T:-)M's Night Shift

Of Irish Harps and Celtic Synths - Read by Walkin' T:-)M

Spitzweg ,Der arme Poet', www.spitzweg.de If I raise my head and lift up my body a little bit, I'm just able to see over the stacks of books surrounding my chaise longue. That's too much. Inquiries about the spirit of music among Indonesian man-eaters. Tutors teaching the singing chain-saw and Righteous Christian dancing (approved by both the Pope and Ian Paisley). Books you already know before you even turn the first page. Surely, a third of all can be given away before reading, another third right after ... But let's have a look at what's been left behind!

Way back in 1989, I went to Dublin and purchased the four volumes of "Folk Songs and Ballads Popular in Ireland" (of course, that wasn't the only reason to go to Dublin). I never looked back since, as they say, and I still hold this collection of Irish songs in high esteem. Ossian Publications, founded by Dutchman John Loesberg in 1969, generally has an impressive catalogue of song and tune books, tutors and reprints. The latest addition is Donal O'Sullivan's Carolan - The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper (see also).

Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was born in 1670 near Nobber, County Meath. Around the age of 18 he was blinded by smallpox. Carolan studied the harp and his patron Mrs. MacDermott Roe gave him a horse and a companion to begin a career as an itinerant harper. For forty-five years he would travel throughout Ireland composing tunes for the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the time. www.thelivingtradition.com Inhospitality he never pardoned, as the epitaph on a mean ale-wife testifies:

"I beg and pray you, tomb, do not let Bridget out,
Or she would make your drink bitter and bring shame on your house;
She has brought death by thirst to many a faultless sage,
And now that you are in the grave,
Eternal damnation to you - and thirst, thirst, thirst!"
In 1738, feeling ill, Carolan returned to the home of Mrs. MacDermott Roe. He called for his harp and played his final piece "Farewell to Music". Carolan was buried in Kilronan churchyard, Co. Roscommon. His skull was placed in a niche and used as a cure for epilepsy for some time, until it disappeared into oblivion.

A significant number of tunes survived. Carolan wasn't the most skillful of performers, but he had a gift for composition and verse. He created a unique style by combining the Gaelic art music of the harp and folk melody with the music of contemporary Italian composers: Vivaldi, Corelli, and Geminiani.

O'Sullivan's classic study about Signor Carrollini has been originally published in 1958, including an essay on the life of Carolan, 213 tunes and their annotations, as well as the memoirs of harper Arthur O'Neill. The re-issue contains some additional tunes and details unearthed by American harper Bonnie Shaljean.

"In an age of pallid gloom for Ireland, this blind harper brought something new to his country's music, a kind of puckish joyousness which before it had seemed to lack, with here and there a sunbeam captured from the perennial sunshine of Italy." (O'Sullivan)
Irish music moved on since Carolan's days. It was carried across the Atlantic by those driven by oppression, poverty, hunger, or sheer wanderlust. The Irish were the immigrant group which contributed most to American folklore. The music of the early settlers changed and fusioned to become old time, country, bluegrass, and early rock'n'roll. Irish-Americans introduced the minstrel shows and wrote songs like "Dixie" and "Give my Regards to Broadway". Chief O'Neill made his famous collection of Irish tunes, master musicians like fiddler Michael Coleman or piper Patsy Touhey recorded on 78 rpms.

The music again travelled to and fro across the Western Ocean. One day in 1953, Sarah Makem was visited in her native Keady in Co. Armagh by American singer and song collector Jean Ritchie:

"I have a wonderful recording of her getting supper or tea for us while she's singing and talking to us ... she's singing, you can hear the knife go through the bread - rar! rar! rar! - and you can hear the bacon sizzling. www.merlin-publishing.com All the time she's singing As I roved out on a May morning, on a May morning right early. I kept listening to it and smelling the bacon and being reminded of something ... it was a play game that we played back home [in Kentucky]; it was called `Old King Cole was a Jolly Old Soul' and it used almost the same tune as she was using. So that's how the music got there! Sometimes the words were changed but the tune remained the same. They had a way of keeping the Irish tunes because the Irish tunes were far superior, of course! ... [Sarah] went to all the shops to spread the word, and we had a party. That evening, Sarah's son Tommy, who was about seventeen, played the tin whistle for us. At the time he knew only one tune, but he got interested in the old songs as a result of our visit. After that, we learned that he went around to the neighbours saying sing me all the songs you know."
Tommy Makem subsequently joined forces with the Clancys and folk music was never the same again.

Bringing It All Back Home was a five-part documentary film series by BBC and RTE in 1991, tracing the journey of traditional Irish music from its earliest recorded history to the present day, how it changed in the course of history, but stayed true to its own at the very same time. But author Nuala O'Connor covers the whole story of Irish music going back in time Considering it's only about 150 pages thick, she provides a wealth of information and gives a comprehensive view on what has shaped today's folk and trad scene.

Well, nowadays Ireland is regarded being just one link in the Celtic Connection. Irish music is certainly the most famous, Wales is virtually unknown. But what is Celtic music anyway? Kenny Mathieson gives the answer in Celtic Music - The Essential Listening Companion:

"If anything, it is a marketing strategy - and a very successful one. A less cynical and more practical answer is that it is the music produced in the so-called Celtic countries, drawing on the traditional musical culture of those countries, namely: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of man, Cornwall, Brittany, and Celtic Iberia ... A fashion for a kind of pseudo-Celtic new age mysticism is not given much credence in this book ..."

That's fine. Kenny and his team lead the reader on a tour de force from the 1960's folk revival onwards. The book is divided into territorial sections, subdivided into categories of voice, pipes, fiddle, others, and bands. Every important group or single musician - from Welsh Aberjaber and Irish Afro Celts to French Gabriel Yacoub and the Canadian 78th Fraser Highlanders - is treated within a short paragraph. There's photographs, record sleeves, and recommended recordings as well. It's very concise, newspaper style, but the information given is reliable - and you can't say that of anything termed Celtic in these days.

Finally, contributor Sue Wilson points us into new directions: www.backbeatbooks.com

"If Celtic music has proved one thing during its long and eventful history, it is that it is a cultural survivor. Its ability to recapture the imagination of successive generations has again been comprehensively demonstrated in the international upsurge of popular interest that has revitalised the Celtic scene around the turn of the 21st century ... The most salient and dynamic feature of this new Celtic flowering is the proliferating incidence of cross-genre or cross-cultural experimentation. Traditional Celtic modes and material are mixed and matched with everything from improvised jazz to electronic dance music, Scandinavian and East European styles, and on to Latin, African and Caribbean influences ..."
But that's already another story. So see you again soon, T:-)M.

Mathieson, Kenny (ed.), Celtic Music. The Essential Listening Companion. Backbeat, San Francisco, 2001, ISBN 0-87930-623-8, Paperback, 192 pp, US$19,95.
O'Connor, Nuala, Bringing It All Back Home. The Influence of Irish Music at Home and Overseas. Merlin, Dublin, 2001, ISBN 1-903582-03-2, Paperback, 162 pp, EUR17.76.
O'Sullivan, Donal, Carolan. The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper. Ossian, Cork, 2001, ISBN 1-900428-71-7, Paperback, 384 pp, £27.95 (Hardcover IRP35.95).

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