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What is the 'Celtic' in Folk Music Culture?

Posted by Tom Hanway on Sunday, September 4, 2016

*  *  *  *  *

Today, use of either English or French symbolises social and material success while use of a living Celtic language symbolises powerlessness, backwardness or clannishness. 

This post is inspired by Bill Keith, who broadened the repertoire for many musicians through his love for Celtic fiddle tunes from Scotland and Ireland. Thank you Bill, old friend, I miss you big time, and I am not alone.

Bill was fluent in both English and French, and he was instrumental in drawing attention to Celtic (especially Scottish) music, even though he did not speak a Celtic language. He did, however, point the way for others by being blissfully bilingual in his expressions, also by playing across different musical traditions in a personal style that he made utterly accessible to and inclusive of others.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote famously of “the shot heard round the world”; this reference to the outbreak of the American Revolution (Battle of Concord) was used again to describe the outbreak of World War I. Less remembered is the Scottish (also Jacobite) tune, ‘The White Cockade’, which was used by the colonists (minutemen) to march into battle against British forces, played by fifer Luther Blanchard and drummer Francis Barker. The tune has long been coupled with other Scottish marches, including ‘Deil Among the Tailors’ known in the US as ‘Devil’s Dream’ and popularised by Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys.

Please read Emerson, then check out the recordings, including ‘The White Cockade’ and ‘Devil’s Dream’, a far-reaching tune of Scottish origin that is still played in Scotland, less so in Ireland but not unknown, and is played in old-time and bluegrass, in Cape Breton, the Maritime Provinces, Canada, the United States, and throughout the Celtic diaspora.

Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

*          *          *

In the Celtic diaspora where English has long been the dominant language, reluctance to learn, much less master, a Celtic language, say Irish or Scottish Gaelic, often coincides with a willingness to talk about the language at great length, but only in translation.

In days of yore just as in the present day, wherever you have people, you have politics and the politics of exclusion:  A real fear and shared experience among traditionalists of a particular Gaelic (Celtic) or Brythonic (Celtic) culture is that its native traditions are being co-opted, suppressed or eradicated by government or political forces that operate by limiting its language and cultural dealings.  In the late 17th and early 18th-centuries this was done by legal bans and Jacobite risings in what was Great Britain and colonised Ireland.

As I pointed out earlier, mastery of English and French symbolise social and material success while fluency in a Celtic language symbolises political or material weakness in cultures dominated by English or French.

Today many of us who are drawn to an Irish, Scottish, Welsh or some other Celtic heritage may be unwittingly operating under or victim to dominator-culture assumptions and coloniser attitudes as regards politically weaker Celtic sub-cultures, particularly their languages. That is not to say that we don’t enjoy aspects of Celtic art, music and mythology—but only in translation (to English or French). And we tend to ignore (if we’re even vaguely interested in) the separate identities of living Celtic communities in ex-Celtic lands, or in the ever-shrinking Celtic enclaves in the New World.

To be sure, mastery of one of the imperial languages symbolises success while everyday use of a Celtic tongue symbolises weakness if not utter powerlessness.

I wish I could have bounced some of these ideas off bilinguist Bill Keith, since I cannot speak for him; however, I think he would agree that some old Scottish tunes are in order—tunes that represent old Celtic ideas about freedom—freedom to practise a language, or more than one language, also total freedom to practise religion, various arts and styles of music, and the like.

According to Bill Keith (RIP), in his mind’s eye he could see how to play ‘Devil’s Dream’ in his then-emergent style upon hearing a fiddler from Nova Scotia.

I mentioned the ‘The White Cockade’ being used by the minutemen in the Celtic diaspora at the Battle of Concord, and it also found its way into the American Civil War, or War Between the States.

On a personal note, I was educated at Phillips Academy (Andover), and my dear friend and mentor Bill Keith similarly studied at Phillips Exeter Academy. Not only did we have an abiding love for all types of traditional music and their cultural histories (including jazz), we had an old school rivalry going back to our formative years, also a love for arcane musical anecdotes as regards old-time, bluegrass, Irish and Scottish music in the Celtic diaspora.

Bill had fond memories of Bill Monroe picking out centuries-old Scottish strathspeys at home on his mandolin. That revelation opened up a whole new world of music for me, and that is part of the reason why I reverse emigrated to Ireland (to learn traditional music from local players).

I’m hoping to get fluent in a dialect of the native Irish tongue, more than being able to pronounce a few choice words, as if it’s a dead language. The language is a vital part of the living tradition, pure and simple.

Beir bua agus beannacht ~ Tomás



2 comments on “What is the 'Celtic' in Folk Music Culture?”

Meles_Meles Says:
Monday, September 5, 2016 @8:37:44 PM

You may be interested to know that there is a residual Celtic influence in the English language that is not found in French (probably due to the lengthy coexistence of Celtic culture outside of court after the battle of Hastings). The Romance languages (like French) and the Germanic languages (like Frisian, the direct ancestor of English) signal the interrogative by reversing the subject-verb order, i.e. 'vous voulez' (you want) becomes 'voulez-vous' in forming a question. In English, we don't say, "Want you?", but "Do you want?" Linguists refer to this as the 'useless do'. This method of interrogative-formation still exists in most of the Celtic languages as 'do' or 'da'. The English 'useless do' has no translation in Romance or Germanic languages.

Klondike Waldo Says:
Sunday, January 15, 2017 @1:45:51 PM

FWIW, When I was a neophyte teacher, 43 years ago, I taught instrumental Music in the Luther Blanchard School in Boxborough, MA. Yes it was named for the Fifer mentioned in Tom's Blog above and that year, I had the brand-new band play in the parade for the town's own holiday "Fifer's Day".

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