Gay Traditions: Talking with Stepdancer and Trad Singer Nic Gareiss

I’m deeply ashamed to say that I’ve been sitting on this article for a long time. Maybe half a year or more, and mainly because of its title. That’s a strange thing to worry about, I know, but I was torn between wanting to simply present the words and music of world-class step dancer and traditional singer Nic Gareiss without having to bring up his sexuality so specifically, or putting it right in the title. Honestly, I hoped that I could be a bit more subtle. I wanted this just to be an interview with Nic and I wanted to focus as much on his world-traveling search to understand many different step dance traditions, as on his work to find how his sexuality fits into old traditions. With the re-election of Obama (who supports gay marriage and gay rights) and the passage of key gay marriage laws throughout the US this past November, we’ve hopefully made some strides closer to a world in which our friends, family, and neighbors will have the same rights we do. But in talking to Nic about this post, he brought up the point that we wouldn’t stop our racial discourse just because we have a black president. We need to be talking now more than ever, and I feel that this is especially true in the world of folk music. So this will be the first post of an ongoing series on gay artists who are actively challenging and pushing the boundaries of traditional folk music.

I first met Nic when producing a concert in Seattle of his duo with Emma Beaton (of Joy Kills Sorrow). We hung out beforehand and got to know each other, and he talked about wanting to visit a boy he had recently fallen for in the Northwest. I might have known he was gay before he mentioned this, I don’t quite remember. Anyways, knowing this, his concert took on a whole new dimension. Ostensibly, he sang traditional folk songs, some drawn from American, some drawn from Celtic sources, but he chose the songs very carefully. There’s a whole repertoire of songs in Celtic music about women dressing as men so as to travel onboard a ship with their lover, and when he sang these, I realized for the first time that these songs are really talking about same sex love on the high seas–and talking beautifully about it. Then he sang one of his most powerful songs, a beautiful musical setting of a poem, "The Injured Shoulder," by the openly gay Irish Gaelic poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh. It speaks so beautifully and eloquently of the love between two men, and it shows a whole new side to the traditional Celtic music I’ve grown up with and spent my life enjoying. All of a sudden, the traditions had a lot more to say than I’d realized. I wanted to know more about how Nic navigates the world of traditional songs, in which same sex love is so rarely mentioned, and how he feels he fits into the tradition as it is today. As one of the best step dancers in the world, I also wanted to know what he’d uncovered in his research on sexuality and traditional dancing. To further the discussion, I also talked to singer, dancer, and concertina player Brian Ó hAirtof the Irish-American group Bua, who brought a very different perspective from Nic’s.

Hearth Music Interview with Nic Gareiss

I'd like to talk about being gay in folk music.  How did you come out and when did you come out? 

Nic Gareiss:I had begun performing and had begun my work as a dancer prior to coming out.  But then, I guess I finally, finally became a little bit more open about my sexuality when I was about 20 or 21.  I was in college and was studying Anthropology and was sort of introduced to the work of Emile Durkheim and Franz Boas and cultural relativism in general, and realized that in being surrounded by a more liberal set of paradigms, I had to be more honest with myself.  So then, I guess I began looking for ways that my sexuality could dovetail or at least, make sense, considering the industry that I was involved with, you know, the different traditional music and dance communities that I was a part of on some level just even as an observer.  And it seemed really hard at first because a lot of times I found that these communities were sort of predicated upon nationalist histories of identity where a country or an institution had taken and appropriated different traditions and used them to perpetuate ideas of home and family for political reasons, really for the nation.  Or even essentialized ideas about ethnicity, where people would say, “To be an American clogger, you have to be born in this place and you have to feel this way politically.”  And I think that the interesting thing about all that is, statistically speaking, I found that impossible.  Of course, there were going to be practitioners of these particular dance traditions who expressed alternative sexual identities.  Of course, there were going to be people who were lesbian and gay, and trans-gender and bi-sexual in different music and dance traditions despite the dominant rhetoric around those traditions was saying.  I started investigating and I’m involved in a project right now that is designed to elucidate the story of people of alternative sexual identity within one specific dance tradition, which is in the Irish competitive dance world.  But I think it will be really interesting to conduct a sort of cross-cultural study, almost in the same way that I’ve conducted a study of cross-cultural dance styles, but looking for ways in which alternative sexual identity has manifested itself in these different ways.  You know, people from Quebec, or people from the south of Spain, or people from South Africa, the way that being in a sexual minority plays into people’s traditional arts practice.  I think it would be really fascinating.

Nic in Action with his wonderful new group, This is How We Fly

So you’re working on Irish competitive dance and you’re hoping to expand it into larger circles then?

NG:  Maybe, maybe someday.  That would be a pretty big project.  I think it could also be really dangerous in two ways, firstly, because, I would never want to gloss the possibility of culturally-specific versions of what it means to be gay, bi, or trans, and secondly, I think, even today, a lot of times, there exist communities that aren’t very open or accepting about alternative sexuality.  So, it would be the kind of thing that people, they would, of course, have an option to participate or to remain anonymous.  I think that, at the same time, once those sort of floodgates were opened, and I think this is the same thing I found in my study of competitive step dance, that once people are okay, people feel like they have permission to talk about these stories, then, this deluge of different scandals and information and life experience comes pouring forth.  I think, in some ways, it’s a really healthy thing for the community to be able to talk about those kinds of things.  At the same time, I’ve also found some communities to be really open and really accepting.  American old-time music, for example, particularly amongst the revivalists who are located in different parts of the country and all over the world. It’s generally  a very, very open feel.  I can think of so many friends who express an alternative sexual identity who play old-time, many of whom specifically identify as lesbian. 

Hmm.  But you’re talking about the Northwest here.  That’s like Portland and Seattle. Those are really bastions of acceptance in some ways, but what about when you get into the Blue Ridge Mountains, when you’re deep in the mountains in the South in a somewhat conservative culture?  How has that been to work in that field?

NG:  Yeah.  I mean, I haven’t spent very much time in those areas since I came out.  But, to be honest with you, I think, that the reaction would be mixed.  I think that…  I can only speculate upon the relationships that I already have with people in that community.  Some of my teachers, some of the older flat-footers, some of them, would be okay with it.  They would be very open, they would consider it analogous to a straight relationship.  And then, some of the other folks I know, I think it would probably be a little bit uncomfortable talking about that aspect of it, just as they would be talking about sex in general.

Nic in Action with Irish fiddler master Liz Carroll

True.  That’s a good point. It seems that, if you look at folk music, and gay performers in folk music, there’s all these kind of niches that have been built, depending on their sexuality and how they want to put that with the music, but like a traditional musician who is open about their sexuality is quite rare.  I mean, all I can think of is like Ashley MacIsaac. Do you think there are a lot of gay folk musicians who just aren’t talking about it, since it’s not really part of their music necessarily? 

NG:  Well, I think again, statistically speaking, there’s gotta be. There’s  a large percentage of traditional musicians who express alternative sexual identity.  Whether or not those musicians and dancers are allowed to be visible, are allowed to be conspicuous in their scene, that’s a whole separate issue.  I think Ashley’s an interesting case because having met him and having spoken with him about this, he has done a lot of work to really create an identity that encapsulates his strong sense of belonging to the place where he grew up in Cape Breton.  But also, he’s really open about his sexuality and I think that in some ways, I think that was really interesting.  It’s also interesting because, in that part of the world, Natalie McMaster is another foremost sort of exponent as a woman in Cape Breton, and that has its own sort of ramifications because that’s a tradition mostly dominated by men.  So, I think, to answer your question, that there are, indeed, traditional musicians of all different sexual identities throughout different world traditions but whether or not they are allowed to be open about their identity and whether or not they actually feel like their identity is relevant to their music, is a whole separate issue.  A lot of people, I think prefer to not mix the two. I was talking to a dancer who I was doing some ethnographic work with, and he shared with me that he used to teach dancing and then would go home, change and go out on the scene, sort of the gay scene in Ireland, later.  And they were 2 separate existences for him.  But, at the same time, having encountered all that, that’s not necessarily the way that I feel like it works for me and I always feel like, in my life, that there’s these two facets of my being, my sexuality and my artistic practice.  They should be allowed to touch each other and to influence each other and I think that’s part of the project that you saw with Emma.

Right.  So tell me more about that part.   That’s what I find really interesting.  I mean, I’m really interested in how it has influenced the way you look at traditional music.  When did you start really diving into traditional music, looking for these references and looking to, maybe not to subvert the tradition, but to change it enough so it spoke to you?

NG:  Well, I don’t know if I’m even interested in changing the tradition as much as looking for historical precedents for people of alternative sexual identity within the tradition itself.  And there are a couple of pieces that come to mind, I tend to work a lot in Irish music and there are a couple of pieces of traditional Irish music repertoire that could kind of swing that way.  I think of myself as someone who has a general interest in creating more tolerant, safe spaces for people to be honest with themselves about their identity, whether or not it fits the dominant paradigm.  I think that I am both a researcher and a kind of an activist in this because as a researcher I am looking for those things that might speak to the existence of homosexual people or trans people or bi-sexual people within the tradition already.  There’s a piece of traditional sean-nos (an older genre of singing in the Irish language, Gaelic) song that I mentioned to you  that has a sort of homo-erotic title called, "An Buachaill Caol Dubh" which means “The Dark Slender Boy.”  So, at first, when I discovered that piece of music, I thought, “This is really interesting.” It’s typically sung by men, it has references to a really amorous relationship with a younger male, but then, I think a lot of scholars also think that that could probably be analogous to a relationship with a pint of beer and I think that’s the prevailing thought about that particular piece of music. 

The Dark Slender Boy(excerpt):

When I go to the fair buying clothes,
And with the goods in my hand
Stretched beside me the dark slim lad
And he puts a grass-stalk inside in my hand

Shortly after that I'm delighted
Without a quid to my name, and I'm across the board
Selling the clothes I had to my name,
I'm left without my shirt, cold in my craw.

It's the slim dark boy, tall, festive,
Clever, light, beautiful complexioned.
He wrecked me, he destroyed me
And left poor me with little treasure.
If he'd come from France, or the harbour of Howth
Or leaped to Inis Mor
The famine-hound would be lashing me to work
If all he wanted was an hour of the day.

Irish sean-nos master Iarla Ó Lionaird - "An Buachaill Caol Dubh (The Dark Slender Boy)"

Right.  But I mentioned earlier that I think that’s the kind of thing that when you look back at the historical record, at homosexuality in the historical record,  you start to see these really stupid theories that are used to sweep it under the rug.  Like I talked about the traditional [Scottish] tune “Hector the Hero.”  If you look at the history of Hector MacDonald, there’s all these people with all these theories to try to prove that he was not homosexual at all, but it’s pretty clear from the historical evidence that he committed suicide over accusations of homosexuality which were totally true. So, do you find other weird theories that are kinda like a way to get out of the conversation? 

NG:  I think a lot of times there are forces, just like there are forces in contemporary culture, that will try and write out the history and the existence of sexual minorities.  And I think that that’s, of course, a really dangerous thing, because, just as scholars of literature are discovering when they look at the work of Wilde or of James Joyce or even further back in Irish literature, that the homo-erotic has surfaced whether or not it’s been conspicuous and whether or not it’s done with a wink and a nod and what the scholar named Éibhear Walshe calls “the culture of the blind eye,” where people have sort of turned their heads and not wanted to acknowledge that it exists.  Another piece of music that might speak to this is an English ballad called “Royal Comrade” which talks about two men who go out bathing and one of them drowns. The chief mourner is the companion who was there, and he has to mourn in secret because he doesn’t want people to know that he was naked bathing with the other guy. 

The Lakes of Coolfin (a variant of Royal Comrade):
Airly one morning young William arose.
It's off to his comrade's bedchamber he goes,
Saying, "Comrade, royal comrade, rise and let no one know
For this is a fine morning and bathing we'll go."

They both walked along till they came to a long lane.
The first one they met was the keeper of game,
And he wished them in his heart to return back again,
But the fate of Young William was to die in a watery main.

Young William stripped off and he swum the lake round,
He swum to an island but not in dry ground,
Saying, "Comrade, royal comrade, do not venture in
For there's deep and false waters in the lakes of Col Fin."

Airly next morning his sister arose
And off to her mother's bedchamber she goes,
Saying, "Mother, dearest Mother, I dream'd a true dream
That Young William was floating in a watery stream."

It was airly next morning his mother came there
Wringing her fingers and tearing her hair
Saying, "Was there nobody by
That would venture their life for my fine darling boy?"

Airly next morning his uncle came there.
He rowed round the strand like a man in despair.
His uncle stripped himself and swum the lake round
And he swum to the island where William was found.

Saying, "Comrade, royal comrade, do not venture in
For there's deep and false waters in the lakes of Col Fin."*

The day of his funeral, it was a great sight.
Four and twenty young men all dressed in white.
They took him up to Mary's church and laid him in the clay
Saying, "Farewell, lovely William, forever and a day."

God help his poor mother, she's got reason to mourn
And likewise his sweetheart for I'm sure she has more,
For every other morning he did her salute
With pinks and red roses and fine garden fruit.

Oh, that’s interesting.  Have you found other recordings of that song?

NG:  There are different versions of it.  I think actually [Irish group] Dervish even has made a recording of it.  Yeah.  It’s out there in the traditional repertoire.  The person who shared it with me is a singer named Scott Hartley from Newcastle in England.

So, back to the Irish song that I’m interested in.  Do you buy that it’s about the love of drink?  Do you think that that’s a valid theory? 

NG:  [Laughing]  I’m not sure.  There’s a sort of cultural precept in Ireland that the love of drink is equivalent or maybe even surpasses the romantic love of anyone for anything in that country but I think, again, this is all based upon my ethnographic experiences with people in Ireland.  I think that that particular piece is probably about [the homosexual relationship], though I would not put it past some of the more conservative practitioners of that tradition to mask it and say it‘s about drinking instead of about a dark, slender boy. Even if it is about beer, I wonder if it could have been a way for closeted men to tacitly voice their desire in a societally acceptable way.  In that case, I think to myself, “Well, if there are people who are willing to bend the tradition a little bit in another direction and say ‘Okay, this is not about gay identity or about any sort of non-normative sexual practice,’ my response to that is to say, ‘Well, let’s create some talk here about non-normal sexual practice’ because the reality is that gay people have existed throughout history and that they would have been present at the point of origin of a lot of traditional songs that we know.  So, when I shift some of the pronouns to a song called “The Apprentice Boy,” it was very, very easy to change the lyrics to be about two boys on a sailing ship instead of a boy and a girl.   Whether that’s cultural malpractice or an imposition of my own sort of American cultural perspective upon Irish music, I suppose isn’t as important as making a statement about the fact that people of alternative sexual preference would have existed when the time that song was written as well and it could possibly be about two boys. 

Right.  Well, that happens a lot.  The pronouns are often switched, just when straight people sing the song, they’ll often switch the pronouns around if the song was written from the point of view of a woman and a man is singing it or vice versa.  So, pronoun switching is probably really common.   

NG:  Exactly.  So the only thing that would be different in my case would be that I’m switching the pronouns back so that it would be hypothetically a same sex sort of scenario. I feel, for me, those are the romantic scenarios that resonate with me, and that are going to give me the sort of emotive touch to sing that song with, I guess the performance quality that it deserves.

Right.  I would say the exact same thing about the straight person, they would switch it around so that it matches their romantic expectations.  So it seems perfectly normal, but are other people doing that?  I don’t know of anyone else who’s LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] and who’s switching around pronouns like that.

NG:  There are some people.  There are some people in the American folk scene, and there are some people in Ireland who are doing the same thing.  There’s a singer named Brian Hart [Brian Ó hAirt] who’s a sean-nos singer and who lives in Portland and he would be a really interesting person to talk to about this because he has a deep knowledge of traditional songs, particularly from the west of Ireland.  [NOTE: Brian’s interview follows shortly] Even folks who are kind of part of the revival and even though they might sing sort of more folk music, they’re also involved in traditional music, Leela and Ellie Gracewould be two contemporary folk practitioners who are kind of also involved in that kind of artistic process.

So, you were talking about the hetero-normative experience in songs and I liked your idea that a homosexual perspective should be more than same sex love and romance specifically.  Outside of just the specific examples of love and romance, are there examples in the traditional music where a homosexual perspective comes out beyond that?  You talked about hetero-normative themes of home and family.  So what would be another perspective on that? 

NG:  I don’t necessarily know of any specific examples where aspects of maybe more ephemeral stereotypical qualities of gay life would come out. Like there aren’t necessarily songs about going to the club and listening to Lady Gaga, but I think, at the same time, those ideas about home and family, and about morality, and again about really typological definitions of what it means to be from a certain geography, those have been used to disqualify and to sort of elide the experience of people of alternative sexual preference. The logic goes that this is the music of agriculture, it’s about fertility, it’s about ritual, it’s about a procreative experience, rather than an experience that glorifies bodies for being bodies, and sex as a social aspect of life that isn’t procreative.  I think even when it comes to things like English Morris Dancing, the associations of that particular dance form with ritual and with fertility, with aspects of agricultural fertility, make it a really sort of complex thing for gay people to be involved with now in the 21st century, because of the historical, at least ostensible  historical ramifications.  I should note that a lot of times the creation of those histories and I do mean the creation, are couched in conservative and nationalist history.  And so, a lot of times, there’s a very specific perspective put forward, which is usually from the dominant culture and all other perspectives are written out entirely.

Have you been going back and looking for traditional artists historically who were gay and who were maybe known to be gay or suspected to be gay and how that has affected their work?  You know if you look at art, you can go back so far and find Michelangelo, and all these great artists, whose work can really be best understood in some ways by understanding their homosexuality.  I don’t know if that’s possible to go back into the traditional, historical record and look for that. 

NG:  You know, to be honest with you, I don’t actually know that that would be relevant because I’m not interested in going on a historical sort of outing mission.  I can look to my present ethnographic work and see that there are practitioners, really good practitioners, people who are regarded as top in their field, who express alternative sexual identity. I haven’t learned any dance steps from people who have passed. 

Well, what about on the album you did with Emma, what were some of the examples of the songs on that album that worked for you or that you re-worked?

NG:  I think, there’s a couple of songs on that record, there’s a presentation, a sort of recurring theme of women and men going to sea and women cross-dressing.  And I guess on the record itself, there’s no mention of what the ramifications of that cross-dressing could mean, though in performances, when we talk about it, there’s sort of a tongue in cheek.  And not just tongue in cheek but a serious consideration for that practice as maybe something that wasn’t just necessary to hide the identity, the sexual identity of a person, but maybe also something that was a little bit erotic.

Well, it’s clearly erotic.  I mean there’s a lot of songs like that, that’s very erotic, the captain always falls in love with the boy.

NG:  Exactly, exactly. 

It’s always a surprise when it turns to be a girl, you know.

NG:  So that opens all kinds of questions…  Is it a transvestite experience for the women, who are enjoying the new-found power of being a man within a potentially misogynous culture?  Is it a sort of pederastic experience for the authority figure on the ship, for the captain himself who falls for the young cabin boy, you know, who’s really fair and really slim?  And then, very little is mentioned about the person that the woman goes to pursue in the first place, that first potential lover.  I wonder again, if there’s an aspect of voyeurism, where this man is watching the captain fall for this cabin boy and then, maybe he gets off and enjoys the fact that his once-lover is now being pursued by someone in a position of power?  I mean, that’s of course, maybe going a bit too far, but I think it merits going a bit too far because for the amount that sex has been written out of traditional music and song, I think it deserves to be re-instated. 

That seems like a pretty fertile ground.  I mean, there’s a lot of those songs, there’s far more of those songs about the woman dressing as a man and going to sea, then there would be any historic instances.  I mean, there are historic instances but clearly, it’s touched some kind of nerve in the psyche of the people.

NG: Definitely.  It’s almost a cliched storyline.

Canadeio(perfect example of this kind of song)

Well, it's of a fair and a handsome girl
She's all in her tender years
She fell in love with a sailor boy
It's true she loved him well
For to go off to sea with him
Like she did not now how
She longed to see that seaport town
Of Canadee-i-o.

So he bargained with the sailor boy
All for a piece of gold
Straightaway then he led her
Down into the hold
Sayin', "I'll dress you up in sailor's clothes
Your jacket shall be blue
You'll see that seaport town
Of Canadee-i-o".

Now, when the other sailors heard the news
Well, they fell into a rage
And with all the ship's company
They were willing to engage
Sayin', "We'll tie her hands and feet, my boys
Overboard we'll throw her
She'll never see that seaport town
Called Canadee-i-o".

Now, when the captain he heard the news
Well, he too fell in rage
And with the whole ships' company
He was willing to engage
Sayin', "She'll stay all in sailor's clothes
Her color shall be blue
She'll see that seaport town
Called Canadee-i-o".

Now, when they come down to Canada
Scarcely 'bout half a year
She's married this bold captain
Who called her his dear
She's dressed in silks and satins now
She cuts a gallant show
And she is the finest of the ladies there
In Canadee-i-o.

Come all you fair and handsome girls
Wheresoever you may bee
I'd have you to follow your own true love
Whene'er he goes to sea
For if the sailors they prove false to you
Well, the captain he might prove true
And you shall see that seaport town
Called Canadee-i-

Nic Gareiss & Emma Beaton: Canadeio

Are you finding that that’s kinda like ground zero for looking for the homosexual experience in traditional song?

NG:  [Laughing]  You know, to be honest with you, my experience looking for those kinds of perspectives is relatively limited, but I think, if anything, if it were to be found, it would be in those kinds of narratives… The other song on the record that speaks to what we are talking about is actually a poem, it’s a newly written poem by an Irish poet named Cathal Ó Searcaigh.  He wrote a poem called “The Injured Shoulder,” [from the collection of his poetry, Out in the Open]which tells the story of an individual who is having amorous feelings for what appears to be a younger male figure in the song.  When I read the poem, I read it in English, but it was written originally in Irish.  Cathal Ó Searcaigh is regarded as one of the foremost poets writing in the Irish language today.   He’s writing new work, he’s not picking up traditional songs as much as he’s creating new poetry.  He also just wrote a memoir.  I think that particular song speaks to an experience that, I’m not sure how typical it is, but when I read the poem, it really struck me. I found it really beautiful and quite moving in the sense that it spoke about loneliness, it spoke about isolation, it spoke about feelings of secrecy. I think for anyone that’s experienced the process of coming out, those feelings of secrecy and of longing are really close to the heart.  I think that they were certainly things that I could relate to when I was coming out.  So, that’s one of the reasons that we wanted to include the song on the record and also to present it as plainly as possible, almost as if it were a traditional song. 

The Injured Shoulder, by Cathal Ó Searcaigh, translated from Irish by Frank Sewell

He hurt himself, he said, on the football pitch,
but I'd bet there was another reason
for the wound in his shoulder, the black eye.
When his da lost the head, he'd beat him
if he was there, and throw the ma out of the house.

Standing on tip-toes, stretching out for a book
above him on the shelf, a book about Gaoth Dobhair
that took his fancy (he was into history),
the effort loosened the dressing on the wound
and opened it again, leaking blood.

I dressed it for him, taking my time cleaning it,
dithering over the wound, rubbing it gently with ointment;
he gasped once or twice but kept still under my hands.
I loved attending to him, looking at his body
so lovely and thin, listening to him breathing fast, then slow.

When he left, I found in front of the chair
some of the old dressing, a small bloodied rag.
It should have been thrown on the fire immediately
but I pressed it to my lips with love and longing
and kept it there for ages; the warm blood of the one

I love above all others darkening my lips

Nic Gareiss & Emma Beaton: The Injured Shoulder

You know it’s interesting to me that you’re not very direct about your sexuality in concert. You didn’t start the concert like, “Hey, I’m gay, I’m gonna sing a bunch of songs that are kind of related to my experience.” [both laughing]  Though you’re out about it, I don’t think it’s even really part of your PR or anything.  It was so subtle the way your perspective came out in your music. 

NG:  I think a lot of times that that’s reflective of the people that I have learned this music from.  They express and identify with a particular musical repertoire or style or tradition and then the rest of their identity sort of fills in the cracks, and it supplements that.  And I think that’s one of the things that makes this tradition really rich. I guess, as a gay person, my identity is a part of it, but at the same time, it’s not the only part of it.  I’m also from Michigan, I’m also a dancer.  You know, it’s one facet of my identity.

Right.  All of those identities can be encompassed by the traditional music you’re doing. 

NG:  Exactly.  I believe that the tradition is open enough, is broad enough to speak to the experiences of many, many diverse kinds of people.  

One last question.  I was talking to somebody else about this article and she mentioned that she just felt that there weren’t many “out” male, gay performers in the roots music world.  Do you agree with that?  Do you think that that’s an accurate perspective? 

NG:  I think in terms of performers who are “out,” and people who allow their sexual identity to influence their work, I think that are relatively few.  I can think of several dancers, I can think of some people in the old-time music world, I can think of some people in the Irish music world, but there aren’t very many people actually talking about it, and I think that as we as a community of people, grow and as people become more liberal and accepting of alternative sexual identities, it’s the kind of thing that I would like to see more traditional musicians talking about. 

Do you think maybe the reason there aren’t many “out,” gay performers in traditional music is that the traditions are inherently alienating? You’ve done a lot of work and you haven’t found a whole lot of songs that really speak to you.  Is part of the issue that there just isn’t much reason to express sexuality in traditional music? 

NG:  No, I don’t believe that there’s anything about the traditions themselves that is hetero-normative.  However, I believe that a lot of traditional music has been appropriated and used by conservative institutions to perpetuate different political ideologies.  And I think that that’s where it starts to become scary for people of alternative sexual preference because, a lot of times, what gets perpetuated are these ideas of very conservative morality… even invocations of different religious sentiments, and those are all things that speak against the experience of sexual minorities.  So, I think that has a lot to do with it and the reality, of course, is that there are definitely traditional musicians and dancers who are out there, who are in their roots music world, who play music from Spain, who play music from Turkey, who are involved in Indian classical dance, but whether or not their specific culture allows for them to express their sexual identity in a conspicuous and open way, that’s a completely different question.   And I think, a lot of times, based on the music that I have been a part of, a lot of times that isn’t as permissive.  It’s not as acceptable to talk about sexuality in that way and I think that that’s something that I feel really strongly about changing. 

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Following my conversation with Nic, I wanted to speak with Brian Ó hAirt, a prominent Irish-American musician and dancer. Brian had a totally different, and at times completely opposite perspective on these issues, so I wanted to include his take on some of these same questions. Brian is a wonderful traditional Irish singer, dancer and musician. He leads Bua, a well-known Irish-American trad band that I've written about before. He currently has a new album out with older Irish singer Len Graham.

Hearth Music Interview with Brian Ó hAirt

How have you adapted or adopted songs in the Irish tradition to reflect your own romantic perspective? Are there many songs that could be seen as speaking to a homosexual point of view in Irish tradition?

BH: I don't think there are songs that speak to a homosexual point of view in the Irish tradition per se.  Rather, I feel that the nature of song in the Irish tradition, while not void completely of a gender/sexual viewpoint, is one that cloaks the singer from ties to the song itself.  In this way, the singer is the storyteller (omniscient third person)--one retelling events without bias or favor--something quite removed from the classical western art model.  Read: telling a story VS performing a story.  This is certainly true for the ballad tradition and even more so in the lyrical tradition (Irish language forms).  So, in short, I learn songs that speak to me from the perspective of story rather more so than personal connection--e.g. this person is singing about an ordeal to which I sympathize.  This sympathy certainly plays a part in learning my songs BUT it's masked because I'm singing someone else's song--not my own so the perspective is necessarily ambiguous.

Nic Gareiss has been doing some neat work where he switches pronouns in songs to make it more meaningful for himself. Do you do that as well? Are there examples of this in your work with Bua? On the new album?

BH: I don't do this.  I don't feel that it makes any statement because songs, as fleeting performances, don't really allow for deeper metaphor or meaning.  Simply put, I'm singing a song from, say, a woman's perspective but I'm a man and I very much align with this woman's emotions and experience but that will never come across in the song--maybe my performance but as I said above READ:  telling a story VS performing a story.  I might feel it with all of my frame but it's not my purpose as a singer to make a statement about myself but rather give justice to the song.  I can do just that by imbuing my emotion into it but regardless, I'm (my ego/experience) is second to the story but key to understanding and retelling it.  Songs I've done with Bua convey a lot of my emotional experience.  On the newest album, Down the Green Fields/Síos Fá Thaobh an Ghleanna, I sing 'My Parents Reared Me Tenderly'--about a young soldier's experience with war.  While it reflects my ideas about war and my sympathy with men sent off to see horrific things at a young age, it would not convey my love of men and my romantic notions of soldiers if I swapped out a pronoun.  It would likely leave the audience baffled if not unaffected because they probably wouldn't catch the changed pronoun anyway.  'Bádoirín Thír an Fhia'I sing from the bottom of my heart about a lover I have in Ireland but changing pronouns turns the song upside down in terms of its historical setting--or the simple fact that I'm singing this song about this boatman--does that convey the fact that I'm queer to the audience?  I don't think so but my sentiments are there 100% in the song.

Bádoirín Thír an Fhia(translated to English)

There is a pain in my chest that would put hundreds of men to their death.
And I am positively certain that a cure for me cannot be found;
Isn't it a pity now that I am parting from you as the finest hour approaches,
When the cuckoo is making music and every green leaf is growing.

It is my woe that I did not die when I was young and starting my life,
That a wooden coffin wasn't made for me so that I'd be buried deep in the grave,
Before I saw him seduced by another woman at my side
And me to be without him, oh God shining bright, what a bad experience.

And I bestowed my affection on a little tailor, I thought that he was more than fair,
But my boatman was the man I loved the most of all the men I have seen yet;
Now that you are departing from me and will never ever return,
I hope to the God of Glories that I might yet meet you again.

Is there any woman in this place who could explain my state of affairs
Or whose heart wouldn't be breaking and rightfully so?
My little boatman who left me at the hour of two or three
I have no expectation that he will return home for as long as I shall live.

Counsel to you, oh girls, if you accept it from me,
Do not go drinking with any young man and do not give credence to his words,
For they will promise to marry you with their smart sweet talk
But will part from you o'er the waters like the boatman of Tír an Fhia.

Bua - Bádóirín Thír an Fhia  (as sung by Brian Ó hAirt)

How has coming out affected your career as an Irish traditional artist? Has there been a negative reaction?

BH: I was queer and out coming into the music.  I've not held my identity back... Whether this openness or frankness has worked to my advantage or disadvantage, I do not know and, honestly, do not care.  The folk community at large is rather accepting.  The Irish traditional music community, while stemming from a traditionally conservative culture, is similar.  But I do see performers in these communities who (if my gaydar is correct) are queer and are not out and I try not to take that as an affront to my identity and success--but I feel ashamed for them none-the-less--especially when the community has their suspicions (and don't care regardless) and yet still see closeted queers struggle with accepting themselves within a larger community.

Are there other artists in Celtic music or American roots music who are doing similar work? Is there a community of sorts? What about in academia? Are other gay artists looking through the historical record in music and song to find these references?

BH: I don't know.  I'm not really aware and would likely approach these mentioned groups with a grain of salt, much in the way that I approach self-identified-all-women groups or a trio of all fiddles, etc.  Is it necessary?  Are you flying the flag for your own self worth or the worth of the tradition?  Are you trying to be outspoken?  These are all questions with which I struggle because there is a larger sense of ego being brought into a tradition that already accommodates the human experience.  And there are certainly subtler ways to convey one's sexual identity without changing genders in a song or dressing in drag to perform or to have heart-felt openings to songs where your sexual identity is (often) uncomfortably thrust onto an audience.  Academia is the arena for this sort of thing FOR SURE--books, funding, theory, conferences, etc.

Do you think that performing traditional music can be an alienating experience for someone who's gay? Since there are so few songs and much of the history has been swept under the rug, is it hard to connect to this music for you?

It is not hard for me to connect to this music.  On the contrary, my isolation in my youth (we've all been teenagers) and disenfranchisement as a sexual minority fed my interest in Irish music/song/dance to harness the emotion of human experience, which I found to be less gender-specific and more sexually ambiguous--after all--tunes and dances have no words; it's only the songs that have an audible voice and that voice is one more concerned with story telling than anything else.  I do lament that few (if any) songs from the homosexual perspective exist--but given that nature of the tradition in not knowing the composer of most songs, that's likely not true.  There are probably many, many songs from the Irish tradition written by a homosexual that doesn't come through in lyrics because, well, love is love is love and gender or sexual identity are secondary to it.     

Brian Ó hAirt & Len Graham - My Parents Reared Me Tenderly

My HUGE thanks to both Nic and Brian for being so open about this topic and so willing to talk. I've studied and loved this music my whole life, and they both brought out sides to the music and ideas about the songs that I've never heard or thought of. This traditional music is truly as deep as our human hearts. Thanks also to No Depressionfor helping me work out the scope of this new series.

PLEASE SUPPORT THE ARTISTS IN THIS ARTICLE

Nic Gareiss & Emma Beaton's duo album
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Cathal Ó Searcaigh's book Out in the Open
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Len Graham & Brían Ó hAirt - In Two Minds
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Bua - Down the Green Fields
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photo credits:

1. Nic's feet, photo by Chandra Demers
2. Emma and Nic, photo by Ryan MacDonald
3. B&W Photo of Nic, by Dara Gannon
4. Nic dancing, photo by Michael Erlewine

Comment by Kim Ruehl on December 5, 2012 at 6:09am

Thank you so much for this, Devon! I was, of course, working in a completely different area of folk music when I was making my way as a performer, but it was a place where I was able to orient myself as a gay woman more openly than many other places in my life. Certainly the singer-songwriter world is replete with LGBT folks (more out women and transmen than gay men or transwomen, curiously) but it's interesting to hear from the traditional community, to be sure. 

I just wanted to say a word about Appalachia and the Blue Ridge area, since that's where I live now, as an out gay woman working in roots music. I know there's a tendency to think of this part of the country as very conservative about things like LGBT issues, but I think it's important to not go overboard with blanket statements. Yes, Asheville is a freakishly progressive bubble here in the mountains, but my impression of the people in this region - on an individual level - is that they might spout conservative social opinions but, at the end of the day, folks want to be left alone and leave other people alone to live however they want. I don't think that's necessarily reflected in our political situation, but it's certainly reflected in the culture here, and I think would also apply to the way people consume cultural traditions like music and dance. I think it's important to make that distinction, because I've been a progressive NWerner who thought the south was full of anti-gay folks, and I think it's much more complex than that. Especially when it comes to cultural things like the traditional music. People here take their traditional music very seriously, and it's often one of the best ways to relate to the differences between people - to appeal through the lens of the traditional songs, which are really there to tell stories about everything we have in common. 

Just my two cents. I hope you can find some women and trans folks to talk with, too, and non-white LGBT people. Their intellectual opinions on topics like this are frequently drowned out by white gay men.

One more thing - I know you had a little trepidation about how to present this, being a straight white guy talking about a minority, wanting to be culturally sensitive, etc. I think you did a beautiful job, and I want to say that it's important for non-homophobic white people to join in the effort to speak honestly and openly about LGBT issues. If only LGBT people were allowed to handle that topic, we would wind up talking to ourselves all the time. Respectful, open-minded discourse from folks like yourself is as valuable as anything any LGBT group might put forth.

Comment by Bob Lambert on December 5, 2012 at 8:40am

Thank you for highlighting a wonderfully talented performer. I have followed Nic through his social media and youtube videos for a long time and they are inspiring as well as entertaining. This article sums up some of the passion he has for the music and the material and his skill in translating that into a performance. I must admit his dancing brings tears of joy to my eyes and now his singing offers a new path to the wellspring of emotions he can generate with ease. Continued success to him.

Comment by Hearth Music on December 5, 2012 at 1:22pm

Thanks so much for your comments, Kim! I'm really really interested in how homosexuality is perceived in traditional communities and how gay trad musicians are accepted (or not) in "conservative" Southern roots music communities, so I'm really hoping to dive into that more. Of course it's not black and white, and I'm very interested to hear your experiences as well. Thank you for sharing and your kind words of support! Hopefully I'll be able to do more articles in this series!

Working next with Emma's Revolution, two women partners who make beautiful protest and labor movmt music, hopefully that'll work out. Definitely aware of the inside conflict between some lesbians, LGBT people of color, trans folks, bi folks and others vis-a-vis white male dominant gay culture often as seen embodied by Dan Savage.

Comment by Gillian Turnbull on December 5, 2012 at 3:12pm

Wow Devon, I'm excited about this.  Do you mind if I share it with some colleagues?  I know lots of people who would like to read it.

Comment by Hearth Music on December 5, 2012 at 4:07pm

Sure thing Gillian, please share this all around!

Comment by Sibylle on June 18, 2013 at 11:23pm
The lyrics to 'The Dark Slender Boy' as excerpted here are so wonderfully erotic in every single line that it's hard for me to imagine that this song could ever have been passed off as being about beer, were the audience not willing to be complicit in the subterfuge. Is it too naive to think that people might actually have welcomed this intense yet veiled expression of a love one dared not acknowledge openly?
Comment by Sibylle on June 18, 2013 at 11:53pm
The lyrics immediately put me in mind of James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room.
Comment by Hearth Music on June 19, 2013 at 11:30am

Thanks for the comments Sibylle! I agree that The Dark Slender Boy is likely NOT primarily about a love of drink. It's a deeply erotic and beautiful song and many many thanks to Nic for bringing out the subtext of the song. 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.