American Fingerstyle Guitarist

The term ‘Celtic’

“CELTIC” IS A BASKETBALL (or, if you’re Scottish, a Football) PLAYER

by Duck Baker

This article is submitted here as a modest disclaimer by a musician who recognizes the inevitability of the use of the term “Celtic” as regards music but doesn’t like the term for reasons which will be given. Being constrained to use the term in professional situations has created in the author the desire to set the record straight, whether anyone else is really interested or not.

In the course of this article I will talk about different kinds of traditional music and the relationships between them. I am mostly interested in trying to clear the air about a few things, and should say at the outset that my aim in trying to clarify these relationships should not be taken as evidence of dislike for any of the music under discussion. I still remember the amazement I felt when I first heard Breton music, and I am glad that Galician bands have had the opportunity in recent years to showcase their wonderful tradition.

That said, the use of the word “Celtic” contributes nothing to our understanding of any traditional music. In practice it usually amounts to a way to refer to Irish music that leaves room for the occasional tune that comes from Scotland or somewhere else if the tune fits the performance style. As recently as the late 1980’s, Americans operating in this musical realm called what they did “British Isles” music. It took that long for them to find out that neither the Scots nor the Irish like being called “British”. Southern Americans who get called “Yanks” overseas might have similar feelings, but they wouldn’t be in a position to evoke a term of racial differentiation with overtones of Arthurian legend and sell it to consumers of New Age claptrap.

In fact it wasn’t the Irish or Scots who brought the term “Celtic” into current usage. This to a great extent can be traced to the Breton Alan Stivell and Welshman Robin Williamson. While both of these performers have made (in very different ways) constructive use of their heritage, what we have in effect is members of a different branch of the Gaelic peoples insinuating a closer relationship to the Scots-Irish branch than in fact exists. That this would happen at all is evidence of the strength particularly of the Irish tradition in the 70’s when folk groups of most persuasions were touring heavily in Europe. Anything that could make your band seem related to those exciting Irish groups was worth a try.

Central to the pan-Celtic idea was the feelings developed between the Irish and the Bretons, whose histrory of oppression by the French is comparable to the Irish vis a vis the English. Both races share characteristics like soulfulness, a distrust of mainstream culture, and the love of a good time. The 70’s folk festival circuit provided a wonderful occasion for the Irish and Breton musicians to discover each other, and the feeling of commonality that developed is a healthy thing and not something anyone wants to disparage. At the same time, we should at some point ask how much of the relationship is based on any historical/cultural fact, and the moment that that is done, the Kingdom of the Celt is in serious trouble.

Were the term in use “Gaelic” and it was understood to refer to the Scots-Irish branch of the family distinct from the Welsh-Cornish-Breton, there would be no problem. Irish and Scottish history are interwoven from antiquity. When Deirdre (heroine of the great early Irish myth) went into exile she went to Scotland, and the two races have always felt themselves to be cousins. Linguistically, Irish and Scottish are closely related, and there are many tunes and songs which are shared, some of which are not easily ascribed to either nation.

Since the term “Celtic” has been embraced, it is now put forth that not only both branches of the Gaels but any other group that considers itself Celtic, like the Galicians in Portugal, share a common mystical heritage. Presumably the lad I encountered in Friulia, in Northeastern Italy, who claimed to be Celt should be included, even though his actual knowledge of the ancient Celts was such that he was quite insistently mistaken about the direction of their migration. He thought that they originated in Ireland and crossed Europe on their way to India. This is only slightly more wrong-headed than the entire issue here, and typical of the depth of knowledge involved.

After all, the Celts were spread over Northern Europe before the time of the Roman Empire. There was certainly no hegemony felt between the different Celtic peoples of two thousand years ago. Someplace like Friulia has since that time been overrun by so many different races that to single any one out – Romans, Goths, Vandals, Austrians – is amazingly silly. The fellow I met could just as well have thought of himself as a Hun as a Celt. Perhaps his neighbors do. In any case it makes much less sense to call a contemporary Irishman a Celt than it does to refer to Mexicans as Aztecs. A friend and a fine traditional musician from Ayreshire, Tom Smith, put it this way some time ago: “Fair enough I’m a Scotsman, but what does it mean to say I’m a Celt? For all I know me great-great-great-great-great granny was Spanish.” Most Scottish musicians saw it that way until recently. I found it depressing indeed the last time I was at a Scottish festival, to overhear a group of younger Scottish players repeating the “Celtic” party line to each other.

What we have in traditional music is the ongoing creation of a community of musicians. That racial musical tendencies run deep can be seen by any consideration of Afro-American music. But anyone who knows anything about that music will admit that the sense of melody displayed in the spiritual folk songs of the slaves owes to a great extent to an assimilation of Anglo-Scot folk melody. Does this make them “Celts”? There is no doubt that Irish tradition has brought a spectacular body of music to the world, unsurpassed in melodic grace and depth. But it is a slander to the musicians responsible to imply that this is not the result of hard work but of DNA. I am reminded of the assessment of old-line Southern racists who credited the Negro they regarded as only half-human with innate musical abilities.

The truth of the matter is that someone working within the framework of an inherited musical system that expresses something of a people’s collective spiritual depth has a chance to contribute to that system, and that a traditional folk music is the result of many thousands of such contributions. We don’t know who wrote most of the classic tunes of the Irish repertory, nor is it seen as important. What is valued is devotion to the tradition – the hard work of mastering instrument and repertoire, the drive to maintain the language nurtured by previous generations. (Obviously this has little to do with the show-biz aspirations of many current stars of the Celtic scene.)

How old is the Irish tradition? There are references to music on ancient instruments dating back to medieval times, but scholars consider it rash to think that any of the tunes we know are older than three or four hundred years. We can assume that some general characteristics go back further, but even the medieval references are over a thousand years from any connection to any mainland Europeans.

It is intriguing to imagine that the Breton bombard and binou tunes, which seem older and more mysterious than folk music in some other regions of France, might be related to a root that also nurtured Irish music, but it just as easy to imagine that there was once a common prototypical European music that eventually was driven to the outlying areas, with such non-Celtic types as Sardinians, Bulgarians, and Norwegians among those whose music seems to reflect evidence of this. The problem with trying to see more than a general similarity between Breton and Irish music becomes apparent when we look at the songs of the Bretons, which from what I’ve heard seem mostly like the kinds of ditties common in French folksong. Not there’s anything wrong with Breton or French songs, but they don’t sound anything like Irish songs.

This of course brings us to something that the Celtic label more or less deliberately tries to obscure, the very palpable relationship between Irish music and English music. Dance music in England is not generally anything like as interesting as it is in Ireland (though the relationship is obvious), but the English folk song is a spectacular tradition that anyone should be proud of, and anyone with less reason than the Irish for antipathy would be proud of the connection. Some song tunes we think of as Irish have an English origin, including those of famous rebel songs. There is an implied swipe at the English with all this “Celtic” blarney, and while the Irish and Scots have earned the right to bitter feelings toward the Brit there is quite a bit wrong with Americans boarding this particular band-wagon, but I’ll return to that. The body of Anglo-Scottish folksong studied by Francis Child in the last century which is now known as the Child ballads demonstrate a wealth of beautiful melody in both countries as well as textual relationships to folksongs and legends over much of Europe, particularly the Scandinavian nations.

It should also be said that not every Irishman was an oppressed mystic and every Englishman a highborn Philistine. The one race historically who arguably suffered more at the hands of the English than the Irish are the English. Engels’ study of the English working class or Orwell’s writings in this century could be entered as evidence, but it is a complex argument and the point that needs making is simple; oppression is an economic, not a racial issue. Scottish history is so full of feudal wars (even after the English conquest), betrayals, and class divisions of their own that seeing the English as bogies takes real desire. Not that that is lacking; the simplistic Hollywood view of it all has been embraced to the extent that a recently-erected statue of Robert Bruce in Scotland bears a strong resemblance to – who else? – Mel Gibson.

The Scandinavian relationship to Irish and especially Scottish music is quite a bit more obvious than any presumed ties to Brittany, but since it doesn’t jibe with the Celtic bit it is conveniently ignored. This is a real drag because the Norwegian Hardinger fiddle tradition, for instance, is spectacular but still largely unknown. Topic Records in the early 80’s did devote an excellent album, “Ringing Strings”, to the connection between Shetland and Norwegian fiddle music, but the fundamental defining rhythmic characteristic of Scottish music, the “snap” exemplified in the Strathspey dance tunes, is remarkably like Scandinavian rhythms. I don’t hear much direct connection between Scandinavian and Irish dance music (about as much as there is between Breton and Irish) but the similarity between traditional Norwegian and Sean Nos singers is uncanny. Did repeated Viking invasions during the period before the congealing of the modern Irish style have any influence? This in my view is an interesting possibility, though of course Vikings aren’t cuddly like Celts to the modern mind.

The great English collector Cecil Sharp discovered on a trip to the Southern American mountains early in this century that English and Scottish folksong was quite alive. There were also Irish and Scottish tunes among the dance repertoire of mountain fiddlers brought over by early Scotch-Irish settlers. An important later American connection is the fact that many of the performers on the early minstrel show circuit were Irish musicians; early five-string banjo tutors contain a high number of jigs. Later the tenor banjo was taken back and introduced in Ireland, where it has found a happy home. One of the oddest and in a way most troubling aspects of the current Celtic slant is that the relationship of Scottish and Irish music to old time mountain music and its progeny, bluegrass, is completely ignored. It is easy to name a dozen Irish or Scottish tunes commonly played by old-time musicians, and any bluegrass fiddle tune you can name is obviously related to those traditions, while the repertoire shared by traditional Irish and Breton players is nil. Many hill-people are racially as purely Scotch-Irish as the inhabitants of Derry. Are they excluded from the Kingdom of Celts for the sin of singing English folksongs, for playing instruments of African descent, or simply because they are just thought of as half-witted inbred hicks whose musical abilities are, again “innate”? (like the kid in “Deliverance”, as if that was real!) I hate to break the news but the Hatfield-McCoy feud, symbolic of hillbilly backwardness, was a picnic compared to the murderous sprees the noble Kennedys of Ayreshire indulged in. I personally am very suspicious of Americans who embrace all things Celtic while turning up their noses at the purveyors of their own direct link to that culture.

I also suspect that Americans who participate in Anglo-bashing as if it were a prerequisite to appreciating Irish and Scottish music are largely living up to the reputation of buffoonery that these people have come to expect of us. To a great extent Americans are just English people who stayed too long. Our cultural base is predominantly English, and this is true of any ethnic group to the extent that they participate in mainstream American society. It is gratuitous and foolish for Americans to pretend to be some kind of Celtic soulmates by proxy, and if we haven’t been guilty of oppressing the Irish or Scots, we have more than made up for it elsewhere.

It is also worth noting that, a couple of generations ago, Americans wanting to find musical relations to some sort of font of white soulfulness looked not to the Celts but to the English. Folksong collectors in the wake of Cecil Sharp began hunting high and low for Child ballads, and while this was certainly important and valuable work some of it smacks of unbridled Anglophilia. One group turned their attention to shape note and related hymnody (some with the misguided attention of proving the the spirituals of Black America were direct borrowings from white folksong.) These scholars, headed by the industrious if slightly daft George Pullen Jackson, seemed to quiver at the very idea of English folksong. At least Jackson didn’t try and relate the music of the Anglo-Saxon to that of ancient cousins in Thuringia or some such.

It is certainly interesting that the folk who should be in the thick of any Irish-Breton connection, the Welsh, have made so few waves. What I have heard of Welsh dance music sounds pretty much just like English dance music, but the Welsh folksong tradition is another story. The relationship to the English tradition is apparent, but there would seem to be a wealth of material that has remained dormant, if we can use such a term. I know of a few spectacular but unperformed songs and have been told there are hundreds more where they came from. I also have heard recordings of a very interesting carol singing style that is perhaps vaguely related to the kind of traditional singing that the English Copper family did, but not at all to the choir singing that is sometimes presented as traditional. This 19th century phenomenon actually displaced the real traditions. It would seem that there is ample room for dedicated revivalists as regards the Welsh folksong, but little has been recorded to date, for some reason. Truth to tell the Breton groups, many of whom I like very much, also tend to stray from their own traditions rather consistently.

Finally I must say that I’m not sure why we are trying to attain racial purity in music or anywhere else. There is, I’m afraid, a notable similarity between this Celtic thing and the cosmology of the Nazis, who also appealed to the archetype of a racially pure ancient race that migrated to Europe from India. I’m not implying that the Irish or Scots are planning concentration camps for the English. Why should they, when English city planners have already accomplished it?


Breathnach; Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Bronson; The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, vols. I-IV
Child; The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, vols. I-V
Fischer; Albion’s Seed – Four British Folkways in America
Jackson; Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America
O’Neill; Irish Minstrels and Musicians
Robertson; Kings of Carrick
Sharp; English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians