The Fallacies of “Celtic Music”

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Published by Michael Newton

Michael Newton was awarded a B.A. in Computer Science from the University of California (San Diego) in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1998. He is a leading authority on the literature and cultural legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in America. He has written several books and numerous articles on many aspects of Highland tradition and history, and has given lectures at venues such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Slighe nan Gaidheal in Seattle, and the Toronto Scottish Gaelic Learners' Association. He has also been creating digital content since the early 1980s in the form of computer games (having been on the FTL Games team that produced Dungeon Master in 1987), hypermedia (creating the Celtic History Museum in HyperCard in 1991), and on-line digital collaboratories (creating Finding the Celtic in 2008).

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Michael,
    I do feel that you article is written very much from an American viewpoint – I don’t think that in Britain some of the statements regarding the generic grouping of “Celtic” music as you describe them are still valid.

    That apart do you have any views on the fact that there are no jigs ( ie melodies in 6/8 rhythm ) amongst the music of the Appalachian mountains – its all 4/4, 2/4 or 3/4. I find it odd that the early settlers would entirely abandon part of their musical traditions, having moved to another country – if anything you would expect them to be reinforced?

    I have heard two possible explanations….
    1 That the nature of the Banjo – and it’s African roots – (which instrument strongly influences their traditions ) restricts music to 4/4 – a kind of an unlikely self fulfilling prophesy In my view – “I have only ever played pieces in 4/4, therefore I couldn’t possibly play in 6/8”.
    2 From a friend of mine, Richard Henderson – The Appalachian mountains were settled by ‘Scots Irish’ – Lowland Scots first driven out of their homelands to Ireland – then driven out of Ulster to America – but significantly the Lowland Scots had few , if any jigs in their repertoire when they originally left the Scottish Lowlands. – so no loss to be accounted for once they got to Appalachia. Not sure if there is any hard evidence to back this up, but sounds more feasible than 1 ? – perhaps you could research this as well?

    What do you think?

    Tim

    1. This is a fair enough caveat, Tim. Yes, the perception and formulation of ‘Celticness’, inclusive of Celtic music, is different here in North America than it is in the British Isles. It does tend to be more specific to nations — Irish music, Welsh music, etc. — than the broader, woolier term in North America. Still, the blanket term has plenty of currency in UK and Ireland: consider the mammoth Celtic Connections concert series in Glasgow or the Festival Interceltique Lorient, for example. Or the fact that most of the early popular musicians were from the UK, like Clannad, Enya, Bothy Band, Silly Wizard, etc. Is the dog wagging the tail, or the tail the dog? Some of both, it might be argued.

      However, on to your other question. It’s a bit beyond my area of speciality, but I’ll summarize the framework for an argument based on what I understand, particularly based on an excellent and insightful article: Alan Jabbour, “Fiddle tunes of the old frontier,” in Driving the Bow: Fiddle and Dance Studies from around the North Atlantic, ed. Ian Russell and Mary Anne Alburger, 4-13. (Aberdeen: The Elphinstone Institute, 2008).

      One key issue here is chronology: the social dance music tradition that we now know, inc the jig as an element in Irish tradition and the strathspey in Scottish Gaelic tradition, was in formation during the 18th century — it wasn’t really stable until the second half.

      The bulk of the Scotch-Irish migration was 1717-1775. So, many came before there was a stable social dance music tradition in their region — it was still in formation, and it spread and formed simultaneously in Western Europe and in N American colonies, and took slightly different forms in each place.

      It is strange to me as well that the English cultural aspects of N America are so largely ignored. They formed major sections of the colonial population in most areas. For an excellent (if wordy) resource on English social dance music (i.e., fiddle) tradition, see: http://www.village-music-project.org.uk

      So, my general observation is that there was no fixed, stable musical identity for folks to bring with them before the period of independence — it was still in formation, and formed independently in N America, where, for various reasons (and African-American influence certainly should not be under-estimated), there were different musical emphases or interests.

      On a parallel note, I’ve seen references to African-American musicians playing strathspeys in the 19th century, but these tunes did not survive in that format either — they probably just got flattened out as reels, because the underlying rhythmical structures did not make as much since in an anglophone dominant context.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Thanks for this very enlightening post, Michael. To Tim Brooks’s point above, I wonder if the modern “Celtic” genre is more prevalent globally or perhaps in the western hemisphere than within the British Isles. There, I think one is more likely to hear “Celtic music” described as “Scottish” or “Irish” or perhaps “traditional” music–equally problematic as you state. At least in terms of Celtic-language music, the Welsh music scene is probably the most productive, and notably features very little in this particular “Celtic” idiom. Even traditional Welsh music is markedly different. If you tune in to Radio Cymru you’ll hear an eclectic variety of styles accompanied by Welsh-language lyrics, from acoustic folk to country to slickly-produced pop and even rap. Of course, none of this would be considered “Celtic” by the music industry.

    1. Thanks, Robert. As a Scottish Gaelic speaker, I am very envious of the diversity of musical genres in Welsh. I love the old songs in Gaelic, but we’re not living in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, and it is surely a sign of weakness that so little experimentation has happened in Scottish Gaelic in the last couple of generations (especially in N American Gaelic communities). If Gaels in the past exercised the freedom to experiment and hybridize with their music and poetry, why shouldn’t the current generation?

      1. The other side of the coin is that as Welsh-language groups become successful, they often incorporate more bilingual or English-language material into their repertoire in order to appeal to a wider audience.

  3. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Origins-Scottish-Place-names-William-Oxenham/dp/0863819575/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379336925&sr=8-1&keywords=Welsh+Origins+of+Scottish+Place-names+Oxenham

    This title is non-academic and though criticised by some reviewers, they did not disagree with it’s main thrust. The book draws attention to the language spoken by the lowland Scots in the period before the Gaelic and English incursions and for some time subsequently. The place name origins predate both and are basically Old Welsh. This should add to the ‘Celtic’ confusion for some but may be enlightening to others.

    1. As I pointed out in my blog post, peoples speaking Celtic languages occupied many parts of Europe, inc the British Isles, but linguistic shift changed the cultural map (or was associated with population and cultural shifts). This is well illustrated by the Lowlands of Scotland. Once they changed from speaking Celtic languages to forms of English, there were other changes that happened, like the literary and musical traditions they practiced. Again, you have to know the Gaelic language and song tradition to appreciate how different these are from their Lowland counterparts. The fact of previously having spoken forms of Celtic is irrelevant to the musical traditions in these areas in the modern period.

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