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IRISH & IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE 20th/21st CENTURIES
INTRODUCTIONTwo developments in the early twentieth century had a radical effect on traditional Irish music. One was the rise of recording technology and the commodification of Irish music and, eventually, dance. Recordings made in the early twentieth century by Irish emigrants circulated by the thousands throughout the U.S. and Ireland. Radio broadcast made the music available to thousands more. Dance music became listening music, and the amateur music making in private settings in Ireland declined, especially as the artists who recorded set an impossibly high standard for most traditional instrumentalists. Regional playing styles also declined, as the most famous of the recordings established the County Sligo regional playing style as a standard.
An equally momentous event was the development of ensemble playing of traditional music. Prior to 1900 tunes were played by solo instrumentalists, perhaps with the accompaniment of a tambourine; in the late nineteenth century, a piano might provide background harmonic accompaniment. Throughout the early 20th century (in addition to solo playing), duets, trios, and larger bands played tunes in unison, with a vamping piano.
IRISH MUSIC THRU 1960Ireland achieved independence in 1922, just as jazz was becoming the most popular music in the U.S. and spreading internationally. Ireland's newly empowered Catholic church, backed by a conservative government, condemned jazz and "jazz dancing." By 1937 all dancing was effectively banned except in approved venues, with ticket revenue and taxes going to the Church and Government. The dances were those céilí set dances approved by the Gaelic League. With house dances no longer legal, dances moved to larger venues such as local parish halls and village halls where the activities were supervised by the local parish priest.
In order to make the music loud to fill these larger spaces, céilí bands formed, comprised of an assortment of traditional unamplified instruments including fiddle, whistle, flute, and accordion, with the addition of piano and drums to emphasize rhythm.
During the 1950s and 1960s approximately half of the population of Ireland was under 25. In Ireland showbands — singers backed by electric guitars, electric bass, drum set, and often saxophone — performed at dances and toured locally playing American and English pop dance music.
IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC THRU 1960: MARKETING AMERICAN "IRISHNESS"By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish-Americans were woven into the fabric of mainstream American life. The Irish community had its internationally known heroes — the undefeated boxer John Sullivan, the billionaire miner John MacKay.
In the early twentieth century recordings by Irish immigrants Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran (fiddlers) and flutist John McKenna set new standards for Irish dance music with their brilliant playing. Michael Coleman's recordings created an enduring template for traditional music — three tunes played three times each, with changes of key between major and its relative minor and other closely related keys a feature. [Vallely The recording industry was a boon for many Irish emigrant performers, some of whom became prominent businessmen and socially celebrated figures.
In the field of music and dance, the self-made patriotic Irish-American is best illustrated by the career and songs of George M. Cohan. Though he started out as a poor Irish-American kid from Providence, when he died in 1942 the New York Times praised him as "the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced – as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer." In Cohan's hands, "music hall severed its links with immigrant culture and became American." [Vallely]
Cohan's first full-length production, Little Johnny Jones (1904), is often credited as the first American Musical. This hit show is emblematic of the new status of Irish in the United States — successful, patriotic, and assimilated. Johnny Jones, an Irish-American jockey, travels with friends to Ireland to enter a race. In a plot twist his friends must return to New York before him. As they leave he sings "Give my regards to Broadway / Remember me to Harold Square." His heart "yearns for the old time throng" but the old time throng is now in Manhattan, not in Dublin.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Tin Pan Alley songwriters who were not Irish and knew little or nothing of traditional Irish music cranked out thousands of upbeat and sentimental songs that became accepted by the public as authentic examples of mainstream Irish America. Throughout the decades of the 1930s - 1950s American perceptions of Ireland and the Irish were molded by characterizations and stereotypes manufactured by Hollywood. Irish-American actors dominated much of what American and Irish moviegoers saw on the screen. Earlier stereotypes of Irish as shiftless, brutal, and illiterate were replaced by those of the priest, the good cop, and the happy-go-lucky tippler. Hollywood movies popularized as a secular celebration that could be shared by all Americans. In Ireland St. Patrick's Day is a religious holiday. Until the late 1990s, when the American-style celebration was adopted as a tourist attraction, there were no parades, festivals, or drinking bouts on March 17 in Irish cities. The creation of a special day when anyone of any ethnicity can don a "Kiss Me I'm Irish" tee shirt is an American invention.
John Ford's 1952 movie The Quiet Man portrays Ireland as an Edenic neverneverland of emerald landscapes, picturesque cottages and wizened peasants. In Disney Studio's 1959 Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Ireland is a land of leprechauns, pots of gold, and magic fiddles. Irish songs like "Danny Boy" became so well-known and well-liked that they could be covered by Jackie Wilson, a black R&B singer, on American television in the mid-twentieth century.
IRISH & IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC AFTER 1960
By the 1970s, Ireland had undergone a rapid series of pivotal changes. The self-conscious nativism of the 1940s had given way to an emergent pluralism, urbanisation and instrialisation. Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community was followed by a welcome boost in regional development, improved educational standards and new levels of Irish tourism. By then, the youth of the nation was also being absorbed into the mainstream of American popular culture.
As musicians pondered their new-found notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s, it became self-evident that Irish traditional music had finally migrated beyond its old communal settings and entered the realm of popular culture.
Tape recorders now augmented the oral process, and mass commercial recordings of Irish traditional music became more commonplace. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the commercial life of traditional music became intense and competitive. As new concepts of cultural economics and heritage tourism began to emerge, traditional musicians, singers and dancers became marketing icons for the Irish tourist industry.
The past twenty-five years witnessed a succession of new musical liaisons, within which traditional music gelled with rock music, contemporary folk, as well as American and Eastern European folk musics.
Throughout the 1990s, there has been much debate about continuity and change, purism and innovation in Irish traditional music. The subject of conferences and various media exchanges, this debate has been fueled mainly by the growing commercialization of Irish traditional music, which as marginalized local as well as older performers and styles in Ireland and North America.
In the transition from the traditional to the professional domain, younger players were quick to endorse the festival circuit and the career of the celebrity, while any older players were deeply disturbed by the fact that multimedia entrepreneurs were packaging Irish traditional music for mammoth television audiences -- with little regard for the legitimate integrity of the tradition. Many traditional singers resented the fact that popular music celebrities, with no competency in the Irish language, could record hit songs in Irish, which they learnt phonetically. Others were concerned that performers and companies with no previous connections with Irish music were rapidly producing 'Celtic' albums and videos to capitalize on the global market created by Riverdance, and forging commercial links with African, Cajun and other World Music genres which had no basis in music history.
Throughout the 1990s, purists questioned the motives of drinks companies which issued lists of 'official pub sessions' to tourists arriving in Ireland. Their peers in the United States disputed the fact that the term 'fleadh' (which had been associated with communal festivals since the 1950s) was now being used as a marketing vehicle encompassing all types of professional entertainment. Conversely, innovators and adminstrators within the traditional domain regarded corporate sponsorship as a necessary prerequisite to stage national festivals which helped safeguard the future of the living tradition.
[Ó hAllmhuráin, Gearóid, O'Brien's Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music]
FOLK MUSIC REVIVALS AND THE BIRTH OF SESSIONS
ROCK AND ROCK FUSIONS
IRISH & IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE LATE 20TH CENTURY
IRISH & IRISH-AMERICAN RAP AND HIP HOP
IRISH RAP AND HIP HOPWee Goose jokingly describes "Belfast Mentality" as "everyday life in the city of Belfast as summarized into an educational rap song." The song is a modern ballad told from a first-person point of view. The video treats serious topics — drugs, arrests — with cheeky irreverence and ends with a farcical duel. With its ironic tone and matter-of-fact delivery "Belfast Mentality" might also be considered as an extension of "mock epic" literary works that place anti-heroes into ridiculous or trivial situations, making the epic prosaic. Most critics would probably not place Wee Goose's only published song in the realm of Don Quixote, Tom Jones, or Joyce's Ulysses. But "Belfast Mentality" is a different sort of product than those novels because it a mini-movie that integrates story, conversational rap, musical background, and images.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, "Hip Hop with an Irish Lilt," The New York Times, March 23, 2018.
Ian Maleney "Rusangano Family: Today what makes an Irish person is a mix of a lot of things." The Irish Times, April 2016.
Hare Squead, "Long Way to Go" (2016)
Jon Tanners, "Irish Rappers Hare Squead Want to Rule the Dancefloor" (2016)
Interview with Hare Squead by Harriet Gibsone, The Guardian, September 2017
Ben Haggerty (stage name Macklemore) and Ryan Lewis are a Seattle-based hip hop duo formed in 2008. Together they have won four Grammy Awards, and they made history when their first two singles both made Billboard's Hot 100 Chart.
IRISH-AMERICAN RAP AND HIP HOP
Mackelmore's 2017 song "Irish Celebration" refers to his Irish ancestry. The song came under fire in an article by Michael Hugh Walker in The Economist, entitled "Americans - especially Macklemore - take note: real Irish people aren't impressed by your St. Patrick's Day craic [celebration]."
"How romantic a vision that is – petrol bombs, eh? Nothing like ‘em!" Walker comments sarcastically. The author proceeds to call out the "plastic paddy" on other inaccuracies and perceived insensitivities, and concludes:
Sadly, sometimes the most offensive concept of what Irishness is comes from a plastic paddy whose Irishness is a bizaare caricature. They believe it is a mixture of militant nationalism, a hatred of partition, an idealisation of the IRA and an obsession with alcohol. [According to Macklemore's song] we [Irish] have whiskey in our veins. [Macklemore] fantasises about when the English came, "the coloniser came / They filled up bottles of gasoline, turned 'em into balls of flame / And hurled 'em to protect what's ours / Don't touch these lucky charms."
[Michael Hugh Walker, "Americans - especially Macklemore - take note: real Irish people aren't impressed by your St Patrick's Day craic," The Independent, March 17, 2017.]
Macklemore aside, Irishness is a broad church. No one viewpoint has a monopoly over what Irish nationality is. It's complex and it's multi-layered, and with the greatest respect, the least appropriate people to determine what that is, is a Boston inhabitant who has been living in America his whole life.I love Boston, and I love the adoration which it has for Ireland. But for God’s sake, before you to preach to me about what that is, learn what being Irish can mean.
In a 2011 interview, Macklemore responds to criticism leveled at "Irish Celebration":
Kev Storrs: To put together a song like Irish Celebration you need to know a bit about Irish history. Is that something you grew up with?
Macklemore: Yeah I think that obviously I’m coming from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in America, but with a lineage or heritage derived from here. So when I wrote it I wanted to be careful, and more than anything I wanted to show it from my family’s perspective. Like, I don’t know what it’s like to grow up here so that’s not my place.
Kev Storrs: Often Irish Americans tend to think of Ireland as the place their grandparents left, whereas it’s moved on. I think you managed to avoid some of those cliches..
Macklemore: Yeah. I mean the reaction has been pretty good. Obviously there were people who were like “Fuck this Yank”, but really the song is about celebrating life. It celebrates my ancestry and culture.. and the response it got last night makes it worthwhile. All the negative shit that came out of that song has been surpassed by the positive. Any time you have a song that has any sort of political background there’s always going to be two sides. There’s a couple of bars like “Fuck the London guard”, the anti-British stuff.
Kev Storrs: Funny thing is, most people love that line!
Macklemore: Haha I know right! So like that’s the political side but you know overall I think it’s about celebration and life.
FOLK MUSIC REVIVALS AND THE BIRTH OF SESSIONS
REBIRTH OF TRADITIONAL MUSIC AND BALLADSThe second half of the twentieth century was a period of rebirth and growth for traditional Irish music. Three movements were taking place in the 1950s and early 1960s: the establishment of organizations to support and promote traditional Irish music; the formation of instrumental ensembles; and the influence of folk revivals in the U.S. and Ireland. By the late 1960s the "session" had become an established custom, one that is vital to Irish musical life today.
The Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éirann, meaning Society for the Musicians of Ireland, was formed as a way of popularizing traditional music and encouraging participation in Irish music, dance, and language. The CCÉ was founded in 1951when traditional Irish music was on the verge of extinction. CCÉ has been highly effective in helping to preserve traditional music, and to export it on a worldwide scale. Since its founding CCÉ has grown into the largest body involved in the promotion of Irish traditional music, with more than 350 highly active branches throughout Ireland and abroad.
A new era in traditional Irish music began in the early 1960s when classically trained composer Sean O'Riada took elements of the céilí bands and founded the "folk orchestra" Ceoltóirí Chualann. O'Riada arranged traditional tunes and shaped his arrangements into suites, with solo interludes intervening between tune changes and meter changes. He brought uilliann pipes, previously a solo instrument, into the ensemble and introduced the bodhrán as regular percussion instrument. Members of Ceoltóirí Chualann went on to form The Chieftains, who achieved international prominence in the 1970s. Millions know of traditional music chiefly through the recordings, tours, and videos that the Chieftains undertook over four decades. With overall record sales well into the tens of millions, the Chieftains can truly claim to be the first Irish group to have made Irish music a global cultural phenomenon.
AMERICAN AND IRISH FOLK REVIVALSThe US folk music revival began in the 1960s. Singers/songwriters such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan crafted and sang ballads and protest songs in beatnik joints and coffeehouses in downtown New York. Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and Dylan smoothed out the the raw folkiness of old-time ballad singers, and made them new and appealing to a young generation, as a comparison of these excerpts shows:
Suddenly folk music, mediated by urban singers, was cool for the youth-driven, urban-based, but nature-loving counterculture.
Inspired by the folk music revival in America, a parallel folk music phenomenon swept Ireland and England, and made it cool for young people to enjoy music previously considered reactionary. The new styles of ballad singing became wildly popular. Irish musicians added instruments of American folk music — guitar, banjo, mandolin — to traditional groups.
This excerpt from the BBC documentary "The Irish Folk Music Revival" introduces the two groups of musicians who popularized Irish ballads in the U.S. and Ireland in the 1960s. In America, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem became overnight sensations after appearing on a popular television show lustily singing upbeat versions of traditional ballads in unison with strong rhythmic accompaniment of guitar and banjo. The three brothers and Makem were recent immigrants to New York who found a way to make ballads appealing to modern American audiences. The first part of the documentary linked above includes short sections of the Clancys and Makem singing three ballads:
- "We Want No Irish Here" — a ballad from the viewpoint of a poor nineteenth-century Irish immigrant
- "Brennan on the Moor" — story of the exploits, capture and hanging of Irish highwayman and folk hero John Brennan. (A highwayman was a mounted thief who robbed travelers on the public roads in the 18th and 19th centuries.)
- "The Wild Rover" - probably the most widely known Irish ballad (though it may be Scottish — no one knows for sure)."The Wild Rover" is sung by thousands of fans at major sports events, and as a sing-along drinking song in bars and pubs around the U.S. Ironically, its original intention was to support the nineteenth-century Temperance movement.
- "The Kerry Recruit," an anti-war song recounting the experience of a naive Irish lad who is sent to fight in the Crimean War;
- "Paddy Works on the Railway," a narrative song from the perspective of an Irish worker, one of thousands who worked on crews building railroads in England and across the U.S.
Three groups grew out of the folk revival, each creating new combinations of traditional instrumental music and song.
Sweeney's Men was founded in 1966 by Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and "Galway Joe" Dolan. The trio sang ballads and created intricate contrapuntal textures on guitar, mandolin, and the Greek bouzouki, which Moynahan brought to Irish music. Moynahan's compositions are influenced by his encounter with the rhythms and melodies of Bulgarian folk music.
"The marriage of song with the instrumental tradition took a great leap forward with the formation of Planxty . But the combination, first utilised by The Bothy Band , of tight unison melody ensemble with the combined textures of an open-tuned acoustic guitar bassline and a mandolin or bouzouki ranging between melody, countermelody and chordal accompaniment remains the defining style of arrangement in the Irish tradition." [Vallely]
SESSIONSA session is a loose association of instrumentalists who play traditional Irish music, usually in a pub or bar. Music as a listening experience, and not for dancing, is a legacy of the revival, and ultimately of O'Riada's formation of instrumental ensembles. Around the mid 1970s pub owners began to commercialize sessions by paying a core group of musicians to play weekly sessions, establishing a custom that is carried on today especially in Ireland, the UK, and North America. Sessions players play a repertory of traditional "sets" of tunes, three or more tunes of the same type (generally, reel or jig) strung together without pausing in between tunes, a practice that originated with the first recordings of traditional music by Irish-American players.
- A different group of instrumentalists at O'Connor's pub during the launch of the Online Irish Academy of Music in 2011
["Doonin: A Musical Mecca" in Ó hAllmhuráin]
As the floodgates of tourism opened in the 1970s, the fishing village of Doolin...became a musical mecca for multitudes of rucksacked travellers from Europe and North America. Escaping the chaos of urban life, many arrived in Ireland with little more than a hitchhiker's placard showing 'Doolin' penned in black ink. Since then, Doolin has hosted an unbroken session of music, begun by a few locals, who have long since ceded their place to visiting players form all over the world...Doolin now has an 'alternative' multinational community which has integrated with an older indigenous population. Attracted by the relaxed rural lifestyle, many of the newcomers earn a modest living, as buskers or session musicians.