Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Good morning Friends, I was wondering why the tune writers name are usually unknown, we wouldn’t know who wrote a lot of the jigs and reels; 🙂
I have some theories:

- It has many authors (it travelled in peoples mind, as a lot of tune weren’t written down)
- Because it is passed to the next musician by ear
- It was created in a spontaneous manner in a session
- Many tune writers were having so much fun that they didn’t think of attaching their name to their art
- The organic way that a session happens made it to be part of the collective memory (so they can be common property)
- Also one tune has many names, as they’re played in a special way in each part of the country. Being hard to track the origin.

Do you guys have other ideas?

We all know Turlough O’Carolan, outstanding musician.
Or more recent tunes have usually the authors name.

My point is of course, to celebrate their life and art. So why are they unknown?

Thank you, it was Percy Frenchs birthday, and he wrote a lot of tunes and songs so I made a tribute for him.

https://youtu.be/6j24gntGQTA


The sessions will be back!!! 🙂

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Many of the tunes were never consciously "written" in the way of modern pop music etc.

Melodies over hundreds (possibly thousands) of years were used over and over again for various song-texts and reformatted into a large variety of rhythmic structures to serve for various forms of dance etc.

So a tune that we play today at an Irish session that we know as a reel might exist in Ireland, Scotland, England, America, and who knows where else in numerous guises, sometimes barely recognisable, as the vehicle for songs and in the form of jigs, hornpipes, Strathspeys, marches, polkas, etc.

I know that much work has been done with comparative mythology, poetry, and song-texts but I wonder if much has been done with melody.

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

This is a complex question, partly because it is not necessarily true that "Irish tune writers (are) usually unknown". It depends on your sample of tunes (e.g. tunes played in sessions today, tunes in a given printed collection, *every* tune in the idiom…) and the depth of your research. A great many tunes played nowadays can be traced to known composers, including a handful of very prolific ones (Paddy O’Brien, Paddy Fahy, Sean Ryan, Finbarr Dwyer, Junior Crehan, Vincent Broderick, Ed Reavy, James Scott Skinner) and many more less so but whose compositions are equally well accepted into the canon. Many ‘traditional’ session standards have known, or at least attributive, composers, such as The Home Ruler (Frank McCollam), Cooley’s Reel, The Congress (both Joe Mills), The Crosses of Annagh (Michael Dwyer), The Skylark (James Morrison) – I do not intend to provide an exhaustive list but just an indication of how unquestionably ‘traditional’ some tunes of known or supposed origin are.

The rights and rules surrounding intellectual property were not always as highly developed as they are now and the further back you go, the less reliable composer credits often are. As an example, the 18th Century Scottish fiddler and composer Niel Gow (several of whose attributed compositions have become part of the Irish repertoire) published several printed collections, in which no clear distinction is made between his own compositions, his arrangements and those tunes which he simply wrote down from memory and published. In addition, it is likely that tunes composed by lesser-known musicians tended to become associated with the well-known musicians that popularised them, sometimes leading to misattribution (the 19th Century N.E. English fiddle player and composer – also a contributor to Irish repertoire – has numerous doubtful composition credits to his name).

Before the 20th century in Ireland, musical literacy was fairly rare among dance musicians, so even if the composer of a particular tune was known, there was perhaps no written version of the tune to add the name to (and if there was, that was not the direct source of the tune for most musicians) and therefore no ‘hard copy’ of the information to refer to. It is also possible that the concept of ‘ownership’ of a tune did not exist in the sense that we think of it today (or in the sense that it has existed for many centuries in the Classical music world) – the music was perhaps thought of more as a collective resource and from which individual a particular tune happened to originate was immaterial, or at least, not of enough importance to commit to memory. Even at the present time, many musicians learn tunes ‘by osmosis’ in sessions (as they did previously at house dances or in dance halls) or from repeated hearings of recordings, without taking the trouble to find out the title or the composer, so even where a verifiable attribution exists, those that play the tune are often oblivious to it.

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Contrary to popular belief, I believe that many tune authors are known. Some of the old standards are unknown, but much of what we play today is relatively modern, and the author is/can be found by those who care to know.

As is the case with anything, those with an academic interest in the subject know a lot about its history and provenance. The casual folks like most of us, not so much.

edit: creadur posted my exact thoughts while I was typing, albeit more specifically and eloquently.

Posted by .

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

The old idea that folk music was the creation of unlettered peasants unsullied by contact with the modern world has long been debunked. Of course, much music did originate from the ‘folk’ but they also adopted popular tunes - after all, why would they not? Much of this was written for the stage, which raises the uncomfortable possibility that in 200 years’ time Andrew Lloyd Webber could be ‘traditional’. Of course, once in circulation tunes get altered and the composer and even the tune title gets forgotten.

One well-known example is "Speed the Plough" which is found in the Irish, Scottish, English and American traditions. It was written for the London stage by John Moorhead, a Scotsman who lived in Ireland before becoming violinist for London’s Covent Garden Theatre. http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/speed.htm

Not all composers can be so readily identified, but often the information can be found by those prepared to look for it.

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

“Much of it” can you provide any evidence to support your assertion? One tune mentioned “ composed “ supposedly by an Irishman/ Scotsman “ for the stage “seems to be rather a small sample …. .

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Steve Roud’s "Folk Song in England" explains in some detail how popular songs performed on stage and in the pleasure gardens entered into general circulation among what we would now regard as the ‘folk’. These songs and melodies then circulated widely through oral transmission, and are often now thought of as traditional.

As the title suggests, his focus is on England but there is no reason to think Ireland would be any different.

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

The OP’s question was about "tune writers" not song writers. And the tradition in Ireland is not the same as in England.

Posted by .

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Creadur’s post was quite excellent at conveying what I was thinking when I read the O.P. There are a couple other contributing factors, as well. As Creadur had alluded to, a lot of the tunes I play were learned in sessions, and I don’t know the name of the tunes, let alone the composers. Occasionally, I’ll ask someone the name of a tune we just finished playing, and I will have never even heard the name before. But the real problem for me is attaching the name to tunes that I never formally sit down and learn. There is a bit of impermanence to the tunes learned that way for me, and it seems even more difficult for me to attach the name to the tune in that case. (Maybe after playing it for a year, and asking numerous times what it is called, I will make the association, but not always…) What makes this somewhat frustrating is that I LIKE knowing the names of tunes, and knowing something about the origin of the tune, like what the inspiration was for the name, who composed it, etc.

But the other factor that really inhibits knowledge of who composed tunes is the penchant for Irish musicians to name a tune after who they first learned it from, especially if that person didn’t have a name for a tune. I remember having a conversation with Tommy Peoples many years ago about some tunes that were widely attributed to him, and learning that he didn’t compose a lot of the tunes, he merely introduced them to other people, and without names for them, they would be labeled "Tommy Peoples’"… (Fortunately, his book helps clear up some of that confusion… And this isn’t to diminish any of the wonderful tunes that he did actually compose!)

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Kenny, songs have tunes. My point was about how popular culture finds its way into the folk tradition.

In what way was the Irish tradition different from the English?

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

You might as well ask on what way is the Scots tradition different from the English…. there is basically no comparison . Just as the scots tradition varies considerably from the Irish , or Breton or French , or German …. Every culture developes in its own unique form. So its like saying how does the French language differ from the English? Or how does Irish gaelic differ from English ?! They are totally different . Yes there will be some relationship but to conflate them … based on an opinion in a book, and one tune that mau or may not have been composed by a particular person ( he is credited with it indeed but plagiarism is nothing new …. ) its very easy as those of us who compose to think weve created something original only to find it came from our memories and another original source .

The life in Dublin, London Paris and Edinburgh in that period had commonalities indeed , but uniqueness as well in all aspects of life, musical and otherwise , different ideals of Flute tone, different traditional streams of knowledge , social mores etc etc etc
Your argument could as easily be turned around , that folk culture finds its way into popular culture ….. after all without subculture there IS no culture .

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Of course every tradition has its own distinctiveness, just as their national cultures do. However structurally, meaning the processes by which music gets assimilated and communicated, it seems to me they must be very similar. My point was about how popular music finds its way into the tradition - traditional musicians will then interpret that tune in accordance with the distinctive characteristics of their own tradition. To take my earlier example, the Irish versions of ‘Speed the Plough’ are distinctively Irish in character, just as the English versions are distinctively so. Some can only just be recognised as variants of the same tune. Most traditional versions vary to a greater or lesser extent from the original.

And of course it works the other way. One criticism of Roud’s book was that it underplayed how much material was taken from traditional sources by music publishers, perhaps then tidied up or altered, and then eventually fed back into the tradition.

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

Re: Why are Irish tune writers usually unknown? (collective memory) Percy French birthday

I think a lot of Irish dance tunes are derived from much older airs. It was originally the English gentry that brought jigs and reels to Ireland; when they wanted to practice their steps, they would sometimes get their Irish servants to play music for them. So when Lord Peacock tells his servant Paddy to "play something thay goes ‘diddley diddley,’" Paddy might say to himself, "Hmm, that old song my grandmother used to sing to me might work-" and hence a "new" jig is born.

As for more recent compositions, I knew a musician personally that said she used to play her tunes in sessions, and that some of them have become part of the "traditional" repertoire- even tunes that are well known (she wouldn’t say which ones). And I’m fairly sure that a lot of "traditional" Cape Breton tunes are actually Dan R MacDonald tunes that are not attributed to him- he wrote over one thousand tunes, but carelessly gave a lot of them away to friends. That sort of thing does happen, probably more often than we think.