An interesting article

An interesting article

There is an article written by Larry Kirwin of Black 47 addressing the concerns by some that Celtic Rock is dominating the festivals here in the States and therefore traditional culture, including the music, is being neglected to the detriment of festivals.

This article appeared in the latest issue of Trad Music News which is sponsored by Mid-Atlantic Region Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and Craobh Ull Mor Nua Eabhrac, The New York City Branch of CCE.

The article can be read here:


Re: An interesting article

Ed, Thanks for posting that--it is a thought provoking article, and a good web link for future reference! There is a balance to be struck between innovation and tradition, and this “two tent” or “separate but equal” approach I am seeing at festivals may not be the way to provide that balance.

Re: An interesting article

Great Article…thanks for pointing it out. It is so true. I remember Larry (and Pierce Turner) from the old days, when they’d often drop into the Eagle Tavern. The trad scene was really buzzing then, the Bothy Band, Planxty, were still fairly new, there was so much energy and drive and you couldn’t keep people out of places like the Eagle that offered up weekly ITM. You’d have local bands that were great too, the house band at Eagle, The Flying Cloud, Dan Milner, Tony DeMarco (who replaced Kathleen Collins) Caesar Pacifici and Brian Brooks….full of energy, only a blizzard would keep people away, and sometimes not even then.

All the more reason to give full support to the pure trad festivals that ARE left in the US…. such at The Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham every summer.

I have recently sent out a mailing to our own trad music NY/NJ area list of close to 200 people, stressing the fact that more and more venues in the area have been closing up. It is getting harder and harder for touring musicians to make a living on the road. As a former tour promoter/agent for a small handful of musicians, mainly Joe & Antoinette McKenna, but also a bit for Paddy Keenan, Johnny Moynihan and Tommy Peoples, back in “the old days”…the late 70s-mid 80s, I can say personally it used to be a lot easier to keep musicians working cross country and back for up to 6-8 weeks at a time, and they were working 4-6 nights of every week. This was even, oh horrors, back in the days before the internet, which should (and has in many ways) make the job much easier now, but the new struggle is finding venues that pay decently, and unfortunately many places that are left, the pay has not gone up much if at all in a QUARTER CENTURY. There is something very wrong here.

Musicians would come over once or twice a year, tour, and generally go home with full pockets, maybe build a house back home with the proceeds, live on it until the next tour, the touring was good and the pay was good, they rarely took other jobs back at home other than teaching music. What is the difference… simple…. more people came out to just about everything they could. There was a demand for this music. We need to find a way to bring the demand back. We don’t really need to raise concert prices, but to stir up more interest. Riverdance gave it all a shot in the arm for a while, but it’s like people are asleep at the wheel again much of the time, and that never ends well.

As one who has started a tour venue at IAANJ about 1 1/2 years ago, out of the love for the music, and I make nothing myself on it, it can be very challenging to try and get a good crowd. it’s a responsibility I take very seriously and promote each show as much as possible. I want the musicians who play for us to go home happy, but we need to get people out to support this music if that is to happen.

Maybe we are frozen in time, but adding all sorts of flashing lights and tricks and gimmicks to it, that takes away from what many of us love. The answer is to support the music, period, as much as possible. Get to the shows, get to the festivals, do what you can. When people at our venue often ask, after a great show, what they can do to help, I tell them BUY A TICKET FOR THE NEXT ONE! or MAKE A RESERVATION. Just show up. There are an unlucky few we really do put to work though, selling CDs, tending to the kitchen setting the chairs up etc. But the best help would really be to buy a ticket and keep showing up. That’s what people need to get back to if they love this music.

We also need to give the music to as many kids as possible. Also give kids the opportunity to participate more. At IAANJ concerts we almost exclusively have our local talented kids open for the great old timers like Paddy Keenan, Tommy Peoples, Noel Hill. It inspires them to keep the music alive, to keep playing. We also have them host our sessions at times too. We have in NJ the Sheridan Girls, Claire and Kelly, the Killackey Brothers, John & Brian, Maeve and Bernadette Flanagan, Kaitlin Finlay, Dylan Foley…. I try to get them all a chance to do the opening acts. And God Bless their teachers, Brian Conway, Rose Flanagan, Siobhan & Willie Kelly, Margie Mulvihill, Eileen Goodman, and others I am forgetting to mention.

So please, everyone on this list, get out there and support the music more or it will fizzle. Bring your friends and familieis out, get your kids and grandkids playing it.

OK… i should be working…. shall end the rant!

Re: An interesting article

I think Larry Kirwan is missing the point. All traditional activities don’t have to be hyped up to attract large frenzied audiences. A festival (Fleadh Nua is a case in point) where as well as the gig-rig which sometimes has the bigger acts for the large outdoor audiences, there also has numerous activities attracting numbers from 40 upwards in more intimate settings. Don’t tell me that because something like the Seán Reid lecture on the music of West Clare attracts a smaller audience, that it’s value is questionable and somehow or other needs to be hyped up. Leave things as they are rather than turning everything into a spectacle designed to make money for greedy promoters.

Re: An interesting article

Bannerman… agreed…. I wouldn’t flash up any of it, but to show more people the value in it all so it will attract more people, and musicians and even lecturers who do this for a living can continue to do so would be wonderful.

The reality is that there are great touring professional trad musicians and this is their choice of livlihood, and the support for them and the music on the road used to be greater. Some places still attract a great crowd for sure, but many have also fallen by the wayside.

Still, I would leave the music “un-flashed up” for those of us who love it this way, even if it does mean less attendance… but oh how nice if the opposite scenario could bloom again!

Re: An interesting article

Well to be honest Al in today’s world, at least as it seems to be here in the States, any “balance” to be struck would seem to be between the money made by the draw of the Celtic Rock versus the need/want to preserve aspects of traditional culture.

I suppose this was the same as when those music hall numbers, which ultimately became the standard “Irish” music for the second plus generation Irish here in the States, were composed. I remember when Colleen, Ray, and I were presenting a traditional Irish music program at a city library. An older woman of stated Irish descent claimed we weren’t playing “Irish” music. She made this claim in spite of the fact that the program consisted of jigs. reels, hornpipes, etc. and a few old ballads. When asked what would be traditional Irish music then she predictably responded with “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” as examples. We simply smiled and went back to playing.

My sense is that in time this very popular form of music, Celtic Rock, will be confused with traditional music much like the music hall music is now. As to the magic formula to prevent this I couldn’t say. I can say that I am not surprised as it seems more and more around the globe decisions are made based upon economics rather than historical accuracies and the preservation thereof. I’m not sure if forcing the music upon folks by way of side by side presentations at the festivals is the right approach either as those only interested in the rock may simply move on when a traditional ensemble takes the stage and those that have even a passing interest in traditional music only have to walk a bit to find it at the event. That said however I have been to “Irish” festivals that had no traditional aspects of the culture represented. I’m not sure either if this seemingly controversial development isn’t more based upon the fact that booking more rock acts is taking income from the traditional musicians that would be booked otherwise.

As with everything in life, “Time will tell” and yes Ira does a grand job of getting out the news. If you subscribe to Irtrad ( ) you can usually find out when the latest news letter has been compiled as he generally makes an announcement on that list when it has been posted.


p.s. Bannerman I agree making money, or not as the case may be, is no measure of the presentations merit or value however as I mention in this post making it does seem to be the driving force for most endeavors these days. I think in that lies some danger for the music in the days ahead.

Re: An interesting article

“…[Celtic Rock] will be confused with traditional music much like the music hall music is now…”

That’s an absolutely horrifying thought, and this is coming from a 1980’s punk rocker.

I don’t think we need fear. What else has the tradition absorbed over time? Celtic Rock and Music Hall grew from it and remains a part of the Tradition. The Tradition creates new growth while absorbing new influences, and it always survives.

…smoke machines and laser lights are not necessary.

Re: An interesting article

Excuse my temporary incompetence, but how do you get to the article after clicking on the main link? I tried clicking on several of the “recent posts” sublinks, but no success…

Posted by .

Re: An interesting article

You know, i went back to find it and it took me 10 minutes. What a pain that is. Great info, but what an awful format.

Here it is:

by Larry Kirwan

A controversy of sorts has broken out in the world of Irish festivals. It was sparked by Bill Margeson, a columnist for Chicago’s Irish American News, who is of the opinion that festivals are being spoiled by the popularity of Celtic Rock bands. Mr. Margeson feels that the cultural side of things - including Traditional music - is not getting a fair shake, that people are staying away and that vendors are lamenting a fall in revenue. We’re apparently attending different festivals; all I hear from a burgeoning group of promoters is that attendances are up and, as leader of Black 47, I frequently get emails from vendors inquiring if we will be performing before they send in their deposits. True, the beer drinking under-forty set are moshing in front of the Celtic Rock stage, but all manner of ages gleefully watch these antics from the safety of the stands. Yet, I agree that not enough attention is being paid to other aspects of Irish culture.

However, promoters do go out of their way to accommodate Traditional music, as well they should. Take the Chicago Irish Festival in Gaelic Park. Frank Bradley provides a large tent and stage for Trad acts. Yet this arena is often sparsely attended. I know, for I spend much soothing time there before braving the hordes in the Celtic Rock tent. I also enjoy the music and can catch up with friends from the traditional world. Sadly, I run into few people under thirty. That hardly augurs well for the future of Traditional music.

The players are as good and better as anyone I heard at the Eagle Tavern back in the 70’s. But the format and instrumentation is frozen in time. And don’t say that’s the nature of Trad. Try telling that to Planxty’s Andy Irvine who brought back the bouzouki from his Balkan travels or Donal Lunny who introduced the guitar to the Pipers Club back in the 60’s. Speaking of Lunny, in its day his Bothy Band put the fear of god in many the rocker. They played with an almost feral intensity, coupled with a swaggering delight in taking chances. Fear of change eventually consigns art forms to museums and, while no one expects the current generation of Traddies to bop like Britney, this is a visual age and even the most minimal of presentations has need of highlighting and heightening.

I say all this as an admirer of trad music. And God knows, we have our own problems in the Celtic Rock world - a lack of good original songs being the most obvious; speeding up fiddle tunes and the same hackneyed ballads only takes you so far. But one thing we don’t lack is criticism. My own personal favorite from the early 80’s finished thus: “if I knew what dive bar Kirwan was hiding out in, I’d drink 8 pints of Guinness and puke all over him while he’s trying to impress some floozy.” I’m not sure those words added to my artistry but they sure as hell made me look over my shoulder on occasion. Joking aside, though, I rarely read any insightful criticism of Trad music, no matter how common the choice of material or stale the arrangement. One would think O’Riada, Coleman and Clancy were reincarnating like fruit flies. Truth be told, a little nudge, if not a boot up the posterior, can put one on notice that more is expected.

But the most common complaint from the non-aficionado is that much Trad sounds the same. One could, of course, say the same for rock; but a great deal of that drivel is at least distinguishable by the varying level of banality of the lyrics. While programming Celtic Crush for Sirius Radio I’m continually searching for some signature that will enable a diverse audience to distinguish between the Trad bands and tunes. The drive of the Bothys, the bass of Lúnasa and the sheer inventiveness of Solas speak for themselves, but many others need a spoken introduction to pique interest.

Is there a solution to the problems Mr. Margeson highlights? Yes. Bring in the McCourts, Pete Hamill, Colum McCann along with distinguished historians and seanchais to “headline” literary and cultural tents. And don’t banish Trad musicians to gloomy tents. Put them where they belong - right up on the main stage. Solas and Black 47 have no problems going back to back, or elbow to elbow later in the bar, for that matter; likewise Lúnasa and The Saw Doctors. Then young festival goers will hear undiluted trad for what it is, a fierce and tender echo of our heritage. Who knows, some may even unplug their guitars and form their own Bothy Band. Wouldn’t that be something!

Re: An interesting article

Yeh you don’t need flashing lights and smoke machines to create excitement in the music. Joe Cooley had it in spades as has the likes of Charlie Harris, Noel hill, Tom Doorley and many other trad musicians. An example I experienced recently was Micheál Ó Raghallaigh playing in a duet with box player Danny O’Mahony at the recent Scoil Eigse concert in Tullamore - it really rocked but didn’t in any way compromise the music which was totally authentic. Good music doesn’t always have to “rock” either and performances by the likes of Tommy Peoples and Martin Hayes can be very emotional and form an essential part of that rich and varied tapestry that is the Irish tradition.

Re: An interesting article

Ed…. from the Irish or Irish American (more the latter I think) people who are just a bit older than we are, ha ha… yes, we’re getting there… missed the whole Planxty Bothy Band type trad craze. To them it must seem like Celtic Rock. They came of age listening to Show bands, The Clancy Brotheres etc. That is their frame of reference. Some who did come from the old country though may well remember the house sessions and ceilis back home and love it though.

Re: An interesting article

Please, what is Celtic Rock ? Do you mean sub-Horslips type bands ? (I’m an old fogie too ).
Not all trad music SHOULD sound like Planxty or the Bothy Band, of course. And you always expect the young people to go for the simplified and crass versions of what you otherwise love, that’s just natural.

Re: An interesting article

Even though the Dropkick Murphy’s are the “house band” for my beloved Boston Red Sox, if I am going to listen to “Celtic Rock,” I would listen to The Prodigals from NYC as a first choice--very good musicians!

Re: An interesting article

well, i don’t think that Larry is advocating lights and fog, or money for promoters. unfortunately, popularity often ends up with people making money. if ITM becomes more popular, it will naturally bring money in with it. what i get from his article is that he believes that ITM is stagnating. i have to say i agree. while the “pure drop” is well and good, i think that the music needs to change with the times. however much you may love the pure drop, if it remains like this, it will likely fall by the wayside. this all contributes to to the “plastic paddy” misconception of Irish culture. people think songs like whiskey in the jar are Irish folk songs, and they miss out a vast body of music.

Re: An interesting article

Neither Larry nor Bill ought to draw many conclusions from Gaelic Park Irish fest. It’s in a remote suburban location that’s hard to get to unless you live on the southwest side of town, for starters. It’s also on Memorial Day Weekend, and a lot of people are out town. The weather is almost invariably lousy, earning it the nickname “Mudfest” among area tradheads. I don’t get the impression that the management is particularly interested in having much in the way of traditional performers or even if they’re very knowledgeable about it. Sure they will bring in John Williams, Liz Carroll, or Bohola to give a performance, but that’s probably due to three factors:

-the fact that these people are all locals (no airfare or hotel expenses), plus
-a certain amount of pride in local big name artists.

There is a ceili and set dancing tent, too, with rotating groups of usually not-so-big-name but accomplished musicians performing for an aging community of social dancers. Perhaps the age of the dancing community is our biggest worry, especially in light of how many young girls and boys take the competition step dancing to great heights but ignore social dancing (and thus any REAL need for traditional music or musicians) altogether. Perhaps a successful sean-nos and set dancing school may provide a partial answer.

By all this I mean to say Gaelic Park Irish fest is by no means the final word on the health of trad music in Chicago, let alone anywhere else. It’s one festival that probably can do more to promote local traditional music if it cares to invest the time and trouble.

Re: An interesting article

i don’t think you’re looking at the big picture Hanley.

Re: An interesting article

“unfortunately, popularity often ends up with people making money. if ITM becomes more popular, it will naturally bring money in with it.”


I think that is the point I was trying to make about the basis of decision making around the globe these days. Often times tradition is or has been altered to create something more appealing and therefore more apt to make money. I do find this trend, and it is not new by any measure, perhaps accelerated but not new, disturbing as valuable aspects of tradition and culture may be lost as a result.

All that said I not blaming festival promoters, those that play music that is more popular than traditional music, nor those that listen and thus create the greater popularity. I do believe the music will survive as it has demonstrated it’s endurance through many like hardships through out history. As to what seems to be Mr Kirwin’s thought that the music may be stagnating and therefore needs to update itself if you will in order to survive I say all well and good if indeed the tradition evolves as a matter of social evolution. If the intended purpose of the change is merely to make the music into a product that would generate more money then I say shame on us for allowing such to happen. Those that played the music in the past endured many the greater threat to maintain this great aspect of culture whilst we would only be struggling with whether or not we could afford to buy the latest field recording device. This is not to say that someone shouldn’t make money playing the music, just that having that as one’s only motive does little to keep the traditional alive in my opinion.


Re: An interesting article

so what do fog machines and lazer lights have to do with the music?nothing. Whether they are there or not has no relevance.
Its when it becomes muzak that i object to. soulless. middle of the road/middle class dull and uninspired.
this you can find in many places.
exciting, dynamic, cutting edge, inspired, vigorous,music can be played to the accompaniment of a light show or a pint. Its the music that matters not the garb of the performer…….or not?

Re: An interesting article

Rob - I AM looking at the big picture. I’m trying to point out that the festival is a poor example on which to base any argument in favor of or against innovation in traditional music. Other larger, more geographically accessible and better organized festivals in the same region present traditional and neo-traditional acts in a prominent manner and appear to be doing well.

Ed: spot on. You only have to read historical, first person accounts of the potato famine or the hard times in the mid-twentieth century to recognize just how resilient this music is.