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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 REVIVALS
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.