Saturday, March 16, 2013

St. Patrick's Day

Since St. Patrick's Day this year falls on a Sunday in Lent, we'll celebrate a day early. This year's topic is lilting.

Lilting is a way of singing dance tunes. Because dance tunes move so quickly, a lilter sings nonsense syllables, such as "diddle-dum," to keep the rhythm. Lilting had a couple functions. Often musicians used it as a way to learn tunes; when they were busy working they could lilt the tunes to themselves. In poor rural areas, though, where it was sometimes hard to come by the money for musical instruments or by skilled musicians, the only way to provide music for a dance was to lilt the tunes. And to overcome the noise of couples dancing on a hard floor, multiple lilters would sing together. The video below gives you an idea of how that sounds.


 Sometimes lilting is used as the refrain of a song, usually to add a humorous element. For instance, in the song that follows, Kevin Burke of the Bothy Band uses lilting to imitate the tune that was played by the piper who is the subject of his story.


Lilting has some close relatives in Scotland. In the Hebrides, speakers of Scots Gaelic have what they call puirt a beul, or "mouth music." These are also dance tunes, but instead of nonsense syllables, the singers use very simple words. The lyrics are very simple and often rather incoherent; of course, their function is generally just to keep a beat. Here is an example from Karen Matheson of the group Capercaillie:

Finally, the Scots Gaelic tradition also has a number of waulking songs, which set the rhythm for beating tweed to soften it. The final song is called Dheanainn Súgradh, as performed by Clannad (the relatives of Enya), in the original guise is an electric folk band (you have to wait for the solos on electric guitar and jazz flute), before they helped invent New Age.

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