Banners, Turf and Liquefied Gas
This magazine has railed in the past against spurious production of albums for albums’ sake. This was always a rather harsh denunciation, for albums – for many of those who finance their own – are important breadwinners, and very often will get played in their lifetime as often as those repetitively produced by better-known performers. Most importantly however, albums are significant markers of personal artistic achievement.
In addition to this aesthetic dimension, music also carries a large variety of political associations, some direct, most implicit, maybe ascribed from outside, or just naively assumed. This article will explore some of the artistic and sociopolitical dimensions of Traditional music in the modern world through the medium of several current print and album productions – Tommy Sands’ biography The Songman (Lilliput Press), Gerry O’Connor’s new album Journeyman, Harry Bradley and Paul O’Shaughnessy’s …Born for Sport, and Paul Brock’s The Brock Maguire Band.
Tommy Sands is a name long known by the public in association with Traditional music. Always at the centre of its ring-road, this careful, enigmatic musician and character can turn up anywhere, and almost every touring musician has met him at some time. Instantly interesting, and trustworthy, he is a chameleon in his adaptability to new situations world wide, and, uniquely, to all terrains on the island of Ireland. In his autobiography, The Songman, he locates his birth landscape in a particular Irish ideological climate: the certainties of Irishness and its tangible cultural components in South Down. Irishness was then still close enough to partition to realise that religion did not necessarily equate with nationality (most younger people are familiar with the ideal of this, but do not know its until-recently reality). And so, despite fairly fundamental differences, the neighbours Sands recalls, relocates and recasts are all of equal stature as sharing occupants on contested ground.
The Catholic religion’s strictures are not accorded any dominance by Tommy Sands, suggesting that he was not a rebel within it. His experiences involve association with nationalists and republicans, and awareness of unionists. His family scene is one of mutually caring neighbours and family, where song as diversion has a high place. Protestants and Catholics are both part of this in both production and consumption: life is one long hooley interrupted only by occasions of mortality. He celebrates the detail of his nationalist back ground unembarrassed – it is his legacy after all, and he is not ashamed. His uncles are on the missions as priests, a local Republican pedant voices strong sentiments from time to time, and a tight-lipped, rational unionist counters with equal certainty. But this is only the scaffolding of the story, for it is very much also about the ‘folk’ group The Sands Family and their touring. There is no bridge from the parochial to the international – suddenly the reader realises that the writer and his siblings are no longer in childhood, but have a life as touring professionals singing ballads and their own songs. Home however remains the emotional hub of the Sands’ experience in the text, even though it dwells a lot on political revolution.
As with any construct of culture however, much is said in the book by absence. Almost no prominent Traditional music stylist of his era crops up between the covers. There are momentous lists of names, yes, but in concert situations – roll-calls rather than music associations. There are almost no northern instrumentalists in the pages, and the Irish language is not a force in his text – no Gaeltacht summer-school reminiscences, despite the fact that in the Sands’ Co. Down the Gael-Linn pools were subscribed to. There is no ‘ceoltas’ (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann), and no Gaelic League. Exactly how the Sandses from an early age chose to play guitars in Irish music isn’t clear either – but then it never is – they ‘just got them’, likely through the influence of popular music disseminated by radio Luxembourg.
The use of this instrument perhaps may be the reason for the life apparently outside of, but vibrantly parallel to, mainline jigs and reels players – considering the primeval guitartheid of the 1960s. No fleadhs are mentioned in the Sands discourse either, no ecstatic nights of dusk-to-dawn, driven playing, and most of the island of Ireland goes politically, socially and musically unnoticed. Identifying these absences is not to be saying ‘Hah!’. For the focus of Sands’ book is local, South Down, and not the island. Their music was rooted in local songs and the humanistically political; it was the lore of the plain people, and was for the plain people. They turned their back on the rude, consumer-driven commercialism of Bill Fuller’s Irish-music American empire, nailed their colours to the eastern European mast, and found real meaning and hope in the idea of socialism as a model for justice in the world. They also call a spade a spade, in one gem of a paragraph Sands importantly implies a political nature for the root of the difference between the professional and the casual – the way in which one performs:
To stand on a stage and perform properly it is necessary to be completely at ease with oneself and at one with the audience. You must be ready to mentally fling your arms open wide and embrace every single [sic] person in that room. Otherwise you have neither power nor purpose nor any good reason to perform. (p. 207)
Adding up: the Sandses play guitars, they make their own songs, they didn’t speak Irish, they were professional – and they are leftist. Ergo, how could have been popular in Ireland south of the border? These issues are mentioned here because they are implied by absence. Thus the book provokes thought.
But there is drama and documentary in the pages too. A fire-bombing, nutty female stalker who (stereotypically in Irish artistic territory?) wants an Irish music baby traverses several pages, as do internment, Bloody Sunday, sectarian assignations, hunger strikes, Good Friday Agreement and Ulster-Scotsism. Sands’ European social intervention is brought over to the US, where in a ‘house of correction’ in Nevada he makes a startling observation. The search for a common song air led to the dawning of an awareness that since ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ was the only piece of music they with a group of young offenders all had in common, ‘cultural life, for many, had ended about the age of five’. The divide that all of this signposts is not just an issue of the border, and is more profound than that which the singer-versus-instrumentalist competition for Irish-music representativeness indicates. It in fact flags up ‘art for art’s sake’ versus ‘art as the offspring of political oppression’. But there is ample evidence in the world that there may be no difference in the aesthetic quality of the artistic end-product, regardless of the circumstances of its inception. For political situations often release profound artistic ingenuity, at community as well as personal levels.
Journeyman, …Born for Sport and the Brock McGuire Band
Instrumental music (the greater section of Traditional music today) generally claims itself to not be – and, typically, patently by intent, is not – overtly political. This of course is a somewhat easy assumption, and is hard to sustain historically – for the whole revival of Traditional music has in fact been intensely, if not by definition, politically-conscious. Dundalk fiddler Gerry O’Connor, one of Sands’ contemporaries in the 1960s music scene in Down/Louth, does not see his music as any kind of national flag, political vehicle or humanitarian lever. Yet he is acutely conscious of the connection to locality. This is borne out by his latest album Journeyman, wherein two thirds of the tracks have strong local association, and three have tunes drawn from music collected in the north of Louth in the early 1900s. He has no need to go beyond Co. Fermanagh for the sources of his other material. Such an approach is generous, and unassuming, rendering his superb music all the more surprising by contrast. Brilliant technique and delicate accompaniment and pairings are tastefully distributed with piano, guitar, bodhrán, fiddle and accordion.
Harry Bradley and Paul O’Shaughnessy’s …Born for Sport duet album presents equally interesting material, terrifically ordered, gustily played, and presented with similar attention to music source. It exhibits a total eclecticism that is typical of Traditional music today – with references as diverse as Donegal, Belfast, Sligo, Down, Fermanagh, The Bothy Band, Breathnach’s Ceol Rince, Altan, Francis O’Neill, Kerry and Cork. Playing of marches and barn dances creates a wonderful texture, and the brightness of duets and solos is truly uplifting. Bradley and O’Shaughnessy of course have also peregrinated with their music, playing representative concerts and festivals just like the Sandses. And Gerry O’Connor too has for decades driven the same autobahns as them.
The calm modesty of these albums’ players stands in stark contrast to those in another new recording, that of the Brock McGuire Band, an album by accordionist Paul Brock and friends. The analogy that springs to mind is something like ‘sods of turf versus liquefied gas’ in home-heat parlance. Here is music that has grown weary with the local in its obsessively clean presentation – sourced in the USA, London, Shetland and Canada as well as Tyrone, Clare, and O’Neill’s book and Altan. Unlike the Bradley disc, the Brock McGuire band is narcissistic in its perfection, and the sleeve-notes are spiked with hard-sell accolades, ranking and superlatives – ‘multiple all-Ireland champion’, ‘master’, ‘outstanding’, ‘masterpiece’, ‘celebrated’, ‘impressive’, ‘forefront’, ‘Ireland’s finest’, ‘brilliant’, ‘dazzling’, ‘faultless’, ‘prestigious’, ‘best album’, ‘huge demand’, ‘highly talented’, ‘sterling reputation’, ‘remarkable’, ‘superb’, ‘leading’. The point is not that no player would not want such glowing observations to be made of them. Rather this is an album of brilliant, tasty individuals in concert – but is thus a catalogue of high talent. The most obvious common ground among its tracks is neither (as the ITMA imprimatur implies) the like of Bradley’s organic ‘raw bar’, nor O’Connor’s applied sophistication. It is not either – by intent – like Sands’ ‘music of identity’. It is high-class professionalism, and is representative of the level to which many musicians have arrived – they feel themselves as stylistically ‘traditional’, but see the world of Folk music as their terrain (as it was anyway in the past).
This article strayed over four widely differing productions of Traditional music from the last six months or so. Most of the producers of the music and words are, by income generation, professional (it is ironic, considering their production and marketing values, that the Brock McGuire Band are the least so). But each work is an ethnography of its own artistic and class space. Enormous significances can be read into each – about attitude, sociology and politics – making each a different window into Irish music.
Tommy Sands’ driven, artistic-humanist consciousness contributed to the present day’s Ulster peace, but didn’t create it. Gerry O’Connor has only picked up the baton of an enormous local pool of artistry by applying his intuition and expertise to it. Harry Bradley and Paul O’Shaughnessy with exquisite discernment accumulated their powerful material in the main from music which emanated from other than their home place, particularly from Donegal. The Brock McGuire Band build up from the skyscrapers of an already-recorded and documented expertise that began in North America. Each production therefore is an ethnographic tale of the process of traditionality, whether told by word or music – or both. Those who are weary of the CD tsunami might reflect that albums, like books, are personal stories. All are worth telling in the hearing, even if they only get one spin on the turntable.
Published on 1 July 2005
Fintan Vallely lectures in traditional music at Dundalk Institute of Technology. He is author of several biographical and ethnographic books on the music, and is editor of the A-Z reference work Companion to Irish Traditional Music.