Traditional Irish Music (Part 2)Submitted by Séamusín on Mon, 05/05/2014 - 22:56
The roots of what we as musicians in the Irish musical tradition have come to accept as pure, is really nothing more than state control of our heritage.
That sounds kind of weird, I understand but bare with me for a moment. When Ireland claimed her independence and then subsequently gave it back to the new Republican government there was a great deal of central planning and social engineering that went on. Not least of that which was affected was the traditional music scene.
It was vital for the newly formed state to create as much nationalism among its population as it was capable. As an ethnic territorial border had already been established the goal was then to unify the people behind their overlords by creating a rigid system of musical perfection and acceptance. The Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann was born. A competition where young irish musicians could compete with each other for the crown of "Best" or "Most Irish Sounding" etc... What ended up happening, was that an incredibly elite form of musicianship became the fashion in Ireland. My father was no exception to the trendy. His parents spent hours with him every night going over tune after tune, ensuring that all the right notes were there. All the right cuts, all the right grace notes, all the right runs and rolls. Irish traditional music had become an exact science, and chief among the mad scientists were my granny and grampa.
They raised all of their children with musical perfection in mind. My own father happened to be one who understood the weight of the tradition and flourished, but there were others. Most of my aunts and uncles have some sort of musical inclination. Whether it be dance, or the drum, or just patient listening, they were all bred to take part. Then there was Uncle Tony.
Uncle Tony never went to school. He never paid any attention to anything but being on the farm. That is where he found contentment. He wasn't skilled nor educated. He may have been the strongest man I ever met, but couldn't add two numbers together. He skipped school and caused trouble, but at the first hint of a bit of hard work he was the first person to pop tall and take up the task. He ended up working with my dad as a laborer. My father demanded nothing less then $215 a day for his help. To put things in perspective, he lost his thumb in his younger years. You know those bags of cement that you pick up from lowes or home depot? He used to open them with his bare hands, and just for extra kick, he would use the hand with no thumb. I once saw him bend down and lift up a concrete bag and throw it over his shoulder, bend down and do it a second time, and then finally lift a third one and throw it under his arm before he set off for his destination. He couldn't read or do complex math, and most importantly he couldn't play any music.
When I was sent to live with him, he immediately became like my father. Just for the record, I love my dad, and he knows how much he means to me. But he also knows how much Uncle Tony meant to my upbringing and we both recognize looking back that... Well things wouldn't have turned out the same without him.
After a few months of living away from my home, I began to try and find some sort of home plate. I was in a new environment, new school, new house... I had very little in the way of grounding. My father would visit once every few months just to see how things were going. It was probably around this time that I picked up the penny whistle. I played the few tunes that I had learned from my father when I was 5 or 6. It was probably my uncle who drove me(out of sheer frustration by my poor musicianship) to ask my dad to teach me some new tunes. It was then that he started to communicate to me just who my dad was. Who my dad was, and who my grandparents were, and what Irish traditional music was all about. I started to pay very close attention. Probably more for the purpose of having something solid in my life than anything else. I asked my father to teach me more tunes and he obliged. Uncle Tony hounded me day and night. We would sit out on the front porch for hours. Me playing and him just listening. Every night for hours he would just sit there and listen. He didn't move, never showed any signs of frustration, never condemned my playing, as atrocious as it probably sounded. He just sat, in a chair, staring off into the fields, waiting for me to tire. When I was done, he would mention a few things I could work on. I always treated his criticism with the utmost respect.
He later confided in me that he wished that he could play. I don't know if it was his thumb, or his attitude as a child that made it so he couldn't play. I don't know. He died of leukemia a few years ago. I hadn't been so grief stricken since my mother died. I could say a lot more about our relationship, but as I have limited this discussion to Irish Traditional Music in my life, I think it best to just leave it here for now.
To be continued...