Some years ago, as early middle-age was ramping up my interest in my Irish ancestry and my longtime love of Celtic music I stumbled across an intriguing album by iconic traditional band The Chieftains in which they journeyed to Nashville and teamed up with some of country music’s top figures. The album, called Down the Old Plank Road offered an interesting range of music which ranged from textbook-country with added Celtic instruments such as whistles and ullian pipes to classic Irish musical forms reincarnated across the Atlantic.
I had never taken much of a liking to, nor interest in country music, but the excellent performances, the historical connection from my recent interest in the history and culture of one line of my family (and tangentially my admiration for the 2000 Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou, its soundtrack and the recent rise of interest in American Roots music they helped spark) had my attention. While doing my Masters in Music Criticism I wrote a paper on a McLuhan reading of the transformation of ‘old time’ music through 20th century urbanisation and industrialisation into the nostalgic and even glitzy modern country music – and then back to its roots; I studied the rise and evolution of popular music through the advent of recording, broadcasting, and the tortures of World Wars and festering post-slavery racial tension. I started a Celtic band, Chroí which is still playing today after eight years. I toured Ireland with a choir, cementing the land and its music – wherever it should wander and take me along – within my musical mind.
And then in 2013, in an unusual moment in my career as a freelance choral musician, along came Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, completing yet another circle, to my long knowledge of and relationship with church music, in what had already for me become its ever broadening circles.
Back in Nashville, the Chieftains reached into the shared culture of the connected people of the Old and New worlds, and found among other connections the “Come all Ye” ballad, common to both. An excellent example is found in the 1947 Merle Travis coal-mining classic Dark as a Dungeon – in it the balladeer, having summoned the listeners with the famous opening words “Come all ye…” warns of the dangers of a life spent mining coal (incidentally a common means of employment for Irish seeking work away from their native land). Another extraordinarily poignant example from the same album is Molly Bán, which warns of the prevalence of gun culture through relating the tragic tale of a man who shoots his beloved having taken her for a swan.
With the significant role played by Celtic peoples in the settling of the New World it is unsurprising that their folk idioms are evident in the new culture, but what has particularly struck me about the Irish American connection is its resilience, and visible presence in genres thought to be uniquely American.
As much of music making for me feels exclusively within the realm of ideas for this unusual quarantined moment I develop some of these themes in a currently postponed concert of the Georgetown Choral Society. Visit the page for the Choir’s episodes of Choral View Radio here on ideasaboutmusic.ca for a look at where that line of inquiry had taken me.