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The Bass And Irish Trad.


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The appearance of new things is a sign that the tradition is alive and well. We have a talented cellist locally who really adds to the session - he can play bass lines, pluck jigs at a decent pace and even manages to strum chords on the thing sometimes. A discussion on the woodenflute list some years ago accepted most instruments (as long as they were reasonably well played) apart from those jingling Johnny things - the pole with bottle tops attached!

 

Just before reading this thread, I was reading an article about Stan Seaman on Rod Stradling's mustrad site. He has some very interesting things to say about what constitutes The Tradition - both in instrumentation and music played. Worth a look if you don't already know it.

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Guest Peter Laban

I think the most clear example is that of the man who usually turns up at the Willie Clancy week to play Irish music on a Zheng in the street. Absolutely gorgeous music, invariably the old guys are drawn to it, I remember Gussie Russell standing there for hours all smiles and clearly enjoying it.

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You know it's extremely tiring to hear people come up with stuff like 'if we REALLY look at it only a whistle can be traditional'.

 

It is rubbish and betrays either a neglect or a lack of understanding what 'traditional' means. Traditional is what is accepted as such by the wider community of traditional musicians (which includes all musicians who are accepted by their peers as part of the community, not necessarily anyone who owns an instrument).

...

In other words, this is a bit of a non issue.

 

Peter,

I agree wholeheartedly that "traditional" is not something that someone defines for everyone else. As you say, it's more a consensus among those whose tradition it is.

With regard to instruments, "Irish traditional" is an open definition. "Traditional" just means "handed down" - as opposed to what?

As opposed to academic music. That's not only symphonic and chamber music, but also, in the context of Irish society, the bourgeois drawing-room ballad and the music-hall comic song. These were written by studied musicians, printed, and played and sung either by other professional musicians, or by bourgeois young ladies and gentlemen who had had piano and singing lessons. Educated musicians can dig out that old sheet music and play it even today.

The less educated country musician, on the other hand, had to hear the music to learn it. And up to the mid-20th century, you didn't get to hear many symphonies or string quartets out in the Irish countryside with its scattered population. Not even a lot of music-hall songs. This kept the music ethnic, even regional, in character.

 

As to the instruments used, someone pointed out that the "session" is a modern phenomenon. In my father's day (he was born in 1902) the fiddling and singing was entertainment, not just a "by musicians for musicians" thing. People wanted to dance and to hear stories sung. And rural entertainment often took place in the kitchen of somebody's house. (The Irish dancers have a phrase: "Round the house, and mind the dresser!" This implies that dancing was typically done in the kitchen - the largest room, often referred to as "the house" - which was cleared of furniture. Except for the dresser (sideboard), which was too heavy to move.)

 

Now, if you're going to make music in some neighbour's house, perhaps a couple of miles away, and you've got no transportation, it's obvious that a flute, a fiddle or a concertina is a lot handier than a double bass. Both on the way there and in their kitchen.

 

The instruments that we would have called "traditional" 50 years ago were not all Irish, by any means. The violin is italian. The keyless transverse flute is a European classical instrument. The tin whistle is a 19th-century English invention, as is the concertina. The accordion originated in Austria, but is pretty universal. What they all have in common is - portability! That, and the fact that they can be learned without professional tuition. And that each of them alone is quite capable of playing adequte dance music for a handful of couples indoors.

 

Somewhere during the 20th century, the guitar got to Ireland (my father, a rural musician in his youth, was unfamiliar with it). It was accepted, because it was portable, three chords (or more) could be learnt without much tuition, and because it gave a bit of volume to music that had to be played to larger audiences because people had busses and cars and could travel farther to a ceili. In the '60, we took over the bouzouki, in tunings that suit the older modal dance tunes very well.

And, of course, the traditional repertoire is changing emphasis to utilise the capabilities of these chording instruments.

 

Today, there are no portability problems - everyone is motorised. You can take a double bass or a keyboard anywhere. And you can set them up, because you seldom play gigs in people's houses any more. So we've taken over the guitar from the Americans - why not the double bass, which is traditional with them?

 

The traditional instrumentation of two generations ago had to account for portability and lack of space to perform, and it had to be suitable for the kind of music people made then. The double bass fell down on portability and space requirement - otherwise we might have taken to it earlier!

 

The Irish tradition was always eclectic. Any instrument that was useful and handy and available was used, even if it came from England.

 

You might say there's a tradition of integrating new instruments into Irish music ...

 

Cheers,

John

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I have read that there are only 3 ITM (Irish Traditional Music) instruments: Whistle, Bodhran, and Harp.

 

I'd have to disagree with you on the bodhran, which, although traditionally associated with the Wren Boys on St Stephen's Day, has only been used in ITM since the 1950s.

 

Hm!

 

Aren't the Wern Boys, like the Strawboys or Mummers, a part of Irish tradition?

 

Cheers,

John

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I have read that there are only 3 ITM (Irish Traditional Music) instruments: Whistle, Bodhran, and Harp.

 

I'd have to disagree with you on the bodhran, which, although traditionally associated with the Wren Boys on St Stephen's Day, has only been used in ITM since the 1950s.

 

Hm!

 

Aren't the Wern Boys, like the Strawboys or Mummers, a part of Irish tradition?

 

Cheers,

John

 

They are, but I thought it was generally accepted that the bodhran was popularised for widespread use in ITM (rather than purely for "ritual" use at one time of the year) by Sean O Riada?

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"Traditional" just means "handed down" - as opposed to what?

As opposed to academic music. ... In my father's day (he was born in 1902) the fiddling and singing was entertainment, not just a "by musicians for musicians" thing. People wanted to dance and to hear stories sung. And rural entertainment often took place in the kitchen of somebody's house.

Excellent post, John! Trying to put a box around traditional music - genuine handed down, I-heard-this-somewhere, just-for-fun and just-to-share music - is a modern notion...the kind of thing you expect from people who get their music from CDs and i-pods and paid concerts, and prefer to keep their sessions exclusive. My favorite 'party pieces' and traditional music, I learned from friends and from strangers in cottage kitchens, in the hours after the pubs were closed. For me, home ceilidhs are the best kind of sessions.

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Aren't the Wern Boys, like the Strawboys or Mummers, a part of Irish tradition?

 

Cheers,

John

 

They are, but I thought it was generally accepted that the bodhran was popularised for widespread use in ITM (rather than purely for "ritual" use at one time of the year) by Sean O Riada?

 

And what could be more traditional than these ritual dances, plays and musics?

Tradition isn't just music, you know!

 

Cheers,

John

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Tradition isn't just music, you know!

 

I do know, but ritual performance isn't the context of the discussion. I think most musicians would make a distinction between an instrument making a once-a-year ritual outing and one (like the harp) with a long history of year-round performance. If you have any evidence that the bodhran was used in ITM (as we are discussing it on this thread) more recently than the 1950s, I'd be genuinely interested in reading it.

 

http://www.iol.ie/~ronolan/bodhran.html

 

I'm not a bodhran hater, btw, I play one myself. ;)

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Man, an argument about what is and isn't traditional in Irish Music, and I miss it for days... :) And all this because I thought people were talking about bass concertinas :).

 

My own thought is very simple. I am willing to give most acoustic instruments a chance to earn their place in the Tradition. A well played bass would be more welcomed by me than some guitarists I know who don't seem to listen to either the other guitars or the melody!

 

Among acoustic instruments, I would be a little skeptical about brass instruments, but mainly because I think (though don't know) that they might be too loud to blend well.

 

As a general rule, unless it is a mic'd session, any amplifiers should stay home and any instruments that can't make music without electricity just would be too big of a clash to fit in at a Trad session.

 

In any case, I would love to see someone play a Cello fiddle style :)

 

--

Bill

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Among acoustic instruments, I would be a little skeptical about brass instruments, but mainly because I think (though don't know) that they might be too loud to blend well.

 

--

Bill

Bill,

Try listening to Brass Monkey or Bellowhead

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Among acoustic instruments, I would be a little skeptical about brass instruments, but mainly because I think (though don't know) that they might be too loud to blend well.

 

--

Bill

Bill,

Try listening to Brass Monkey or Bellowhead

 

Paul, it would have to be in an unamplified setting. I know that some brass got used in Ceili bands. I just think in a generic local pub setting that brass instruments would be a bit on the loud side. After all, there is a reason brass and drums tend to be the dominating instruments in marching bands :).

 

--

Bill

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In any case, I would love to see someone play a Cello fiddle style :)

 

--

Bill

 

Billy Harrison has now sadly died, and he did it, but in the English (well, Yorkshire) style.

 

Review of a Musical Traditions tape (now available on CD for a tenner, I think): -

 

http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/harrison.htm

 

I assumed that when bill_mchale said "play a Cello fiddle style", he meant "tucked under the chin"... ;)

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