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Folk Music's Universality

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.


The Irish Trad Band The Chieftains in the Peoples' Republic of China

It is beyond question that Folk Music is an expression of the people - their hopes, fears, aspirations, victories and defeats. I have listened to Folk Music from as diverse parts of the globe as Ireland to the Peoples Republic of China. There is a commonality that can be easily observed by even the least artistic of individuals such as the author.

In a fairly recent Harvard study into Folk Music's universality:

"They found that, across societies, music is associated with behaviours such as infant care, healing, dance, and love (among many others, like mourning, warfare, processions, and ritual). Examining lullabies, healing songs, dance songs, and love songs in particular, they discovered that songs that share behavioural functions tend to have similar musical features.

“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous, and they are also highly stereotyped,” Singh said. “For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other.”

Just so!

"The study was conceived by Samuel Mehr, a fellow of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and research associate in psychology, Manvir Singh, a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, and Luke Glowacki, formerly a Harvard graduate student and now a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University."

Their objectives and frames of reference began to ascertain the universality of Folk Music over a five year period researching obscure recordings of seemingly disparate sources and diverse origins. To quote Mehr, the task was no mean feat. In researching Celtic music alone he states,

"At one point, we were looking for traditional Celtic music and we found a call number in the [Harvard] library system and the librarian told us we needed to wait on the other side of the library because there was more room over there. Twenty minutes later this poor librarian comes out with a cart of about 20 cases of reel-to-reel recordings of Celtic music.”

And Ireland was yet to come!

Festival Interceltique de Lorient


"Each summer, around 700,000 people from all over the world invade the Celtic land of Lorient for the Festival Interceltique. From Galicia to Scotland, the cream of Celtic music can be found here, to be enjoyed in a really convivial atmosphere."

Since 1971, a large festival of Celtic Folk music has been held. Artists from the Celtic nations gather to celebrate their Celtic Fok Music traditions in Bretagne, a highly disputed part of France. The similarities of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish et al's musical traditions are clear.

"Around 200 events and shows and 5000 performers on the bill…Tourists will love the atmosphere, and the Lorient locals are wholeheartedly involved in this festival which celebrates Celtic culture. Well into its forties, the Interceltique may be greying a little around the temples, but it is still young at heart."

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Folk Music As a Focus of Resistance and National Liberation

In Ireland, in particular, Irish Folk Music in the form of a covert and overt focus of resistance to British colonialism, imperialism and national liberation is known the world over and enjoys global recognition. This is of course not unique to Ireland and many oppressed countries and peoples share this cultural heritage. There is a long history of solidarity in these cultural expressions, for instance, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Ireland and those of the Basque and Palestinian peoples, to name just a few.

Resistance Folk Music in Ireland is often called 'Rebel Music'. Some songs have been handed down through the centuries via an oral tradition while some are relatively new. There is no comparison with the pro-imperialist, supremacist 'musical' tradition often caterwauled by the pro-British minority in the North Eastern counties of Ireland which are riddled with denominational sectarianism, racism and pro-ruling class sentiments.

The great Gaelic Revival of the early 20th Century saw the Irish people embrace their culture and language as never before. Arguably, it was a prelude to the next logical step in a cultural revival, namely the struggle for national liberation from British imperial domination of Ireland. The rest, as they say, is history, including Eiri Amach Na Casca (the Easter Rising), the Tan War, the Civil War against the Free State traitors, the Border Campaign and our most recent conflict in the Irish dialectic.

In each of these periods of conflict, Irish Folk music played a role specific to each particular period of struggle for independence and critiqued perfidy and colaborationists.

An analysis of thousands of song descriptions ties together music from different cultures.

1941 Recording of 'Which Side Are You On?. Florence Reece. Based on the Class Struggle in Harlan County

The Music of The Proletariat

Unlike the ruling class with their bottomless pockets to pay 'minstrels and orchestras to entertain them, Folk Music is the sigh and often anger of the oppressed people and the Proletariat from Ireland to Appalachia. Often musical instruments were fashioned out of everyday items found around farms or modest homes and were often homemade out of the most unlikely of items such as Cigar boxes, tin whistles, various fashioned percussion instruments and even items of domestic drudgery such as washboards.

The Folk Music culture of the rural and urban poor is as rich, if not more so than the contrived culture of the upper class, who, often despite not knowing a single word of Italian, feel culturally enriched for attending Oprahs in much the same way as taking the 'European Grand Tour' in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.


Follow Me Up To Carlow

In past years the Harp was a symbol of Irish Resistance to British Rule


A Hand Crafted Irish Bodhran


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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