel right.

If you haven't heard him, Dan Beinborm plays some great stuff on mando family instruments. I think he's a like minded player in that he does some unusual stuff with phrasing and ornaments-beyond the plectrum banjo style (which, BTW, I love and admire!)

Mar-17-2004, 9:31am
I think that very few players think of themselves as "celtic" (pronounced "Kel-tick", not "Sell-tick"!), though I've found it a useful term to communicate to people what kind of music I play. Heck, I registered "Celticmusic.com" years ago, and have been on a 2 disks with "celtic" written on the title.. but then again, I think of what I do as being Irish (subdivided into Donegal, Sligo, Kerry styles primarily), Scottish (again subdivided deeply into Shetland, historical/Skinner, and etc), American (Old Timey or Bluegrass influences), Breton, Galician.. and what not.

I have found that of the players I've met and shared tunes with, the Irish are the least likely to wag an angry finger at you for stepping outside a particular tradition, wheras a lot of American players (especially intermediates) can get quite fussy about staying within a specific regional style. To me, everyone draws on the experience they have and makes a tune their own. At the micro level, that's even true inside a specific tradition. You're unlikely to ever hear a tune played exactly the same way twice, even by the same player.

Here's a nice metaphor.. in whiskeys, you have single malts which are made with a particular strong regional unique flavor, and blends which are aggregates. Generally speaking, you'll hear a "blend" on a CD by an American player who has learned from multiple sources, and often "single malts" or very firmly rooted traditional playing from Irish recordings.

Mar-17-2004, 9:41am
Dan- isn't it true that the most vocal self-appointed "keepers of the flame" usually are not the most evolved players- in all forms of music, I've found it true, and some of 'em can be downright nasty... maybe they need more time in the woodshed and less time on the soapbox! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Mar-17-2004, 10:03am
Yeah, very true. The number of times I've been berated for playing the "wrong" ornaments in a tune from a guy who's only use for a flute is an extension wand to help him dribble spit into your pint. Easier to try to find flaws in someone else's playing than improve your own perhaps!

Another metaphor I use is "new vegetarians" or "newly born-again" folks... people can tend to be very vigorous in defending their new beliefs. It often suggests to me that they are looking for outside opinions and reactions to their new-found zealotry, to sort of "See if this idea flies"!

Steve L
Mar-17-2004, 11:17am
I think that with any form of change, you both lose and gain things. #If you look at other idioms of music you can see that the loss of regional styles of R&B (New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, etc.) has resulted in a somewhat homogenized "style" that is almost completely commercialized.

On the other hand, if jazz purists had only tried to reproduce the great styles of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton we might never have had Miles, Dizzy, Duke, Art Tatum,etc.

I've seen that the people with the greatest credentials and skills are often the most open to try new things. #The fact that in a handful of decades we talk of "traditional" Irish bouzouki players is testament to that spirit. #I just saw Paddy Keenan and Frankie Gavin play with a spectacular Japanese guitarist who clearly didn't learn the music from his grandparents. #They recognized a great player in this man and nothing else mattered to them. If musicians of that magnitude are so open, I'd respect their instincts and just trust the music to the care of the musicians who love it.

I'm sure you've heard the joke; "How many folk musicians does it take to change a lightbulb?"

"Five...one to change the bulb, and four to bear witness as to how much brighter the old one used to be."

Mar-17-2004, 11:27am
Interesting points. I wonder if the strength of Irish music enables it (and its players) to be the least puritanical and most confident? Kind of like the English language? If, on one level, styles were to merge, wouldn't a "celtic" sound, if fact be predominantly Irish sounding?

Would those from "smaller" (not lesser!) traditions be more likely to be strict about style? During the '70's,'80's and early '90's, I found a lot of Cape Breton-style players to be a bit on the purist side of things. Now, however, the tremendous growth, strength and confidence of the Cape Breton tradition seems to be resulting in the shedding some of the reluctance to absorb many outside aural influences. Mind you, there is a thriving and long-standing tradition of composition in Cape Breton - which is also a very musically literate tradition.


Mar-18-2004, 5:14am
Strathspey- I think that one element often overlooked is the *way* music is learned. Most players pick up style from a specific person, who in turned picked it up from a specific person.. I think in some ways that's the meaning of the word "Tradition" as applied to music. One interesting point about this is that it tends to resist homogenization. There are a few tunes that are so popular in multiple traditions that they have homogenized, but still not so far that you won't get discrete traditional settings of tunes.

Anyway, the source recording or player I got a particular tune from tends to show up quite strongly in the way I'll play that individual tune. I picked up a lot of tunes from Altan & John Doherty, so I tend to have a lot of Donegal ornamentation in my playing of those tunes, but it very rarely creeps over into tunes not from that same tradition..

The homogenization can occur with beginners learning from books, but I think it's fairly quickly replaced by more regional settings of tunes. Lots of players will go through a phase of loving a particular band or player and learning all of their tunes, etc.

Mar-18-2004, 8:01am
Here's a somewhat old (and a bit of a rant!) essay I wrote on the subject some years ago:

"Innovation in Tradition" (http://www.celticmusic.com/magazine/articles/innovation_tradition.shtml)

Basically the point is that the "keepers of the flame" (as John aptly calls them) can get stuffed http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

A follow-up point to that essay is that generally speaking American players are the ones more likely to have learned from recordings and are also (strangely) more likely to stand up as "keepers of the flame" and defend a specific style as "more traditional than thine". At the end of the day, it comes down to individuals. I think that labelling things traditional etc are nice guide words, but anyone who has been playing this music for a while will tell you that the tradition is very fluid. Settings of common tunes change, keys change, etc.

"The Foxhunter's Reel" is a good example. Many parts, popular in many regions, played in G, D, or A depending on who starts the tune!

I'd point anyone interested in this subject to a stupendous book _Last Night's Fun_ (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0788190873/qid=1079615502/sr=1-21/ref=sr_1_21/002-3135868-6614453?v=glance&s=books) by Ciaran Carson. He does an extremely good explanation of how trad music resists the efforts of the classifiers and reductionists.

Mar-18-2004, 9:07am
I guess that it all comes back to the importance of listening to the music that you want to play and getting absorbed in it. Recordings can allow us to do that no matter where we are and that, combined with communications, the Internet just changes the "community" not the music and brings a tradition together rather than being a negative force.

Traditions, including music, are conservative on the surface, but the real vibrant traditions allow for innovation within their structure - like a story teller adding his own twists to an old tale can make it fresh. Conversely, would artificially imposing hard and fast rules within the structure fossilise a tradition? Or is conservatism within a tradition a necessary ingredient to provide continuity as living traditions evolve? Would it not be important to understand what and why traditionalist say and act as they do? Or have recordings become the "reference points" or "benchmarks" that allow increased freedom within a tradition and "keepers of the flame" are increasingly irrelevant - the recordings are the flames so to speak?


Mar-18-2004, 9:15am
Tradition in transition ... it seems that what we are and what Celtic music (for one example) is all about. Music changes over the years. The "standard" A 440 is now up from a "standard" 415 of 100 - 150 years ago, even the tuning note has changed over the years. The quaint recordings from the twenties of Michael Coleman, Paddy Keenan and other early masters, seems to have listeners thinking - "this is the way that tune is played"

Well that's true, for that day, perhaps when Michael Coleman's bursitis made his bowing a little more abrupt. Whether he ever played the same tune the same way, two days in a row or a year later is unknown. In looking at the O'Neill collection - I marvel at the breadth of types of music and wonder at all the errors which are now notated. Are they errors of transcription or - were the tunes actually played that way?

There are some interesting changes happening in the fabric of Irish society at this time - which may affect Irish Traditional Music Tomorrow. When Eire joined the European Union, one of the proviso's was allowing immigration from Eastern Europe and even Africa ... so, in twenty or thirty years will we be exploring Celtic Gypsy music or will Afro Celtic be the rage? I don't know ... but it is interesting to ponder. In the interim, I'll keep exploring Dan Beimborn's output, study John McGann's remarkable guide books, open Keith MacDonald's Skye Collection (circa 1888), listen to the Wrigley Sisters, wonder at Shoglenifty, boogey to Liz Carrol's jazzy excursions, be amazed at Johnny Clegg's use of Zulu bass drones in Irish tunes sung in Swahili and then laugh at the marvelous choices I can make. We are living in an interesting time -

Duke Ellington said once - "If it sounds good, it is good."

Mar-18-2004, 9:42am
or some might say "Just because it sounds good doesn't mean it's good"
Mark Twain- "Wagner's music is really better than it sounds".
A recording engineer answered my inquiry after a take: "Is it OK?"
"It's not only good, it's good enough". http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Mar-18-2004, 10:05am
I guess it's also important to note that one individual doesn't change a tradition- they just expand the boundaries. Sometimes they even promote a stronger re-action. I would suggest that dramatic leaps (or liberties) within a tradition change it less than subtle steps. Who will have impacted the course Cape Breton music more: Ashley MacIsaac or Natalie MacMaster? I would suggest that in 40 years, the answer will be Natalie.


Mar-18-2004, 10:44am
On the other hand, one person can substantially alter/enhance/change/define a traditional style- witness Michael Coleman and Joe Derrane. Both of them arguably changed the course of their respective instruments (fiddle and accordion). There seems to be agreement that Michael Coleman's impact went/goes far beyond "expanding the boundries", he really changed the course of Irish traditional music and set a very high technical standard. There is much discussion on how that "setting of the bar" may have squeezed out other simpler styles of playing... The liner notes in the 2 CD collection on Gael-Linn discusses his impact on both his contemporaries and ours!

Coleman died in 1945; Joe recorded his first '78's in the late 40's and made a tremendous impact in Ireland and anywhere Irish music was collected. Joe is still going strong and I am very fortunate to be playing and recording with him.

Dagger Gordon
Mar-19-2004, 4:17am
This is a good and well-written thread.

I live in the Highlands of Scotland, and regularly play with about 3 different line-ups, with several looser line-ups often putting something together for a wee ceilidh or something.

Quite a bit of this is for dancing, and I often feel that it is important to know the dances that are popular in a particular area and how to play for them in order to really absorb what might be termed a regional style of playing. All the good traditional musicians will know how to do this, but it doesn't necessarily mean that's what they do on record or in concert. Even in a session, they may well play a bit differently - ie do more Irish session tunes than they would do at a dance for example. It does, however, make a difference to their own essential style in terms of timing, phrasing, speed of the tunes etc.

An interesting example of this was a few years ago in Galway, Ireland, at the Oranmore Hotel. A local Gaelic school was having a fund-raising event and had a remarkable line-up for a concert /ceilidh dance. Sean Keane and his band, Martin O'Connor and his band, plus several other turns from people like the piper Tommy Keane.

Rather curiously, the place was not packed, and most of the people there were parents of the schoolchildren. It was a very local, non-touristy event. They really were not a very 'folky' or 'Celtic' crowd, and seemed not especially interested in the concert part. Actually, most of them were talking through Sean Keane. What they seemed to really want to do was to set dances, and once that got started they had a great time, with some super dancing.

Martin O' Connor and the rest of them obviously realised this, and they reverted to a much more old-fashioned approach to their playing, particularly in their choice of tunes.

They knew exactly what they were doing and were obviously entirely familar with the dances and how to play for them, but it was definitely different from their concert stuff ( I can't remember if 'Liquid Sunshine' was the name of an album, but that was the sort of thing the band were doing).

I guess what I'm really saying is that it is not necessarily true that people's recordings (and particularly entirely solo performances) are representative of an area. It is an opportunity for musicians to express themselves, to make their own musical statement, often with some of their own tunes. This is more true today than when some early recordings were made, but even people like Sean McGuire were doing very individual versions of trad tunes on some old recordings. Sleeve notes often refer to a particular musician's version of a tune.

But in front of a local audience familiar with that community's traditions, then they will often be much truer to the roots.

Mar-22-2004, 10:25am
Steve L made an interesting point about the evolution of "traditional" Irish bouzouki players. It reminded me of a converstion I had recently with a guy who was organising a gig. I asked him if he would prefer me to bring along my guitar or my bouzouki. He reckoned I should bring the bouzouki, as it was "more traditional".


So this got me to thinking why he (and many others) think this. Is Arty McGlynn's acoustic guitar playing any less traditional than Donal Lunny's bouzouki playing? I think not. Why is one instrument suddenly more traditional than the other, when the guitar has as admirable a pedigree (players such as McGlynn, Domhnaill, Sproule, Brady and so on)?

Now, the following is based purely on my own experience of Irish music, so if you have the sneaking suspicion that I'm talking through my hat, you could well be right.

Imagine a session where two strangers walk in, one with a guitar and the other with a bouzouki. I think that if you asked the other musicians to guess which of these unknown individuals was more likely to wreck the session, more often than not they'd pick the guitar player. Why? Lots of reasons - the guitar has the potential to be louder and more overpowering, the more common Irish bouzouki tunings make it easier for a novice to wing his/her way lightly through an attempt at accompaniment, and so on.

So, while many people (myself included) love the bouzouki for itself, I wonder if at least part of its success in Irish music is down to the fact that it is perceived to be, on average, reasonably inoffensive? (I recall a good friend of mine who is an excellent bouzouki player once being paid a glowing "compliment" by a fiddler at the end of session - "That was lovely playing - I could hardly hear you!")

Which, in turn, makes me wonder which is more important for the eventual acceptance of innovation in a traditional music (and the evolution of a generic "Celtic" music): that the innovation has plenty of potential for musical "good" (e.g. the guitar), or simply not so much potential for musical disaster (e.g. the bouzouki)?

(Which, in turn, makes me wonder if I go on a bit too much about music. Must ask my wife.)

Mar-22-2004, 10:49am
Speaking as a guitar player now (as well as 'zoukist), I must say that it is more likely to have a lame/inept/clueless guitarist than a 'zoukist- as one would suppose by the nature of the fact that they own a 'zouk, they'd have a clue about the music, possibly...but you can obviously have strong or weak musicians on any instrument.

Mar-22-2004, 11:28am
...it is more likely to have a lame/inept/clueless guitarist than a 'zoukist...
No argument from me there. That said, over the past number of years, I've come across more than a few of the "lame/inept/clueless" guitarists who've bought a bouzouki and a capo, learned a handful of drone chord shapes/runs and all of a sudden it's "Look Ma, I'm playing Celtic music!"

Anyway, I don't want to to sidetrack an excellent thread - I was only using the guitar/bouzouki thing as an example. I'm just trying to hash out one of the many possible factors in why some kinds of innovation gain quicker acceptance into an evolving tradition - high potential for good versus low potential for disaster.

Mar-22-2004, 11:44am
I've always felt that it you are going to really get good at anything, you have to dive into the history of the music- not just your chosen instrument- and really saturate yourself with the music. Andy Statman warned me at an early age of the dangers of being a dilletante- a word I had to look up! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

So, it seems to me that it's a given that to innovate in trad, you have to know what trad is to begin with! Perhaps that's why a player like Joe Derrane was/is (for the most part) warmly embraced- he added/adds his own flair to the music, but he knew, lived and breathed the roots of it as well.

(I use past tense and present tense as his initial splash happened in the '40's, but as I mentioned, he's playing as good or better than ever today.)

Mar-22-2004, 1:05pm
I'm in agreement with John again here. You really do need to learn many differet traditions to get a handle on the music. The best way, in my opinion, is to learn a tune and everything that comes with it. That tune might come from a recording, so obviously you learn the embellishments and mix them up, but it's great to learn a full tune from a certain tradition, and play it that way.

Oddly enough, I don't find myself wanting to play scottish snaps or piping ornaments on Irish tunes etc, I personlly find that I like playing lots of tunes in the style I learned them, but not mix & match style..