Traditional Music: Back at the Crossroads

Barra Ó Séaghdha gives his response to the second Crossroads conference on traditional music which took place in Derry from 25th to 27th April.

The first 1996 Crosbhealach an Cheoil/Crossroads conference was held outside the academy in the Temple Bar Music Centre. It was organised by musicians not only outside the academy but also outside traditional music’s established organisations. The papers delivered then covered an impressive range of topics: discussions of community, tradition and innovation; personal testimony and manifestos from musicians; overviews of musical history; examinations of style in relation to particular instruments; Irish traditional music outside Ireland, as well as the traditional music of such places as the Isle of Man and Brittany. For anyone seeking material on the questions facing traditional music, the book in which these papers were collected is essential reading.

Spearheaded once again by Fintan Vallely but with a somewhat different organisational team, this year’s Crossroads Conference was facilitated by the Academy of Irish Heritages and held at the University of Ulster’s Magee College in Derry. Clearly, in the seven years between the two conferences, traditional music has moved into the institutions. That major cultural shift is encapsulated in the difference in status between the two events; it also underlay many of this year’s papers, diverse though they might appear…

The choice facing those who think about traditional music in an institutional context is in some ways a simple one: do they take their rise in status for granted and deal with individual issues that interest them or do they see the whole movement into the institutions, and their individual participation in it, as raising fundamental questions about traditional music in both an Irish and an international context? Treated simply as an event, was there much difference between this conference and any other gathering of specialists?

The manager of one B&B said he knew all about conferences: he’d had experience of them when he was working abroad – all that official stuff was just a chance for people to get away from home and have a bit of fun. In this case, he was wrong, because the official stuff was about the fun and much of the fun was provided by the people doing the official stuff.

Flutes, fiddles, guitars, pipes…
On Friday and Saturday night, after the programmed activities, many of the participants made their way to a room above a pub in the city centre. Curiously enough for such a sociable city, it had been very difficult to find a space where a session could take place. Sandino’s is what could be called an alternative venue. Both the bar downstairs and the large room upstairs were plastered with Sandino, solidarity and liberation movement posters. You made your way through the thronged bar and through the pounding techno beats and went upstairs. You claimed your seat or piece of wall or floorspace and made your way downstairs again (the ones in the know had organised their drinks before venturing up), fought your way back to the bar through the drinkers (some of them a little bemused at the unhip garb and bearing of the traditional interlopers), fought your drinkladen way – more carefully – to the stairs and again went upstairs.

One by one, flutes, fiddles, guitars, pipes and other assorted instruments emerged from their cases, listeners became performers and the half-circle of players grew and grew. At one point there were twenty-three players of at least four nationalities in action – seven fiddlers, three flute-players, two pipers, a concertina-player, assorted strummers and pickers…

As players joined in and dropped out, as roles changed from minute to minute, as now this player and now that launched into a tune, as the audience responded with word, clap or cheer, the room pulsed with the shared pleasure of music-making, the community of listener and player which is the foundation of musical life.

In this context, however, there was no way that traditional music could be isolated from the rest of the world. Not only were there the thirst-inducing and -quenching sorties into Sandino territory but young refugees from below began to infiltrate Crossroads territory. And when the instrumentalists temporarily decommissioned and gave song a chance, we were plunged into a totally unplanned Techno-Celtic Sound System, as a strenuously projected ‘Cath Céim an Fhia’ was endowed with a muffled floor-penetrating techno accompaniment that Iarla Ó Lionáird & Co. would have been proud of. Large-lunged Scotland and Norway also sang mightily.

At a session fifty years ago, both players and audience would have been largely local and the style of playing regional, with whatever personal inflection a player would bring to it. The music would have been seen as bound into the broader pattern of social life, work and recreation, in the locality. This is not to say that rural Ireland was a monoculture. Musical forms and instruments had always travelled from class to class, from language to language; soldiers, sailors, travelling musicians and so on were agents of change, to be followed by the printed word, the radio and the gramophone.

The 78s in one house in Cape Clear give an idea of what filtered through towards the middle of the twentieth century: the baritone Don Quinn singing ‘Skibbereen’ and ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’; the tenor Jack Feeney singing ‘One Clear Summer Morning’ and ‘My Home in County Mayo’; Ernest Rutherford playing Scotch reels and Irish jigs; Arthur Lally and the ‘Million Airs with a Waltz Medley’; several Leo Rowsomes, including ‘Bridge of Athlone’ and ‘Walls of Limerick’; jigs and reels from Michael Grogan on the accordion; Sean O’Kissane singing ‘Druimfhionn Donn Dílis’ and ‘Eamon an Chnoic’; Harry Torrani with his ‘Honeymoon Yodel’ and his ‘Happy and Free Yodel’; Gracie Fields asking ‘Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?’; Billy Merrin and his Commanders playing an ‘Irish Waltz Medley’ and a ‘Military Two-Step’; Máire Ní Scolaí singing ‘Jimmy mo Mhíle Stór’; Bing Crosby guesting with John Scott Trotter (and his Orchestra) on ‘The Isle of Innisfree’; not to mention Jimmy O’Dea, John McCormack, the Hilo Haw Orchestra, Delia Smith, the Scots Guards and dozens more.

Tansey’s language
At the first Crossroads conference, Seamus Tansey passionately stated the classic folk ethos or (in contemporary academic language) the essentialist position:

The laws of nature are the environment and the creatures of that environment since Ireland first began. The singing of the birds, the ancient chants of our forefathers, the calls of the wild animals in the countryside, the drone of the bees, the galloping hooves of the wild horses. The law of the land is the geographical location of the countryside, be it mountain, valley, forest or plain. The wind, the rain, the flowing rivers that shaped the mind and passion of our ancient forefathers, inspiring them to harness together all those sounds of animal, mineral, bird and insect so as it moulded itself into a melody which is and always will be.

Though he spoke of what will always be, it is a sense of loss which emerges from Tansey’s words, the pain of someone who fears that the social, cultural and musical values of his community are in imminent danger of destruction. It is not surprising that anger should accompany that sense of loss:

If that is change, i.e. the mongrelisation, the bastardisation, the cross-pollination, the copulation of our ancient traditional music, with other cultures, then I say we want none of it.

Setting aside the dubious politics implicit in some of Tansey’s language, what is worth retaining here is the sense of music connecting past with present, human life with nature, individual with society, player with audience.

At the second Crossroads conference, nobody spoke Tansey’s language. Does that mean that the sense of community which he values was also absent from the gathering at Sandino’s? There was an undeniable sense of community at the session – not very different, all told, from what you might find in a house or pub in a Sligo village. There was nothing radically different about the way the music was played. There was no prettification, no bland film-music Celticism, no camera-friendly hair-tossing or fake-passionate body-swaying. The playing was very much in the tradition. Nonetheless, this was a different community from Tansey’s. If it was not already clear, that difference emerged as talk followed talk.

Tradition has never been static. It has always had the capacity to assimilitate what it wanted from the outside world; it has also had to cope with the unforeseeable lurches of political history and power. That said, the acceleration of change, the speed of communication and the connectibility of all those fortunate enough to have access to modern technology and international travel have brought about a qualitative change in the way the world is experienced. As part of the broader world, traditional music is now plugged into that international communications web.

Experiences of tradition
Norwegian Frode Nyvold’s talk showed how quickly change is occurring. In the mid-80s, the National Association of Fiddlers set up a committee to define folk music, with a view to guiding the work of educational and cultural institutions. Nyvold himself worked on that definition, which was triangulated around the notions of traditionality, ethnic identity that transcended class and other differences, and control by the community. His own experience and reflection since then, and the questions asked by students who now often had no family background in folk music, meant that he had to question the validity of the definition to which he had contributed. The parallel with Ireland is clear. Irish traditional music no longer belongs to Ireland and its emigrant satellites in the way that it used to.

Tess Slominski spoke about her experience in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she founded the Blue Ridge Irish Music School in 1999. There is no substantial Irish or Irish-descended population in the region. There is no pub-culture which would allow an Irish-style pub-session scene to develop. There is one venue where visiting players or groups perform on occasion. This means that Irish music is adopted rather than inherited, that it has to create its own social forms, and that it has to attract players and listeners against a strong local tradition of old-time music and bluegrass. It also means that there are no senior figures of the kind that draw younger players to them and guide them by example and word. A trip to Ireland is seen as important in deepening the young players’ sense of the people and the history behind the music. Inevitably, in this context, much depends on the knowledge and inspirational powers of the teacher.

In describing her own activities in an area with a stronger Irish-American culture, Sally K. Sommers Smith mentioned one undoubted difficulty for those trying to foster an interest in Irish traditional music: the fact that there can be a strong resistance to history among people who have lightly opted for Irish traditional music as a subject of study after brief acquaintance with or enthusiasm for a particular musician or group. A greater emphasis on the development of the music in the particular conditions of America itself drew people to realise how historical understanding could feed an appreciation of the music.

The C-word
Bob Newton, from the Celtic heartland of Wisconsin, bravely tackled the C-word, which he saw as a kind of ideological Rorschach test. The multiple meanings and uses of the word Celtic – to describe an ancient culture on the margins of Europe; to bring together Irish and other musics of the twentieth century; as a supposed counterworld to modern industrialised society; as a marketing label – would not deter him from using it. With an awareness of how the present was shaped by the past, he was happy to deal with the music of Ireland, Scotland and Brittany and Northern Spain under this label. There was no simple yes/no answer to the question of whether he and others were describing a tradition or inventing one in studying these musical cultures together. ‘I’m teaching musical traditions of the Celtic world, not Celtic music,’ he said. Desi Wilkinson suggested that the word ‘perceived’ could be inserted in front of the term ‘Celtic world’.

As traditional music is only now asserting itself in third-level education, there are many outstanding questions and unresolved issues to be dealt with. It is the normal practice of teaching institutions to create a specialised, professional teaching elite within the institutions. In the discussion that followed Pierre Crepillon’s talk about the Breton folk revival and the way the language and music have entered the educational system, Desi Wilkinson wondered if there was not a danger that the institutionalisation of teaching would lead to music becoming a specialised skill, without a ‘trained’ audience.

The Ole Bull Academy of Traditional music in Norway offers an interesting countermodel to the usual structure. The students are assigned a musical mentor; they must spend time with their mentors on their home ground. This means that respect is being shown for the mentors as the bearers of knowledge and that the music is less likely to be divorced from the musical culture of those outside the academy. Stubseid, who played beautifully on the Hardanger fiddle, said that many years later he could still remember clearly the smell in the kitchen where he had first learnt to play, the chair he sat on, the player himself and the music played.

Space for debate
As this article is a response to the Crossroads event as a whole rather than a report on every individual paper, the offerings of many contributors – the wide-ranging keynote addresses of Philip Bohlman and Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, for example; Jo Miller on the Scottish experience; Alistair Anderson’s enthusiasm for the Northern English tradition; the practical wisdom of the pioneering John Moulden; Sean Corcoran’s critical challenge – must await publication of the proceedings. Illness meant that Tom Munnelly was unable to deliver his own paper, which was read for him by writer Evelyn Conlon. His bracing wit and critical insight were greatly missed over the weekend.

One of the disappointments of the conference was that time and again debate was cut off in order to accommodate the next speaker. As the issues raised were potentially very interesting, and as this kind of event contributes to public as opposed to institutional life only if it really engages with fundamental issues, it might have been better, though cruel to some potential speakers, to have reduced the number of speakers and opened up the space for debate. We could have done with more debate on the compatibility between traditional music values and institutional values, and on what the academy can give to the wider music community.

In an intriguing performance, Anthony McCann described his own institutionalisation, described the evolution of his ideas, set the ethos of specialised academia against the humanising values in which he believed, and asked the audience to question their own lives and the educational authorities. If McCann is asking this kind of question from within the academic world in ten years’ time, we will know whether this was a genuine challenge to himself and his audience or a particularly sophisticated piece of verbal radicalism.

Published on 1 May 2003

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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