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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 11:27 am 
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I've been doing a lot of research into the history of Irish music, or perhaps Irish Traditional Music, and I'm struck by the way tastes change. Is it due to technology? for example, people commonly argue that guitar is only really popular after the popularization of steel strings, because that makes it loud enough to hang with other instruments.

Before 1700, the harp is king. Itinerant harpers are the voice and the symbol of Irish music. Then in the 19th century it shifts to the pipes. In Frances O'Neill's day, it's the pipes, the pipes, the pipes and some fiddle. But he laments that piping is dying out, and in the relatively few sessions or workshops I've attended, the pipes have the fewest players.

I'm just wondering what accounts for this. If you think of it purely as a musical tool, the harp has the advantage of being relatively portable and also polyphonic, so it can play melody and harmony at the same time. It's relatively easy to start to play in the sense that the motions of plucking are straightforward. For example any child can walk up to harp and pluck a note, but the same kid would have a much harder time getting anything out of a set of pipes.

The pipes are much more portable, and can play melody and some harmony simultaneously, and they have a closer kinship to the human voice. They're as ancient as the harp, so why was the harp dominant in O'Carolan's day, and then the harp more or less died out in favor of the pipes? (yes I know people still play both)


I'd venture that today flute, whistle and fiddle are the most common instruments. But O'Neill talks about the flute as if it hardly matters; it's the instrument of casual amateurs; and when he talks about great players they are almost always either pipers or fiddle players.

I'm wondering if the rise of piping had to do with technological improvements that made pipes more capable and reliable than they were before 1800 or so. But why the decline of piping?


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 12:25 pm 
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In Frances O'Neill's day, it's the pipes, the pipes, the pipes and some fiddle. But he laments that piping is dying out, and in the relatively few sessions or workshops I've attended, the pipes have the fewest players.


I think you will have to take into account that the pipes were considered in danger for a long time and received a lot of attention for that reason, even if there were few players left. O'Neill made a deliberate attempt documenting the pipers he could find information on. By the time Na Piobairi Uilleann was founded in 1968 it was thought there were fewer than a hundred pipers left. Today there are more pipers than at any point in history.

The decline in piping was, among other things, due to a lack of serviceable instruments, few capable makers to maintain them and for just being a fussy instrument to keep going. And as instruments for dancing to, accordions and fiddles were much the preferred choice (and remain so today)

It's probably also useful to think of the Bardic tradition as separate from what is now considered 'Traditional music'. The bardic tradition just died out, due to lack of patronage from the classes it catered to, for one (there was a definite change of fashion in the musical tastes of the upper classes).

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I'd venture that today flute, whistle and fiddle are the most common instruments. But O'Neill talks about the flute as if it hardly matters; it's the instrument of casual amateurs; and when he talks about great players they are almost always either pipers or fiddle players


I think the regard in which an instrument is held would explain it being ignored in written accounts. If you look at the photos of the Chicago Irish music club, there are fluteplayers among them, including the chief himself:

Image

Note you make no mention of accordions or concertinas, both are extremely numerous. Especially the concertina has become very very popular, seeing a steady rise since the eighties. But for a long time it was invisible in accounts of Irish music, it was cheap, disposable and easy to play. And to boot it was often played by women (just about the only instrument thought suitable for a woman), some of the old people used to say there was one, a concertina, in every house in some parts of the country. But it had no status whatsoever, it was the bean chairdín, the woman's accordion.

Traditional music was always a minority pursuit, especially during the early part of the previous century. And although it is now more prevalent and popular than at any point in history, it still is pretty much a niche activity.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 12:35 pm 
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Probably the ability of obtaining cheaper instruments, the then masses would play them, & so they became popular.

It is just a guess, but it is what has happened to music in my time, the arrival of cheap electric guitars changed 'popular' music considerably in the 1950s.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 2:51 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
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In Frances O'Neill's day, it's the pipes, the pipes, the pipes and some fiddle. But he laments that piping is dying out, and in the relatively few sessions or workshops I've attended, the pipes have the fewest players.


I think you will have to take into account that the pipes were considered in danger for a long time and received a lot of attention for that reason, even if there were few players left. O'Neill made a deliberate attempt documenting the pipers he could find information on. By the time Na Piobairi Uilleann was founded in 1968 it was thought there were fewer than a hundred pipers left. Today there are more pipers than at any point in history.

The decline in piping was, among other things, due to a lack of serviceable instruments, few capable makers to maintain them and for just being a fussy instrument to keep going. And as instruments for dancing to, accordions and fiddles were much the preferred choice (and remain so today)

It's probably also useful to think of the Bardic tradition as separate from what is now considered 'Traditional music'. The bardic tradition just died out, due to lack of patronage from the classes it catered to, for one (there was a definite change of fashion in the musical tastes of the upper classes).

'
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I'd venture that today flute, whistle and fiddle are the most common instruments. But O'Neill talks about the flute as if it hardly matters; it's the instrument of casual amateurs; and when he talks about great players they are almost always either pipers or fiddle players


I think the regard in which an instrument is held would explain it being ignored in written accounts. If you look at the photos of the Chicago Irish music club, there are fluteplayers among them, including the chief himself:

Image

Note you make no mention of accordions or concertinas, both are extremely numerous. Especially the concertina has become very very popular, seeing a steady rise since the eighties. But for a long time it was invisible in accounts of Irish music, it was cheap, disposable and easy to play. And to boot it was often played by women (just about the only instrument thought suitable for a woman), some of the old people used to say there was one, a concertina, in every house in some parts of the country. But it had no status whatsoever, it was the bean chairdín, the woman's accordion.

Traditional music was always a minority pursuit, especially during the early part of the previous century. And although it is now more prevalent and popular than at any point in history, it still is pretty much a niche activity.



That makes sense.


There's almost always a technology angle. Accordions are a pretty complex piece of business. I played in a gypsy jazz band for years with an excellent accordionist and he was always having to take the box in and get it fiddled with by the one shop in a four hour drive that fixed accordions. Banjos don't really take off in the US till they get industrialized, with metal strings and tuning rims. I play the double bass a lot, an instrument rendered obsolete by Leo Fender and the electric bass, but people still want to hear it, i like the sound more, and upright gigs pay better because they convey social prestige and "authenticity." O'Neill says Taylor, in Philadelphia, more or less invented the modern pipes by finding ways to make them louder, for larger american stages. It fits in with his claim that all the best players of irish music were in the US. I don't know enough about pipes to know if that's true--I've never touched a set, much less played one. The pipes are gorgeous sounding, and it's hard to understand why they would fade relative to other instruments. It could be as simple as microphones making flutes more viable


Yes O'Neill sees piping as in decline, but when he's reminiscing about his childhood he talks about the flute the way somebody might talk about Honda Civics: ubiquitous and unremarkable. There's a real tension in O'Neill, between ITM as the expression of ordinary people doing ordinary stuff and as the music of virtuoso players who excel. He's a little conflicted. I guess all musicians are, but it seems like it's part of his dual claim that irish music is great but the greatest irish music is in Chicago. I should add I'm skeptical of everything O'Neill says: it's habitual professional skepticism, not hostility


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 3:05 pm 
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PB+J wrote:
[O'Neill] talks about the flute the way somebody might talk about Honda Civics: ubiquitous and unremarkable.

At the time, they were. The Boehm system had taken over in "serious" music, so the simple-system flutes were abandoned and could be found anywhere, and often for free. That's when fluteplaying really took off in ITM; before the Boehm shift, flutes were not as canonical to the tradition in the way they are now. The simple system flute has become identified with Trad essentially by default, such is the march of progress and what it leaves in its wake.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 3:13 pm 
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Approaching O'Neill with a bit of healthy skepticism is a good idea.

Note that when the old people often spoke of the 'flute' it could mean whistle as well as what we think of as the 'flute'. Probably going back to both of them being called feadóg in Irish. The concert flute was a term used to distinguish it. I am not quite sure when the flute came in and I wonder if it was as prevalent as O'Neill suggests. There was a fashion for fife bands too, not much talked about these days and one can wonder if they were among the flutes referred to. Most stories refer to (concert) flutes coming in later, often sent home by emigrants from England and the US, where they had gone out of fashion.

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It could be as simple as microphones making flutes more viable


No. flutes were played for volume. A good fluteplayer produces a big sound. Get two or three fluteplayers together to play for a dance and the sound has an almost physical presence.



About the technology issue: realise the first accordions were much less complex than the Paolo Sopranis that arrived later. They were sold in hardwareshops and were rought and ready. The old German concertinas ditto, plenty of stories of people chipping in to buy a concertina for a dance and it falling apart after the night. They were disposable and cheap. Again British made quality concertinas only really started arriving when emigrants picked them up cheaply (relatively anyway) in England and started sending them over.

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The pipes are gorgeous sounding


When they are going well and are played well, they can be. Problem is, when there wasn't much in the way of maintenance, tuition and knowledge about them available, they weren't going well a lot of the time. A lot of people are not particularly fond of them, even those who like the notion of the pipes as an emblem of national culture.


[cross posted with Nano's]

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 3:58 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
flutes were played for volume. A good fluteplayer produces a big sound. Get two or three fluteplayers together to play for a dance and the sound has an almost physical presence.

That's true. If the acoustics are right, even just one solo fluteplayer can do the job in a pinch. I've had to. :boggle:

(Not that I was good, mind you, but I knew how to be loud.)

I'd forgotten that early on, whistles, band flutes and concert flutes all used to be called "flutes" in general, so it's hard to know exactly what O'Neill would have meant.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 4:07 pm 
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I probably should have added I wasn't thinking of dances in halls but rather the country house dances. Halls, the Dance hall act and all that followed (bands!), that is a different subject altogether

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 4:13 pm 
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 5:46 pm 
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You have to have a lot of self confidence a quite a few dollars to venture into the pipes. You will definitely be the loudest thing in the room so you need to play well. And, since they are still hand made instruments they are quite expensive. And from what I have seen of pipers it seems their instruments are quite temperamental. So there is a level of patience involved. Also, on a side note, it is just recently that women have taken up the pipes in any numbers. And I am glad to see it.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 7:46 pm 
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PB+J wrote:
... The pipes are gorgeous sounding, and it's hard to understand why they would fade relative to other instruments.


busterbill wrote:
... And, since they are still hand made instruments they are quite expensive. And from what I have seen of pipers it seems their instruments are quite temperamental.


Accordians, concertinas, whistles and some aspects of stringed instrument manufacturing have been partially standardized, automated, and/or the cost of labor lowered enough that they can be more or less mass produced. The uilleann pipes have yet to be successfully reproduced this way; every piece is still made by hand, one at a time, over a considerable length of time. You have to really want to play the pipes, to pay that kind of money and wait that long for a good set. Until fairly recently, just finding a good set or someone to make one for you was a formidable task, especially outside of Ireland. Besides all that, they're not easy to learn to play. The other instruments are much more accessible, and in most cases easier to get started on.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 8:35 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
Approaching O'Neill with a bit of healthy skepticism is a good idea.

Note that when the old people often spoke of the 'flute' it could mean whistle as well as what we think of as the 'flute'. Probably going back to both of them being called feadóg in Irish. The concert flute was a term used to distinguish it. I am not quite sure when the flute came in and I wonder if it was as prevalent as O'Neill suggests. There was a fashion for fife bands too, not much talked about these days and one can wonder if they were among the flutes referred to. Most stories refer to (concert) flutes coming in later, often sent home by emigrants from England and the US, where they had gone out of fashion.

Quote:
It could be as simple as microphones making flutes more viable


No. flutes were played for volume. A good fluteplayer produces a big sound. Get two or three fluteplayers together to play for a dance and the sound has an almost physical presence.



About the technology issue: realise the first accordions were much less complex than the Paolo Sopranis that arrived later. They were sold in hardwareshops and were rought and ready. The old German concertinas ditto, plenty of stories of people chipping in to buy a concertina for a dance and it falling apart after the night. They were disposable and cheap. Again British made quality concertinas only really started arriving when emigrants picked them up cheaply (relatively anyway) in England and started sending them over.



I'll just add that the popular concept of the "traditional" ITM instruments has a lot to do with the ubiquity of the pub session and group playing, which in their current forms are relatively recent (60ish years) developments. These, combined with the rise in popularity of Irish music outside of traditional Irish areas and the constant improvements in manufacturing technology have given us a much more standardized set of instruments that would have been around "back then."

"Flutes," as Mr. Gumby mentions, could mean anything from a whistle to a fife to a "band flute" to a concert flute to a piece of cane with holes drilled into it. The concept that everyone was running around with Rudall and Roses (which I've heard from a few people) back then is not true, and many of those flutes would have been cheaper German-made ones like the Nach Meyers you see floating around eBay. "Accordions," "melodeons," and "concertinas" had a variety of layouts and tunings that go beyond the B/C, C#/D, and (for concertinas) C/G layouts most popular today. People still played together to be sure, but it was not necessarily at the standard pitches we use today.

The mouth organ/harmonica is an instrument that was supposedly much more common among Irish players, especially itinerants, than it is today. Meanwhile, the tenor banjo had yet to be invented at the turn of the century, although its forerunner the 5-string banjo shows up in O'Neill's Irish Minstrels and Musicians, in a section about piper Richard Stephenson of Cork:

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On Stephenson's return to Ireland he entered on an extensive tour of the country, particularly the province of Munster, accompanied by an excellent fiddle player, one of Bob Thompson's sons, and Johnny Dunne, a capable vocalist and banjo player. Well attuned, all three played together, and their performance was well received wherever they went.


So anyway, our standards of what is or isn't a traditional instrument has changed considerably. It's also worth noting that we lump a lot of different things under the umbrella of "traditional Irish music" in a way that is somewhat apocryphal to the 19th century. The airs played by gentlemen fluters, the jigs and reels played on cheap concertinas in local dances, the showpieces like the "Fox Hunt" played by professional travelling pipers, the Planxties of O'Carolan from the 17th century, the marches played by old fife/pipe and drum bands, and the ballads sung by Johnny Dunne and others all come from related but different cultural backgrounds. They're all under a big umbrella now, but it wasn't always that way.

A little off topic, but this lovely bit of playing on the fife came up on a Youtube rabbit hole recently:

https://youtu.be/CIuVF-UXO3c?t=359

It sounds much more unique today that it would have 100 or so years ago, when the standard concert flute in D was one of many keys and types of "flutes" that Irish musicians would have played.


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PostPosted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 2:44 am 
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You have to have a lot of self confidence a quite a few dollars to venture into the pipes. You will definitely be the loudest thing in the room so you need to play well.


While I'd agree on the cost, I am not so sure about pipes being the loudest thing in the room. They can be but in general pipes are just not extremely loud , even though there has been a push, not liked by everybody, for more volume. And they won't carry that well in a noisy room, while flutes and accordions will dominate such a situation. And looking back in time, the flat sets were quiet instruments that wouldn't have been of much use in a room full of dancers.

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Also, on a side note, it is just recently that women have taken up the pipes in any numbers. And I am glad to see it.


The pipes (and the flute, for that matter) were considered wholly inappropriate for women. There were a few female players though, over time. Louise Mulcahy did a fair bit of research into this, which she presented earlier this year. A group of women pipers attended (and played):

Image

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Tell us more.


That was more of a clarification of my thinking about the volume of flutes/microphones etc thing. Especially during O'Neill's time dances wouldn't have been in huge rooms, although a country kitchen with perhaps forty people in it obviously would demand some volume of the players. Music, for dancing, only moved into halls once the Dance Hall act was forced on the country. Seen by many as the near death of traditional music/dance, or at least its social context, as it had previously existed. The need for volume in the halls was met by putting bands together, strength in numbers. More than fashion perhaps societal and political changes forced this change of direction. But, as I said that's perhaps a subject for another time. The whole thing was pretty traumatic for the musicians who lived through it though.

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(for concertinas) C/G layouts most popular today. People still played together to be sure, but it was not necessarily at the standard pitches we use today.


I think the best example of this would be the modern style of concertina playing that developed from Paddy Murphy trying to emulate the style of William Mullaly's 78rpms by playing across the rows on a C/g instrument, Noel Hill picking up on that and building/developing his own system. That has become pretty much the standard used by today's players, based on Murphy's playing. It's only in the last decade that the realisation set in that Mullaly was actually simply playing on the rows on a D/a instrument.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 7:45 am 
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O'Neill's context is urban. Chicago is in his day the fastest growing city in the world and it's huge, and it's noisy. They are trying to come to terms with it by passing ordinances that try to determine the difference between noise and sound and when one becomes the other. I can't say if pipes or flute are louder in person, but I can say my daughter's alto sax pretty much buries my Irish flute or her friend's concert Boehm flute. Chicago dancehalls and theaters would have had saxes and clarinets and banjos in consort presenting an expectation of big volume. He does describe lots of playing in houses and pubs, but Patsy Touhey made a living playing the pipes in Vaudeville houses. To the best of my knowledge nobody made a living playing "irish" flute in vaudeville. I just wonder why.

For what it's worth O'Neill sometimes differentiates the flute from the whistle and sometimes refers to the "german flute," as in "Sgt. Reilly played some tunes for us on the german flute." He also mentions drums surprisingly often, as a routine thing but not always present. He always seems to be referring to a single drum.

I'm still interested in the mystery of the bodhran, which may or may not have been "invented" by Sean O'Riada out of pieces of local traditions. But then what about those well known morrison flute and bodhran recordings?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-blZR7M-DI


That bodhran seems to come from out of nowhere, unless it's the "drum" O'Neill is describing. I think I remember reading somewhere that John Reynolds was from the relative north somewhere, not from Clare or Kerry where John Keane located the Bodhran as an active tradition. But I've had a hard time getting solid info. kind of wonder if it was an NYC thing. Morrison was a hell of a player


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PostPosted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 8:02 am 
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The bodhrán really made it from household implement to wrenboy noisemaker to musical instrument. O'Riada is usually given the credit for reviving/introducing it to the mainstream but there was an undercurrent of 'tambourine' players, with bells and all during the middle of the 20th century at least.

Fintan Vallely has done interesting work researching all that. Not sure if and where he published it but I have seen lectures he gave on the subject. I believe some of it is in the entry in the 'Companion'

Touhey didn't just play the pipes, there was a whole comedy act. 'Business of the bench' as a running gag in the routine and his wife dancing and all that, the pipes were only part of the act. And while his pipes were specially made for him with a strong enough voice, they're still not particularly earth shatteringly loud. I have played that chanter and I can't say it shouts at you. Most recent I heard the set played was only a few weeks ago:

Image

I wouldn't rule out fluteplayers working the vaudeville circuit, we know about Touhey doing it through his piping, or Johnny Patterson working his own angle as a clown but I don't think anyone really looked into it from the angle of other instruments.


I know O'Neill was in an urban environment but it can't be stressed hard enough this is a rural music. Musicians that existed in urban environments almost invariably had rural backgrounds. For urban development of all that, or at least an impression of it, you probably want to read Susan Gedutis' book on the Boston dance hall scene. It will tell you more about extra loud accordions and saxophones taking over in that context.

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