Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Hello recently I’ve been spending a lot of time studying American traditional music and, I’ve noticed some things. First of my observations is that American reels are more like Irish polkas than Irish reels. What I mean by that is that there’s less notes. There are more long notes then short. It’s more like one eighth note and then one dotted quarter note and two quarter notes. Irish reels on the other hand are more "notey" if that word makes sense. It’s more like all eight notes in a measure instead of quarter notes. Also one thing I noticed is that American reels are more floaty. Like don’t get me wrong Irish reels aren’t set in stone either but I think we can all agree that variations are limited it has to be set to a certain rhythm so it’s a little harder to just to leave notes out or substitute them for long ones. That’s not as true with American music. People are a bit more loosey-goosey with the melody in American traditional music also known as old time. Another reason I compare American reels to polkas is because they often have lyrics set to the melody. Like britches full of stitches and Maggie in the woods. Irish fiddling is full of energy American fiddling is more laid-back I find. It’s more long bow Strokes then note after note after note after note. Anyway these are just a few of my observations. They’re just what I see. They could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Anyway I’d love to hear you guys and gals thoughts on the subject.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

This is a general and fairly inaccurate assessment of two extremely diverse musical styles. It would behoove you to spend many more years listening to and immersing yourself in the culture of both musics before making comparisons.

Have a listen to Kentucky fiddler Buddy Thomas if you think American fiddling is more laidback and less notey than Irish fiddling, and likewise have a listen to Sligo fiddle Oisin MacDiarmuid to hear Irish music with a pleasant laid back swing.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

My neighbor is apparently hosting a party in the apartment above me so I’m up again. To expand a little bit on what I’m talking about take a look at this clip track off of Buddy Thomas’ album Kitty Puss (He died suddenly while playing for a square dance a little bit after this album was released).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhNUT2aK20Y&index=14&list=PLRJon_qI7rcSnl94XnJDHBTXKiTSHoRMX&ab_channel=BuddyThomas-Topic


A number of the tunes he recorded are quite similar to Irish and Scottish tunes and he plays them in sort of an antiquated style in comparison to some of his contemporaries, but you’ll notice that the tunes are quite notey and while they have an off beat emphasis and a little bit of a backbeat they are driving and rhythmic dance tunes.

Compare to say, this clip of John Carty (it was the first fiddle recording I found on youtube, so completely at random).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woijlk92rjM&ab_channel=JohnCarty-Topic


To my ear John is playing slower and more laidback that buddy, but has a similar offbeat emphasis (characteristic of good reel playing as far as I’m concerned).

I mentioned this in a previous thread, but I play American old time music as well as Irish traditional (though not as frequently) and I listen to both on a daily basis. The thing that stands out to me primarily as different between American old time and Irish traditional music is the attitude towards the tunes. In Irish music, tunes (while individual entities) are generally sort of classified by the dance they correspond to and the key i.e. D major reels or E minor jigs, and are also played together one after the other to create an effect. The overwhelming opinion on tunes in Irish session music at least is the more the better, and players often interpret tunes with broad strokes of personal style rather than by approaching them individually to emphasize certain aspects of each tune (which is something all players should do more of, all of the time).

In contrast old time tunes are treated as their own individual set pieces. If I’m going to play Billy in the Lowground, I wouldn’t say breakdown in C, I would say Billy in the Lowground. Tunes will frequently have individual bowing or strumming patterns, tunings, tempos etc associated with them. The lyrics to old time breakdowns were often made up by the performer, although these days recording have created some more standardized versions than what would have been played historically. You especially see this attitude with the older generation of players, fiddlers in particular. You have mentioned you are interested in round peak style music, so listen to some recordings of Tommy Jarrell, a hugely influential fiddler from that area who died in the 1980s. He has extremely idiosincratic versions of lots of common tunes and is just a great player in general.

The further back you go in old time music, the more you find that the repertoire of players included lots of tunes that only they would play, or they would have learned from relatives or local musicians and come up with their own versions of. I’m mainly familiar with fiddling from Kentucky, and there was a Kentucky fiddler named Own "Snake" Chapman who is a great example of this. He learned his tunes from his father (who was in his 70s or somewhere around there when Owen was born) and he has a huge repertoire of tunes that no other fiddler plays now and would have been similar to what was played in antebellum America, when his father was a young man learning his tunes.

One of the contributing factors to this, I think, was that in Appalachia (and rural America at large) many people were geographically isolated and wouldn’t have traveled particularly far from home, so if there was only one other fiddler and he was in the town over it would be rare to get together and play, which developed all of these individual versions of tunes. This wasn’t always true of course, the aforementioned Buddy Thomas traveled quite widely around Kentucky and Ohio and learned tunes from people. Anyhow, that’s enough of that. More on the topic later.

How is the banjo coming?

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

You have made an accurate observation about polkas Kelly. The polka is a dance which originated in Czechoslovakia in about 1840 (contrasting with the first mention of a reel in Scotland in 1590 - whatever kind of a dance it was though!) and when the polka fashion arrived in Britain and Ireland players (who are naturally lazy creatures) adapted reels they already knew - often Scottish reels - for the more fashionable polka; so many of the polkas you hear are old reels and it’s not surprising that some old reels sound like polkas.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Not just polkas but other dance rhythms are in old time music from the mid 19th century (when they were popular).

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Very insightful Wesley. You explain it better than I ever could. I still stand by my point that American music is less notey. I do agree with many of your points though specifically the dance classification point. It’s true that the Irish tradition labels the tunes differently and more frequently. Also the banjo is coming along slowly but surely thanks for asking!

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

As is the flute

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" so many of the polkas you hear are old reels".
I can’t think of any offhand - could you provide a few examples, please ?

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

So, no examples ?

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

I’ve heard it asserted before that musicians adopted the melodies of song airs for polkas and waltzes when they became fashionable, but I don’t think I’ve heard that said of reels before.

Also, to say that of "Britain and Ireland" (that reels were re-purposed for polkas) is further problematized by the fact that, in English trad music, the "reel" seems quite polka-ish and does so well before before the polka craze established itself. From the early English tune manuscripts like Playford and Marsden, right through to the tunebooks of the 19th century, the country dance tunes in 2/4 and 4/4 are basically like Irish polkas (apart from the ones that are obviously hornpipes). I’m increasingly of the opinion that the "reel" (in the Irish sense) doesn’t really exist in English music. English music certainly has things that are called reels, sure, but they are not the same as Irish reels by any stretch. They are more like Irish polkas, but they were like that before polkas even existed. At least, that’s how it looks to me.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Here’s an observation that should be starkly obvious: there is no role or tunes for woodwinds in American Traditional/Applachian music. It’s all string music - fiddle, violin, mandolin, banjo, guitar, standup bass. You MIGHT see a harmonica but it is neither expected nor required. There are historical and economic reasons why this is so, but it definitely had an effect on the development of the American Applachian sound.

The Irish tradition retained not one, but three different woodwind traditions, and added relatively sophisticated free reeds like accordion and concertina. The Irish tradition also influenced significantly the presence of aristocratic patrons that would pay people to be full time musicians. It definitely impacts how the music sounds, and definitely impacts how it is played, even by the stringed instruments.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

There was the quills in black folk music, a panpipe originating from Africa and brought over to the US. They weren’t common though. The quills is still being used in the band ‘Carolina Chocolate Drops’. To nice effect as accompaniment and melody.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Fife and drum were prevalent in the delta region, not Appalachia, where European wind instrument tradition would also emerge. No doubt as blacks proliferated more throughout Appalachia later these traditions disseminated.

Reasons why wind instruments did not figure prominently in Appalachia are: economic poverty and material scarcity, geographic isolation, and a vocal orientation in the music.

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Kenny, I just now saw your question asking for examples of reels played as polkas. Apparently we posted within a few minutes. Unfortunately I was not posting the links in response to your question for Austin.
Sorry for any confusion.

Ben

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

I remember reading about this the reason the Mountain Dulcimer was invented was because of poverty. They couldn’t afford instruments so they had to make them from the materials they had on hand. I don’t remember it that’s exactly what I read, but it’s at least close.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Ah yes an example well look no further than Angeline the Baker

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Are you saying "Angeline the Baker" is an example of an old reel being played as a polka?

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

"Angelina Baker, sometimes sung as Angeline the Baker (Roud 18341) is a song written by Stephen Foster for the Christy Minstrels, and published in 1850"
So neither a reel, nor a polka - bad example.

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Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Okay how about Miss McLeod’s reel? Originally Irish or Scottish but when it came to America started to get more swingy. Less note note note note note note note note. And more note dot-dot-dot note dot-dot note

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Can you provide some evidence to back up your claims Kellie?

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Yes in fact I can. There’s an old recording of Miss McLeod’s reel played by an American Fiddler. I’ll go look for it anyway it sounds a bit more swingy than what you would hear from an Irish player.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Can you please post the recording?

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Oh yes it’s a recording by doc fiddle McNair I can’t seem to find it on YouTube.

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Here of some examples of the tune from old time fiddlers from three different states (Georgia, Arkansas and West Virginia) playing the tune. While the second one has rather poor timing, I can’t perceive them as being particularly less notey than Irish players.

https://www.slippery-hill.com/search-page?search_api_views_fulltext=Mcleod

There is some swing there, but not more or less than you would here from Irish session players.

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It’s on the album 100 fiddle Tunes old time bluegrass and American folk music favorites

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Also look at soldier’s Joy it’s considered a reel, and it is not as notey as what you would see in the Irish tradition

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Again, can you provide some examples to support your claim?

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I’ve just gone and had a listen to the version of Mcleods reel you are referencing, and he is just playing it slower than usual. It’s really just the same notes as an Irish style fiddler would play, maybe a few more drones on the open strings but thats about it.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Just to clarify, are you arriving at your conclusions about old time music based solely or largely on this one album? Judging by the recordings you are citing as examples it seems like you are. Old time music is extremely diverse, which is why generalizations like this raise my hackles in particular.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Perhaps you’re right, but there is something that I can’t quite put to words that distinguishes an Irish tune from an American tune…

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Right, that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean that the generalizations you are making about old time music and Irish music are true. It’s a different style of playing, and especially with old time music you have to realize that people who played that music would have not only been isolated geographically from other players, but also would have been divorced from them culturally. A settlement of French immigrants might have only been a hundred miles from a settlement of Scottish immigrants. Both cultures would have had music to accompany dancing as the primary form of entertainment, but they would have played different tunes and would have played them differently to adapt to whatever type of dance was popular. The same thing happened in Ireland, where certain sets would have been popular in certain villages but not in others.

My point is that there is a lot more going on in old time(and Irish!) music than can be garnered by listening to recordings of one player, or even several players.

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No it’s not just this one album. I barely listen to this Album in particular I prefer the Clawhammer Banjo volumes myself Kyle Creed, Tommy Jarrell, Adam Hurt and the like. I also listen to Bruce Molsky, Mary Z Cox, and Hilarie Burhans. Perhaps the reason I’m making this generalization is because I’m a clawhammer player. Soldier’s Joy does sound more like a polka to me, but a lot of the old time tradition I’ve come across is based on spirituals and minstrel songs perhaps that’s where I’m getting the "Less Notey" thing. I’m sorry "raise your Hackles", Wesley. I’m just trying to make sense of what I’m hearing.

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I should point out that I remember being your age and feeling like I had the whole world of musicology under my fingers. That notion will fade with time and experience. A good place to start would be listening to all of the music you can get your hands on(that website slippery hill that I linked to earlier is great for that), and looking up some academic texts on the subject. Your passion and interest will take you some of the way but at the end of the day nothing can replace careful study and analysis.

Also worth pointing out is that the notion that a good place to start with studying cultures and cultural music is with the differences is considered outdated. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists more often start with the similarities and work from there, and I encourage you to take that approach as well. If you are interested in the link between Irish music and old time music, maybe write up a list of the things that they have in common and take some time to consider what that means and why it is important. In my experience as a student of anthropology and ethnomusicology both that will lead you to more fruitful understanding that working in the opposite way.

I admire your persistence and excitement for the subject. It is one that is near to my heart as well.

Wesley Mann

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I’m a clawhammer player as well. In fact I’ve been playing a fretless nylon strung 5 string whilst we’ve been having this discussion!

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

I didn’t know banjos could have Nylon Strings

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Isn’t that a minstrel banjo?

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No, it’s a standard five string with the frets taken off, the neck sanded down and nylon strings put on it.

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Ooo cool! I didn’t know they make those. Do you play Scruggs Style too?

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No, I’m a clawhammer player through and through, though I can play a song 2 finger given enough time. I don’t personally care for Scruggs style or bluegrass in general.

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I see. I tend to find clawhammer more relaxing. It’s just good to sit back relax and strum a tune.

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Wesley Mann, just played your 3 samples of old time fiddlers having a crack at Miss McLeod’s -several
interesting points, Henry Reed strayed into a few bars of ‘Speed the Plough’ and ‘De’il amang the Tailors’
towards the end of his performance and all 3 were played in G whereas most fiddlers here in the UK [and particularly Scotland] find A more natural. I had the impression old timey fiddlers would play in A whenever possible? Any more Appalachian versions of British/Irish tunes?

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Yeah Christy, I can provide hours of that sort of stuff. Give me a little bit and I’ll post some more. I mentioned this earlier in the thread, but I’m a huge fan of Buddy Thomas, a fiddler from Kentucky who played in a style that I consider to be as close to Scottish fiddling as American old time fiddling is likely to get.

There is a great field recorders collective cd of his playing, and one of the tunes he plays is very clearly a strathspey, which is very cool for someone who never traveled further from home than 100 miles or so.

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Interesting that the comparison between Irish and American style is been made on a Scottish tune, Mrs MacLeod of Raasay (sic).

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I was interested to read christy taylor’s comment that most fiddlers in the UK found A more natural, as my experience over 50 years of playing, is that most of us prefer G or D, with A reserved for certain particular tunes only. The main reason being, I think, the G/D melodeon players. Of course the other reason is that these keys share the same finger patterns, as does C.

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Ebor, yes I specifically meant ‘A’ for tunes like Miss McLeod, Atholl Highlanders etc. And yes I would agree a large proportion of our ceilidh tunes are in D or G. Its just that a lot of old time fiddling seems to be in A [maj or mix] so I was surprised that the 3 selections under discussion were all in G. I’m not a fiddler but I do play mandolin so I know what ‘falls under your fingers’ most naturally.

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Ah! Now I understand. :)

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

I think Kellie has a valid point, in support of which, I offer up the following link for tunes as played and annotated by the Nashville Old Time Music Association:
https://notsba.org/tunes-we-play-2/
Look at the PDFs for "Miss McCleod’s" and "Wind That Shakes the Barley".
First you may notice that these reels are annotated in 2/4 time which one oft associates with "polka time".
Also most measures contain fewer notes than one would find in typical Irish versions.
This allows for one of two interpretations:
(1) a "lickity-split" rendition. (I’ve heard McCleods played at 150+ bpm.) or
(2) a more "swingy" (I don’t know if Kellie used that exact term,) polka-like version.
Both interpretations are found in old time music.

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I just listened to the MP3 of Wind that Shakes the Barley - they play it more like what we would call a hornpipe or schottische this side of the Atlantic, definitely well below average reel tempo. I don’t know if that would be general practise in old time music, or just an idiosyncrasy of that particular session?

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

"I don’t know if that would be general practise in old time music, or just an idiosyncrasy of that particular session?"
The answer may be a bit complicated. Traditional music ever evolves but as Irish and Scots settlers moved into more remote parts of the Americas, i.e. Appalachia, ties to the music they came with probably became more strained and "regionalised". People on opposite sides of the valley may have different takes on the same tune.
Even the distinctions between what we think of as "traditional" forms of the music can be lost over generations.
"Hornpipes" turn into "reels" and "reels" turn into "hornpipes". "Fisher’s Hornpipe" is commonly played as a fast reel here. I know many old-time fiddlers who could not explain the difference between a hornpipe and a reel. (We won’t even talk about "jigs".)
Regional variation in dance, ethnic and cultural blending, and even the types of instruments played have all contributed to this "blurring" of form. Such is the nature of "traditional" music! :)

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Bill, your post illustrates exactly why it is difficult and somewhat harmful to our understanding to make broad generalizations about music, especially cultural or ethnic music. How can we say that Kellie is on to something by saying that in American fiddle music tunes are played slower and with less notes than in Irish traditional music, when for instance a concertina player from Clare might play quite slow by the standards of Irish music and a fiddler from Galax play quite fast in comparison to other old time fiddlers(this is of course ignoring the tempo differential between the Clare and Galax players themselves)?

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

If it’s of any help, in East Anglia, hornpipes are (or were) also called "breakdowns". A term which I had hitherto only associated with fast OT or Bluegrass music (eg Earl’s Breakdown).

Re: Observations about Irish versus American traditional music

Interesting comment Ebor. Here the term "breakdown" refers to music where various instruments, fiddle, banjo, etc., etc., each take a solo during the performance of a tune. It is common practice for bluegrass performers and may also be highly improvisational. On the other hand, old-time music is typically played "ensemble" with everyone playing at the same time much like that of an Irish session.