Expect Us!

Bill Allyn

 

Protest, resistance and rebel songs are a major aspect of folk music, so it's no surprise that someone should apply that ancient tradition to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have no idea who Bill Allyn is except that he's the author of the song “Expect Us!” and he encourages people to share it as widely as possible.

As rebel ballads go, I've definitely heard both worse and better. The lyrics are pretty basic, but the way he presents them is emotionally effective. The version of it I found is paired with dozens of photos from the worldwide Occupy/15M movement, some of which are quite inspiring. One of my favorites shows a police officer (from England, maybe?) holding a sign that says “I've chosen the side of the people.”

 

This may not go down in history as one of the all-time great protest songs, but I imagine it would be a powerful experience to sing it in the company of hundreds of other Occupiers in a plaza somewhere at night. Thanks to Bill Allyn for putting the hopes and dreams of Occupiers all over the world into a traditional protest ballad. I know a number of other musicians have made Occupy music of various genres, but most of their songs are hip hop or some other “modern” form of music. I think this one is the most “folky” example I've found so far. Maybe some other folk musicians will follow this example and add to the Occupy folk music repertoire.

 

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Eluveitie

Gaulish Folk Metal?!

“Eluveitie” means “a Helvetian,” which in turn means “a member of the Helvetii,” which was the ancient Celtic or Gaulish tribe that used to live in what is now Switzerland. It's also the name of a rather peculiar band, who happen to be from Switzerland, and who play a combination of Celtic folk music and heavy metal.

But that isn't the only thing that's a bit outlandish about them. There's also the fact that they're Gaulish nationalists, and that many of their songs are about the heroic struggle for national liberation waged by Gaulish resistance fighters against the might of Imperial Rome- oh, about two thousand years ago.

 

In case that isn't eccentric enough, they also frequently sing in Gaulish, a language no one has spoken since sometime before the fall of the Roman Empire. It's the Celtic language once spoken in France and central Europe, just one generation removed from the Proto-Celtic language from which all the Celtic tongues were ultimately derived.

 

So there you have it. Heavy metal/Celtic folk music sung in a long-dead Celtic language about a long-lost rebellion for Gaulish independence against a long-vanished empire. If you don't understand what's cool about that, I'm not really going to be able to explain it to you.

 

Even though the Gaulish struggle, and more particularly the Helvetian struggle, went down in defeat a very long time ago, this band of Swiss musicians still carries the torch. Tremble, minions of Rome- the Helvetii have risen again!

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Buddy MacMaster On The Fiddle

Cape Breton Fiddle

Here's Buddy MacMaster, the grand old master of the Cape Breton fiddle, displaying his incredible skill on some classic Gaelic fiddle tunes. Cape Breton fiddle music is really lucky to have Buddy MacMaster, a living link with the old Gaelic world that once thrived on Cape Breton Island. Buddy is the uncle of celebrity fiddler Natalie MacMaster.

Natalie and other “modern fiddlers” use a recognizably different style from the old Gaelic fiddlers who started the tradition. The reason for this is probably that the context is different. The old fiddlers played for barn dances and weddings and kitchen visits. Their primary job was to provide a rhythm for the dancers, so none of the older fiddlers would ever play too fast for the dancers to keep up with, nor would they throw in tricky virtuoso stunts.

 

The newer fiddlers like Ashley MacIsaac are usually playing for an audience, so they tend to think more like performers or even rock stars. They tend to emphasize the performance and to ham it up, particularly by trying to appear “intense” and by doing tricks on the fiddle like Jimi Hendrix on his electric guitar. Natalie MacMaster doesn't do that sort of thing, but she does play in a more performance-oriented style than her uncle Buddy, who pretty much always just sits in a chair with his suit and tie on, playing the best fiddle you ever heard in your life. The changes that have happened, have happened for a reason- but sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.

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Young Ned Of The Hill

The Pogues

“Young Ned of the Hill” is one of my favorite Pogues songs, a blistering rant against Oliver Cromwell and his genocidal slaughter of the Gaelic Irish as well as a celebration of the Robin-Hood-like character of the title. Young Ned of the Hill is reputed to have been a real person, a “rapparee” or guerrilla fighter who resisted the English forces during the Cromwellian settlement.

Rapparees were dispossessed members of the Gaelic warrior aristocracy, driven out onto the hillsides to make way for incoming colonies of Protestant English and Scots settlers. They survived by raiding those same settlers and ambushing soldiers or government officials whenever possible, so they were something in between bandits and true guerrillas- but then again, most guerrillas are.

 

Young Ned is supposed to have fled to the hills after shooting a tax collector, possibly in defense of a virtuous old widow- although the more mythic the details, the less reliable from a purely historical perspective. There he lived for several years, coming down only to strike and then escape again, before he was eventually killed. The rapparees were generally Jacobites- supporters of the exiled House of Stuart- but they became a symbol of Irish resistance for the later (and politically quite distinct) Irish Republicans. The real Young Ned of the Hill would probably have found the socialism and egalitarianism of Irish Republican politics to be peculiar if not offensive to him as a born aristocrat, but as a symbol of a heroic Gael standing up to English oppression, he can still be pressed into service regardless!

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Folk and Classical

"A Great Burger vs Filet Mignon"

In Gaelic, the distinction is between “ceol mor” (literally, “big music,” or what we now call pibroch tunes, the long and wandering bagpipe compositions) and “ceol beag” (literally, “little music,” the “fun” tunes used for dances). In the broader European musical tradition, the distinction is between “classical” music and “folk” music. Indian traditional music recognizes a similar distinction- the video attached to this blog is an example of “Indian classical music”.

So, some sort of distinction between a high register or elite (“classical”) music tradition and a low register or “folk” tradition is found in a number of different cultures. What's the basis for the distinction?

 

Speaking broadly because we're talking about so many different traditions here, I would say that classical music is less easily accessible, less intuitive for new listeners, and is usually based on building up variations on a theme according to some established system or pattern. It may seem quite dull to the uninitiated, but it offers great depth and sublimity to those who put in the time and effort to understand it. It's an acquired taste.

 

Folk music is more accessible, more intuitive, and is usually enjoyable by any unprejudiced listener on the very first try. It's more fun, but you could say that it doesn't have as many layers to it.

 

Some classical fans really believe that classical is inherently superior music because it's “more sophisticated.” This is easily debunked. When classical violinists try to play a fiddle tune, they often sound stiff and mannered rather than expressive and carefree. Fiddle isn't a lower form of violin, it's just different. Classical is seen as a superior form of music for reasons of class prejudice, pure and simple.

 

Some folkies really believe that folk music is “more pure” than classical music, which they see as artificial. They're also wrong. Classical traditions and folk traditions have fed into each other and influenced each other for many centuries, in a mutually beneficial exchange. Think of it like this.

 

If you love a good burger, should you never eat filet mignon? Or vice versa? There's room for both!

 

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Ballad of the Green Mountain Boys

Revolutionary War Song

“Ballad of the Green Mountain Boys” is a classic “come all ye” style folk ballad in honor of the Green Mountain Boys, Vermont's homegrown revolutionary army during the War of Independence and other, more local struggles. This type of song is designed to be easy to sing, easy to memorize, and easy to get excited about. The Green Mountain Boys were commanded by Ethan Allen, who was a bit of a legend both in his own time and in his own mind. A hero to Vermonters, a terror to both New Yorkers and British soldiers, Allen led his Green Mountain boys in two wars- one to free Vermont from British rule, the other from the rule of New York.

The “Vermont Republic” was the short-lived result, an independent nation that existed for a few years before merging with the other colonies to form the United States of America. The Republic of Vermont has also been known as “the reluctant republic” because the Vermonters didn't really want a country of their own- they just wanted to be able to join the United States on their own terms rather than on terms dictated by their enemies in New York.

 

They eventually did achieve this aim, entering the new nation as a full-fledged state. But just like Texas- their opposite in virtually every other way- Vermont has never really forgotten that it was once an independent nation. If it was still independent today, perhaps this song would be its national anthem!

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Ossianic Chant

A Window Into The Ancient Celtic World

 

 

This song is a window into the distant past, the world of Celtic warriors and the bards who sang of their heroic deeds in torchlit halls. It's the most obscure surviving genre of Gaelic song, preserved only by a tiny handful of mostly elderly singers. The genre is known as “Ossianic chanting.” Most (but not all) Ossianic chants tell the stories of the Fianna warriors of ancient Irish and Scottish legend. When you listen to one of these chants, you're listening to the Gaelic equivalent of the wandering Homeric bards who sang the Iliad and Odyssey centuries before they were ever written down.

Unlike the vast majority of “Celtic music,” these chants are genuinely old enough to be directly related to the world of the ancient Celts. Based on the language in the chants, they were most likely composed in the early Middle Ages, but the tradition in which they were composed is very much older. A bard of the ancient Picts or Gauls would surely recognize these songs as being part of his own tradition.

 

There's something faintly spooky about hearing a song so ancient and knowing that the very same song was one performed in the halls of tribal chieftains for the entertainment of warriors and heroes. Ossianic chant is nearly dead as a song tradition even among the Gaels- but it is not dead yet. Maybe with a little luck, it will continue to live on, a link in a chain so long we can't even say where it really began.

 

Ewan MacColl

Eighteenth Century Protest Songs

Most “protest folk songs” have a rather precious quality about them, but these eighteenth century examples are a different breed entirely. The singer on the first one is Ewan MacColl, a big name in the world of folk music if sometimes intolerant in his views. (MacColl believed that a folk singer should only sing songs “native”to the tradition of his own area, and was known for trying to impose this view on others.)

 

The narrator of the first song is supposed to be a weaver. Weavers were at the forefront of radical resistance to the Industrial Revolution. They were largely responsible for Scotland's Radical War of 1820, for example.

 

The mark of a truly authentic protest song, like that of any other folk song,is in the depth of passion implicit in the words, the music and the delivery. Traditional songs are not about note-perfect presentation. They're not about slick production or virtuoso instrumentation or the attractiveness of the singer. What are they about, then? Human emotion, presented as plainly and simply as possible so that the stark reality of the song is as uncompromised and powerful as it can be.

That's not the only way to effectively present a “folk” song, but it's the traditional way. Most folk-music is not presented in a folk context, and that's fine. But when a song like this is presented as close as it can be to the traditional way, it is sometimes more powerful by far for the lack of superfluous ornamentation.

 

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Gaelic Mouth Music

Mary Jane Lamond

This Gaelic song is performed by Mary Jane Lamond, and is a great example of a genre known as “mouth music” or “puirt a beaul” in Gaelic. The video includes the English translation of the lyrics, and as you can see they're not all that serious.

That's because the lyrics to mouth music are not intended to really mean anything, they're intended to either teach or replace the fiddle tune. The tune is supposed to be played in such a way that it matches the arrangement of consonant and vowel sounds in the Gaelic song- harder on the consonants, softer on the vowels. It's basically a system of musical notation for an oral tradition. You can actually hear a distinct difference when the same tune is played by a Gaelic traditional fiddler as opposed to someone who learned the tune from the sheet-music.

The other purpose of puirt a beul is to provide music for dancers when no fiddler is available. There isn't always a fiddler handy, but you can throw a ceilidh in your kitchen if you have a few people who know how to dance and a singer who knows some mouth music. That's the way they used to do it on Cape Breton island, and I can hardly think of a better way to spend a long winter's night.

Mary Jane Lamond's presentation of the song is a far cry from a kitchen dance, but that is as it should be- the context is different, and you can't just change the context completely and keep the presentation exactly the same.

 

 

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