Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cultural Eclecticism & Irish Music (Part 2)

Continued from yesterday...

One of the few factors in national life working in favor of traditional music in the late 19th century was the rise of the Irish nationalist movement. In order to foster traditional culture, many nationalist organizations organized musical competitions. One effect of these competitions, though, was to encourage an interest in virtuoso performances of traditional music that could be recognized at a country-wide level—an idea almost completely foreign to the humble village life, where all that was required was someone who could play enough tunes to keep the dance going into the night. If he could play well, that was simply an added bonus. While the nationalist organizations undoubtedly did much to keep traditional music alive, they were not able to keep it alive in the context of village life, from which the music derived most of its vitality. Ultimately, the nationalist interest in music must be seen as a sign of the decline of traditional culture.

By the 1950’s traditional music was nearly dead in Ireland. It took the success of the Clancy Brothers in America to revive some interest in ballad-singing in Ireland. To a large extent, their success was due to the nostalgia of Irish-Americans for a culture they had never really experienced. Their choice of less traditional material sung in English, along with their use of guitars—and their touring with Pete Seeger—also meshed nicely with the folk revival in America, and made them into a commercial success. This spurred a new generation in Ireland to find ways to modernize their own traditional music.

Perhaps the first “modern-traditional” Irish band to arise was Planxty, which released its debut album in 1972. Planxty also featured many of the same ballads that the Clancy Brothers had popularized before them, but with the addition of piper Liam O’Flynn, they also exposed a wider audience to the older dance tunes that were being lost. Then, in 1975, the Bothy Band released its first album. Though they only stayed together for four years, this sextet occupies a special place in the history of Irish music because of their unabashed embrace of the older dance tunes and the Irish language. Their front-line combination of flute, fiddle, and pipes could play both at ferocious speeds and with great delicacy. At the same time, the sibling duo of Micheal O’Domhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill were unafraid to sing in Irish. What made the band truly modern, though, was their rock ’n’ roll style of accompaniment, combining a strong rhythm guitar, an aggressive bouzouki, and booming bass lines on an electric clavichord. They introduced traditional music to a whole new audience. Thanks to them, it was no longer something for Irish-speaking peasants in the countryside; it was for an urban, non-dancing youth generation. Indeed, with all the musicians’ long hair and hard drinking, traditional music had now become a legitimate form of rebellion for the younger generation.

But what connection did all this have to traditional music as played in the early 1800s? It was still the same music, but the ethos was more eclectic, commercial, and youth-oriented. It often was played at such great speed that it was nearly impossible to dance to. It is an interesting comment on modern Irish culture that when the Bothy Band’s star fiddler, Kevin Burke (born and raised in London by parents from Sligo, incidentally), in the liner notes of his first solo album in 1978, tried to explain his music to Irish youth, he did so by comparing the spirit of his playing to that of “old Negro bluesmen”: Enjoyment and an appreciation of life—whether in the form of joy or sorrow—were his primary goals, not profit. While these are certainly worthy sentiments, what is telling is that his cultural references—and those of the young audience he was attempting to reach—were informed more by a heavily romanticized view of American blues and rock ‘n’ roll than by a deep knowledge of Irish life before the Potato Famine. The Romanticism of Burke’s comments signals that there has been a clear break in cultural continuity. Ireland had entered the modern world.

The history of Irish music over the last two centuries is a good illustration of the growth of an eclectic culture out of the elements of a once integral culture. The economic pressures of the Famine and the self-doubt that came with modernization mostly did away with village life and the old peasant culture. Music lost the connections to the rest of the culture which had given it meaning originally. As a consequence, most Irish gave up interest in their traditional music. Ultimately, though, the music did survive into the 21st century—and even survived Riverdance—but to do so it had to move to the city and assume a modern, rebellious tone. At this point in time, most yearning for the return of the integral culture is bound to appear as just more Romantic nostalgia. The old Ireland is dead. But, perhaps the traditional music can become part of a new integral Irish culture. Time will tell.
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