Big Book, Small Back Room

The Chieftains playing in a small back room, New York, 1972.

Big Book, Small Back Room

Reading the Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Ciaran Carson reflects on the many ways traditional music has changed in recent decades, but also how much it has stayed the same.

The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Second Edition)

Edited by Fintan Vallely
Cork University Press, Hardback, €59.00 

When I, and others of my generation, began to involve ourselves in traditional music back in the 1960s, we arrived at it largely through hearsay, rumour, word of mouth, through personal encounters with other musicians, often more by happenstance than design. The moving spirit was that of the small back room, a parlour, kitchen or annex, the back lounge of a pub — or a corner of the front bar, for that matter, since the room in question need not be literally a back room. What is required is a space of intimate dimensions: for example, the shed in which the master fiddler Bobby Casey recorded a brilliant cassette under the title Casey in the Cowhouse. I can hear his playing echoing in my memory, deviations from the standard route of a tune, whose twists and turns seemed an epitome of our rambles through hitherto unknown hinterlands of roads, laneways and boreens. The music, back then, was a secretive underworld, unprivileged by mass appeal or academic study. Companions in the form of books were few; our own companions were often literal, the word deriving from Latin com-, with, and panis, bread, reminding us of the hospitality at venues like the Thatch Bar in Drumshanbo, where the musicians would be served lashings of tea and sandwiches in the evenings and lavish fried breakfasts in the mornings, more like midday in some cases, before ensconcing themselves again in the bar for yet another round of tunes.

Granted, in our musical ramblings we had some recourse to the technology of the day, in the form of the LP: the early Chieftains recordings, for example, were a touchstone for many of us; and if the Chieftains were an offshoot of Seán Ó Riada’s elevation of the music to the concert platform, the performances nevertheless were conceived of as chamber music, music for a small back room. I recall a concert held in a lecture hall in Trinity College in the late 1970s, in which Deirdre Shannon and I shared a platform with some Fermanagh musicians, among them the fiddle-player Mick Hoy. The atmosphere was relaxed, and I believe we had bottles of drink at our feet. At some stage of the concert, in the middle of someone’s playing, Mick got to his feet, pulled out a packet of Sweet Afton cigarettes, and proceeded to offer them to his fellow musicians, after which he went down to the front row and offered them to the audience: a classic example of the small back room in action, a grand space made suddenly intimate by personal gesture.

Those were the days, my friend! And much has changed since then, as witnessed by the monumental Companion to Irish Traditional Music, a labour of love and learning weighing in at some half a million words over 800 pages. As Fintan Vallely notes in his Introduction, ‘In the 1960s a player might be jeered at for carrying a fiddle case, ridiculed for playing the uilleann pipes, or clichéd for persisting with the harp.’ Now, the music, including that of the pipes and the harp, has many more practitioners than at any time in its history. The Companion has entries not only for every county in Ireland, but for those other countries in which Irish traditional music has a strong presence, such as France, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Germany, not to mention the USA; or whose indigenous music is related to that of Ireland, such as Scotland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and England. Concomitant to that development is an increase in the public reception and perception of the music, not only through stage performance and recordings, but through the internet.

Resources have burgeoned, notably with the founding and expansion of the Irish Traditional Music Archive by its indefatigable director, Nicholas Carolan; it now holds some half a million items, the largest such archive in existence. In the 1960s classes in traditional music were largely unheard of; now they are numberless; and the music is firmly established as a field of academic study. The Companion has a list of thirty closely printed pages of published material relating to the music, including some two hundred MA and PhD theses. Significantly, many of these are the work of practitioners. In like manner, most of the two hundred or so contributors to the Companion come from within the traditional music community, many of them well-known musicians, and the reader can be assured that what he or she is reading comes from reliable and authoritative sources, gleaned from experience of the real thing; and Vallely is to be congratulated on his impressive marshalling of this small army. His own contributions are sometimes marked by the characteristics attributed here to the late Breandán Breathnach; ‘Trenchant, outspoken criticism of what he regarded as phony, shallow or inferior was a regular feature of his comment, along with generous praise for anything he regarded as “sound”.’

The Companion is generally a sound book, which I am sure to consult again and again over the years. Of course any such survey will have its critics. The harp, for example, a relative newcomer to contemporary traditional music practice, is given equal prominence to the fiddle; some might argue that the comparative length of entries on individuals is perhaps not commensurate with their achievement; and there are questionable instances of detail, as when it is asserted that the word ‘tune’ is etymologically related to ‘town’, an enclosed space — a nice idea, but the consensus is that it derives from the Indo-European root ‘ten’, to stretch, which gives us words like tendon, extend, and tone, hence tune, the sound we get from a stretched string. And no doubt there are other nits to be picked by those who relish that kind of thing.

But to conclude and finish: things have indeed changed in the last fifty years, and the Companion is a measure of that change. Back in the 60s, we generally learned tunes in the same way as they had been learned for centuries, by osmosis, by going back time and again to whichever musician we had first heard them from, and thus engaging in conversation. Now we have every conceivable form of aide-mémoire and resource, from the excellent thesession.org website to mobile phone technology. Old curmudgeons like myself are wont to complain about youngsters who sit in sessions instantly recording and broadcasting the music that is being played, or those who wish to advertise their musical prowess, or lack of it, on YouTube. But on reflection, maybe the change is not that radical. The typical YouTube traditional music clip is indeed taken in a small back room. For all the apparent standardisation of the music, individual quirks and twists are still valued. It is still a companionable music; perhaps that is one of the reasons for its international appeal. Like many other musicians, I have experienced that companionship in small back rooms in locations as diverse as Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Berlin. Sometimes unable to communicate in language, we did so by the shared ethos of the music. The small back room still lives; as the Companion to Irish Traditional Music demonstrates, it is a room of many riches. 

Published on 29 February 2012

Ciaran Carson is a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player, and the author of Last Night’s Fun, a book about Irish traditional music. He is is Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast.

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