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Meditations on the 'Irish' in Traditional Music

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

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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 in their thinking. Those who are eloquent in the imperial language of, say, English, may superimpose their provincial ideas on others from across the pond 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 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 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, could be anti-Irish, or anti-Welsh, or anti-Breton, or anti-Celtic peoples as a whole.

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.  [*Please 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 much-used acronym, ITM—e.g. see ITM: Irish Traveller Movement; ITM: Irish Thoroughbread Marketing; and ITM: Irish Transverse Mercator.

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

Best to all ~ Tom


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Playing Since: 1985
Experience Level: Expert/Professional

[Teaching] [Jamming] [Socializing] [Helping]

Occupation: Studio Musician, Author, Composer, Recording Artist

Gender: Male
Age: 62

My Instruments:
(1) Stelling SwallowTail Deluxe, (2) Standard. I co-designed the SwallowTail banjo with Geoff Stelling. (3) 1964 Gibson RB-250 Mastertone Bowtie. (4) Nechville Meteor (acoustic/electric) with the "Galaxy" inlay. (4) I also have a 1918 Van Eps tenor which belonged to my grandfather, John Hanway, who bought it his freshman year, playing it in the Yale Mandolin and Banjo Club and Orchestra. It has been restored by Tom Cussen (Clareen Banjos) of Clarinbridge, Co. Galway, Ireland. I fool around and play a bit of "trad" on it - jazz, traditional Irish and Celtic music.

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
The Beatles, The Stones, the Grateful Dead, New Grass Revival, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Béla Fleck, Vassar Clements, Scott Vestal, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Don Reno (father and son), Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Bill Emerson, Raymond Fairchild, Eddie Adcock, Allen Shelton, Butch Robins, Herb Pedersen, Pete Wernick, David Bromberg, Tim O'Brien, Sammy Shelor, Jim Mills, Sam Bush, Stringbean, Joni Mitchell, Roy Huskey, Jr., The Bothy Band, Altan, Michael Coleman, Cream, Hendrix, Carole King, James Taylor, Johnson Mountain Boys, Andy McGann, Tommy Peoples, Tony DeMarco, Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis, Jesse Fuller, all the great bluesmen, all the "jump." R&B and jazz cats. I have fetishes for jugbands, jam bands, and rockabilly bands. I once had the great pleasure to play banjo and guitar in the Provincetown Jug Band at the Surf Club back in ?.

My dad, "Wild Jack", who showed the whole family what great fun it is to jam with old jazz recordings. I was tapping my foot to traditional jazz and Big Band music at a very impressionable age. I learned a lot of jazz standards that way, melodies for which I have no title.

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With the publication of Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (1988), Hanway has been pioneering Celtic fingerstyle banjo. Bluegrass Unlimited wrote in January 1999: “What Earl Scruggs’ book did for bluegrass banjo, Tom Hanway’s book may well do for the 5-string in Irish and Celtic music, and will certainly become regarded as ‘the bible’ for any 5-string player with an interest in this joyous music.” This is a Mel Bay best-seller and has won Tom many converts on both sides of the Atlantic. 20 O'Carolan Irish Classics (2015) is Hanway's fourth collection demonstrating Celtic fingerstyle banjo in G tuning. It is part of a Celtic 5-string series that includes Mel Bay's Easy Irish and Celtic Tunes for 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Jigs and Reels (2012) and Mel Bay's Easy Irish and Celtic Melodies for 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Airs and Session Tunes (2013). In 1997 Hanway teamed up with banjo manufacturer Geoff Stelling to co-design the Stelling SwallowTail Deluxe and Standard banjo, a production model instrument. The SwallowTail has become a popular model for Stelling, used for bluegrass, Celtic and other styles of music, with actor Steve Martin purchasing one true to Tom's original model. Tom Hanway is a musical shape-shifter, a veteran of many styles of music who feels blessed to be working in life with other like-minded artists at something that he loves. Tom loves to teach, collect tunes from all over, and he regularly travels back and forth between Ireland and the United States playing and collecting tunes. Discography Bucket of Bees (Joyous Gard Records, 1991) Tom Hanway & Blue Horizon (Joyous Gard Records, 1992) Burnt Toast (Joyous Gard Records, 1996) Mel Bay's Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (1998) Grillbillies Album, Volumes 1 and 2 (Yee Haw Records, 1999) The Badbelly Project: Hesitation Blues (Joyous Gard Records, 2005) Mel Bay's Easy Irish and Celtic Session Tunes for 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Jigs and Reels (2012) Mel Bay's Easy Irish and Celtic Melodies for 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Airs and Session Tunes (2013) Mel Bay's 20 O'Carolan Irish Classics for 5-String Banjo and All Instruments (2015)

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