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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fama Clamosa Fiona MacKenzie gets Munro a-thinkin' aboot Auld Music

Hey Kevin I though you might lke this. I got a message from Fiona Mac (it actuall came from a friend of hers>) A Living Tradition : Preservation or Innovation?
Category: Music

A Living Tradition : Preservation or Innovation?

This is the title of an article I'm going to write, and I want to gather as much opinion on the subject as possible!

I'd really like to hear from a broad range of people connected to the world of folk and traditional music -- avid folk fans, folk club organisers, folk gig and festival promoters, musicians... in fact, anybody with an opinion they'd like to express!

What role do preservation and innovation play in upholding our tradition?

Does one detract from the other, or are they mutually beneficial?

What tensions might exist between the proponents of preservation and innovation?

How far can innovation go before it no longer remains true to the tradition, or to what extent might preservation stifle innovation?

That's just a few questions to get you thinking, but feel free to take any angle that you feel is fitting!

I'd be really grateful if anybody would re-post this in their blog or on any folk-related internet forums to which you may belong, as I'd like to get as broad a range of responses as possible before I start to knit it all together!

I can be contacted by e-mail at mike @ folking . com (without the spaces!)

Thank you for reading!

Hi Fiona Mac...this is Old Munro here from America. Let me say I love all kinds of traditional music. Part of me likes to hear historic instruments like the mandolin, the Irish harp, the harpsichord and the clavichord. But I only play the piano myself and love hearing traditional and classical music played on the piano. The Piano is a wonderful, enduring and versatile instrument. It's defect is that it is heavy and so is best for the church or parlour. I love Scots songs and art songs and the old Big Songs. Poetrically I think the traditional Scots ballads and the Gaelic Big Songs are really superb for their quality. But commercially one has to cut down the songs to something more more accessible. People knock the Kennedy-Fraser and Kenneth MacLeod adaptations of the Songs of the Hebrides BUT it is their arrangements which are world famous and they helped create an interest and a wider audience for Gaelic songs. Today it is relatively easy to find Gaelic recordings and texts but for most of the 20th century it was a relatively rare thing. In the early 1960's, for example, I had perhaps a handful of Scottish songs sung in Gaelic (recordings by Sidney MacEwen from the '30's 78's and a handful of song sheets and I remeber I had one exact ONE folkways album with Irish Gaelic songs. I was fascinated that some of the melodies I recognized as Scottish such as MY AIN HOOSE (Mo Dhaichaidh) and O Sr run mo cheile bha ann. At that time I couldn't really read Gaelic at all I could just barely make out the song titles and of course I really didn't know there was any distinction at all between Irish and Scottish Gaelic (My Auld Pop could speak Scots Gaelic but he was almost completely illterate ; what little education he had was in English; he was born in 1886).

Later I bought a folkways recording of Hebridean waulking songs and it had historic interest but muscially it was very mediocre and the recording -from the 1930's or 40's was very primiitive. On the other hand my mother sang Songs of the Hebrides songs like Vair mi O, Turn Ye to Me, The Bens of Jura, the Road to the Isle etc and we always enjoyed them very much. Even in Irish ceilidhs in the New York area you would sometimes here these songs. We probably saw as much Irish traditional music and some Welsh -I remember Thomas L THomas as Scottish music in the 1950's and 1960's. The really big name in Scottish music in those years was Kenneth McKellar. He seemed to have a new album every year and he came to the states regularly and he even sang in our local high school (Kearney HS, Kearney NJ and made an appearance at the Argyll Restaurant. In those days before the Internet one bought albums at the concerts lp's or at the Piper's Cove shop next to the Argyll restaurant. That was -as far as I know the only place where one could get British and Irish pressings and labels like Gael-Linn and later Lismore. Of course when friends or relatives would travel back to Scotland they would bring special treats like Anne Lorne Gillies , Calum Kennedy records and Flora MacNeil records or the MacDonald sisters -things we never saw in the states. Then by the 1970's we had a weekly program on the radio the THISTLE AND SHAMROCK. That's how i was introduced to WILLIAM JACKSON(then of OSSIAN) and Mairi MacInnes and Maggie Maggine. So I have heard all sorts of Celtic music all of my life.

I heard it then car -songs my parents knew that I have never heard recorded anywhere. Songs my mother played on the piano- she mixed them up with broadway show tunes like Camelot and like South Pacific and art songs in Italian and German and hymns too. We heard a lot of Irish tenor music in the John McCormack tradition -I am thinking of Frank Paterson, Robert White, James McCracken (he was well known as an opera singer), and then of course Kenneth McKellar, Helen McArthur, Moira Anderson and Mary O'Hara Then of course there was the folk music one heard at Scottish Highland games and Irish resturants -it was less elegant and polished but made up for that by being very accessible. But one thing I remember in every venue everyone sang along at least part of the time. You would be amazed how many Americans like mysefl -the children and grandchildren of Scots- know so many songs by heart. I never was exposed to them at school except perhaps Loch Lomond and we had to sing a disgusting slowed down Americanized version with correct grammar (I and my true love...I am not kidding but the original version was a bad influence I suppose)

Then came the Clancy Brothers who were very commercial but lively and then came the Chieftains. the great thing about the Chieftains is that you could expect to see them regularly and like Kenneth McKellar you could always find their records. So in those years we had only three regular sourcs of music : radio (i hour a week ) the Thistle and Shamrock and then a few big international stars PLUS the Scottish and Irish ethnic stores where it was all hit or miss. There were some real treasures I remember David Solley -i have all his Gaelic LP's and then the SOUND OF MULL -they made two LP's and I have them both. Now both of these artists sang a somewhat moderinzed or commericalized Gaelic song. So to some purists they don't like them. As for myself I love Sean-nos singing and acapella singing I have done some myself! But to me the thing is INTRODUCING THE MUSIC, THE MELODIES and the SONGS to a new generation. I will be eternally grateful to

1) the Irish folk societies and all the concerts they hosted

2) The Scottish Regiments on tour

3) the Highland games you could always find books, song sheets and LP's there

4) the famous commerical artists like Frank Paterson and Kenneth McKellar and Mary O'Hara too they were trail blazers and they kept knowledge and awareness of the Celtic song tradition alive in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. And let me say one thing more. All of these singers had crossover songs in their repetoir. McKellar sang Irish songs or Italian songs and he sang Beatle Songs too and even recorded a few. Paterson -when he came to Jersey City or Kearney where there are so many Scots would talk about his wife's cousin Father Cumey who was a parish priest in Govan (big cheer there ; I think half the population at that time had Govan origins) and of course Frank would sing some Scottish songs like Loch Lomond, The Flowers of the Forest or the Four Marys, Mary O'Hara would sing in Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, English and even an Italian song now and then. So there is no question they all considered good songs good songs. They same SOME songs in a traditional way a cappella or just with a harp and other times with big orchestras. The best performances were the small venues in a school auditorium or in a church because afterwords you could talk to the peformers. I will never forget Mary O'Hara having coffee with us after Mass -we had seen her in the concert the night before and she recognized us and just sat down to talk to us. I will never forget what she said. I introduced myself and said my name was Richard and she said "Richard -that was my late husband's name" and then she talked about her love for her husband and the short happy marriage they had together. She was a very spiritual person and had a great personality on stage and in person. But talking to her was just like talking to my Aunt Annie or my mother. Sitting with us she was just one more. And that is the last thing I want to say. I love all kinds of music and I love classical music too. But classical music is not really my first love for this simple reason: It is remote and the artists are prima donnas and very remote. Folk music -Highland music in particlar -is a smaller world and very warm and humane world. I have met in my travels many artists in person -at the Park Bar in Glasgow -at St. Mungo's -in small Highland townships like Lochinvar and Dingwall at the Staig Fort Inn (Ireland) and Tom Moore's house -at the Sylvia Wood Harp Center in Glendale LA, in the George IV Pub in Vancouver , BC in Kearny High School auditorium and on the street corner of Kearney Ave on the way to Argyll Fish and Chip Restaurant. Sometimes the musicans were Black Watch Soldiers or Argyll soldiers. One time my father and I met a Corporal Munro who was from the North and came from the same place Cioch Mhor (Near Dingwall) where my great grandfather had been born. I think Corporal Munro was as thrilled as we were -it was his first visit to New York and I even asked him for his autograph. To me -I was a teenager at the time- to meet a real Argyll like my Auld Pop and his friends in person was a real thrill. Frank Paterson also was a very lovely man -I didn't see him as often as my friend Kevin Darcy who grew up in San Francisco but I did meet his wife's cousin Father Cumey because of all people who sat next to me in St. Mungo's cathedral but he! And we flew to America together on the same plane with Alistair Fraser! He was shocked i knew who he was and his parish but we had had news from Govan and Frank Paterson on an off for thirty years. He had been a priest in Scotland fo fifty years and yes, he knew Father Collins the man who baptized my father March 17, 1915 at St. Anthony's and the man who married my grandparents and the man who led my grannie and my father and his brother and sister to the clock tower near where you have the tall ships now. They took the ferry from Govan and he walked with them from West Glasgow up a hill and down a park right to the pier. That was August 1927 and I heard that story many times from my father. Grannie never returned and my father did not return until 1967 and then we walked down the same path. Every time i am in Glasgow 1975, 1979, 2000, 2005 I walk down that path to the tall ships. I walk in Kelvin Grove and visit the Kelvin Grove museum. I go to St. Mungo's and see the WWI memorial in George's Square. My granne and father were there in 1923 when it was inauguranted and the General was there (Haig I think). I always go to the Park Bar my Auld Pop and his Argyll cronies often went there and went there in August 1914 and the last time in November 1919. My great-grandfather went here too and he also went to the Commercial Bar -it is a rough old place in Dingwall -my Auld Pop never went there except to the front door... and of course there are the old Parish churches. My father's mother was born in Oban so the old church is not there -they have a Big Red Cathedral there I know my family was one of the many that contributed to help build it. I knew about it and dreamed about it long before I had ever seen it. It went up in 1959. Everyone was excited about it but the old folk never lived to see it. But I promised Auld Pop I would go there and say a prayer for granny there just for him and I did anns a Gaidhlig. Auld Pop knew his prayers and he taught us how to say them as well.

Well I am going on too much.

But the point I would like to make is that music must have an audience and must win over SOME of the new generation if it is to survive and not just be a fossil. Some people don't like CELTIC WOMEN -and they are not my favorite...but let's face it -they do sing traditinal material and they do sing Gaelic songs for a mass audience and are on TV and they sell out wherever they go. For my money I would rather see Anne Lorne Gillies , Mairi MacInnes , Arthur Cormack or William Jackson or Fiona MacKenzie and her sisters any time BUT shows like Celtic women will lead people to explore the REAL THING and of course if they develop a taste for the real thing they will help support traditional music.

And to some extent music changes and adapts. William Jackson uses a bouzoki (I hope I spelled that right) and the traditional music adds new and old instruments. The imporant thing is that there is respect for the continum of music. There are some groups that ONLY play new music or their own compositions and though it is always charming it is always disappointing. I expect fo hear SOMe songs I knwo like LOCH MAREE ISLANDS or FHIR A BATA or Lochnagar or even Westerning Home, the Rowan Tree, the Northern Lights or My Ain Folk. My people loved all kinds of music and to them they loved My Ain Folk -which dated back to WWI and the end of their time in Scotland- as much as old songs. Perhaps because they were song of their youth they were extra special for them. I know there is a special love for songs I learned from my mother or from my favorite artists.

So be authentic and learn from the old traditons and when possible do music in that style. But the fact remains one has to be commercial and one has to appeal to a mass audience to some degree and to a youth audience. That last point is very important. The Chieftains made recordings with James Galway -crossovers -that were very successful. They made recordings in Spain and play Galician music and had guest artists like Linda Ronstadt singing IN SPANISH. There is no reason French people and Spanish people and German people can't like Celtic music etc. etc. But above all Paddy Maloney and Frank Paterson and Kenneth McKellar were always entertaining and FUN. They were never too serious -William Jackson is the same way and so is Alistair Fraser -they are 100 times better in person because they are so funny! That is the key -be yourself be human be Highland which means be genuine and warm in the heart. And you will be loved and blessed keepers of the ancient flame.



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