Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: Is Celtic Music at the Root of Roots Music?
While I have never participated in a St. Patrick’s Day parade or drunk that green beer that pops up one day a year, I must admit Ireland provided one of the cornerstones of music in America. Direct lines can be found in the traaditional music of Appalachia, bluegrass, and even country. A case can be made that Celtic music is the primary root of roots music. So, this week, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday, I focus on that root.
As with any root transferred to a different culture, the music has also been changed by that culture, the passage of time, and the talents and sensibilities of the folks who embrace it.
Natalie MacMaster is a good example of how Celtic music has been transferred to another country. Born in Nova Scotia, MacMaster began playing the fiddle at the age of nine and, at 16, released her first album, Four on the Floor. Since then, she has fused her Cape Breton roots with music from Scotland and Ireland, and to a lesser degree, bluegrass.
Van Morrison needs no introduction. Next to U2, he is the biggest musical name to come out of Ireland. He single-handedly invented Celtic soul. While he has sold many records, Astral Weeks (1968) remains one of the great albums in rock music.
Shannon Lambert-Ryan, from Philadelphia, fronts RUNA, and is versatile in her arts career. She also acted in Sweeney Todd, and has appeared in plays by writers as variant as William Shakespeare and Brian Friel. Her husband and band co-founder Fionán de Barra is from Dublin, while other members hail from Galway, Canada, and Kentucky. RUNA has expanded the boundaries of Irish folk music since their formation in 2008. Taking melodies and tunes of Ireland and Scotland and mixing in harmonies of bluegrass, flamenco, blues, and jazz, they are another fine example of a group who is redefining traditional music. They won the award for Best Traditional Group in the Irish Music Awards and an Independent Music Award for both best world/traditional song and best bluegrass song.
The Waterboys are a folk-rock band formed in 1983 by Mike Scott. The band’s membership has primarily come from Scotland, Ireland, and England. They have explored a number of different styles, but their music is mainly a mix of Celtic music with rock and roll. They dissolved in 1993 when Scott departed to pursue a solo career, then reformed in 2000. Their early sound was called “big music” after a song on their second album. Scott has called it a “metaphor for seeing God’s signature in the world.” It either influenced or was used to describe a number of other bands such as U2, Simple Minds, Hothouse Flowers, and Big Country.
Named after Ukrainian nomads, Scythian plays immigrant rock that beckons crowds into a barn-dance, rock-concert experience. Nashville’s Music City Roots says Scythian is “what happens when rock star charisma meets Celtic dervish fiddling.” Anyone who has seen them live cannot forget the energy and great sense of life they bring to a performance.
Gaelic Storm, like many bands, began as a pub band — in Santa Monica, California — some 20 years ago. From bluegrass fans and country cowboys to Deadheads, rock and rollers, and Celtic fanatics, after over 3,000 live shows, Gaelic Storm has built one of the most diverse fan bases in modern music. They also appeared in had appeared in the film Titanic (“Irish Party in Third Class”) They have topped the Billboard World Chart five times.
We Banjo 3 is a quartet from Ireland that includes dueling banjos and high-energy bluegrass-infused Celtic music. They are also one of the hottest bands on the “traditional” music circuit. I had heard a lot about them, but their live performance two nights ago to a full house at Mountain Stage far outstripped their rep. A live radio show is usually tightly scripted time-wise, but this time the audience would not be denied. The band played nearly twice their allotted time. See these guys as soon as you can.
Paddy Keenan was born in County Meath in 1950. His father and grandfather both played the pipes, and his father spent many nights playing along with piper Johnny Doran. He was introduced to the tin whistle by his brother, Johnny, a banjo player, and began playing the pipes early on. At 17 he went to England and busked around London, singing and playing blues and rock songs on guitar for the majority of the following four years. Having nearly sold or thrown away his pipes multiple times, he discovered in 1971 that busking with them was far more lucrative than with the guitar, so he again began playing the pipes. He is perhaps the world’s foremost pipes player.
Altan is one of the best-known Irish bands. It was formed in County Donegal in 1987 and has brought its songs and instrumental styles to audiences around the world ever since, selling over a million albums. They were the first traditional group to be signed to a major label when they signed with Virgin Records in 1994. Altan has established a large following in Ireland, UK, Europe, United States, Canada, and Japan. They have worked with a wide variety of well-known musicians, including Dolly Parton, the Chieftains, Bonnie Raitt, and many others.
Tempest, from the Bay Area, combines traditional Celtic music with European, Norwegian, and American folk and progressive rock. Over nearly 30 years, the band has changed personnel more frequently than any other of which I am aware. Their lineup seems to change annually. But the vision, refining along the way, remains pretty much the same even as it is constantly revitalized.
John Doyle is an Irish musician and songwriter who, for several years, was the guitarist with the Irish-American band Solas. He’s a highly accomplished guitarist with a trademark style for backing up other musicians, such as Linda Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kate Rusby, Eileen Ivers, and Karan Casey.
The Henry Girls consists of three sisters: Karen, Lorna, and Joleen McLaughlin. Mixing fiddles, ukulele, banjo, guitar, mandolin, accordion, and even piano, they have been described as a combination of traditional Irish music and Americana. They have worked with Mary Black, Session Americana, Donal Lunny, and the Fox Hunt from West Virginia.
Soaking up the traditions of Appalachia — which itself is, of course, well-steeped in Gaelic music and traditions — I Draw Slow makes the circle complete. They are a quintet from Dublin that is, by many ears, unabashedly Americana. I first saw them at MerleFest last year and then again at a recent Mountain Stage performance, and both times they performed for very enthusiastic audiences. The UK press have called them Ireland’s equivalent of Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. While they had been writing together for over 20 years, brother and sister Dave and Louise Holden began the band in 2008. They have never looked back.