Or , “Is there such a thing as ‘Celtic Music’?”
Back in the old days, before the internet, there were these great places called “music shops.” You could wander around the aisles, exploring all kinds of musicians and their works, and discover things you hadn’t anticipated. But even then, the music business and music shop owners had to categorize music into genres so that they could place the albums into physical spaces, often called “bins.”
I chanced upon “Celtic music” in the early 1980s, along with a lot of other people. It’s one of the things that motivated me to engage in Celtic Studies and learn the Scottish Gaelic language. It’s only after getting into the historical and linguistic details of the poetic-musical heritage of a specific group – Scottish Gaels – that the problems with the term and surrounding industry became clear to me. It is a multibillion dollar business that does not invite scrutiny or critical analysis, only the warm and fuzzy (or “mystical and haunting” or “merry and gay” – take your pick of clichés) reception of a paying audience.
But, given that this is a big industry that exists by repackaging the assets of generations of collective genius, or creating new products claiming to represent the artistic legacy of a native community, it is surprising that it has received so little critical analysis, not least from the cultural critics of academia. As Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin has recently noted, it is ironic that a continent that boasts so many people of Celtic ancestry, who often claim to be proud of that ancestry, should invest so little in understanding this accessible aspect of their inheritance, despite the intensive exploitation of it in popular media:
Despite this ubiquitous profile, the academic role of Celtic music in the New World still remains dubious and selective. While independent schools and institutions from Cape Breton and California undertake exemplary work teaching and preserving Celtic music, it is untenable that this soundscape receives so little attention from the upper echelons of Celtic scholarship in North America. […] In the quest to educate the Celts of North America, it is clear that the “score” between Harvard and Hollywood is a very uneven one indeed. (2013: 204).
This blog will do very little to improve that score, and indeed, I can hardly expect most people to want to scrutinize the historical origins and cultural context of music which they appreciate only as an aesthetic experience. Still, I find it very problematic that many musicians who make a living by gleaning this communal asset and professing themselves as a link in the chain of tradition should care so little about understanding where it comes from, who developed it, how and why, or what impact their careers may have on the communities from whom their living is derived (see my previous blog entry on cultural appropriation).
I was very honoured last summer (2012), then, when the annual Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival invited me (through the good graces of Mary Jane Lamond) to speak about the concept of Celtic music for a day conference that preceded their folk-music festival, and this blog is a summary of the talk I presented there.
These issues are not specific to Celtic peoples, but are representative of conflicts around the world wherever local and indigenous musical traditions encounter the global music industry. Once you’re conscious of the issue, you can see it all over the place, from Nunavut to Nepal.
The problem with “Celtic music” begins with the term “Celtic” itself: What does it mean, and to whom? The field of Celtic Studies itself went through an intense period of debate about and reflection on this issue beginning in the 1990s and it is much more mature because of the challenge, although the results have made very little impact on popular culture.
“Celtic” means practically anything in popular discourse, and a term that can mean anything means nothing. If it is to have any substance at all, “Celtic” needs to refer to languages derived (in various ways) from a Common Celtic ancestor, the communities that spoke these languages, and the cultural expressions of these communities. It cannot, therefore, refer to geography or genetic makeup given that Celtic languages spread over diverse populations, Celtic-speaking people migrated, and a change of language brings a change of culture. So, in musical terms for the modern period, this means the music of the parts of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Man, Scotland and Wales that speak Celtic languages.
I find it very problematic that the lack of critical thinking about the meaning of “Celtic” and “Celtic music” in North America has enabled all kinds of misrepresentation and marginalization to happen, as well as unjustifiable leaps of logic. For example, because many people have misinterpreted “Celtic music” to mean the music of rural people from the British Isles, wonderful music that rightfully belongs to the anglophone world – like the Child Ballads (such as “Barbara Allen” or “The Two Sisters”) – gets mislabelled as “Celtic.” Then, to further confuse the matter, because people who should know better call such material “Celtic,” they then derive things like Country-Western Music and Cowboy Ballads from Celts. Doing this not only unfairly conceals the legitimate and important legacy of English folk-music in North America, it leaves unexamined the most indigenous strands of Celtic musics that are the least familiar to anglophones.
In my estimation, there are four main problems with the idea of “Celtic music” as popularly portrayed in mainstream anglophone culture:
- “Celtic” is an artificial super-category that obscures internal divisions and distinctions that should be primary markers of identification (i.e., Irish, Welsh, Breton, etc), as well as the strands of tradition within a branch.
- Expectations about what should be considered “Celtic” are based on externally derived perceptions and stereotypes (primarily from the anglophone world), rather than on the norms and aesthetics internal to the cultures themselves.
- Music produced under the “Celtic” genre meant to have widespread appeal must conform to a very different aesthetic system than that of its native origin; it must almost inevitably be hybridized and transformed to be delivered to a “mainstream” (non-local) audience.
- Much of the music placed in the “Celtic” genre is not derived wholly from Celtic-speaking communities, but results from engagement with Western European music in general.
Let me expound a little on these points before examining the case of Scottish Gaelic in particular.
I’m My Own Person
The stereotype would have us believe that Celtic music (and any other cultural form) would be ancient and virtually unchanging, but this is not the case. Each of the different regions developed independently, and this is reflected in their languages as well as cultural expressions. Even the three branches with the greatest portion common history – Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic – are very distinct in their musical aspects. This is even more the case when looking at the distinctions with Breton, Cornish and Welsh.
Not only does the term “Celtic” hide the developments and distinctions that have evolved over many centuries of separate evolution between these primary branches, but even within these primary branches there are regional differences. There are important dialectal differences between the Gaelic of Perthshire and South Uist, for example, and this would have been the case for the variations of melodies and songs sung in these areas as well.
The final aspect of this point is that even within a major branch – such as Irish or Welsh – musical tradition is not a single thing but consists of many different strands, each with its own origin, function, social associations, trajectories of development, etc.
How Did He Get In Here?
Because of the deeply-entrenched stereotypes about Celts, lots of things get included in the virtual “Celtic bin” that don’t relate to or derive from Celtic-speaking communities at all. I’ve already mentioned the mislabelling of rural parts of the anglophone British Isles as “Celtic,” which results in placing people who would never call themselves or their music “Celtic” into a category created for a global audience.
The fallacy of labelling all of Scotland Celtic, for example, results in categorizing the people of the Scottish Lowlands, who speak a language derived largely from Middle English (which came to be called “Scots” in the 15th century), Celtic, despite the fact that they have long disavowed any connection with Celtic peoples (to simplify a complex issue). They now find themselves performing music at Celtic Festivals and Highland Games that real Celts would have found (and still find) foreign. What irony. This also results in music like that of Robert Burns as being labelled as “Celtic” whereas it would be more sensibly labelled a manifestation of anglophone tradition (it’s certainly unlike the song traditions in Scottish Gaelic).
There is another mutant of “Celtic music” created by the industry, of course, the modern New Age variety which is not rooted in any living community but that of an idealized wonderland, based entirely upon the Celticism of the Romantic period. Some of its leading proponents at the moment are Loreena McKennitt and Enya (or maybe my mental list is already outdated). While this music may be pleasant (I enjoy some of it myself), it has little or nothing to do with real Celtic-speaking communities but simply plays with the stereotypes of the popular anglophone imaginary world.
I Did It Your Way
Different cultures have different musical aesthetics: concepts and judgments about what makes music and a musical performance good, bad, pleasing, etc. The aesthetic systems of music performed by members of indigenous cultures (and in such cultures, it is a common expectation for all people to participate in some way) can be quite different from that of the global marketplace, where only professionally-trained musicians in expensive studios with bands produce highly polished products.
It is quite difficult to make a living as a musician, and I sympathize with the complexity of the negotiation between adherence to tradition and making a product that enough people will want to buy to allow one to survive. However, changing the aesthetics and basic qualities of a musical tradition to meet the expectations of an external audience, who may not understand or appreciate why the music has evolved in a certain way, can undermine a community’s own perceptions of its tradition and its inherent worth. And that undermines the very asset that defines the tradition and its communal nature.
Local or European?
Despite the stereotypes of Celts living in remote and isolated places, far from the developments of the rest of Europe, they have been engaged with the rest of Western Europe. Celtic communities have encountered new musical trends emanating from the rest of world, and in the past communities and the native intelligentsia had great freedom in negotiating how they would respond to external innovations: rejecting, adapting or hybridizing them on their own terms. (I’ll show a few examples below.)
Because Celtic communities did absorb aspects of the musical trends of Western Art Music in the early modern period (and develop them according to local conditions), this means that there is a particular strand in the musical traditions of Celtic communities which creates common musical ground with other European cultures: especially that of social dance music in the form of reels and jigs (and the harp music of O’Carolan). However, this is the most recent and least indigenous of musical strands, and if this is the strand that gets all of the attention from a global market because it is the least alienating to a non-Celtic audience, it creates a false sense of familiarity and ignores the least “modern” and most native strands.
Scottish Gaelic Song Traditions
I’ll illustrate some of these issues by examining what I feel have been many of the most dominant strands of Scottish Gaelic song tradition in the chronological order of their likely development (a topic which is covered in greater detail in my book Warriors of the Word). This list is not even exhaustive: I’ve not discussed religious hymns, pipe songs, or several other prominent forms, demonstrating the diversity within a single tradition.
Let me make a few preliminary observations before getting into the details. First, the music-poetic tradition in Scottish Gaelic has been strongly shaped by the needs and patronage of the native Gaelic élite over many centuries, and filtered down to level of the peasantry as a pervasive influence. Second, even to the present, the primary role of song in Gaelic musical tradition is to communicate and the words take highest priority (over the musical aspect). Third, the linguistic characteristics of Scottish Gaelic (strong initial stress, vowel length, epenthetic vowels, etc – features which are quite different from most varieties of Irish) have had a strong influence on the characteristics of the music.
There are a variety of manual tasks that are normally performed to song accompaniment, such as milking cattle, rowing boats, grinding grain, fulling cloth, and so on. These songs were particularly useful for keeping labour synchronized when it was done in groups, but they were also done because of the enjoyment of singing and participation in song.
There is no way to document the lineage of these song types (and there may be more than one distinct origin), but they are probably as old as the tasks themselves: perhaps two thousand years if not more. This is arguably the oldest and most indigenous strand of the Gaelic music-song tradition, but because these related to the activities of the peasantry they are not well documented. There are probably fragments of the song texts that appear in written sources by about the 8th century, but the musical aspects are completely obscure until about the 18th century – about the time when composers stopped creating new songs in this genre (only a few seem to be composed in the 19th century).
Gaelic work songs are often structured as group choruses which are interspersed with solo stanzas (the exact form of the metre is highly variable, according to rules which were never documented and which we no longer have access to). There are resemblances to other early Celtic song forms, which also hints at their antiquity, and no other Celtic branch has preserved so much of this strata as Scottish Gaelic. These songs reflect personal concerns and issues of the peasantry although they often discuss relations with the aristocracy.
In this song genre, rhythm takes precedent over natural spoken word stress patterns, given that this is the function of this song type: to accompany work that happens with a regular beat. Here’s a nice example of a work song of this type, done to “full” (or “mill”) cloth. The strong rhythmic allows for it to be easily adapted into the modern Celtic marketplace – even Enya has done so.
Strophic Metre (i.e., Iorram)
By the 17th century we have examples of a primarily oral form of Scottish Gaelic song-poetry composed by poets who don’t necessarily have formal education or professional positions but who are concerned with politics and clan affairs. The structure of this song type is that each stanza consists of at least 2 lines with 2 stresses each (linked by end-rhyme), concluded with by a longer line with 3 stresses; the final 3rd stress of each stanza connects with rhyme. Although it has a fairly regular stress pattern, it would not always follow as regular a musical beat as modern pop music would expect.
In the past the metre of this song-type has been called “strophic” in English, but I follow the hypothesis of William Matheson and Roibeart Ó Maolalaigh that this is a very old song metre called iorram that survived in Scotland but was marginalized by the poetic “trade union” in Ireland during the medieval period. (Here’s an example from the audio archives of the School of Scottish Studies of a song from 1705 in this metre.)
Stylistically, it conveys a set of image-oriented punches but is not suitable for narrative or expository purposes. It was not used to convey emotional or personal issues but rather social and political concerns, and the praise of ruler and clan. Social factors rendered this song-type virtually obsolete by mid-1800s and it is not easily “modernized” into a consumable commodity for the global music market.
Syllabic Verse (Dàn)
The current scholarly consensus is that the song-poetry form known in Gaelic as dàn (or dán in its Classical Gaelic and Irish form) was developed by the late 6th century by Christian monks who were cross-fertilizing Gaelic poetry with Latin poetry. Iona – now considered part of Scotland – was one of the places where such literary experimentation was happening.
The medieval Gaelic literary order was extremely meticulous and well regulated: during their education poets would be trained to learn the specifications of hundreds of specific metres of the dán form (classified by the number of syllables in a line, patterns of alliteration, types of rhyme, etc.), with each grade of poet being assigned increasingly complex and demanding metres. This education was expensive, and so it was inherently tied up with the interests and concerns of the nobility, who were the patrons of the system (by the 13th century, anyway).
Since the professional literary order was killed by British imperialism – in the 17th century in Ireland, and by the mid-18th century in Scotland – we can only make educated guesses about how it was performed, especially in its musical aspect (here’s a recent reconstruction of a medieval Gaelic song-poem to a harp). Our guesses are at least informed by elements that survived amongst the peasantry, especially Heroic Ballads (mostly Fenian/Ossianic Ballads) and religious hymns made in the same form. It’s interesting to note that only two of these items survived in Ireland, whereas about eight have been recorded in Gaelic Scotland and a further item from Nova Scotia (MacInnes 2006: 184-21).
The performance of the dán form is regulated by speech-rhythms and not governed by a regular stress; its long lines and speech-like format make it ideal for narrative and expository purposes. It enjoys a high-social register associations, and was seldom used to express personal or emotional issues but was rather used for elevated purposes. It was the only verse form that we know was performed with instrumental accompaniment: the clàrsach (Gaelic harp).
The characteristics of dán make it difficult to turn into audio commodities for the modern global market-place. It basically fell out of common circulation by the early 20th century, although a few well-educated Gaelic singers have recently recorded very palatable arrangements of these materials for commercial recordings.
Amhran / Òran (Minstrelry)
This song form probably dates from the 13th century, when the Gaels encountered the European minstrel tradition, especially in the context of Anglo-French contacts of various forms (especially colonization and occupation). Thus, this too is a hybridized song-poem form that represents the accommodation of new ideas into Gaelic literary/musical tradition.
This metre is characterized by long lines with regular stress and rhymes on accented vowels; it is sung to symmetrical melodic structures (e.g., ABBA). Thus, it represents a Gaelic response to a Europe-wide medieval musical fashion. Songs of this form followed the minstrel precedent of being primarily about love, although it was later adapted for other purposes (like politics), given that the long metrical lines allow for narrative and expository purposes. (Here’s a classic example, a song of unrequited love.)
This metre would have been shunned by the learned, professional poetic order. It certainly came to the fore in their collapse, however, and many powerful songs – usually in vernacular forms of the language – were composed in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland in metres of this form.
Port-á-Beul (Mouth Music)
A musical revolution swept through Western Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries, when portable fiddles enabled a “democratization” of musical expression coupled with physical movement: social dance. With the native Gaelic aristocracy – the patrons of the old Gaelic musical and poetic order – gone, these new fashions had little competition, especially amongst the peasantry who embraced them.
This is the era when modern dance forms and their accompanying and corresponding social dance music forms emerge over a wide area of Western Europe. Local communities adapted their own forms of these fashions, and the Scottish Gaelic world (no longer closely coupled with its Irish counterpart) responded by adapting these forms into rhythms and structures compatible with the linguistic features of Gaelic. This is when the reel is adopted into Gaelic tradition, and a new form – the strathspey (reel) – emerges. The musical structure of puirt in Gaelic regions is like that of other regions: AABB. Here’s a catchy set performed by Julie Fowlis and her band.
The musical forms were echoed by a new Gaelic song form: port-á-beul. This literally means “tunes from a mouth” and is sharply distinguished from song-poetry proper, being of low social register and little poetic weight (Sparling 2000). However, they are rhythmically and melodically interesting and catchy to a modern European ear, which is what has made them popular items in the repertoire of popular Gaelic bands.
The Scottish Gaelic musical tradition (especially in terms of song) is not a single thing but a number of distinct but interlocking strands with specific origins, functions, social associations and trajectories of development. These are reflections of the historical experience and cultural context of Scottish Gaelic communities and do not automatically qualify them for kinship with other Celtic groups.
Songs forms that are more musical and less textually oriented are more easily appreciated by non-Gaelic-speaking audience, but these are for the most part the low-register materials from the folk, not the élite, strata of tradition. The most popular “Celtic” music in the global marketplace is that of social dance music, typically played on the fiddle, but also adapted for voice, bagpipes, piano, guitar, etc. This is really a hybrid musical form, pan-European in origin and not very old (late 17th century at the earliest, but mostly late 18th or 19th century); little or no specific “knowledge” of Gaelic musical tradition or language is in it or needed by an audience to appreciate it. This, in turn, means that the range of the Gaelic repertoire least known to an outside audience is the most indigenous and distinctive, and the most tied to communicating cultural knowledge.
Communal Tradition vs Global Marketplace
There is an underlying conflict between the meaning and reproduction of tradition within a local community, and the demands of the global marketplace, which I’ve summarized in the chart below.
Cultural production becomes problematic when communal assets are no longer produced, judged, appreciated and supported by the members of a community but are commodities for an external audience. This raises a number of important issues: Who should be the arbiter of the aesthetics of that community? On what basis should old characteristics be dropped or changed, and new ones adopted?
I’m not advocating that Gaelic music tradition (or that of any people) should be fossilized and static; the historical summary above demonstrates very clearly that Gaels encountered musical innovations in the past and negotiated adaptation on their own terms. Such negotiation is very difficult to do when a culture has an inferiority complex or no longer understands the historical development and internal logic of its own musical systems well enough to renew it when confronted by a culture that claims superiority.
“Celtic music” is simply the music produced by people who speak a Celtic language, and some groups have experimented with modern European forms like rock, jazz, and punk. Communities have to be able to express themselves in order to make sense of their own experiences, celebrate their successes and mourn their losses. For that process to be powerful and meaningful enough to capture the totality of real, lived experiences, musicians need to be able to draw on everything that is available to themselves and their audiences that connects them to their humanity and identity, and negotiate the process of production and meaning on their own terms and in their own languages – whether or not it can appeal to an outside audience and earn them big bucks.
Malcolm Chapman. “Thoughts on Celtic Music.” In Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, edited by Martin Stokes, 29-44. Berg: Oxford/New York, 1994.
John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.
Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Birlinn, 2009.
Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin. “The Stranger’s Land: Historical Traditions and Postmodern Temptations in the Celtic Soundscapes of North America.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 187-208. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.
Scott Reiss. “Tradition and Imaginary: Irish Traditional Music and the Celtic Phenomenon.” In Celticisms: from Center to Fringe, edited by Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, 145-69. Scarecrow Press, 2003.