100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 91: Tradition and Innovation

The Lindsays spent yesterday in the studio, finishing up all of the guitar tracks for our new CD, which will be coming sometime in the next couple of months. We are really enthusiastic about what it's going to be: a little traditional, a lot nontraditional, and in that way, a solid reflection of us: The Lindsays.

Steve has picked some great songs, revisiting some of our old favorites and also some new favorites. And, with only one truly "trad" exception, we've included reels and jigs that were all written here in America or recorded way back when by people in the Irish scene. It is very much a CD that speaks of its place and tells the story of those who made it. I listened to rough tracks on the first six tunes the other day, and what excited me most is that it was "us" at our very best. And you really can't do better in this world than to be truly yourself!

I say this lightly, but as you can imagine, this conclusion only came after years of introspection and cogitation on the matter. You see, the ongoing preoccupation that plagues many a traditional musician is about traditionalism and authenticity. It's a recurring topic of after-hours conversation.

Many ask, do I sound truly "Irish"? It's not too hard for an experienced musician in any style to play the notes of a jig or a reel correctly, and in time with the pulse of the music. What takes time to develop is those touches the traditional musician adds to brand the music authentically Irish: ornamentation, lilt.. .the "nyah." And once a musician has mastered the "blas" -- Irish Gaelic for "sensation," "experience," "relish" or even "an experience shared" -- how far can he or she depart from what is traditional, and still be considered within the tradition?

Some people, in fact a very very very very very good friend of mine (you might know her), has frequently complained that some of the trad folks around Boston appear to be a tad precious at times. That they can seem so darn serious that they're not making music look like very much fun. That maybe they're adhering so carefully to what is traditional, that sometimes there's no identifiable "I" or "US" in their music. No personality. That you find yourself giggling out loud during the hundred-year-old song they meticulously "collected" on a recent visit to Ennis, because you're wondering what would happen if the little kid in the back row let out a ripper in this church-silent audience. Sigh. Some of us have issues.

Now, my friend is not the only one who thinks this way. In my time as a reporter at the Boston Irish Reporter and also as an author, I've talked with many people about tradition and innovation, and how the two do or do not fit together. The people I spoke to from Ireland in general did not give two hoots about what was traditional or what was not, but boy did they get incensed in answering the question. They are tired of those uptight Comhaltas people, they'd say. They just made music; the traditional aspect didn't require any effort. It was just "there."

Keep in mind that conspicuously absent from my interview list was Comhaltas people in Ireland. But even still, this question: "Can you be innovative and still traditional?" is really more of an American question, the concern of those whose traditional boat is tethered to a foreign dock in an unprotected harbor, constantly battered by the waves of outside influence, and the careless wakes of half-drunken pleasure boaters. It's no surprise that Americans involved might be a bit more protective of their sacred vessel. Don't get me wrong, the waves of change beat mercilessly in Ireland, too, but here, that little boat is a lot more threatened.

My philosophy has always been that you need to first master the tradition before you can depart from it in good conscience. If you have mastered the tradition, then your explorations are informed, and we can reframe your journey to be called "expanding" or "building upon" the tradition. But when you've not really put in the time and then depart from the central canon, then, sorry, it seems that you're simply leaving it. Doing something else.

Still, at some point, a musician must express his or her own experience, as well, and the choices a person makes musically will most often reflect their own experiences, which undoubtedly include a raft of influences from outside the tradition.

It can take more effort to keep the outside influences OUT than it does to keep the traditional elements in. Perhaps, in the end, it's just best to play who we are and let it be. But be prepared: that decision can determine what festivals you will get into, what parties you get invited to, and which sessions will give you the cold shoulder.

Joe Derrane said it all in this quote from See You at The Hall:

"Years of playing so many things that have more complex chord progressions, resolutions, or passages--they stick to me... We're all products of our environment. My environment compared to most people in the traditional Irish music is very, very broad. Of course, I'm Irish American and I've been exposed to many different kinds of music. I mean, my God, just the elevator music from years ago... You turn on the radio, in your car, any of these things over an accumulation of years, some of this stuff starts to set in. The challenge is to make sure that you use that hopefully not too often, because then the music loses its appeal, and it invades the traditional senses too much. Some people would not agree. They say I've overdone it; other people think not. My own sense is, I play it the way I feel it, and gee, I hope and pray that they like it. But that's it."

You can find out more about Joe and his recent Mapleshade releases here. You can find older Joe Derrane recordings here in the Joe Derrane store on Amazon. And finally, you can get his 1950 recording with his accordion mentor Jerry O'Brien, made as a young tyke on Dudley Street, here at Rego Records.


Georgi said…
For a more detailed, and specific look at how an actual traditional musicians in Ireland view this topic, you might take a look at Martin Hayes' fantastic column in the Journal of Music (in Ireland) from 2004: http://journalofmusic.com/article.php?id=217

While the last time I checked, it was publicly available, now it appears to be behind a pay-wall. If you're not a subscriber to the journal (I think you would like it), drop me a line, and I can send you a copy.
Soul Mama said…
Georgi thank you so much for that article. It is just incredible. For further clarification on some of the ideas above (and, ok, maybe an apology or two), please visit http://sueandstevelindsay.blogspot.com/2010/01/100-days-of-practice-round-3-day-5.html