Licence To Ceilidh

Beyond Bagpipes – A Beginner’s Guide to Gaelic Folk (Guest Post by Nick Lewis)

You know I love Celtic music so I was delighted when Nick approached me about writing a guest piece with some basic background on it. If you like it, say so in the comments and we’ll bring Nick back for more.

Licence To CeilidhGaelic folk refers to the folk music of old gaelic societies, primarily Irish and Scottish. Naturally there are significant differences between Scottish and Irish folk, and many regional variations within, but the traditions are similar enough to merit their own catch-all term.

The tradition has largely died out, but there is still a small folk community, and many of the old songs and dances are revived by ceilidh bands for weddings and other big events. It’s a rich tradition that goes a lot further than a lone bagpiper on top of a mountain.

The instruments

When most people think of Scottish folk, bagpipes are what spring immediately to mind, and for Irish, the fiddle or the tin-whistle.

At the CeilidhBoth Scottish and Irish folk used bagpipes, but while the Scottish bagpipe requires the piper to blow into the bag, Irish uilleann pipes use a hand operated bellow. They are much quieter and also allow the piper to sing or call at the same time.

Other traditional instruments in both traditions are the fiddle, accordion, flutes, whistles (more tin-whistle than football coach!), banjo, acoustic guitar and bodhran (an Irish drum).

Pianos and cello figured much more in Scotland, and many players of gaelic folk today use more modern instruments like a full drum kit, electric bass and electric guitar.

Some History

Another CeilidhAs with many folk traditions, gaelic folk was as much, if not more, about the oral tradition as it was about the aesthetic appreciation of music. Scholars of gaelic folk will tell you that every song had a specific purpose, and often, its speed was to help keep time during particular activities – churning butter or rowing a boat for example.

But music was also for enjoyment, and figured heavily in ceilidhs (pronounced kay-leed). This traditionally meant any type of social gathering, and would encompass everything from discussion to story telling to singing and dancing.

Again, the songs were for specific dances and were designed for keeping time as much as anything else. In gaelic folk the melody and the activity were practically inseparable.

Nowadays a ceilidh refers almost exclusively to the music and dancing element, with short tutorials for beginner dancers before each dance and a caller to walk dancers through the steps.

The importance of language

One of the most interesting aspects of gaelic folk is that the words were integral to the melody. This is partly due to the rhythmic element and how the songs were used to keep time, but is also due to the nature of gaelic languages.

A prominent feature of the language was the use of syllable length for semantics. Thus, the rhythm of the words would dictate the melody and the melody may not make sense without them, nor would the words sung in a different rhythm. (For example “sin” meaning “that” with a short vowel, and “sin” meaning “stretch” with a long vowel. See http://akerbeltz.org/index.php?title=Vowels for more.)

You can imagine how changing the melody would completely change the meaning!

So strong is the connection between the two, that much of Scottish and Irish poetry was actually written to be sung, and there was considered no difference between song and poem.

Nick Lewis is a writer, musician and sound engineer. He’s writing on behalf of Licence to Ceilidh – London’s top Ceilidh band

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