Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

There seems to be a current infatuation with Cape Breton Music in the American ITM world. I guess this is OK, I like to fool around a little bit at a session & play tunes from other traditions as well, it adds to the craic. However, I go to Irish Sessions to play & listen to Irish Music, not be expected to like & play every other kind of ‘celtic’ music. I wonder if anyone shares this opinion, it’s been a bone of contention for me as of late.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Brad, I agree with you, but I haven’t hardened my own stance on all the “other” celtic music out there. Sure, each of us has our preferences, and mine tend toward counties Clare and Sligo, with a dollop of Donegal thrown in. But even that Donegal stuff starts to sound too Scottish sometimes, and then someone at a session takes it as license to launch a set of Shetland tunes and suddenly it blows wide open to Breton, old-timey, etc. This is a particular problem where I live because most of the local musicians come from old-timey or bluegrass backgrounds. They want to play what they’re comfortable with, to strut their stuff once in a while. And we don’t have *anyone* who’s been immersed in the Irish tradition–it’s just us and our cds, and Thistle & Shamrock on the radio. Yet our session has been accused of being elitist because we don’t cater to other genres. So we’ve slipped into French Canadian, Scottish, and Breton stuff on occasion, mostly because people play the tunes they like, regardless of where they come from.

The other “genre” I struggle with is new compositions, particularly those that stretch the traditional sound. Do you “allow” them at a session, or more actively discourage them? Because of our reliance on cds here in Montana, I notice that our session has started to sound like the out-takes of the Green Linnet playlist and poor copies of Martin Hayes (myself included)…and people are more critical than realistic about the quality of music we should expect from our neighbors (who, afterall, hold down regular day jobs and support families in their spare time).

The tradition or what’s left of it is at a crossroads, quickly globalizing, mostly from all of us tune addicts in every corner of the planet and the ready availability of recordings. I don’t think there’s any stopping it. But I appreciate the focus Jeremy’s given to this site (despite the frequent posting of tunes that fall outside the tradition–I just play them once and ignore most of them), and try to simulate a genuine session here at home.

I guess it comes down to deciding when to be a principled stick in the mud and when to reach a little. With what little time and talent I have, I prefer to stay grounded in the good old Irish mud. Good luck hanging on to your preferences.

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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

I agree with your as usual thoughtful reply, Will, on the point of what you play in sessions and not in sessions. I think an Irish session should be Irish, although I did notice in Ireland that they play lots of Scottish and other such – mazurkas often make an appearance, for instance, especially where you find Donegal players. I am still finding my feet in regards to the rhthym and feel, so I try to find sessions where it’s simply the Irish and not much of anything else, myself.

As for new compositions – well – I guess it depends on what you call new, really. One of my current favorite tunes is The Fly Fishing Reel, which is one of Jackie Daly’s. Does that fall under “new” because we know who wrote it? It has a distinctly modern sound to it, too. Verena Commins and Julie Langan play it with two other new tunes, one written by a fiddler in Leeds and the other is one of Julie’s, and they’re even more modern sounding than Fly Fishing. I love all three of them together – it’s the first track on their album “Fonnchaoi” ( It’s a beautiful, beautiful album, quiet and incredibly well played.

Will, I could handle being able to play like an outtake of the Green Linnett stable! You guys must be going great guns up there in MT!


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Thanks Will & Zina, I was expected to be black-listed, for voicing such an opinion. I agree with you on new compostions that are played, some are nice, some are doo-doo. I usually like Charlie Lennon, Brendan McGlinchly & Vincent Broderick’s tunes, which are all current composers. Some late greats but still modern tunesmiths that are quite good (in my book) are Martin Wynn, Ed Reavy & Paddy Taylor.

I’ve written several tunes myself & try to keep it as near the Irish Tradition as possible. It does irk me when people try to change the whole establishment by writing tunes that ‘push the envelope’. Most of the older tunes have been changed for the better by thousands of players over the years before we even heard them. Then there are the cases where a great recording was made that forever set the standard.

I think it’s OK to play a tune from another tradition every once in a while but when it turns the whole session around it can be a pain in the neck. I even like tunes of other tradtions if they are played nicely & fit the ‘mold’ or are just played for comedic value. I like almost every Irish musician I’ve ever heard (in varying degrees) more so than any other style of music, that’s why I go to Irish Sessions.I don’t go so some schmuck can play as many strathspeys, bourees, breakdowns etc. as he/she can think of. I think they are usually thinking ‘I’m proving how much I know’ But I’m thinking, “this screwball is ruining the craic”

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

If you have ten people getting together every week to play exclusively Irish music and one or two who toss in the occasional Scottish, Acadian, Cape Breton, or Old time tune, isn’t the main focus still Irish? I mean, it would be one thing to show up with your scottish smallpipes and play the same three tunes over and over again in a key no-one can play to whenever there’s a break - (this happened at the last session I was at). But I am one of the guilty parties who will play just about anything that catches my ear. It just so happens that right now the bulk of my repertoire is mixed, and that not a lot of it is Irish, so when I go to a session, that’s what I play.

If I wanted to play Scottish music though, I wouldn’t be going to this particular session. I’d maybe drop by a couple of times and then I would realize I didn’t fit in and go somewhere where the players are less specialized.

I don’t generally play anything though, unless I’m asked to play or there’s a good long break where nothing is happening. Then I knock off one of my tunes and if no-one knows it (although they often do) I stop. I do go to learn to play Irish tunes in an Irish way, and I’ve been obsessed lately with learning tunes I heard at the sessions I’ve been going to.

I don’t think it really helps anyone to quietly resent people who play something different from you. I’d hate to think that I’d be ruining the craic if I played Jean’s or the Glasgow Reel … (both new and Scottish and fantastic, aren’t they?) I mean, really, it would be over in a minute and a half. Time enough to get yourself a guiness.

I do understand that the reason one goes to an Irish session is to play irish music. I just don’t know how a player who is looking for a session can discover which ones are Irish, which are Cape Breton or Scottish, and which are open and mixed. (Pubs usually say “session on Tuesdays” and not “purebred, authentic, absolutely and completely Irish session excluding all other styles on Tuesdays” ) Sometimes a player has to travel around a bit to find where they fit in.

I think hostility ruins more sessions than bluegrass. That’s all I’m trying to say.

Perhaps the schmuck who’s trying to “prove how much they know” is just coming from some other session where that’s what they play and looking for other people who play it. He’ll soon discover you aren’t one of those people and move on, or learn some of the common repertoire from your session. You make your own craic.


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Ah HA….slowly, step by step, we’re luring you OUT of that closet, Kerri! Soon you’ll be running down the street, screaming your opinions out for anyone to hear!


A few things to think about that have gotten brought up for me by the past posts:

1) A session is not completely only about the music. It’s about the crack, the close proximity to beer, the close proximity to like-minded friends. It’s a boring session in which everyone plays the music without pausing for friendly chat in-between (or even sometimes during) the music. However, there’s another form of crack that is a statement – it’s when someone starts in on something the rest of the group doesn’t care for – slowly, they stop playing, drift away to the bar, whatever. That is hint time, and time to take the hint.

2) Born and bred Irish players have less problems than we do in the States (and I’m sort of assuming elsewhere) with hearing new stuff in a session, if it’s well-played. That’s not true across the board, of course – there’s plenty an Irish session who’ve found themselves invaded in the past by furrin influences that didn’t play nice often enough that they now fight back by stonily making newcomers prove themselves in a process worthy of a game of Riven or something. But largely, they’re just as interested in the guest forms of music as the next musician – which is to say, some of them welcome it and some of them don’t. Look at Donegal, after all – if all those folks hadn’t had to go work in Scotland, we wouldn’t have that county style. Here in the States, since many of us have little direct contact with the source of the music, we may become (for good or ill) a little protective of the hard-fought gains we’ve managed in getting more Irish.

3) The Glasgow Reel – how do you know, Kerri, that it’s new and Scottish? Jean’s Reel? Well, you know because you cared to find out. To me, that’s important. You don’t just launch into it, not knowing and apparently not caring whether it’s appropriate or not. That’s what a lot of people do. As it so happens, the Glasgow has been solidly taken into the tradition – it’s played a lot of places these days, in Ireland and elsewhere. But YOU CARED TO FIND OUT. You thought about it. You decided that they’re tunes you like. You play them because you like them and find them agreeable. (I’ll play the Glasgow, but I don’t play Jean’s, as it is untraditional enough that the second position section is actually written out in every transcription of it I’ve ever seen! And the feel of the piece just doesn’t fit in to an Irish session.) My point is that you KNOW what you’re doing. You’re not just weeing all over the music out of willful ignorance. (Mindless ignorance is different, of course. *grin*) People who don’t care to find out anything more about the music than whether they can play it or not, in my mind, aren’t very good players. Part of what makes Irish trad so fascinating (yes, I know I use that phrase a lot) is that you connect to the people you learned the tune from by playing it. Who wrote it? Where did it come from? What does the name mean? It’s a personal thing. It means something. That’s why the players often take the time to explain where they learned the tune from, who wrote it, what the jokes around it are… If you take that away from it and just play it, say, because you think you play it nicely, regardless of whether it fits in that session, you take away from the tradition. The fact that you KNOW that those two tunes are neither Irish nor particularly antique says something to me – that you’re not just some ignoramus “lookit what I can do” type.

4) The time honoured way of discovering what kind of session it is you’re looking at is – tadahhh – to ask. The players will almost always tell you. If you’re walking into a session cold and immediately get out your instrument without talking to the players first, you’ve already committed a gaffe. I’ve honestly never heard of anyone talking to someone visiting a session for the first time who refused a request to play – except for when it’s a very specific session for very specific players. (Such as a session for only players who have their names on at least one album with, say, Andy Irvine singing on it, or something.) But it’s only polite to listen for a while with your case under your chair, then strike up a conversation with one of the players (preferably one who plays on most of the tunes) and ask about the session, inform them you’re a musician (never mind that they all spotted your case as soon as you walked in), find out what you can about the level of expertise expected in the session, what kind of music they play, and do they think perhaps you might be able to play with them sometime?

Actually, I’m pretty sure you do all this stuff anyway, Kerri, from your posts elsewhere. *I* think you just like to argue. *grin*


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Well,I can’t say anything about Cape Breton as we rarely hear it over here but I have been to sessions where other stuff has been played.I agree with Brad that it does n’t really put anyone out so long as the players concerned don’t mistake a friendly reception at their first ‘excursion’ for a licence to continue with it the whole night long.(By the way,thanks for telling me about Paul O’Shaughnessy’s album which is new to me).I really like the Brendan McGlinchey/Eddie Kelly/Charlie Lennon etc tunes as well and to risk pointing out the obvious,all the tunes were new once!
Zina, I too like to know where a tune comes from and the stories that may go with it etc but I know quite a few Irish players who ‘don’t have a name for that one’ even if it’s relatively well known but they play with great style and swing(envy,envy!). If I go to a new session I would have a drink or five and listen at the bar first. As to where a tune comes from,well that’s a can of worms! Many Irish tunes come from England/Scotland and vice versa but they become either anglicised or irishised(sorry for that word!) as they are taken into the local style.Take a tune like the Flowers of Edinburgh-you can hear that done as an Irish/Scots reel,English tune,English morris dance tune and for all I know there’s a Cape Breton version out there too.And a very good thing too! I would n’t want a McSession.That said,if you really like Shetland music then it seems fair enough to go to places where that music is mostly played.I remember an English session where a bloke turned up and played nothing but east european tunes.Why did he come?

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

“McSession”! *giggle*

Excellent point, Dave! Even as a relative beginner, I know at least six or seven tunes that I haven’t got the foggiest what the names are, because the people who taught them to me didn’t know the names. (And of course there’s the tunes that I know that I can never remember the names of, even though I’ll know them once somebody reminds me…)

(Barry Foy calls them “Donohue’s”, using the Irish pronunciation – as in “I don-noh-who’s reel that is”…)

But, for instance, for ages we called one jig “Brendan’s Jig”. This was because no one knew who’s jig it was, but was taught it by Brendan (who couldn’t remember or never knew the name of the tune) in the Chicago area. I’ve never met Brendan, and I’ve never played in Chicago. But I was taught the tune by someone who had learned it from him. And I met people who also knew the jig by the name of Brendan’s Jig. Here I was in Denver, learning a tune and finding connections in Chicago with other players. We’d play the tune and laugh that it was called Brendan’s Jig because no one knew the name of the tune. You could meet someone from around the Chicago area, and odds were that they’d know the tune – you’d start to play it, and they’d say, “Oh, Brendan’s Jig!” and start playing with you.

Finally, someone came into a session waving a recording (I think it was Josephine Marsh) around their head. “Brendan’s Jig” is more properly called “Kitty’s Rambles”. We now call it Kitty’s Rambles, but we remember Brendan fondly for it, even though we’ve never met him. For all I know, in Chicago they STILL call it Brendan’s Jig.

I love those connections. To me, it’s part of the music, part of the tradition, and I hope that sort of crack never changes.


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

To tell you the truth, zina, I’m really very shy around very good players. I do try to get a “feel” for the vibe, but I prefer to go to a session where everyone is way way better than me and knows more, as I don’t take lessons and this is the best way I know of to learn.

I just had to leave a group of players I was very comfortable with who played just about everything under the stars at our sessions. We had a diverse group who hadn’t been playing together all that long, so we didn’t have a lot of rep in common, but we still swapped tunes and stories and had a mighty good time. I don’t ever remember a hostile moment, no matter who showed up or what kind of stuff they played. By contrast, in Calgary, all (I should say both) the “authentic” Irish sessions are closed. Ie. you have to be invited to play there. I wasn’t really interested because I didn’t want to play with people who kept a whole lot of unspoken rules in the charter of their little Irish clique. It makes me nervous.

Anyhow, I’m new in town, and I’m bored, and I have nothing better to do these days than take my fiddling to the next level and learn two or three hundred solid Irish tunes and how to play them properly. While my style may not have fit very well into this session so far, it will be quite a bit closer by Christmas.

Stepping away from what we all love about Irish music for a moment, what I love about folky / rootsy musicians in general is that I’ve always found most of them to be very friendly and open-minded. There have been moments of extreme impropriety (a hippy with a flute came to one of our sessions to “jam” and wanted us to play “Devil went down to Gorgia” while he sang… it was amplified and he kept stealing a mic from a harp player so his skilful improvisation could be heard… I kept stealing it back.)


K, gotta go. I’m moving.

I’ll buy everyone a round of Guinness.


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Heh. In Ireland, Boston, NYC, etc., there are quite a few sessions where, if you ask the bar about the session, they’ll always tell you it’s a closed session. This is because in many places (like Boston, for instance), if you have to ask about the session, it means you haven’t talked to any of the musicians, which means that you haven’t got the hang of how it works yet, which means you’re probably a beginner who can’t keep up with that session. So they always tell people it’s a closed session.

All it takes is one of those hippies one too many times – imagine if every session somebody like that showed up – after a while, you’d start closing the session as well.

My bet is, since you care enough about all this stuff to discuss it and talk about it, you’d have no trouble getting yourself invited. Go watch a closed session (they’ll notice that you’re watching, believe me, even if you don’t take your fiddle), and then ask one of the best fiddlers if he knows of anyone who gives lessons in the area, since you just moved there and need a teacher. My bet is you’ll be swallowed whole by the group within two or three sessions. It doesn’t mean you have to stop going to your open session - just find another session at another time to go to as well – you’ll be amazed at how much faster you’ll progress, going to more than one session. Really good players are invariably very kind to beginners who have any kind of manners.

After all, my bet is you have lots of unspoken rules yourself, but you never think about them – we all do. It’s part of being a societal beast.

No way on the Guinness – moving food is PIZZA, and you want lager with that. Or maybe a brown. *grin*


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?


You wrote, “If you have ten people getting together every week to play exclusively Irish music and one or two who toss in the occasional Scottish, Acadian, Cape Breton, or Old time tune, isn’t the main focus still Irish?”. Please keep in mind that I stated that, “I even like tunes of other tradtions if they are played nicely & fit the ‘mold’ or are just played for comedic value” and “I like to fool around a little bit at a session & play tunes from other traditions as well, it adds to the craic.” I’m perfectly fine with Mazurka’s, Polka’s & even some Strathspeys. My problem lies with people who don’t respect the craic or the tradition.

Remember it’s all fun and games til someone plays the “Briches Full of Stitches”! ;o)

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

What a great discussion! Zina’s right on the mark when suggesting that Kerri’s sensitivity to the music is the key to being accepted at any serious session. Against the general population, the community of trad Irish musicians is a small, select (some would say derelict) group of people passing treasured tunes around. The story of Brendan’s Jig is a good example of how interwoven that community is–despite oceans and centuries, the tunes make the rounds and we celebrate this by playing music held in common with people we’ve only just met. The fact that most of these tunes never enjoy air time or “popular” attention makes it all the more wonderous that folks in Vancouver B.C. are playing McKenna’s Reel in a way that would mesh just fine with me in Montana and the sessioneers in Boston and probably even Doolin.

Point being that “closed” sessions and unspoken rules and sometimes even a little latent hostility exist for a reason–to protect our community from the stubbornly ignorant or uncaring, those people who don’t take the time to learn about the music, the tradition, and the social protocols. At our little session, I welcome beginners as readily as advanced players, IF they demonstrate a sense of respect for the music and for their neighbors struggling so mightily to play it. My patience wears thin, however, when someone repeatedly fails to recognize that we’re playing IRISH music, that boom-chuck back-up doesn’t fit, or that volume is a relative thing and your bloody accordion has drowned out the entire circle, again.

See, some of us are genuinely awed by the aural tradition that so loved a tune that it was passed down through the years, from, say, John Doherty’s piping ancestors to John himself, and then on to Dinny McLaughlin, and to Mairead Mhaonaigh, and finally, through concert or recording, to little old me. And having tried for 20 years to coax these tunes out of an obstreperous fiddle, I have the highest respect for the musicians who make these tunes sing. If we’re careful, each of us can be a keeper of the tradition, but *care* is the operative word here.

If you can’t get to Ireland on the next flight, several books offer an excellent resource for bringing a more informed understanding to our music and to sessions. I highly recommend: The Companion to Irish Traditional Music by Fintan Vallely, The Northern Fiddler by Allen Feldman and Eamonn O’Doherty, Last Night’s Fun by Ciaran Carson, and the Heatbeat if Irish Music by Christy McNamara and Peter Woods. Most of these are available through Books are no substitute for sitting in on high caliber sessions and hanging out with people who grew up in the tradition, but reading can help flesh out the details, some of the history, and some of those rules. Better book-learned than unlearned.


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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Will, the comment about the loud accordian makes me think of Karen Tweed’s comments on the BBC Virtual Session site (which, if you’ve never visited the site, by the way, is a lot of fun, and how often do you get a chance to play a full session with Michael McGoldrick, Ian Carr, John McCusker, Karen Tweed and Tomai Taylor? The tunes are slowish but still full of the right stuff, just right for beginners, and which puts paid to anyone thinking that fast=excellent and slow=bad.

In the feature accompanying the Virtual Session, Tweed and Carr talk about some of the finer points of session etiquette:

“If you’re an accordion player and there are more than two accordion players in a session you just don’t play - it’s too loud, and it’s unfair to the fiddles and the flutes,” says Tweed. “I once went to a session in Leeds and it was all fiddles and flutes and maybe one guitar. I was the only accordion player in that session and I sat down and started to play. A fiddle player turned round to me and said if I carried on playing that loud I wouldn’t be welcome any more.

“It doesn’t usually happen like that,” she adds. “People will slowly start to put their instruments away and they’ll go and chat at the bar. I think he was fair in that context because he knew me well enough to do it. I needed to learn, and otherwise wouldn’t have a session to go to.”

“You go to a session and try things out,” adds Carr, “but try not to p*** people off - that’s quite important too!”

There’s some great info in that feature – I recommend the whole site.


Obstreperous, What does it really mean?

I’m learning a lot from these boards. I’m becoming an addict. It’s nice to have some idea of the types of things that might be going on in the heads of the people I play with. I was thinking about this particular discussion as I was moving and it occured to me that session regulars might want to keep themselves informed of all the other sessions in town. That way, when a cajun accordian player shows up at your Irish session, you can say (in a friendly, helpful way) “You know, there’s a very eclectic session that happens on Saturday afternoons at the Ship and Anchor. The stuff you’re playing would fit right in there!” I’ll bet it’s no fun for them if they don’t know your tunes and less fun for you to have to listen to theirs. You’d be helping them find where they fit in, and maybe they would stop coming to your sessions. I don’t know what I could have said to that strange flute playing hippie - (maybe “there’s a bunch of stoners playing djembe’s in that park downtown where people go to shoot up - what you’re playing would fit right in down there!”)

Just a thought. Anyway, I think I got defensive because here I am posting “Jean’s Reel” and “The Lucky Trapper” (not to mention “Gorbachev’s Farewell to Lithuania”) and I’m hearing disparaging remarks about new, non-Irish tunes.

I’m over it now. I think what we’re talking about irks me as well. Not so much the specific repertoire related beef, but musicians who don’t respect the tradition. My deepest gripe is not the beginners who play badly, can’t remember tune names, and don’t know the difference between a Strathspey and a March, but the classically trained hot shot violinists who reckon that since they can play Strauss beautifully, they can easily knock off these simple little tunes. (“Who cares where they came from? Just play ’em really bloody fast!”)

No offence to anyone with classical training in their background. (I have some too) Not all classical players have this attitude. When I was looking for a fiddle teacher a couple years ago, though, I tried a lesson with a girl who played professionally with a Celtic band, and when I showed up she said “what do you want to learn?” and I said “Well… um… what do you teach?” and she said “Oh, I can teach anything.” That was the last lesson I took from her. It turns out her main love was jazz or something and she was playing Celtic music to pay the bills, and because it was so “easy”.

Thanks for the suggested reading, Will, and the suggested browsing, Zina. I’ll pour myself a Scotch and begin. Oh, Zina - you could post that site on the links from this site if you haven’t already. It sounds fantastic.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Zina, Tweed’s story is the kind that more people need to hear, to understand that even great musicians can make mistakes and be unwelcome–if they don’t learn from the “instruction” aimed at them. Too often, beginners don’t fully realize that they’re being singled out because they’re simply not listening, and not because their tone is a little scratchy. If it’s true that good players can detract from a session, then the corollary probably holds that even mediocre players can enhance a session.

When I was a raw beginner, barely a year into drowning cats on my pawn shop fiddle, I went to a concert in Eugene Oregon featuring Liz Carroll, Mick Maloney, Jimmy Keane, and Robby O’Connell. They were, of course, terrific. The next night they were playing again at a pub in Corvallis, less than an hour up the road, so I dragged some friends along and enjoyed another round of great tunes and songs. During a break, I screwed up my courage and asked Liz about a jig they’d played. We talked a bit, and then she went back to prep for the next set. Just before they started, she waltzed through the tables and handed me a bar tab (“What, am I supposed to PAY this, just for chatting her up?” went through my mind), and on it was a penciled transcription of the jig!

So after the show was over, I went up again and Liz played a couple tunes. Then–in front of half a dozen hangers on–handed ME her fiddle. Rather than play a simple jig and smile, I launched into an obscure reel, probably mystifying all present as to what rhythm THAT was. Liz got all excited. “I haven’t heard that in years,” she said. And when I caterwauled to a halt, she took the fiddle and careened through it like it was rehearsed for their finale. “What’s the name of it,” she asked, mostly to herself. “Oh god, what’s the name?”

I suffered almost as much telling her as I had playing the tune that it was the Absent-minded Old Woman…..

So I learned that great musicians can be extremely forgiving of beginners, especially if we wear our own embarrassment on our sleeves.


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The many joys of tutelage

that’s a great story, Will. Made me smile. Reminds me of the many, many wonderful experiences I’ve had talking to fantastic players about technique, tunes, and the origins of songs. Most people - especially extremely talented (or well-practiced) love to see someone take an interest in what they do.

I went to a fiddle camp this year and was very impressed by Gordon Stobbe, who was instructing the advanced group (which I of course was not a party to). Our instructor was fine but didn’t talk much about history or technique, or the theory behind it all. I asked Gordon if I could record and learn a couple of his original tunes - he was kind enough to not just play them, but to walk with me to a quieter building with really good acoustics, play them, and then talk to me for just about the entire lunch hour about technique, attack, rhythm, writing, and curiosity. I wish I’d recorded the conversation too.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Kerri, I think that this music attracts people who have a generosity of spirit, and if they don’t start out that way, the music turns them for the better. I taped a lesson with Kevin Burke some 20 years ago, in his apartment in Portland, and at first I thought I’d blundered by leaving the tape going the whole time instead of just capturing the music. But what he said has proven even more valuable to me over time. What was supposed to be a half hour wandered into more than an hour, and I’m still learning things from that tape!

Isn’t it great to do something that seems to automatically generate “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty”? Possible my favorite all-time experience with this music is when I’m playing outside somewhere, head drooping and lost in the flow of the tunes, only to “wake up” and realize that someone has wandered by and started dancing to the music! Not that this is a common occurrence (certainly not here in Montana), but it does happen, and it feels like a current let loose into the big open has connected and completed the circuit. There are times when I forget that I’m holding a bow or pressing on strings, and there’s just this incredible melody and beat filling the here and now.

And the most remarkable thing is that this can happen even if you’re not Martin Hayes or Ciaran Tourish or Seamus Egan or Paddy Keenan or Dermot Byrne or anyone at all. Just an average player.

These extended conversations here help remind me of those moments, of why we DO this instead of simply buying all those great cds and listening without playing ourselves. It’s better when it’s your body and mind making the music, even if someone else can play it sweeter. So 50 years from now, when Sony will sell digital implants of perfect music that port directly into our cortices, I’ll still be swinging this bow and fumbling these fingers over the strings. Hell, I’ll be in my 90s, but you’re only as old as you reel….


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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

I’m feeling all warm and bubbly now. It just so happens I’m getting a beautiful tone out of my fiddle at this very moment (even though I’m not Martin Hayes). I’m trying to learn some tunes from my local session so I can stop playing Cape Breton stuff and whatever Irish tunes I picked up off my old Spirit of the West albums. I’m trying to find that Irish “feel”. My first and only fiddle teacher (Scottish) explained all the differences between Irish and Scottish music, dance, attitude and conversation in the following statement: “The Irish are always up when they ought to be down, and you can never tell whether they’re starting or stopping, and the Scottish people say what they have to say and then quit.”

Based on that statement, I’m trying to lift tunes out of my instrument instead of grinding them into it. Next thing to tackle is that elusive rhythm, and some sort of ornamentation other than my usual scratchy triplets.

I play so I can have some way other than the calendar to mark the passage of time. I can still remember working four hours a day on “Harvest Home” after my first lesson so that I could BARELY play it at my second - ever so painfully slowly - my teacher (bless her heart) was so impressed! Now, three years later, sometimes even I am almost impressed. Tonight I’m thinking “I didn’t know my fiddle could do that! What a lovely fiddle!”

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

it’s rare that someone will be berated in a session without weeks if not months of subtle hints.

If it’s story time I have a short one that stuck in my head.
I can remember a young teenager whose parents brought him around to a particular session who had some idea of what he was doing, but consistantly pestered the players for “Gary Owen” and “Paddy Whack”. He came around for weeks & everybody quietly delt with it in his or her own way without any overt hostility. One night everyone involved in the session (unknowingly) took him aside at separate times & gave him a little “advice”. After this poor kid got 8-10 different pieces of advice he must of felt pretty unwelcome because i’ve never seen hide nor hair of him again. But no one yelled, screamed, hooted, hollared or turned red, in fact we thought he had some promise & were trying to be encouraging to him.

A very great fiddler told me once that “I’ve learned more from the insults than I’ve learned from the compliments.”

In hindsight, who cares. Thank God I don’t have to deal with him begging me to play “Paddy Whack” anymore!

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Never heard of it. Can you play it for me brad? please? pretty please? Come oooooooooooooooooooon!

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

What’s wrong with scratchy triplets? I love scratchy triplets. Heh.

Brad, that poor boy…it’s so awful to think of how he probably felt as the evening wore interminably on, but I can’t help laughing at the whole thing anyway!

What great stories. I’m going to think about an article on session etiquette and see if I can’t hit up some of our larger lights for stories of how they once goofed up in session etiquette…could make for some very funny but also enlightening stories!

Kerri, here’s a suggestion – try finding some recordings of really definite county style players (Pat O’Connor, for instance, for Clare style), and learn some of their settings. It’s good practice one, and two, you can often hear very clearly the peculiar emphasis the Irish place on their tunes when it’s someone who does nothing but the clean style. I find lots of those sorts of recordings at Custy’s Music in Ennis, you can find them on the Internet at I learned this way of training yourself from Shannon Heaton, who “assigned” a bunch of us each a CD to learn settings from and teach the others in our group.

Thanks for the thread, Brad, this has been and hopefully will continue to be a very interesting thread!


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Barking up the wrong tree, perhaps you should go to more St Patrick’s day parades. I’m sure there would be a bunch of police & fireman more than willing to torture the hell out of it for you on the hoghland pipes!!

Kerri, play “Britches Full of Stitches” for him, he loves it, no, really. *grin*

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Thanks for the tip, zina. Between that and having the opportunity to watch these session players I’m sure I will figure something out soon enough. The two things I noticed so far are that the player whose style I like most at the session seems to start every bar on an upstroke, which is wierd for me, and his rolls involve this strange little slide up to the note that I can’t seem to figure out. It’s like he starts out with a nice clear tone then instantly goes a bit flat and quickly slides up. My rolls are very simple and usually poorly executed on any finger but the first.

I have to go - my boyfriend’s back and he’s wondering what happened to all that bombay!

Slides up to a note

Can’t figure it out? ASK HIM. *grin* I’m sure he’ll be happy to show it to you. If he’s Irish, though, or been with the music since birth, he may not be able to explain it very well. People who have been part of the tradition all their lives often aren’t as good at explaining that kind of thing as a truly obsessed non-Irish player. And talk him into giving you a couple of lessons. If he refuses to teach, then plead with him to at least get together with you to show you a few tricks like his rolls and maybe teach you a tune or two. If you’re lucky, he won’t realize that that IS a lesson. Heh.

As for the rolls, do ‘em slow, and do this exercise everytime you pick up the fiddle – start on the G string, and short roll the open string, then short roll the first finger, then the second, then the third, then the open D, and all the way up. Then repeat the whole thing with long rolls. Be careful to make sure that each roll has all five notes in it; if you can’t count all five, do that roll again. After four or five weeks of this, you’ll see a marked improvement in your rolls, if only from wanting to scream from impatience of getting through the exercise.

Tell your boyfriend you were sharing with your virtual friends. 🙂


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Kerri,we’re all pilgrims on the Pennine Way! I know the two steps forward/one step back routine (3:1 in my case) can be a pain in the neck if not elsewhere but just pour yourself a large one and think about what great tunes you know already and the ones to come.You will pick up a lot of stuff from the people in your sessions probably without knowing.
By the way,I like to ring the changes with whiskies but a good one for the long winter nights is the Talisker with a sniff of water.Start giving your boyfriend subtle hints now…

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Zina, I will ask him. It seems he teaches for Comholtas, so I’ll probably find out where and when they get together and pester him there. Probably a good idea for me to check it out anyway. I did practice rolls quite a bit last night (Humours of Ballyloughlin is a great tune for practicing rolls) and I think I’ve finally gotten them into the right rhythmic spot, although not always as clear as I’d like them.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Dave, watering the Talisker – how could you! *giggle*

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Yes,I know and hang my head in shame.Maybe I should only show the whisky a picture of a stream!
I find jigs the best thing for practising rolls too.Good luck!

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

I think that’s largely because jigs are played a little slower, normally (not as many notes, too. So the rolls come a little easier.


P.S. Depends on the stream. Shouldn’t like some of them, I’d think, these days!

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

I forgot about a fellow I know who’s from Cape Breton, he came to a session I was at tonight. While it’s not what I’m used to it’s a real nice thing, I kept on him t play those “Hoppy, marchy - Cape Breton Strathspeys”. He played a few & good god almighty he’s got it down pat. What I ment when I started this discussion was when people half-ass Cape Breton music, when the real stuff is played by a real Cape Bretoner it’s the cat’s meow. I’m jelous of people who get to grow up in places like Cape Breton or many parts of Ireland/Scotland where your a weirdo if you *don’t* play. The music just seems to flow out of these people, I haw & hem & seek out these folks who just get it handed to them. There is a boatload of stuff you can learn from these folks.

As a side-note there were no less than three regulars on this site who attended this session. The session was a little weak as the leader & the best backer weren’t there, but I enjoyed “Ships in full sail/Butlers of Glen Ave/Pull the knife…” set that came up. but then Li’l Brendan had his share & reminded me that I need to wake up @ 5am tomorrow. What a great son! He seems quite musical so far, always wanting to have at any instrument anyone is playing. One friend keeps teasing me that he’ll be a banjo player, she also accuses me of looking a little too natural with a banjo [in a “Deliverance” kinda way] If he played the banjo I’d be content, but I’ll fervently keep him away from the concertina (just kidding).

PS I got another kid on the way so bets are open on the boy/girl issue.

Bye for now

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Wow, COOL, Brad! Congratulations! When’s the due date? At this rate you’re going to have a family band…fun that members of The Session all attend your sessions…


Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

So Brad…are you a second time new dad yet? I was looking for something else and found this old thread and had forgotten all about your second!


Re: Cape Breton Music

This should be safe. People keep dropping veiled and blunt threads about needing to read the old stuff. Let’s see, #66. I might just make this without fear of retribution, meaning no one will discover this late addition.

Cape Breton isn’t an ‘island’, at least not in the ephemeral sense, but like so many places a melting pot, which includes Irish influences. The lovely man and fiddler Johnny Wilmot considered himself as much an Irish fiddler as a Cape Bretoner. Brenda Stubbert has Irish in her blood too, or so she once told me.
Check out and support the lovely efforts of the madman Paul Cranford at:

- and get him to get off his ass and re-release the person mentioned above:

Johnny Wilmot: Another Side of Cape Breton

I love the stories above especially, including the Karen Tweed quote. So here’s another:

There used to be a Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Branch in Seattle, Washington, and maybe there is again, but this is about a ‘used to be’. They sponsored the first CCE tour to the Northwest at the time, more than a decade ago, the 80s? Anyway, they had their usual session, and the CCE group attended. Being the Northwest, light and open, they played things other than officially recognized Irish, at the most 10% of the evening. So, 90% or more was Irish. Well, it put the hackles up of the then resident pedant of the tour, a usual, and a ‘president’, say no more, and he chastized them for allowing those few foreign influences into the session. That particular CCE branch folded, not the session, just the association with CCE.
Mind you, the story also goes that the Comhaltas tour complained about being put up in the houses of members instead of in hotels. Again, I suspect that was the same bozo, knowing him from other associations and guffaws, including in Eire where at an open air talk assoiciated with a cultulral parade, he ended things with a few sentences putting down the North. Afterwhich a few good friends from those regions got in their cars and went home.
So, while some complain about a few Cape Breton tunes being given air in an otherwise Irish session, I’ve found some of the same shight in sessions in the home country, Eire, where they didn’t like Donegal music, or polkas and slides. Mind you, there seems to be less of that, and it was mostly in the city, never in the countryside pubs unless it was summer and there was a preponderance of Americans present…

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

“no one will discover this late addition.”

ha! caught ya!

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Bloody Hell - Someone found me out…

I should think before I speak, eh? No place is safe…least of all here in digi-limbo…

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Ceolachan, thanks for dredging up this old thread. And for providing some balance with your stories about the CCE fuddy duddy. This was a small thread among a few friends, and I think we come off sounding more like trad police than we really are. As Brad said at the start, a sprinkling of tunes from other genres can really add to a session–it’s when they take over that the craic dries up.

Your comment at the end about us Yanks has more than a shred of truth in it. The problem in many Stateside session is that few of the musicians are as familiar with Irish music as they are with old timey, or bluegrass, or Cajun, or Texas swing, or something else. So it’s easy to end up sitting on your hands while the gang plays ‘Possum on the Stump’ and ‘Cripple Creek’ for 20 minutes. And then into another hoedown.

We do all sorts of music in our session, but we enjoy a preponderance of jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides, slip jigs, and even polkas. 🙂

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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Spare a thought for the poor Shetlander or Cape Bretonner trudging from pub to pub looking for a “Shetland” or “Cape Breton” session. It’s not gonna happen is it? They wouldn’t exclude “Irish” musicians from their sessions so why on earth would you wish to exclude them from yours - even if on the odd occasion the pendulum swings in their favour?

The music of the Celtic diaspora has so much in common I think it’s a shame to complain of such variety as exists.

I have to admit I was using this site for at least 6 months before I noticed that it was intended for Irish music (with no mention of any other good or bad). Where I live, a session is just a session and we would love it if a Cape Breton fiddler or English or other came in with a different style and repertoire.

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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Bren, no one’s suggesting excluding a player based on their repertoire. But where I live, we’d be a bluegrass or old timey jam if we didn’t occasionally say outright that we mostly want to play Irish tunes.

Yeah, we end up playing a fair amount of Scottish, Cape Breton, and other stuff, and enjoying the hell out of it, but I got bluegrass out of my system some years ago (taught and played in band for many years). Now, when some good friends and I set aside one night a week to play Irish trad music, we like to avoid Orange Blossom Special if we can. There’s a bluegrass jam on another night of the week for people who want to do that. So it’s not that we exclude anyone, but more that there’s a time and place for different music.

Sure, some sessions are more wide ranging–which is great, if that’s what the players want to do.

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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Oh, I dunno, let’s not get all silly about it. I don’t think anyone goes round telling people “you can’t play that here! We don’t play that stuff!” It’s not a question of “exclude” but more a question of “manning the walls against an excursion of old time or bluegrass or whatever” – there’s a thread somewhere around here with stories of that sort, I’ll see if I can find it for you.

As Will says, it’s just aggravating to have somebody decide to take half an hour to an hour with stuff that no one else knows (happens, I’ve been there) and doesn’t seem to want to play the stuff that we generally play. I don’t mind a few minutes of it, mind you, sitting happily for up to half an hour or so (you have to drink sometime, you know), but past that I think it’s a bit impolite.

And Brad did point out early on that he hasn’t any problem with the real stuff, either. Just the half-*ssed versions.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Heh. Cross posting, you have to love it.

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Dog pile!!! With poor Bren at the bottom.

Bear in mind that it was Brad who started this thread. Never one to mince words, was he? 🙂

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Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?

Still isn’t, insofar as I know. *grin*

A bit more on the mentally ill at sessions - and Ireland on the Isle

While I’ve come across sentences in these comms that arch their back and raise hairs like a cat in hiss, the claws are retracted and you are all really just a bunch of softies , kittens rather than alley cats.

I’ve been there, having to find words, the diplomat in me, to describe to someone what the event they’ve just stepped on is about, and isn’t. But there are times when they just don’t give a damned, because they’ve the upper hand with their piano accordion, bigger and louder, or their electric guitar and amp. Mind you, when the conversation goes one way, and if just pulling the plug doesn’t work, there’s always sacrafice, like a pint accidentally spilled over the electrics, or that old foot tick where you just can’t control the muscles and have to occassionally just kick out under the table. Damn, sorry about that. Hey, it’s usually one of those cheap amps that is easy to decommission or replace - for their next onslaught.

Sadly, sometimes these folks aren’t just carrying artillery, they can sometimes be damned big and scary, or just plain nuts… We had one bloke who believed in singing long songs in sets. This was in Eire, like four or five songs on the trot, with really awful guitar accompaniment on an out of tune plywood guitar, ‘folk’ music, meaning things like Peter, Paul and Mary. Yeah, in Eire, a Dublin session. In the end, and we let it happen a few times, and tried talking to him, we just collectively told him to “Feck Off!” - - - MEEOOOW!!!

But back on subject, Cape Breton - another source for Cape Breton’s Irish roots is Joe Confiant, and there’s a CD out called ‘Off to Georges River’, as described on Paul Cranford’s website:

“Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Cape Breton’s Northside district became a cradle for traditional Irish fiddle music. The 20th century brought Scottish fiddle music to these mining communities. Joe Confiant (1900-1985) was an influential fiddler from this district. Well versed in Cape Breton’s Scotch and Irish traditions, Joe kept the old Northside Irish repertoire alive well into the 1960’s. This compilation includes excerpts from classic house sessions recorded in North Sydney,Georges River and Groves Point.”

Instrumentally on the island, though it got a bit thin on the ground, there were accounts of tin whistles being played and button boxes too/melodeons, though in the main the only skeletal remains I came across were one rows.

Yes - I’d like to know that ‘thread’ of stories. It sounds like kicking the habit of bluegrass is like giving up cigarettes, after withdrawal you always feel a little quesy in a smoky room, not that I know…

Re: Cape Breton Music, Does it really belong?