The Music

A travelling woman plays her fiddle for the entertainment of other travellers in this roving caravan of Irish tinkers.  To learn more about traditional Irish and American folk music such as that played by Mickey Mulligan and The Travelers, select one of the music types listed in the box below.


Irish Drinking Tunes Irish Songs of Rebellion
Traditional Irish Dance Music American Bluegrass



Irish Drinking Tunes and Songs of Rebellion

Another Music Type

"Irish drinking tunes" is a broad category of songs which for the most part are derived from traditional Irish folk music.  Throughout history, people have been singing about life experiences, whether they be sad or happy, serious or humourous.  In Ireland, this meant singing about going to sea, drinking in pubs, and of course, being part of a rebellion.

So, we find that many of these Irish tunes are based upon professions.  Whether it be the weavers, the tinkers or the sailors, a vast number of tunes have been written to tell their stories and experiences, as well as folk tales.  Many of the sailing tunes were used to keep time while heaving lines on the old square-rigged sailing ships.  Some of the other tunes were simply musical ways of telling stories and entertaining each other, much like American cowboy poetry and Western music began.

Many Irish tunes center around the art of drinking.  It brings to mind the old toast: "There are many good reasons for drinking, and one has just entered my head; if a man doesn't drink when he's living, how the hell can he drink when he's dead?" Relaxation after work, lamenting a loss, making plans for rebellion: these activities frequently involved the consumption of an alcoholic beverage.  And since song was frequently inspired by this practice, the two went hand in hand.  The different types of alcohol consumed are nearly as plentiful as the songs: mead, punch, grog, whiskey, brandy...the list goes on.  Today, of course, we have a fine number of quality lagers, porters and stouts to choose from as well.

When has Ireland been in rebellion?  A more difficult question might be when has Ireland not been in rebellion?  Since the first English army landed in Ireland in 1169, there have been uncountable uprisings against the British crown.  Today we hear about the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but even this nearly century old organization was preceded by the Irish Volunteers and other organizations over the centuries. Perhaps the most notable was the formation of the Society of United Irishmen by Wolfe Tone in 1791.  He united Catholics and Protestants in the fight for independence from Britain, resulting in greater uprisings such as those in 1798.  Prior to that time there had been multiple disorganized skirmishes and raids by random groups.

It is these experiences of the Irishmen that have found their way into song: their work, their play, and their rebellions.  As mentioned, some songs are sad, some happy, some serious, and some humourous.  But all are filled with history, and it is definitely worth singing and drinking along to them all.  Sláinte!



Traditional Irish Dance Music

Another Music Type

There are many different types of Celtic dance music.  For the most part, there are airs, double jigs, and reels, but there are also hornpipes, single jigs, hop jigs, set dances, flings, set-tunes, marches, polkas, schottisches and waltzes. It has estimated that there are over five thousand of these historical tunes which are still played in Ireland.  At the very least, there are over three thousand of these tunes which have been committed to print in modern times, thankfully preserving a centuries-old music tradition.  Certainly, though, there are many thousands more tunes which have been unfortunately lost to the ages.

There is evidence that this music has been around in its present form for many centuries, dating back to the times of the epic poems.  It is interesting to note that the meter of many of these tunes matches the meter of the poems, lending support to their origins in antiquity.

Also of interest to the musician is the lack of modern scales during the times when these tunes were composed.  These scales were constructed without accidentals (sharps and flats; essentially the black keys on the piano).  In addition, some of the scales are composed of only five or six notes instead of eight.  This lends a small degree of difficulty to reconstructing them on manuscript in modern times. A more important facet, however, is the fact that many of these tunes sound "minor."  Nowadays, we associate minor keys with sad tunes, but many of these jigs and reels are upbeat and extremely danceable!

These tunes were played on contemporary instruments of the time, one of the descendents of which would be the tin whistle.  Pipes of varying sizes were used.  In more recent times, the fiddle was used as well.  Because the tuning of the tin whistle is based upon the placement of its finger holes, and the fretless fiddle can be made to play any tone, these instruments were ideal for playing this music based on the old scales.  Today, this music cannot be accurately reproduced on an instrument such as the piano.

These tunes were played at small gatherings, around the hearth in the home, and at large get-togethers.  An important related activity was dancing, and when you hear these tunes, you will understand why.  They are lively, upbeat and fun.  So grab your fiddle, tin whistle or clogs, and let the dancing begin!



American Bluegrass

Another Music Type

Back in the Good Ol' Days, before television started takin' away the imaginations of even the smartest folk, an' radio was somethin' only the affluent city-types had, folks did the strangest things when they got home after a long day of work:  they talked to each other.  An' not only did they talk to each other, but they used to entertain each other.  They'd sit around tellin' stories an' recitin' poems an' singin' songs.

Often the neighbors would come over, assumin' they wasn't yer feudin' neighbors, of course. An' when they came, they'd bring their instruments.  Sure some'd bring their guitars an' their fiddles an' their squeeze boxes, but most of 'em just got up an' invented their own out of ord'nary items layin' 'round the house:  washboards, washtubs, spoons, deer antlers; you name it, they had it.

Now, Bluegrass music didn't come from the Bluegrass State of Kentucky as many folks suppose. It actually began in the Appalacian Mountains of Virginia an' North Carolina an' Tennessee, where American folk music was first startin' out as a result of various cultures comin' together.

How did that happen?  Well, many of the solo ballads sung by the folks such as the English an' the Scottish an' the Irish were brought to America over the years, an' these tunes became pretty pop'lar among the rural folks, includin' those in the Appalacian Mountains.  An' new tunes were written an' sung to spread news or retell stories or pass judgment on the sinnin' neighbors.

Now the African folks introduced two items to American music.  One was the use of instruments usin' fancy rhythms, rather than just as sounds an' chords to back up a singer.  The other thing was the use of harmony with a group of singers instead of a soloist.

So why's this mountain music now called Bluegrass?  Well, one day back 'bout 1938, 'long came a feller named Bill Monroe.  Bill was a mountain born good ol' boy from Kentucky who with his brother Charlie decided to organize together a band with three instruments that were used by the common folks up in the mountains.  With his own mandolin, he added Charlie's guitar an' the fiddle, an' the resulting band was originally named the Bluegrass Boys.  They'd sing songs that by then were traditional, like "Cripple Creek" an' "Salty Dog Blues" an' then a few of Bill's original numbers too, like "Kentucky Waltz."

Before long, the Bluegrass Boys were a big hit with the Grand Ole Opry show on WSM Radio out of Nashville, Tennessee.  But it wasn't until a few years later, 'round 'bout 1945, when ol' Lester Flatt, the guitar picker, an' his buddy Earl Scruggs joined up with the Bluegrass Boys, an' guess what?  Earl brought along his five-string banjo an' his new three-finger pickin' method, an' suddenly "Bluegrass" music, as it came to be known, had defined itself as an acoustical band composed of guitar, banjo, mandolin an' fiddle, an' it was becomin' pop'lar all over the country.  That's why Bill Monroe is now known as "The Father of Bluegrass."

Most o' the songs they used were those traditional mountain songs or gospel songs or folk songs or country songs that were sung in harmonies an' accompanied by the four instruments.  An' really, the high singin' was more of an accompaniment to the four instruments, which became known for their fast-pickin', no time fer a breath here solos.  Once in a while a Bluegrass band would use an upright bass or a slide or pedal guitar, but the Bluegrass sound was made by those four instruments playin' together, an' there was hardly ever more than five folks in a typical Bluegrass band.

Over the years, modern country music has evolved from sort of a combination of the Western cowpoke music an' the Eastern mountain Bluegrass music.  Even though there aint many of the old-timers still around, lots o' younger folks like Pete Wernick an' Ricky Scaggs still play Bluegrass in its original form.  An' now a new generation of young 'uns are playin' what's known as "Newgrass."  It's sort of a combination of Bluegrass an' jazz an' rock 'n' roll, an' there's many talented pickers out there, folks like Bela Fleck an' Allison Krause.

Bluegrass survives today as a pure American form o' music.  Sure, it had its roots in the traditional songs of immigrant folks like the English an' the Scottish an' the Irish an' the Africans, but the four instrument combination an' harmony sound are original.  An' unlike jazz an' rock, which became pop'lar an' even evolved partly in Europe, Bluegrass has remained purely American.  God bless the U.S.A. for givin' us Bluegrass!



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