About Celtic Music
THE TERM “Celtic” refers to the music and culture that evolved in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (western England), Brittany (western France), and Galicia (western Spain)—areas where the early Celts had once lived and where Gaelic was subsequently spoken.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire these Gaelic speakers fostered a distinctive culture born of their rural agricultural lifestyle, their mixture of Pagan and Christian spiritualities, and an undying love of music, dance, art, and literature.
Celtic music derives its haunting, expressive tonality from one of the most ancient of instruments, the bagpipes. Scottish bagpipes are only able to play 9 different notes, but this limitation gives the music its unique sound and mood. Eventually, other instruments such as the violin, flute, penny whistle, drums, and acoustic guitar found their way into the tradition.
Celtic music is not an improvised form like jazz, bluegrass, or Indian Raga. Occasionally a player might decorate a note here or there with a brief melisma to add a personal touch to a melody, but this is done sparingly. Musicians learn melodies note-for-note from one another — often from older, respected players. In this way, countless melodies have been handed down from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. Sometimes new melodies are composed, but they are crafted in a style similar to that of their time-honored counterparts.
The lively, toe-tapping rhythms that characterize Celtic music were born from the inseparable link between instrumental music and dancing. Long before the era of material consumerism and the present-day plethora of entertainment choices, simple folk of all ages and across all social strata—farmers, fishermen, craftswomen—found recreation, friendship, and community through a common love of dance.
Dance melodies are referred to as “tunes” rather than “songs” because they are played rather than sung. A session (or “seisiun” in Irish) is a gathering of musicians to play tunes together for fun and relaxation and to teach tunes to each other. Sessions often take place in a pub or a living room with everyone playing simultaneously. Sessions are different than “jam sessions” in that Celtic musicians do not “jam” (ie: improvise).
In spite of hundreds of years of cruel oppression by the English throne, people of Celtic heritage were surprisingly successful in retaining their customs through secrecy and downright obstinacy. Unfortunately, large numbers of people were killed or imprisoned for being caught illegally dancing or speaking Gaelic. Devastating historical events such as Ireland’s Potato Famine, Scotland’s Highland Clearances, and ruthless English laws such as the Test Act drove millions of people to seek refuge in North America. Emigrants eventually settled in Cape Breton (eastern Canada), Quebec, Massachusetts, New York City, and the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Although emigrants did not generally continue to speak Gaelic, they did continue to celebrate their heritage through music and dance traditions much the way they had done for hundreds of years. Each splinter of the Diaspora was influenced by the local customs as well as the difficulty of surviving in a new environment. These influences helped to create new, unique, regional styles of art and music.
For instance, the so-called Ulster Scots often arrived in America as indentured servants and, upon gaining their freedom, finally settled in Appalachia. Here, relatively isolated in the densely wooded mountains, they continued their tradition of music and dance. Reels, Jigs, and Hornpipes, which were popular forms of entertainment back in Ireland and Scotland and had typically been played on bagpipes and violins, blended seamlessly with the rhythmic quality of the banjo introduced by the African American slaves. Music of the Cherokee Indians evidently influenced the style as well. The resulting hybrid is referred to today as “Old Time” or “Old Time Appalachian” style. It, in turn, spawned a more popularized form known as “Bluegrass” or “Newgrass.”
Although Celtic music was not originally crafted with the modern concert stage in mind, it transitions beautifully to a multitude of settings ranging from the smallest living room concert to the largest outdoor festival stages. It is performed by amateur musicians as well as highly skilled, professional performers.