For several centuries now, Irish music has been on the move, carried in the hands and voices of Irish people. Bringing It All Back Home attempts to chart some of its journeys; to go to some of the places reached, and to tell the story of how it inevitably wound its way back home again, as if to bear out that cyclical impulse at the heart of Irish artistic expression, the 'commodious vicus of recirculation' as Joyce thought of it.
The journeys undertaken were physical journeys — to America, England, and to a lesser extent Canada and Australasia. These waves of emigration began in the eighteenth century and have not yet receded. America is an important element in the story of Bringing It All Back Home. It was in America that the future development of Irish music, including traditional music, and indeed of American folk music was shaped.
Every living music undertakes a journey through time. But time is relative, and the journey of Irish music through time exemplifies this. On the one hand, traditional music changed very slowly, if at all. The culture it expressed remained much as it always had been … Irish-speaking, rural, and poor. Time was a commodity in plentiful supply and must have seemed to move slowly. So we get long songs of thirty verses and more to accommodate longer memories and an abundance of time. The spirit which animated this culture still lives on in parts of Ireland. As we shall see it was carried through the music into twentieth-century Ireland, changed, but recognisable. But in America, a new country, rapid change was the driving force, and Irish music absorbed this spirit of the new age, in order to re-invent itself, and meet the musical needs of the New World.
Dance music left Ireland in the heads, hands and feet of emigrants. In America its seductive rhythms influenced a host of diverse traditions, from Bluegrass to Country and Rock. Coming home on record, it proved fertile imaginative ground for a new generation of players who gradually realised the extraordinary richness of their own musical culture. Full circle....
Fed on a rich diet of emigrant dreams, bitter poverty and New World optimism, the Irish Ballad took root and flourished in America where it quickly found an appreciative audience. In the 1950s The Clancy Brothers perfected their style in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village where they met (and influenced) the young Bob Dylan. As so often happens, success abroad bred curiosity at home. The Clancys returned to Ireland in the 1960s.
It was inevitable that Irish Rock Musicians would begin to experiment with traditional Irish elements in their work. Inevitable too that the purists would grumble and the rockers yawn … at first. Because what started as a flirtation soon turned into a full blooded marriage of styles, with the emergence of Thin Lizzy, Sinead O'Connor, The Waterboys, and one day along came "U" Know Who …
The twentieth-century influences of communications media and technology sent Irish music off in many different directions, towards rock, country, pop, electric folk, blues, and the avant-garde.
Old collections of the past also played a part in revitalising contemporary Irish music, particularly the classical tradition.
For Centuries Irish harp music flourished under the patronage of a wealthy aristocracy. 17th century Baroque music was also popular with the Irish nobility and an emerging middle class. These two traditions combined to produce a composer of extraordinary quality in Turlough O Carolan and his "Much Admired Old Tunes" have inspired generations of Irish (and not so Irish!) artists, from Sean O'Riada to the uncompromising father of the American Avant Garde, John Cage.
All of these Irish musical forms are offspring of the same traditional-music parent. They do not all co-exist happily together; some are regarded by others as bastards; some are at loggerheads; some are ignorant of their illustrious parentage. But they do share common features, not necessarily of musical construction, but of spirit, which identify them in some way as Irish.
Through the music, then, that has touched all of these generations, we can read the history of Ireland and her people, especially her emigrant people.
The traditional music of Ireland was the only enduring cultural baggage, intangible as it was, that impoverished emigrants could take out of the country.
In the past one hundred and fifty years Ireland has had more of its people leave the country than remain in it. This is unique in the history of emigration.
Being Irish outside Ireland is central to the Irish experience. As sociologist, Liam Ryan, recently wrote: 'Emigration is a mirror in which the Irish nation can see its true face! The question of identity for Irish people is fraught with ambivalence and tensions. Tensions come in the form of contradictory pressures — one to become assimilated into the new country, the other to affirm exclusive Irishness.
This music inevitable changed in the process of travel, sometimes to be unrecognisably transformed, sometimes evolving at the natural pace dedicated by the passing of time and a changing world. In places here and there, often on opposite sides of the globe, it remained almost untouched, a living, vibrant bridge to the past. Nor, as we shall see, was the traffic all one way.
Music returned to Ireland in many guises at different times, re-invigorating the tradition when it most needed it, Bringing It All Back Home — to the source and sensibility from which it had sprung.
Irish Music … Soul Music
'I have a theory that soul music originally came from Scotland and Ireland'.
'that kind of stuff (Irish traditional music) I think comes directly from life … that kind of music springs directly uncensored from the soul of the people … it has no intellect that says I'd better do this or I'd better do that; it's soul music if you like'.