Singing the Ancestors

Challenging the standard idea that traditional singing ‘can’t be taught’, Fintan Vallely argues that there is now an urgent necessity to do so.

The internationalisation of Irish traditional music is both tonic and pathogen.Where there used be just Sean Maguire in a velvet jacket, now there are hundreds jostling in a global marketplace. Where once the island was only delicately overwritten with a lacework of pathways motored gently in all directions by part-time céilí bandsters who always returned home to milk the cows, now it is the epicentre of high-carbon-footprint professional peregrination by soloists, groups and accompanists, competitioners, recitalists and workshoppers, teachers, examiners and promoters, researchers, broadcasters and consultants, instrument makers, repairers and retailers, sound operators, camera people and recording engineers, record sellers, booksellers and outfitters, sleeve designers, CD makers and couriers, editors, reviewers, and writers. Momentarily in the evolution of this throng the brief explosion of the ballad groups gave songs and singing a high profile, with the ensembles indicating a high level of political partiality in being named after patriots in the same way as football teams, some nailing specialised sub-genre colours to the mast – The Clancys were an older jollification, The Dubliners the feckless, urban bawdy, The Wolfe Tones with republican rhetoric, The Fureys a sentimentality – others straddling all moods and opinions like politicians.

This was all challenged by the next phase – the fashionable rise to the top of artistically conceived and received instrumental music which came to be fuelled by a vast reservoir of recordings and printed tune collections. This had squeezed song so much to the wall by the 1980s that various concerned souls were moved to set up exclusive singing events in order to preserve that dimension of indigenous culture. A free form typifies most of these – the weekly, monthly or annual ‘night’ or festival giving room to anyone who wished to stand up and sing, the space in between the calendar dates being time out to learn new lyrics. This is generally considered to have been worthwhile, if not an absolutely authentic and vital process. But just as the tune players became so overwhelmed by the compulsion to learn more and more and more tunes – so many that all the evenings of the year haven’t sufficient space to parade them, and few can find the time to perfect any more than a handful of them – now too the singers have bottomless repertoires and no more time or opportunity to display them than one can ever get to meaningfully sample everything an 80-gig ipod can contain.

Just as with tunes, within songs, dispersed in among the gems and the mostly fine stuff there are lyrics and airs of poorer artistic merit, and, like tune playing, the standard of singing overall may not be always good. ‘Standard’ is used here gingerly – meaning artistic quality of the poetry and tunes, the entertainment – generating potential of the performance, the social or cultural relevance of doing it at all, the contexts of song occasions. Is it possible though that singing and music have just moved from being protected and carefully nurtured species that were for a time under threat of the demolition ball, to now being free standing in a world of infinite choice, where people of all ages are active? It may be no negative thing that so-called ‘traditional’ music is now back in the ‘popular’ marketplace where it all began – and where it now, demonstrably, can ably compete. Maybe it is fine that it is mostly older people who sing traditional song in the unaccompanied, stand-up manner. It could be OK too that they have got tired of the ‘big’ songs popular in the 1960s and 70s – the Moorloch Marys, Barbara Allens and Cuachín Gleann Neifíns – and now need to seek out new material. Perhaps. But younger singers (were there many) may simply not have heard them – how could they? In repertoire, simply being old(ish) does not guarantee being beautiful, and not every voice can cope with a variety of metres and tone ranges.

Teaching Traditional Singing
The number of those who are singing traditional songs appears to be dwindling as fast as the singing community is increasing in average age. Yet paradoxically in the midst of that there is the idea floating around that traditional singing ‘can’t be taught’, it must be learnt by osmosis, immersion, experience. Is this not absurd? Instruments and tunes are taught, to phenomenal effect – so why not singing? The modern lyricist, with ‘folk’ style, filters into this vacuum maybe with a whiff of an old sound, sometimes with brilliant creations, but more typically (however musically impressive) with tedious and uninspiring dirges of most meaning only to the singer themselves, or to particular audiences. The idea that an exceptional quality of lyrics arose spontaneously from the whole of the dacent people is a myth. Songs and airs of high merit have always been composed and sung by people of exceptional ability, and the work is still around because it is good. There has always been plenty of dross – in lyrics, airs, tunes and in literature too. Ireland may not have been able to support a professional traditional-song class in the past, but it did offer marginal favours to its top end performers – a bag of spuds or a cabbage on the doorstep for one who was highly regarded, a dinner, a drink or two, a drop of poteen. This is at least specialisation, a rudimentary professionalism. Today a lot of the composition and singing of new and old songs is done by full-time professionals – by virtue of the person being freed up from the distraction of physical labour. This fact is indeed acknowledged by the singing events – for long now the English and Scottish folk scenes have had ‘paid’ performers, and in Ireland we now even accept guitars and bands backing up the professional singers.

How is it going to persist? Should we be dependent upon one-time classical or popular professionals seeing the light and returning to their roots? Why not teach singing? While singing is taught by many – including by individuals such as Rosie Stewart, and by institutions like Armagh Pipers’ Club – the idea that there is no singing taught at, for instance (and it is only one example), Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy seems very odd. Is there a fear that the place will be flooded with copycat singers? That’s very likely unavoidable – but aren’t we awash with copycat instrumentalists anyway? If we trust that the individual artist can eventually come through the copying phase in music, why can’t we have the same faith in singers? But isn’t learning aurally not, essentially, ‘copying’ anyway? How else do regional styles persist? There’s nothing genetic in them – all music styles can be reduced to scientific or technical fundamental elements, mostly fairly simple, but to which is added the essential – and key – quality of ‘style’, or local accent. Taste is a different matter, and discernment too – but don’t these come only with age, experience and wisdom, and aren’t they at the very kernel of artistic distinctiveness? Everyone who plays or sings undoubtedly gets a tremendous buzz from it, personally and socially, but most performers know their limits, and know that while exceptional talent may not be universal, it nevertheless does exist. They know when to take their hat off.

A key point however is that enterprising or artistically hungry musicians, feeling weary of playing the same tunes over and over have developed new personal versions of the old, as well as new resurrections and freshly composed repertoires. However, they often discover that in order to get space to display these they must consciously cut loose or find themselves drifting away from the old ‘homely’ session. They lose enthusiasm for players whom they find dreary or stultifying, and seek a new venue or pursue more individualistic performance circumstances. Cultural politics enters, the old implied rules of ‘everybody playing together’, ‘enjoying each other’s company through music’ (another pragmatic revival myth) must be somewhat bent, and backbiting disrupts the tranquility.

Remembering Frank Harte
In singing too this unavoidable individualism now appears to have dissolved old assumptions – the major one being that traditional singing should be about singing – that (as in the Wild West saloon bars) the six-guns should be left on the table outside. That is, sectarian or divisive politics – except of course in consenting circumstances – should be taboo. September’s Frank Harte memorial festival was a disappointing benchmark here, for displayed behind the podium for the duration was as big a stars and stripes as any Bush redneck might fly from his five-litre SUV in darkest Texas. Many people present were deeply disturbed by it – for surely the significance of the emblem at a celebration of ‘the songs of the people’ was inappropriate, representing primarily, as it has in the political sense since at least the 1990s, the Western world’s contempt for one of the planet’s great civilisations? It was mentioned that Frank Harte ‘loved America’ – but was it not the America of the plain people, of the trade unionist, of the civil rights activist and the migrant Irish poor, of Woody Guthrie’s lyric subjects, the friend of the distressed and oppressed, the America that he loved? Further, the presentation on the final day by Ron Kavana of a chronology of history through song was also distressing. At best this seemed a dated millenarianism. It did not acknowledge that significant things happened – with overwhelming consent from people all over the island – after 1996. Breast beating about the inclusiveness of Republicanism on the basis of its 1798 desire to unite ‘Protestant, Catholic and dissenter’ in the 21st century is disingenuous and glibly opportunistic – but ultimately a worthless platitude. Shouldn’t the challenge in song today be not to find new ways to dress up and sanctify old oppositions, but to celebrate life? The poet Seamus Heaney references this in praise of his colleague Michael Longley’s contention that the opposite to war is not ‘peace’, but ‘civilisation’. The cessation of war in Ireland should not be an excuse to open the floodgates of nauseating sentimentality about how wonderful it is that we can all now get along together. We should instead take it as given that it is in fact difficult to do that. Shouldn’t lyric art apply instead to existence – love, pleasure, enterprise, nature, current social distress, and to art itself – just as do the old Irish- and English-language song repertoires?

Campaign lyrics are tremendous, valuable, and humanly vital, but their place is in campaigns, and in politically consensual surroundings, not in an area of the arts which has successfully avoided conflict in the worst years of political struggle, and which depends for its survival in post peace-process Ireland on the participation of the ideology represented by those who the Kavana presentation triumphally chastised.

Perhaps it is inevitable that if people are long term in a slowly-renewing field they will revert to older ideas – the points criticised here might not happen were there an alert younger presence. This would seem to add to the argument that there is an urgent necessity that traditional singing be taught, if it is not to die out altogether, or to pass to the (quite able) talents of popular music. But since the argument in favour of it is damaged by one of its core institutions – implicitly – nailing its colours to the corporate American and Noraid masts, perhaps the long established ethics of non partiality must be re-learnt too? Indeed, if Frank Harte’s own slogan – as displayed on the festival’s poster – ‘the rich write the history, but the people write the songs’, is to meaningfully be his epitaph, then a much clearer appreciation of song as art is needed too. Indeed maybe a re-evaluation of singing collectively would be desirable. Is there not a case for choral renditions by singing clubs? That way everybody would get a chance to sing all night long. The idea is no more absurd than, five, fifteen or thirty musicians playing simultaneously in the ‘session’, which itself is a very modern institution, a response to new circumstances created by emigration, and later promoted by the exigencies of ‘revival’.

Published on 1 November 2007

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.

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