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Meditations on the 'Irish' in Traditional Music

Posted by Tom Hanway on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

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Please find Traditional Irish and Celtic Tunes in the Public Domain in my previous blog, or here.

Today, use of either English or French symbolises social and material success while use of a Celtic language symbolises powerlessness, backwardness or clannishness. As regards Irish music or that questionable acronym “ITM” used by English-speakers—a term foreign to Irish Gaeilge speakers—people can be rigid or provincial in their thinking. Those who are eloquent in an imperial language may superimpose their ideas on others who may be bilingual or multilingual.

Surely, one can turn the other cheek with single-language speakers, and simply get on with making traditional music—any kind of traditional music on any kind of instrument that tickles one’s fancy. Music  that renews itself works in a different way that is not trapped by old clichés or dominant thinking. 

Also, one can learn a Celtic language, perhaps some dialect of Irish or Welsh or Breton, and learn to play tunes from one or more of the Celtic nations, or learn some form of social dancing that is either Gaelic or Celtic. So many English-speaking purists, especially in the New World, are full of truisms about “authenticity” and trapped using a non-Celtic language, sermonizing about ITM, Irish trad, Trad, and the like, but decidedly not in Gaeilge (the Irish language) or in another Celtic language. 

Such thinking carries hidden cultural values and hegemonic assumptions, exhibiting a kind of snobbery—call it the politics of exclusion—a trait that comes from a colonial heritage, repeating in the New World what happened in the Old World when Celtic peoples were stamped out and replaced by hegemonic cultures, on the continent, particularly Gaul, and in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (formerly known as the British Isles)—in other words: France and the modern-day UK.  In the use of the acronym “ITM” in social media, an enclave with a shared colonial heritage unwittingly propagates that same centuries-old cultural imperialism, which ironically and sadly, is anti-Irish, or anti-Welsh, or anti-Breton, and anti-Celtic nationalities.

This “simply reflects the colonial experience”* in the old Celtic nations themselves, the inexorable progression by which Celtic language cultures were driven to discard the dialects that linked them to the old ways of their forebears, and that compelled them to pass on that language rejection to their children, grandchildren, and so on.  [*See Letter to Editors by Alexei Kondratiev in Keltria.]

People who are quick to use the ITM acronym to the exclusion of the “C” word may be quick to deprecate the living Celtic world, as if it doesn’t really exist, or never existed, or is a virtually meaningless term (especially as used in English), and so on.

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People enjoy playing whatever instruments they can get their hands on, whatever instruments they choose to get their hands on, and nobody, not even you, can take that away from them—not even well-educated English or French speakers who have an axe to grind. People play whatever music that they want to play, getting inside living traditions, within a culture, between cultures and musical sub-cultures, internationally, and in all these places, with open hearts and minds.

Of all the Celtic cultures (and their respective music and dance traditions), people who play either Irish or Scottish traditional music are carrying on Gaelic traditions which have the most overlap in terms of repertoire and playing style. In fact, the Irish and Scottish Gaels have more overlap with one another musically than with other Celtic traditions, and more overlap than any of the other Celtic traditions have with each other. 

Also, people who play trad tunes in the Celtic Diaspora, or in ex-Celtic lands, also enjoy playing whatever instruments they can get their hands on, whatever instruments they choose to get their hands on, whatever instruments they love to play, and no presumed (illusory) “consensus” can take that away from them.

Folks who would impose a kind of moralistic or quasi-legalistic framework regarding which instruments are deemed “authentic” and “traditional” are stuck with that old politics-of-exclusion trait that could reveal a colonial heritage and cultural imperialism at work. The bodies lie in the graves and are silent now.

I wouldn’t lose sleep over this: After all, we’re dealing with “living essence of Celtic tradition,” where a dynamic interplay of continuity and change is at work. Provincial thinking that builds walls while it promotes its own session also runs in the face of more enlightened thinking, whether such provincialism comes from a country where a Celtic language is still spoken (e.g. Ireland, Scotland or Wales), has been revived academically (Cornwall, Isle of Man), an ex-Celtic region where a Celtic dialect has long been dead (Cumbria and nearby border counties), or from an enclave in the Celtic Diaspora (e.g. somewhere in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Appalachia or New England).

Stubborn provincial thinking knows what ITM is, and what ITM is not. It deprecates change in what is really a living tradition. In my estimation, promotion of a provincial “ITM” session that actively excludes new ideas, new instruments, or other sessions that don’t match its criteria is quixotic, at cross purposes and blind to its own music’s history. It’s moving backwards in the face of modernism, where Celtic revivals and festivals are happening annually around the world. It is best that we create more such environments, not less, and, in matters musical, cultural and Celtic, eschew the image of the purity police, who like the ugly American, turns a blind eye (a deaf ear?) to the cross-pollination and collaboration that is happening between like-minded folks who freely and actively participate in living Celtic traditions. 

Finally, we would be wise not to be sucked or suckered into parochial use of the overused and unfortunate acronym, ITM—e.g. see ITM: Irish Traveller Movement; ITM: Irish Thoroughbread Marketing; and ITM: Irish Transverse Mercator.

Best to all ~ Tom



1 comment on “Meditations on the 'Irish' in Traditional Music”

Don Borchelt Says:
Thursday, February 9, 2017 @10:55:31 AM

A very interesting essay, Tom. After playing old-time Appalachian music for years, I still run occasionally into folks who object to three finger picking as not traditional, or to the fact that I do it with finger picks and a resonator. I have worked very hard to develop an approach that greatly respects tradition, but for certain purists, if it wasn't on a Victor or Okeh pressing before 1945, it is not authentic. It never dawned on me until now that you may have run into some of the same resistance playing five string banjo at some of your pub sessions, even though you are undoubtedly hitting all the notes you are supposed to, and none of the ones you are supposed to leave out! Such self-styled purists want to treat the music like a museum artifact, to be copied exactly like the original, a reproduction you would buy in a museum gift shop. That rigidity is a trait you only find in the revival generation, you rarely saw it among the old players they are all trying to emulate. But for any form of traditional music to survive, it has to be treated as a living thing, it has to be able to accept and absorb the creative contributions of each succeeding generation of players, or it will eventually become stagnant, whither and disappear. Innovations which both respect and contribute to the traditional can only strengthen it.

When I am driving, I occasionally listen to a radio program called Celtic Sojourn, on the local NPR station, WGBH. It appears they are currently sponsoring a ten day tour of Galicia in northwest Spain, an area which is now being recognized as one of Europe's vibrant Celtic cultures, particularly in regards to its traditional music. They played some of the music of a Galician piper, Carlos Nunez, who recently toured with the Chieftains. Some of his tunes sounded like they could have been played in Dublin, but others, to my uneducated ear, had a wiff of the Galician Mountain air running through them. Every river benefits from the water of a fresh rain.

Now, I do want to point out, I was a little confused when I first started reading your post. As a cranky old three-finger picker, when I first saw the acronym ITM, I assumed it meant Index-Thumb-Middle. Good to see you are still a little feisty!

- Don Borchelt

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