A Future for Irish Traditional Singing?
My interest is in people singing: the singing they do when they’re on their own; the songs they sing in their own homes; the songs that are sung in pubs. I’m interested in what children sing in school, what they learn on the street, what they sing in Scouts or Guides, or in the youth club; any sort of singing that is informal, which needs no support from a structured event; where songs are sung from memory or even extemporised. In my view this is an important way in which people’s innate musicality can be realised and made available for development.
In the past, this kind of singing was common. When educated people noticed it they called it ‘folk singing’ and the songs they found most attractive they called ‘folk songs’. That term has now become debased and ‘traditional song’ is more commonly used in Ireland. It is, however, used much more narrowly than I would like. Usually it is used to indicate a kind of song that has a particular form, that has been transmitted orally, that is performed by someone from inside the community, which preserved it in oral tradition. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to square with facts. Many traditional songs, or the story behind them, can be shown not to have originated in Ireland (including some in Irish); many have had their survival aided by print; others have left one community and been transformed for use in another.
There’s another curiosity: among singers, songs are songs, not traditional songs; those who sing traditional songs call themselves singers, not traditional singers.
I’ve argued in the past that these terms are unnecessary, even misleading. I’ve insisted that when ‘the tradition’ was flourishing, it was because people sang. They sang what they liked, they changed things as they found how the song and their voice matched, or they invented bits to replace what they had forgotten. Others learned from them, not just the songs, but also the style of performance. Learning took place as the result of hearing a song many times, each time slightly different. Permission to vary what one heard was implicit in the performance. Not all songs were passed on – some had lost their function, the shape of society overtook others – new songs were made. Some were retained, some sank leaving little trace; in an oral world there are few ripples. Some were ‘sung to pieces’.
I concluded that it is singing that preserves a tradition, not as a uniformity but as a range of conformities. The individual has absolute power over what and how s/he sings – within the limits set by experience, imagination and vocal capability. However, there is a second factor in the sustenance of a tradition; that someone should be receptive. For me, the most effective definition of tradition is ‘an organic habit of re-creating what has been received and is handed on.’
It is not just the songs that are handed on – as I said above, there is also the right to vary. And there is even the right to sing. In singing, the community asserted its right to sing. It established that singing was acceptable. Old people sang. Some people sang a few songs: some stars sang a lot. Some had great vocal capabilities; others had little. Nearly everyone sang and quantity guaranteed quality.
That’s as it was. How is it now?
This is a serious question. Do people sing under the circumstances that I outline in my first paragraph? I’m convinced that if they don’t then the singing tradition will not survive, except as a curiosity, or as an activity carried on by professionals. There are hundreds of music sessions throughout the country and abroad where young musicians can play and learn and improve, but few of them welcome any but famous singers. This is different from how it was in the past. Previously the community gave people permission to sing. It’s possible that present day attitudes to singing are inimical to this idea.
Attitudes such as that a singer must have ‘a good voice’; that television or radio performance imparts greater authority to a singer or a song than performance that is confined to the local community. How often do we find young singers learning from CDs rather than from the older singer who lives round the corner?
I’ve been examining these questions and others for over thirty years. I haven’t come up with many answers; questions beget questions; information is lacking.
The major questions seem to be: Do people have free access to songs and to the principles of performance? Has the impulse for ordinary people to sing been reduced? Is the tradition being restricted by this? Where can singing take place? Do these venues place restrictions? What makes a particular performance acceptable to other people? How does it fulfil the people’s expectations of song performances? Are these expectations restrictive?
These can be amplified:
Access: Can people hear songs? Do the performances and the circumstances of the performance impart the idea that it’s all right to change things?
There are plenty of songs about, but it seems that songs are thought consumable and ephemeral; that they are copied and forgotten rather than being cherished and changed.
Impulse: do people want to sing? Does the general musical experience transmit the idea ‘You can do this’as well as ‘This is worth doing?’
What I call the ‘cult of the good voice’ has arisen – the idea that only good voices can sing or are worth listening to. Complex accompaniments or arrangements of songs give the idea that effective performance requires these. People are told ‘you can’t sing’ – often by music teachers. Usually this means their voices don’t blend, but solo singing has no such need – however, too many people believe that they can’t sing – and don’t. Is singing valued in the wider Irish music tradition? This is questionable.
Venue: house parties used to allow children and women to play a part, to hear singing and to play a part. If the ‘normal’ venue for Irish music making is the pub, what is the effect? With music ruling sessions what is the place of song in the mainstream of tradition? Pub music sessions are communal and social – talk can go on around them but singing is solo and needs the room to be silent; if it’s effective it’s an intrusion – if it’s not
it’s destructive of singers. Microphones are not the answer – they convey the impression that singing is not possible without one and allows people not to listen.
A recent answer has been singing festivals and singers’ clubs. But these mostly consist of singers singing to singers – how do they reach to other people?
Acceptability: I’m often told that the tunes of traditional songs are difficult. Probably this means that they are unaccompanied, non-harmonic and have unexpected intervals. It certainly means that either the song or the mode of performance is unfamiliar. People like what they know. The singing of ordinary people is too little exposed in the media for it to become familiar. All too often peopIe who sing traditional songs are approached with requests that they cannot fulfil, and are then asked ‘Do you not know any real Irish songs?’ – these being ‘The Irish Rover’ or ‘My Lovely Rose of Clare’. The essence of traditional singing is variability; from person to person, from time to time and even from verse to verse. These are often lost on an audience, which, unlike that in a traditional community, has not heard the song sung in many different ways. Modern audiences may be led to want the singer to follow the way they, the audience, knows the song; to follow the single performance familiar to them from. this or that CD.
I believe that these and other factors, some of which cannot be controlled – such as the fact that other media, especially television, have taken over many of the entertainment and information carrying functions of song and that continuous broadcasting invades the silent spaces that singing used to fill – threaten the survival of popular singing and with it a way in which innate musicality can be realised.
Unfortunately, while much of what has been written above is the fruit of years of thought and observation, little of it is truly empirical. There may not even be a problem. A test is needed. For that reason I have been discussing with some friends the idea of a conference or symposium to discuss the question, which is the title of this article. I would like to hear from anyone who has a view.
1. ‘Sing us a folksong Mouldy’, in Fintan Vallely et al (eds), Crosbhealach an Cheoil: The Crossroads Conference , Dublin: Whinstone Music, 1999, 135-39
Published on 1 September 2001