September 9th, 2020
“Folk’s not cool,” was how some cocky, know-it-all teen walking past one of their gigs had put it.
That’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Folk Springs Eternal, my recently released novel. That kid’s probably one of many walking around thinking Drake, Harry Styles and whoever the hell else is in the Canadian Top 40 this week are the pinnacle of musical talent. “Overpriced concert tickets to see overrated musicians”, eh? Yep. That line’s from Chapter 4 of the novel, in case you were wondering.
The thing is though, that kid’s not alone. Even Ed Sheeran, the highest-profile pop musician to put Irish music back on the map in the last five years, apparently had to browbeat his record label into putting “Galway Girl” out. “Apparently folk music isn’t cool,” he said (sound familiar?). “But…it’ll be a f***ing massive hit, because 400 million people in the world will say they’re Irish even though they aren’t.”
You’re right there, Ed, as Dougal from Father Ted might have put it. Why do so many people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Last year I spent it in London, at the Porterhouse, and it was packed. I got talking to strangers from all over the world, who were all degrees of drunk and having a brilliant time. This year I’d have gone back, had it not been for that bastard virus. But seriously…what makes so many people the world over lose it for Paddy’s Day? No matter how Irish they’re not? Why have people told me that they “danced around the room” when they heard the banjo on one of my songs? And what actually drove someone like me, an English kid with zero Irish or Scottish heritage in him, to write an entire bloody novel about folk music?
It is with this article, dear readers, drinkers and assorted gobshites, that I hope to shed some light on this question.
Happy and romantic
Yep, two strong words right there. But those are the feelings that Irish music stirs up in me, and they always have. Who can resist Sharon Corr’s gorgeous, warm violin in “The Minstrel Boy“? You’ll have to excuse the YouTube picture quality (the video went up in 2012), but I’ll challenge anyone to listen to The Corrs’ version and not feel a lump in their throat. Trust me, I hardly ever cry, but this one brought me close the first time I heard it in my best mate’s car. Sharon’s playing more than just her instrument – she’s playing my heart strings, too. Maybe some tone-deaf people out there can resist that, but I certainly cannae.
Right after “The Minstrel Boy”, the flip side on the Irish music coin chimes into view. “Toss The Feathers” is a perfect example of the jovial, wild-and-free, get-the-fuck-up-and-dance side of folk music. The tin whistle and fiddle pair perfectly with each other, and again, I’d challenge anyone to listen to it without wanting to…well, “jump around the room”, to echo the quote I used earlier. Celtic music does that; it grabs your attention, and before you know it, you’re on a fast ride of infinite fun.
If the aforementioned mainstay folk instruments don’t do it for you, then try the longing, romantic wail of the Irish uilleann pipes. One of many fine players out there – once touted on Wikipedia as “one of few masters of the uilleann pipes”, actually – is English musician Troy Donockley, of Nightwish fame. And this guy plays a damn good set – check Nightwish’s cover of Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and you’ll see (and feel) what I mean.
☘️ ☘️ ☘️
I first discovered Celtic music properly on – ha-ha – St. Patrick’s Day in 2012. Murphy’s Irish Pub is a pleasant little place on Berlin’s Schiffbauerdamm, and a friend I’d met online invited me down there to celebrate with her colleagues. To echo the impression that Paddy’s Day makes on Herman in Chapter 1 of Folk Springs Eternal, it was probably the best day I had that year. Great music, great bands, great people from all over the world, a great atmosphere…and some tasty Guinness, of course 😉 Everyone just chilled out and having a great time. A place where I could just be human.
And the bug never left me. Susi (the same friend) and I started our own band, we played some nice gigs, got paid for many of them, and even won an Newcomer Award at Festival Mediaval in Germany in 2014 (go here for a pic of the two of us playing). The year after, we returned and played on one of the bigger stages in front of about 150 people. Although, geographically speaking, we all went our separate ways in the end, I swore never to forget the lessons that folk music taught me. The result, since I’ve been living back in Britain, is an EP of Celtic folk-rock music, and a debut novel – a first for my family, and the first of many to come, I warn you 😉
There’s nothing wrong with bands who blend modern, more electronic influences with folk music (Faun, and more recently Heilung, are two excellent pagan folk examples). But sitting and watching a group of musicians make wonderful, flowing music on real instruments, is something that gives the viewer a certain feeling. I know that feeling; it’s like a warm blanket on a cold autumn evening. It’s ornate, without rejecting the modern-day. It’s familiar, without being old-fashioned. And it’s talented, without demoralising or boring the listener.
Before lockdown reared its ugly head and kicked us all in the face, my wife and I paid our yearly visit to Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival in January of this year. Of the six bands we saw, my personal favourite was, by far, Stundom. The Danes’ performance was simply exquisite, something that equalled young trio Hecla’s performance at The Mackintosh Church the year before. So yes – computers, buttons, plug-ins and even bloody autotune have their place in music (I’m something of an Owl City fan, so even for autotune I’ll make an exception). But sometimes, there’s something to be said for doing it all with real, live and warm sounds. Where even the mistakes enrich the experience.
Weird and wonderful languages
If you played the videos by Faun and Heilung that I linked above, you may have been thinking, “what language is this?!” If you’re not averse to a brief escape from English (that all-pervading tongue in which I nonetheless presently write), you’re in a good place when it comes to folk music. Some of the top-selling folk artists out there have made a name, and in some cases a living, for themselves out of singing in Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and even non-Celtic languages like Swedish, Old Norse and Icelandic.
Scottish Gaelic is undoubtedly an endangered Celtic language in Britain, one whose vernacular usage may die out within a generation or two. But Julie Fowlis has firmly marked her territory in the folk scene with a succession of brilliant albums recorded in the language. Another brilliant song – and one I’m convinced would blow the roof off if it ever got used at Eurovision – is Niteworks and Sian’s “Air Fàir an Là“. Examples in Welsh and Irish abound too, and not just in the realm of folk music; know that Welsh rock act Super Furry Animals recorded their fourth album “Mwng” entirely in Welsh way back in 2000. And more recently, two kids from Belfast, Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara, decided they’d form an Irish Gaelic hip-hop act called Kneecap, with some dodgy English swearing thrown in (I’m not joking, check this out).
Other genres aside, you won’t have to go too far to find Celtic music recorded in something other than English (by its very nature, Celtic culture was not originally English). In the 1980s, way before the Internet revolutionised the world, “Theme From Harry’s Game” by Clannad became a well-known hit. These days, there’s YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music, all of which can be used to discover great new artists working in all kinds of genres. Julie Fowlis, Sian et al may not have profited financially from the modern platforms, but they have in terms of their global outreach. And so, against all expectations, has the language they’re singing in. Scottish Gaelic recently recorded over 400,000 learners on language-learning app Duolingo, and my wife and I have become so enamoured of the language now only spoken by 1% of Scotland, that we’ve decided to learn Gaelic properly, with a teacher. Even if ultimately we can’t keep the language alive, we’ll do what we can, and we’re sure to make some new friends along the way. Tha Gàidhlig doirbh, ach spòrsail 😉
So the above are my primary reasons for falling in love with Celtic music. It’s a love affair that has lasted the years so far, is sure to continue to do so, and is built upon the happiness, the romance, the handmade nature of the music and its linguistic mystique.
Now tell me…what do you think? Do you like folk music, or is it just for gobshites? 😉 If you do like it, what bands do you like and why? Perhaps there are other great reasons for giving a f*ck about folk music that I havenae cared tae mention above, Jimmy.
Drop me a line.
P.S. with thanks to Mark Manson, whose irreverent, sod-the-rules attitude inspired this post.