Folk meanderings

Started by SueC, July 23, 2021, 02:28:46

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The push for starting this thread comes from reading Mike Scott's Adventures of a Waterboy, where I am currently in the middle of the chapters on his immersion in Gaelic culture and music in the West of Ireland starting in the late 80s. I'm reading that with very close attention, as a sort of vicarious experience of going to a place where I'd wanted to go as a young person, had the visa to go, but then due to various circumstances didn't end up there. So it's really lovely if someone else brings a place like that to life for me, which Mike Scott has done for years with his musical "postcards" from the place - and it's a treat to discover he can write excellent prose as well, and has dedicated some of that to the same end!

It's all been making me think, about my own journey with folk/traditional music - where did it really start? What influenced me to go there, and why? Which artists did I begin with and then where did that take me?

So, that's another ream of open journalling waiting to happen. I've got a few other threads like this here: Music for Emotional Health was never meant to be an open journal, it was supposed to be more collaborative, but we don't have enough members infested with the writing bug here for it to have turned out that way, so I just continued it as a mostly solo exercise (with the occasional valued contribution from other people).

The Exploring threads were set up deliberately as open journals - they are about my personal reaction to the music and lyrics of Join the Dots and later on, the rest of the Cure's back catalogue - and from there, go on to anything at all that's raised by the interaction between that music and my own life. Open journals are go-anywhere, in-depth, but they're not necessarily solo endeavours - other people are welcome to provide input, and sometimes they do.  :cool

As a reader, I'm not satisfied by people just writing about music in an "objective" manner - I want to know specifically about the listener's personal reactions to it. I want to know why a person finds a particular piece of music meaningful, enjoyable, inspirational, cathartic, whatever - and then you've got more than sound and fury - then you've got possibilities for conversation, and you've potentially got meaningful exchange on a human level. I've seen classrooms come alive when music projects were run like this, people coming together, people switching on their ears, discussions reaching new heights - and I've seen that kind of conversation enrich an online journal group I've been in for years elsewhere.

Mike Scott's book is filled with clear and intricate portraits of personal responses to music. It's not your typical "I came, I saw, I conquered" rock star autobiography, it's actually more like an open journal - relating experiences, and reflections about those experiences. That's why I am able to engage with it immersively, and why it's in turn making me think about my own experiences.

Which has now led to this thread.
SueC is time travelling



As a 14-year-old, I found myself drawn to certain landscapes, and to music which sounded like those landscapes. I was stuck on a flat coastal plain south of Perth, Western Australia, with only the Darling Ranges and the Spearwood Dunes providing a tiny bit of relief from the flatness that stretched for hundreds of kilometres north-south along the coast. I found the flatness of the place my parents had moved our family to oppressive in the same way I find a unicoloured grey or blue sky oppressive.

On that flatness also happened to be some incredible ecosystems - the Australian flora and fauna always were magical to me. Three and a half decades later, many of these ecosystems have been bulldozed, and indeed my experience of that started with my own father and his tractor, and his obsessive fight against the "other" and the non-European and the non-"economical" and his pursuit of what he wanted, to hell with everything else... but that's another story.

I'd started out in Europe, and four months every year in the Italian Alps. The flatness of the Swan Coastal Plain hit me in the face after that. So when Mrs Burkett, our lovely Buddha-like middle school art teacher, sent us to the library to pick a landscape we wanted to paint for our upcoming Impressionism project, I sat down with a pile of books and began leafing through.

Things that can transport me to other places: Photographs, maps, music, prose, poetry, visual art. It just so happened I'd heard some interesting music that year, which had the effect of conjuring up wild landscapes in my head. And it was all from Scotland and Ireland. I was very, very new to listening to radio, and hadn't gotten into any kind of popular music until the previous year - where I'd started with some of the more melodic subgroup of the mainstream pop of the time, but then I discovered 96fm and got a broader education in contemporary music. And it was there I heard U2, Big Country, The Waterboys, Cactus World News etc. They weren't actually folk/traditional musicians, but had been influenced by landscapes the same way that the folk/traditional musicians I picked up later in my musical journey are - and some had been influenced by folk/traditional music itself too.

This was U2 when they did The Unforgettable Fire with Brian Eno, still my favourite textural musical work by that band, and way before they got into "car-crash" music and music that sounded like everyone else, and music that sounded too polished and shiny and manufactured to speak to my soul. This was the year The Waterboys released This Is The Sea and at a time Big Country channelled bagpipes through their guitars and made me want to stomp my feet and hold my head up high.

Here's some samples of that music that made me go aaaaaaaaaaahhh from the go-get. It had a spirit I'd not heard in anything else.

It's easy to hear the folk influence on that track. The next one is more classical if anything, but still has a huge sense of place.

The Unforgettable Fire is the album Pride (In The Name Of Love) came off, and everyone knows that one. I love the texture of that particular piece, and the passion of the vocal, especially set against the indulge-me-1980s when it came out, and here was someone who cared about something other than themselves, which was excellent. I've sadly never heard a live performance I thought did this song justice, as is true for my other favourite songs off this album, but it's a wonderful album.

The album opener reminded me of walking in rainy landscapes in the dark, which I was doing a lot of at the time. Also of hope in difficult circumstances, which I needed a lot of.

The next is another super-evocative number, which is actually about walking through an art exhibition made by survivors of Hiroshima.

And this is a song I first heard at 14, and when I was 23 and first walked onto the edge of the Torndirrup Peninsula in Albany, this spontaneously started playing in my head start to finish because it completely summed up the experience of being in that landscape for me - a landscape I ended up moving to permanently.

This too is a fabulous album with an amazing sense of place, which is also the soul of folk music from wild landscapes. I could post lots of songs from this bunch of artists at this point, but people can explore for themselves, and I think this is an adequate sample.

So while in the library searching for inspiration for our Impressionism project in 1985, I thought, "I wonder what Ireland and Scotland look like?" and grabbed a few photographic books on those countries. And leafed through and went breathless and dizzy with the landscapes on page after page. The photograph I ended up picking for my art project was of the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Western Ireland. It wasn't this one but here's an example of that coast:

I'd never seen anything like this before, but it struck me as logical that the people living in places like this who loved these landscapes made music that sounded like those landscapes. That painting of the Dingle Peninsula became the best acrylic I ever painted, and I now live on a coast as wild and magnificent and remote as the coast I fell in love with via photos and music, around western Ireland and Scotland.

So I think at the base of a love for this kind of music is actually a connection to nature and the earth, and a love of a certain type (/types) of landscape. My love of those things preceded my love of music like it. I felt it before I was even in school, and I felt it as an 8-year-old scrambling around the Italian Alps with my dog, discovering nooks and crannies with amazing wildflowers and breathtaking views over mountains and lake.

One other major puzzle piece is the first teacher I had, for two years when I was 6 and 7. She wasn't just a fabulous academic teacher systematically teaching foundations of language and mathematics to us, she was warm and inspirational and loved nature and music and art, and made those big parts of the classroom experience for us in so many ways. She happened to be a multi-instrumentalist, playing accordion, acoustic guitar, xylophone, various woodwind and percussion instruments, etc, in the classroom and teaching us folk singing, complete with walking songs and multi-part vocals. She brought us music with complexity, even though we were little, and we had a great time both listening and doing ourselves. This has definitely been a big influence and has stayed with me all my life, and this would have been one of the very first rows of stones laid in the foundation. ♥
SueC is time travelling


CD Collection Meander

While reading Adventures of a Waterboy I realised that I started discovering folk music in a big way at about the same time Mike Scott did, in the late 80s. I had no idea that's what he was doing, of course, since it only became obvious when he released Fisherman's Blues in late 1988. By that time, I had independently begun to get into traditional Irish music (though sadly not "on location"). It started with a track Clannad did for the film Harry's Game.

I'd read that book previously and remember thinking it was such a coincidence that I'd like a piece of music made for the dramatisation of this particular book, which was a sort of political thriller about terrorism and the complexities behind the players. I enjoyed Gerald Seymour's forays into these topics because he didn't write cardboard heroes and villains - he showed that the people doing unspeakable things also had sides to them that were idealistic and honourable - he portrayed terrorists/freedom fighters without either glorifying or demonising them. You were left with a sadness at the senselessness of revenge crimes but also an understanding about the untenable situations people have been put in politically.

Idiotically, the theme for Harry's Game was used in Western Australia for a face cream advertisement.  :-D  :1f62b:  That's probably how I first heard snatches of it; but I don't remember where I first properly heard the track, only that I went out and bought Magical Ring afterwards, and this would have been around 1987/88. That was my first CD by what is officially considered a traditional music group. Bono did once claim, around that era, that U2 were really the world's loudest folk band, but while you could actually see similarities (e.g. in the texture of 11 O'Clock Tick Tock) U2 were never a traditional outfit. They didn't play traditional instruments, they played standard rock'n'roll instruments.

Clannad played both, and like lots of the more modern traditional/folk artists (Capercaillie, Sharon Shannon, Mary Jane Lamond, Natalie MacMaster etc etc), are a bit of a chimera, not uncommonly blending traditional instruments with electric bass and drums, which often gives the music a really good backbone and thereby lifts it out of the danger of being twee. All subjective, I know; and believe me, giving a traditional Irish band an electric bass and drums in not a guarantee they're not going to be twee.  :1f635:

The theme from Harry's Game wasn't a typical piece of folk; it was an ethereal otherworldly almost a capella piece, sung in Gaelic. It was the kind of thing that gave me goosebumps, and still has that effect:

The rest of the album was an interesting mix of songs sung both in English and Gaelic - with a lot more complexity in it than standard radio music of the time, and just this different approach which I really liked the sound of.

Soon I bought two more Clannad albums, which I listened to extensively as background music while doing assignments for my university course. The albums were Fuaim and Crann Ull - which means "noise" and "apple tree", by the way - and they were just great music to write to, since in those years I hadn't the foggiest idea what was being sung in Gaelic and therefore my brain's verbal centre didn't get engaged and distracted by this music.

The lower price of these CDs compared to standard music appealed to me while I was trying to make ends meet on the student allowance, and for listening while working I really couldn't have music with lyrics sung in a language I could understand - so my fallback became songs sung in Gaelic and purely instrumental music, for those purposes. Music with lyrics I could understand had to be reserved for other times.

The arrangements were so interesting compared to "pop" music, which ever after seemed like hot dogs to me - just sort of rubbery sausages in a spongy bun, garnished with a sugary sauce. Have a listen to another take of the same song - Gaelic "mouth music" - just love the way that comes together:

This then tied back into the polyphonic and chord singing we learnt off our Grade 1/2 teacher in early primary school. To sing like this in a group of people is an extraordinary experience. It's why I joined choirs recreationally whenever I could, as an adult.

More Celtic Music

In the late 80s I was listening the newly released Fisherman's Blues by The Waterboys, and starting to collect back catalogue and new releases from Clannad. This was a slow process due to financial constraints, but the music was rich and intricate and improved further with familiarity (which is not the case with all music for me). Because of the price of CDs I also dipped into classical music sometimes (you could do that for $5 and get reasonable recordings), mostly off the back of having seen the movie Amadeus, which had shown me that classical music isn't necessarily tedious and that it's not necessarily made by boring people.

The Celtic and classical recordings suited having to study effectively for long hours at university; apart from that I mostly just bought any new material that interested me from people I already had in my CD collection. In 1994 I entered fulltime work for the first time and this led to a bit more leeway with buying CDs I'd missed from artists (and classical composers) I already liked, and exploring a bit further.

In the previous year, 1993, Hothouse Flowers had released Songs From The Rain, the first album of theirs I really liked - I'd not been that fond of their radio songs to date, and I think their best material was the more obscure stuff. That year I saw this band live three times in different settings, one of which was an acoustic set - and was blown away by their live performances, where, for example, Liam Ó Maonlaí had everyone holding their breath as he sang a Gaelic traditional song a capella so that you could have heard a pin drop in the spaces between the singing in this 8,000-seat venue; or where the band played audience requests and swapped instruments at various times in various pieces ("You play this, I've got to play this other thing now!").

One of the most extraordinary songs I've ever heard:

...and it's still being performed; here's a recent acoustic version...

Ó Maonlaí went back to his roots after Hothouse Flowers; I'm still digging up stuff by him.

He's also still playing didgeridoo.

In 1996 I took Gaelic classes at the Irish Club in Perth, because after listening to music in this language for nearly a decade without being able to decipher any, I was curious. It was huge fun and is one of those things you'd keep doing forever if you had unlimited time and energy - in which case I'd also like to learn Swedish, Icelandic, Japanese, and Swahili, just for starters; while recommencing violin lessons to make progress there again, and perhaps trying out cello for fun, and getting some African percussion instruments because doing those African drumming workshops in the early 2000s was also an excellent experience. Also I've always been attracted to Uilleann pipes, which are unfortunately reputed to be incredibly difficult to play well - but if the sky was the limit...

I think one of the realisations of midlife is that life is not unending and that time and energy are finite. The problem my husband and I both have is that we're drawn to dozens of things we could easily become passionate about and spend lifetimes on, when we don't have lifetimes, we have just one. So we mostly come back to choosing work and personal arrangements to align with our values and needs as best we can (not always easy), and a strong focus on sufficient sleep, exercise and good nutrition. Our favourite form of exercise is hiking, which because of where we live immerses us in incredible scenic, dramatic, beautiful landscapes, so it addresses a whole lot of other stuff for us beyond physical fitness. With nutrition we've come to the point of living on a smallholding and growing much of our own stuff, while also stewarding a 50 hectare conservation area, so that's another multi-dimensional and time-consuming thing. What's left goes into hobbies, which is why I do a lot of recreational writing - it's something I can do while physically resting.

Back to the music. The year before I started Gaelic classes - 1995 - I'd heard some music from the Riverdance CD on ABC Classic FM (of all places), and was mesmerised, so I picked up a copy. This is the track that first brought to my attention that violins were not necessarily screechy, grating sorts of instruments:

I love the way this instrument is used in that particular folk tradition, and have a fondness for a lot of Gypsy tunes too, as well as some of the Scandinavian traditional music. Here's a nice demo of the Hardanger fiddle being played, and an explanation of its different construction - it has sympathetic resonating strings and a different tuning to the GDAE standard.

So there you go, from Irish fiddle playing to Norwegian fiddles that sound like bagpipes, which brings us back to Scotland; and we'll got to Scottish fiddle tunes later on!

At the Gaelic classes in 1996, I was inevitably introduced to more Celtic music - there was often live music being played next door to our classroom, as well as music over the speakers - which is one way I got re-introduced to Sharon Shannon, whom I knew from the Irish phase of The Waterboys - this time in her own right:

If you dig up the studio recording of that track as released to the public, you'll notice the strong bass-percussion backbone of this twist on Irish traditional music, which I think works extremely well. The live version here fundamentally shows that making music together can be a joyful and surprisingly low-pressure collaborative experience - it's not primarily about perfectionism, it's more about community and celebration.

One day at Irish language classes, a traditional fiddler popped in to see us between entertaining people in the main part of the venue and played a few tunes, and I wistfully said to him afterwards that I wished I'd had music lessons on this instrument as a child because I'd love to play. I'd dreamed about it the previous year after hearing that tune off Riverdance above and had said so to a friend, who informed me this was totally impossible - that to play a violin, you needed to start at age 5 the latest and I was 20 years too late. And I believed her, until this old Irish fiddler talked to me, and told me this was codswallop. He had fingers like sausages and a bit of arthritis, but he could play, and he says if you love music you can start anytime and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. (Further confirmation came from an acquaintance who lived to be 100, who had taken up violin on her 60th birthday, mostly taught herself, and started playing concerts with her local Sinfonia less than half a decade later. Just in case anyone reading has been hampered by this kind of negativity! I can also tell you it wasn't true - I finally took violin lessons at the age of 27 and progressed faster in my starting year than any of the children being taught by the same instructor. Brain plasticity is a thing, not just in children either.)

1998 was a big year like that for me, not just because of starting violin lessons, but because I happened to be boarding, for my first year of teaching high school, with a piano-playing mother-daughter family who were walking encyclopaedias of classical music and who played me all sorts of things, both on the piano and over speakers, and lent me so many CDs. It was an amazing education. Once I survived the first three months of Suzuki Volume I Hell - the initial pieces in the book make for a very uninspirational beginning - I got happy playing simple jigs and some OK pieces by Bach. At the end of the year I moved back down to Albany on the South Coast - the place I'd fallen in love with on my first professional gig out of university in 1994 - and things got even more interesting. I'll pick that up next time.
SueC is time travelling



I grew up in two countries before moving to a third at the age of 11, and as a result, I've never felt any particular nationality, I just consider myself a human being. I'm not interested in patriotism, just like I don't have a favourite football team - I'm not interested in things that divide people, make one group feel superior to another, foster "us versus them" etc - I love cultural diversity, and I'm interested in the things we have in common.

The European part of me is memories and DNA and cultural. The Australian part of me is purely in my love of the landscape, flora and fauna here - emotional and spiritual ties to the land; a land which has been under siege since its colonisation by European empire-builders 233 years ago. The Indigenous people "got" this land in a way the majority of its current inhabitants really don't. They've got it running through their blood, which it will seep into if you let it.

As I've gotten older, I've become more aware of how culturally European I am in significant ways. I'm part-Italian, part-German both DNA-wise and culturally, having lived in both countries in my early years and absorbed a lot of things. So from the Italian side I have that passion for growing and preparing good food that nourishes you beyond the physical, and I've got the affinity for "warm" community, which my culturally rather English husband recoils from when it's like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but appears to think is OK when it's just me (maybe it's the quarter Irish in him).

From the German side, I've got the organisation and the work ethic, the doing a job properly ("near enough is good enough" is anathema to me), the taking street shoes off before entering a house, the expectation that rules made for the common good are taken seriously (but I also think that rules that entrench advantage for one group over another should be challenged and that Rosa Parks showed everyone how), the expectation that we don't casually disrespect others or the planet.

From both sides I've got that community is more important than rampant individualism. But my musical proclivities aren't that German or Italian, or Australian - though I do enjoy Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Vivaldi, Giuseppe Tartini, Nigel Westlake (not to mention traditional Indigenous clapsticks, didgeridoo and song, Yothu Yindi, the Warumpi Band) etc. The Celts, on the other hand - music from that tradition has consistently fascinated me, infused me with energy, made me reflect, conjured up landscapes, held my hands in joy and in grief.

@Ulrich spends a lot of time digging (metaphorically) around the cultural artefacts of Europe for fun and when I wondered in relation to my Celtic musical bent if I had a proportion of Celtic DNA from before the Celts were driven into the north-western parts of Europe, he informed me that Germans have around 45% Celtic heritage genetically on average. Wow, I didn't realise it was that high - he says they stayed for a long time! And then I remembered the primary school history lessons about the Celtic culture, and its eventual displacement by the Roman Empire etc.

Anyway, I like having that genetic link. I've also got a bit of Viking back in my ancestry, and have their height (and really like some of the Scandinavian fiddle traditions I'm discovering). Funnily, most Italian folk music I've heard so far I really don't take to, and ditto with sections of German traditional stuff, like the Ooompapa stuff you hear around Bavaria - though I did like the walking songs our primary school teacher taught us (and I must try to find them somewhere).

It's funny how discovering belatedly that I do actually have significant amounts of Celtic DNA makes me feel less like a blow-in, and more like I've found an ancestral tribe and have some kind of organic connection to it. Of course, much as it can be romanticised and DNA is popularly thrown into explanations, it's quite possible DNA has very little to do with it. Culture has its own means of transmission beyond the genetic, and personality (OK, DNA involved there) and life experience tend to have significant influence on what you're going to like.

So, for example, I have no African DNA but love the drumming and percussion I've heard, and some of the traditional singing from that part of the world. I have no Native American DNA but from childhood have had a huge affinity with their general philosophies and attitudes to the Earth, as I now do with Aboriginal Australian and other Indigenous cultures, and in that I'm more Indigenous than I am Western - I dislike the anthropocentric philosophies that have caused so much damage; philosophies that falsely elevate humans - and particularly male humans - above the rest of the species, the biosphere and indeed the whole universe, which they tend in consequence to treat as a plaything and a commodity, when we need to recognise that we're part of a whole, and not uniquely special and entitled, and no more important than the many other parts in the fabric of life. (Maybe I'm throwing back to my pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer ancestry. :beaming-face)

And here's some Middle Eastern-influenced music I likewise love, to finish.

Returning to the regular programme with the next post!  :)
SueC is time travelling