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Interesting Topic About Irish Sessions


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One of the things about Irish music sessions I've noticed is this insistence on musical purity, which always feels a little odd to English musicians. In an English session the core repertoire is indeed mostly English, but includes significant numbers of tunes from France, Scandinavia, America and, yes, Ireland (not to mention quite a large number of modern, newly minted tunes). If the tune feels right it'll get played.

 

 

Well not all Trad Sessions are are closed to new Tunes; even tunes that are not strictly speaking Irish. I know in Baltimore several of the more prominent musicians here, particularly Billy McComiskey and Peter Fitzgerald, are also composers of tunes and some of those tunes have become part of standard tune set here. I also know that occasionally a Cape Breton Fiddle tune will get played.

 

All that being said; it is important for the tune to fit into the tradition. The best test of course is trying it out and seeing what the reaction is. In the best examples the Tune will sound so traditional that people will ask the composer where they learned the tune :).

 

The problem is that occasionally you will get people who will just start a tune that they like that is not Irish, does not sound Irish and is not played in an Irish style and then they wonder why it is not well received.

 

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Bill

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The author wasn't talking about how traditional the MUSIC in sessions may or may not be, at least not that I recall. Instead, he was looking at how traditional the session itself is. If he's right that there were very few amateur musicians before the late 1800s, then the main way the tunes would get passed on is from professional to professional. Would you consider that a session? Well yes, I guess it could be now that I think about it. But yes, he's obviously talking about the "pub" session only.

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If he's right that there were very few amateur musicians before the late 1800s, then the main way the tunes would get passed on is from professional to professional. 

An that of course is the heart of it. In the article this is a totally unsupported assertion, and one I find desperately difficult to believe at least as far as England is concerned, and I cannot believe that Ireland was that different from England.

 

In England there is much evidence to the contrary that traditional music was the music of the people - the music of the professsional was quite different, broadside ballads and the like. For instance there are the numerous tune collections, most of which are the private notes of ordinary people - Michael Turner immediately comes to mind. The idea of traditional music being played only by professional musicians rings really hollow to me.

 

Chris

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All that being said; it is important for the tune to fit into the tradition.  The best test of course is trying it out and seeing what the reaction is.  In the best examples the Tune will sound so traditional that people will ask the composer where they learned the tune :).

Well that is of course quite right. As I say, if the tunes feels right it'll get played. Self regulation of the best sort.

 

Chris

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Looking back over the article, there do seem to be some inconsistencies. On one hand he says this:

 

Amateur musicians were rare in impoverished rural Ireland where hard work was the norm and there was little leisure time to play music or money to buy instruments.

 

Irish music was traditionally played in a solo, unaccompanied form. There were few instruments available, few were able to play, and the number of tunes any musician knew was limited. Many professional musicians avoided playing in the presence of other musicians for fear their tunes and techniques would be stolen.

 

On the other hand he says this:

 

Musicians would travel around the county to these places where they were always welcome. Here tunes, songs and stories would be exchanged. People would learn the music by an oral tradition, listening, watching and trying to imitate other players.

 

If musicians were rare and secretive (which supports the existence of regional styles in such a small country), then how were ceili a good place to exchange tunes? Is he talking about the rare amateur, or the professional?

 

Just a small side question. If Irish traditional music had truly been music of the people, and was being played well before the Industrial Revolution (when leisure time increased), then how can the concertina be a traditional instrument (on page 1 he says it is)? It didn't hit folk music until at least the mid 19th century. The other instruments he lists (fiddle, pipes, the whistle, and flute) had been around much longer.

Edited by Jeff Stallard
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Just a small side question.  If Irish traditional music had truly been music of the people, and was being played well before the Industrial Revolution (when leisure time increased), then how can the concertina be a traditional instrument (on page 1 he says it is)?  It didn't hit folk music until at least the mid 19th century.  The other instruments he lists (fiddle, pipes, the whistle, and flute) had been around much longer.

The more you get into it, the more hopeless the article becomes.

 

In fact traditional music is likely to be more rather than less popular in times of hardship. Just because life is a struggle you're going to want some entertainment to take you out of yourself, and what better than music or song or story telling; entertainment you make yourself and pay no-one for.

 

Chris

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One of the things about Irish music sessions I've noticed is this insistence on musical purity, which always feels a little odd to English musicians. In an English session the core repertoire is indeed mostly English, but includes significant numbers of tunes from France, Scandinavia, America and, yes, Ireland (not to mention quite a large number of modern, newly minted tunes). If the tune feels right it'll get played.

 

 

Yes, how true. There is a pub in Newcastle with a long established Irish session that is a bit like that. Now there is also a regular "Anything But Irish" session. The Irish session is on a different night and contiues to be well supported, so there is something for everybody, and occasional Irish tunes are accepted happily in the ABI session.

 

Theo

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Looking back over the article, there do seem to be some inconsistencies.  On one hand he says this:

 

Amateur musicians were rare in impoverished rural Ireland where hard work was the norm and there was little leisure time to play music or money to buy instruments.

 

Irish music was traditionally played in a solo, unaccompanied form. There were few instruments available, few were able to play, and the number of tunes any musician knew was limited. Many professional musicians avoided playing in the presence of other musicians for fear their tunes and techniques would be stolen.

 

 

I can believe that only a relative few play; that is still true today. Really when it comes

down to it, only a relatively small percentage of the population today plays any music.

 

Regarding leisure time; I don't agree with that. My parents both grew up on farms in

Ireland that were not very different than farms of the 19th century (all work done by hand or with animal power, no electricity, no running water, etc) and yet they seemed to have a reasonable amount of leisure time. When they worked, they worked very hard, but for at least part of the year (particularly the winter) the daily tasks that needed doing might only take a few hours out of the day.

 

On the other hand he says this:

 

Musicians would travel around the county to these places where they were always welcome. Here tunes, songs and stories would be exchanged. People would learn the music by an oral tradition, listening, watching and trying to imitate other players.

 

If musicians were rare and secretive (which supports the existence of regional styles in such a small country), then how were ceili a good place to exchange tunes? Is he talking about the rare amateur, or the professional?

 

Regional styles don't need the musicians to be particularly rare, they just need them to be dispersed such that there are clusters. Remember in those days most people rarely if ever traveled more than 10 miles or so away from home so styles probably developed through a gradual diffusion over the course of years.

 

Just a small side question.  If Irish traditional music had truly been music of the people, and was being played well before the Industrial Revolution (when leisure time increased), then how can the concertina be a traditional instrument (on page 1 he says it is)?  It didn't hit folk music until at least the mid 19th century.  The other instruments he lists (fiddle, pipes, the whistle, and flute) had been around much longer.

 

I am not sure I accept the notion that leisure time actually increased with the Industrial Revolution. Yes the middle class started to enjoy more leisure but by and large the

working class worked very long hours from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until well into the 20th century. The typical work week was 84 hours and the typical work day was 12 hours of hard labor. While there would certainly be times on the farm where one would work at least that many hours and maybe more (during planting or harvest) the average farmer certainly did not need to work that many hours every day of the year.

 

Regarding the folk instruments; most of the instruments we think of as Traditional are not as old as we think; at least not in the sense of being common in Traditional music. The flute entered Irish Music in the middle of the 19th century after the invention of the modern flute made the 6 hole keyed flute obsolete for ochestral work; the concertina and the Accordion are both products of the industrial age as is the in practice the whistle (Technically the whistle stretches back thousands of years but until Clarke figured out how to make them cheaply they didn't make their way into Trad music). The fiddle and the Pipes are older but even the Pipes in their modern incarnation probably don't stretch back past the 18th century.

 

--

Bill

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Resp: The origins of the session may or may not be traditional, but it does not serve the music if the session is allowed to be diluted with all sorts of other styles of music. Not that there is anything wrong with other types of music, but to really enjoy Irish music as a player you really should play it and not dabble in it, mixing in bluegrass, old time, etc.

 

Frank, I must respectfully disagree with this statement. It appears that you advocate is stagnation. If the music remains stagnant, it will die. It won't live on to be played by our children and grandchildren...it will die.

 

The Irish music as we play it isn't really all that traditional. Do you honestly believe that Irish music didn't evolve as other musical influences arrived (by way of sailors, visitors, or simply irishmen travelling)? Doesn't it often make you wonder why so much of the music of the Netherlands, Spain, England, and even Eastern Europe often sound so similar? Can you honestly believe that, given the evidence, Irish music stayed "pure" and musicians didn't dabble in it? Do you think a Mazurka is IRISH?????

 

Heck, ITM as we know it isn't even really all that traditional to Ireland. Even the instruments that are most commonly associated with it aren't native. The Concertina certainly isn't a "traditional" instrument, being a latecomer. The Banjo? Mandolin? Fiddle? Accordian? Nope, all moved from other musical cultures.

 

Now, lets tear apart your argument. Bluegrass. Here is a music that has its ROOTS in Irish and Scottish Traditional Music. What is so evil about taking a derivation and bringing part of it back into the culture as a whole? That, in essence is a large part of what keeps oral traditions flowing.

 

I will state, in my personal opinion, that bands such as the Pogues, Fairport Convention (English, I know, but we Yanks can't tell the difference at times), and the Chieftains have done more toward bringing life back into the tradition than all the Sessions and "traditional" players combined(Add to this list, Black47, Dropkick Murphy's and any of a dozen other bands that make most of the people on these boards cringe) .

 

Now, before you all flame me, how can I support that statement? They brought quite a slew of people who had no knowledge of the tradition into the pubs and gigs to listen. They did this by combining ITM with different musical influences. This filled seats in the bars (which may have not survived without the popular influences of bands such as the Chieftains) and kept them afloat (have you ever noticed how many bars a year close? Anything that keeps filling seats in a pub is gooooood). This gave more venues for Sessions. This made hearing live ITM more accessable. This brought more potential players. This is what keeps a tradition going.

 

Do you want to know a tradition that never changed? Traditional Roman Music. Never changed. Died. Nobody knows what it once sounded like. Nobody actually cares.

 

I'm sorry, but certain attitudes on what is acceptable as "tradition" really irritates me. Half the songs played in the average ITM session aren't even traditional. They were written by players in the last century. Maybe this is why I don't go to Sessions any more....

 

Rant off, and sorry if it seemed like a personal attack. It was just an attack on an attitude that I'd like to see die off before our tradition does.

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Ashkettle:

 

Too much of any one thing smacks of a cult to me....embracing all points of view and exchanging ideas freely is central to a humanistic approach to culture, in my opinion. Besides, I LIKE the Pogues and the dropkick Murphys... you should also hear The Rugburns' song "Kilkenny Man" from their "Morning Wood" cd! That's as much an Irish reel as any I've heard! I'll eventually learn it when my skills improve.

 

Greg

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Ashkettle,

I don't think Frank, or indeed any of us who might be considered staunch traditionalists are of the opinion that Irish Music should be stagnent. However we want it to remain Irish.

 

You mention a number of instruments that came into Irish music from outside (I am not sure about the fiddle, I think it was pretty much part and parcel of the initial evolution of what we now consider Irish Traditional Music) and indeed tunes and other influences as well. And that is all well and good. But let us remember that the Accordion, the Banjo and most of the other string instruments that came into Irish Music in the 20th century met with great resistance at first; indeed in some case it took decades before the instruments were really accepted. Now we can look at this in two ways. Either we can lament the fact that many musicians met great resistence when they were trying to play ITM on those instruments or we can realize that that resistence helped shape the instrument and the tradition until the two fit together. It probably also means that other instruments were never accepted and may never be accepted and so be it.

 

Tradition by its very nature implies a certain resistence to change and in part it is what keeps the different musical traditions distinct. If too much change happens too quickly

within a tradition, the tradition is likely to be lost. Fortunately it is more likely the case that the change only effects part of the population that plays the music and the original remains more or less distinct. Country Music may have resulted from a fusion of Old Time, Blue Grass and Blues (amongst others) but fortunately all three of those genres are still alive and well.

 

In any case, change will come to the music, but slowly over time. There will always be people who want to introduce new instruments and techniques into it and there will also be people who want to preserve the music intact. Of the people who want to see change, only those who are most dedicated to ITM will actually stick it out and only those will have a chance to see their influence change the music. The dabblers will go off and form fusion bands and leave the tradition intact.

 

--

Bill

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Ashkettle:

 

Too much of any one thing smacks of a cult to me....embracing all points of view and exchanging ideas freely is central to a humanistic approach to culture, in my opinion.  Besides, I LIKE the Pogues and the dropkick Murphys... you should also hear The Rugburns' song "Kilkenny Man" from their "Morning Wood" cd!  That's as much an Irish reel as any I've heard!  I'll eventually learn it when my skills improve.

 

 

Exchanging ideas freely can be a good thing; but to apply it to everything without discrimination can be a bad thing. Irish Music is Irish just as English Music is English or Japanese Music is Japanese. I think it is perfectly appropriate for people of all backgrounds to participate but I think it is also important that each remain distinct. Too much exchange results in music that is neither Irish, English nor Japanese in character; the resulting music might be good but I wouldn't want to see it if it meant that the other three music traditions had to die.

 

--

Bill

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That sums up my argument Bill. If the Tradition doesn't change over time, it will indeed die. What isn't evolving is simply running the road to oblivion.

 

The ITM that we know today is a Johnny Come Lately as far as musics go. What we know of it ALREADY has accepted outside influences. To say that it should stop in a stasis where it is, well, that's just wrong.

 

I'm not advocating Strats and Drum kits here, I'm simply stating that the attitude that something isn't "trad" and thus bad is simply, well...wrong. I have heard some of the best ITM playing ever on a Harmonica. How many would complain is somebody broke out one of those in a Session. Don't answer so fast...I heard quite a bit of complaints before he played it...and he was by far the best musician in the Session.

 

Yes, to successfully add something to a tradition requires knowledge of it. It requires a feel and a love of it. However, to simply say BAH...that requires only stubborness and lack of insight.

 

Like it or hate it, the ITM played 100 years from now will be different from what we play now (if it survives).

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Too much exchange results in music that is neither Irish, English nor Japanese in character; the resulting music might be good but I wouldn't want to see it if it meant that the other three music traditions had to die.

They call it World Music ...

 

I agree, Bill. From which can be seen that I occupy a middle ground, in that I reacted against Frank's insistence on doctrinal purity, but neither do I want to see a Melting Pot of change for change's sake.

 

Let the traditions evolve in their own way - in fact you have no choice! What ever we say here (or anyone else in any other forum for that matter) will have vanishingly little impact on what actually happens.

 

A nice example from this country is women's Morris. Back in the early 70's there was an awesome amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from male Morris dancers about the shocking spectacle of women dancing the Morris (a practice I supported, FWIW). But did the outrage (or the support, for that matter) have any effect on any women's Morris side? To the best of my knowledge not at all. They're still dancing, and some of the Border sides are getting pretty wild. So far as tradition is concerned, all we can ever do is try and hang on for the ride and enjoy the scenery!

 

Chris

Edited by Chris Timson
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That sums up my argument Bill.  If the Tradition doesn't change over time, it will indeed die.  What isn't evolving is simply running the road to oblivion.

 

The ITM that we know today is a Johnny Come Lately as far as musics go.  What we know of it ALREADY has accepted outside influences.  To say that it should stop in a stasis where it is, well, that's just wrong.

 

I guess it depends on what we mean by a Johnny Come Lately. Certainly there are

early recordings of Irish music that are easily identifiable as ITM. The pub scene might be relatively new but I think smaller house get togethers are older and certainly Celi Bands stretch back a fair bit.

 

I'm not advocating Strats and Drum kits here, I'm simply stating that the attitude that something isn't "trad" and thus bad is simply, well...wrong.  I have heard some of the best ITM playing ever on a Harmonica.  How many would complain is somebody broke out one of those in a Session.  Don't answer so fast...I heard quite a bit of complaints before he played it...and he was by far the best musician in the Session.

 

Well it is unfortunate that people don't know that Harmonica does go back a fair bit.. even if it does only occupy a relatively small niche in Tradition. That said I still maintain that those who are very resistent to change are in fact necessary to maintain the Tradition. Those who are willing to embrace change run the risk of letting the tradition go.

 

Yes, to successfully add something to a tradition requires knowledge of it.  It requires a feel and a love of it.  However, to simply say BAH...that requires only stubborness and lack of insight.

 

And yet to say BAH.. or to have them who say BAH is an important element in preserving it.

 

Like it or hate it, the ITM played 100 years from now will be different from what we play now (if it survives).

 

But I suspect it will not be as different as you seem to think. We would probably still recognize it as ITM if we were transported 100 years in the future and sat in on a session we might even be able to fit in.

Edited by bill_mchale
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"Frank, I must respectfully disagree with this statement. It appears that you advocate is stagnation. If the music remains stagnant, it will die. It won't live on to be played by our children and grandchildren...it will die."

 

Resp:

There's a difference between stagnation and corruption. There is great "trad" music being written today by traditional musicians. It is new, but being composed by those who understand the music. It is, most importantly, being played by those who understand the music. If it doesn't fall within the idiom, it is not played. This is hardly "stagnant."

 

"The Irish music as we play it isn't really all that traditional. Do you honestly believe that Irish music didn't evolve as other musical influences arrived (by way of sailors, visitors, or simply irishmen travelling)? Doesn't it often make you wonder why so much of the music of the Netherlands, Spain, England, and even Eastern Europe often sound so similar? Can you honestly believe that, given the evidence, Irish music stayed "pure" and musicians didn't dabble in it? Do you think a Mazurka is IRISH?????"

 

Resp: Irish music certainly evolves, but it has done so relatively slowly, and again, by the musicians who have lived with, and understand the music. over many years. There is a difference between evolution and revolution. (And who says that Eastern European music sounds so much like English music?)

 

"Heck, ITM as we know it isn't even really all that traditional (Resp: traditional, yes: native, no) to Ireland. Even the instruments that are most commonly associated with it aren't native. The Concertina certainly isn't a "traditional" instrument, being a latecomer. The Banjo? Mandolin? Fiddle? Accordian? Nope, all moved from other musical cultures."

 

Resp:

I think you're confusing music with instruments. Anyway, even this is relative. I think over a hundred years qualifies an instrument to be in the tradition.

 

"Now, lets tear apart your argument. Bluegrass. Here is a music that has its ROOTS in Irish and Scottish Traditional Music. What is so evil about taking a derivation and bringing part of it back into the culture as a whole? That, in essence is a large part of what keeps oral traditions flowing."

 

Resp:

I really love it when someone thinks he can "tear apart" my "argument"!

"What is so evil about taking a derivation and bringing part of it back into the culture as a whole?" Nothing, if it fits in. But it doesn't. It has evolved into an identifiably similar, but different entity, sort of like Ragtime is to Jazz.

 

 

I will state, in my personal opinion, that bands such as the Pogues, Fairport Convention (English, I know, but we Yanks can't tell the difference at times), and the Chieftains have done more toward bringing life back into the tradition than all the Sessions and "traditional" players combined(Add to this list, Black47, Dropkick Murphy's and any of a dozen other bands that make most of the people on these boards cringe) .

 

"Now, before you all flame me, how can I support that statement?"

 

Resp:

You can support this statement?

 

"They" (Resp: Who are they?) brought quite a slew of people who had no knowledge of the tradition into the pubs and gigs to listen. They did this by combining ITM with different musical influences. This filled seats in the bars (which may have not survived without the popular influences of bands such as the Chieftains) and kept them afloat (have you ever noticed how many bars a year close? Anything that keeps filling seats in a pub is gooooood). (Resp: Especially if you're the bar owner.) This gave more venues for Sessions. This made hearing live ITM more accessable. This brought more potential players. This is what keeps a tradition going.

 

Resp:

I wasn't aware that the Chieftains played bars. But seriously, there have been bands which have been popular and have attracted attention to Irish music. Good! But it doen't mean that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You want to play like the Pogues? Good! Just leave trad. Irish music alone. Anyway, just because the Pogues are from Ireland doesn't mean that their music has much, if anything, in common with Trad or has attracted anyone to it."

 

"Do you want to know a tradition that never changed? Traditional Roman Music. Never changed. Died. Nobody knows what it once sounded like. Nobody actually cares."

 

Resp:

Again, I never said it doesn't change. It evolves the way nature evolves, slowly on its own, and often as a reaction to a threat or irritant in the environment.

 

"I'm sorry, but certain attitudes on what is acceptable as "tradition" really irritates me. Half the songs played in the average ITM session aren't even traditional. They were written by players in the last century."

 

Resp:

Maybe, if I went to some of your sessions I would agree with you. My comments here are for instrumental sessions where "songs" are rare. But even including songs along with the tunes, how old does something have to be to be traditional? I have family traditions which only span decades, or even less. The test as to whether something is traditional, or not, is defined in the Comhaltas "Instructions to Adjudicators". It goes something like this:

"Music which has been accepted by the majority of experienced (Irish) musicians as part of their repertoire, and is played by them."

It says nothing about age, but implies that it must fall within the idiom of traditional Irish music and be accepted by its proponents.

 

"Maybe this is why I don't go to Sessions any more...."

 

"Rant off, and sorry if it seemed like a personal attack. It was just an attack on an attitude that I'd like to see die off before our tradition does."

 

Resp:

Fear not. It will survive with or without your help, or mine. Is Irish traditional music as popular as Rock? No, but neither is Classical, and it's still around, and it doesn't change or evolve as much as Irish trad. It will survive because it is good. If it is artificially changed by those who don't love it as it is, or don't really get it, it won't be what it is, and then I won't care. Do I play other kinds of music? Sure, but not at a session.

 

 

--------------------

Edited by Frank Edgley
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