MT logo Letters - 1998

Re: 'Lining-out ' Psalms

Dear Rod

I have only just read this article (The Past Returns to the Present - MT016), although you posted it in February.  Terry Miller states that the practice of 'lining out' psalms etc is dependent in these islands on the survival of the Gaelic language.

My father's family are fisherfolk from the Doric speaking North East of Scotland and have been Plymouth Brethren since the beginning of the century.  When a child I attended meetings (as a visitor!) with my relatives and I recall that the pump organ was used to accompany singing.  Ten years ago, however, I attended my Grandmother's funeral near Buckie, and was amazed to hear the preceptor/response mode of psalm and hymn singing, which I had only previously heard on the School of Scottish Studies recording of Gaelic Psalm Singing from Lewis.

I well remember the stark beauty of the sound which must actually be a comparatively recent 'practice' dating from the early seventies when the sect was riven by a number of schisms.  The meeting that my father's immediate family ended up in must have eschewed the use of any accompaniment and the preceptor/response pattern of psalm singing was adopted.


Jethro Anderson (Bristol) - 19.10.98

Re: Last Night's Fun review

I should like to comment on a small part of the review by Peter Greig of Ciaran Carson's wonderful Last Night's Fun (with which, for the remainder, I totally agree).  He says:
"Ciaran has found a wonderfully typical quote from a classical music critic called Constant Lambert: "The trouble with a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much to do except play it over again and play it rather louder."  One can wonder at a society in which someone with such self-evidently deaf ears can become a music critic - but as we know, the spirit of Constant Lambert is alive and well in our media and arts funding structures. "
This is probably the most commonly known quote about folk music (apart from George Bernard Shaw's infamous 'you should try everything once, except incest and folk dancing') and is almost always taken out of context and assumed to mean exactly the opposite of what I think Lambert intended.  I also think it is hardly 'typical' of classical music critics - there are people writing in the folk press who are considerably more inept!

Lambert was a fine composer as well as well as a highly perceptive critic.  He was commenting on the school of English (especially) composers who had embraced the melodies of folk song in their attempts to break free from the all-pervasive Wagnerian stranglehold of the nineteenth century.  What he was encapsulating was composers' discovery that 'folk tunes' could not be used as the basis of 'classical' compositions to any extent.  Once the theme had been stated, there was little that could be done by means of standard compositional development which would improve it.  Consequently the works which do actively quote from genuine folk tunes tend to be 'fantasias' and 'rhapsodies' - all suitably nebulous and atmospheric.

More solid fare - the symphonies and concertos - shied away from direct involvement, constructing themes which, whilst reminiscent of echt folk tunes, were merely aping the modality, whilst containing the seeds from which a more substantial edifice could be constructed.  Vaughan Williams, in his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus attempted a different tack - utilizing the developments in the tune which the oral transmission process had already wrought - this (I think) was highly successful, but was not something which could easily be repeated.  Grainger, in his passacaglia on Green Bushes took the opposite tack - the piece lasts for about eight minutes, and the Green Bushes tune is played throughout - the development takes place in the material surrounding the tune and not in the tune itself.

It's mirrored in settings of poetry - the greatest poetry is never successfully set to music - it has no need of improvement.  I am convinced that this is what Lambert was referring to in the quote.  By the way, in the same book of Lambert's, Music Ho!, he also talks about "the appalling availability of music" - and this omnipresence of music (usually pre-recorded) in bars, lifts, even walking down the street, has far more to do with a lack of 'the real thing' than any representation on arts funding structures.  Having written that some 50 years ago, goodness knows what he would have thought of todays culture of instant artistic gratification.  The presence of music has lost some of its magic - the magic which is so brilliantly described in Carson's book and which is paralleled in the playing of English music at English sessions.

Paul Burgess - 15.5.98

Re: Pearl Fishing

Finbar Boyle's puzzlement over the Stewarts pearl-fishing in Ireland (below) may be dispelled if it is understood that they fished for fresh water pearls, from the fresh water mussel.  These are found in rivers and fishing for them by travellers was common in Scotland - especially in the River Tay.  As to diving for them, that was not necessary, the pearl fisher waded, using a bottomless bucket to search the river bed and scooped the mussels up with a rake or something of the kind.  So too it was done in Ulster, mainly in in the River Strule which flows through Omagh in Co Tyrone and which becomes first the Mourne (at Strabane) and the Foyle at (London)Derry.

Oddly enough Estyn Evans mentions it in neither of his books: Irish Heritage or Irish Folk Ways but Sam Henry wrote an article on the subject entitled (I think) "Pearl Fishing in an Ulster Stream" and Ernest Sandford mentions it in his guidebook Discovering Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1976).  The Stewarts certainly spent time in the Strule/Mourne/Foyle valley area, for Cathy was born in Strabane.

... and Martin Hayes

John Peekstock in his letter "Re: Enthusiams - Traditional?" asks "Does Martin Hayes play traditional music?  Have you ever heard anyone else who sounds like him."  The answer to that question (even if it was intended rhetorically) is Yes.

East Clare fiddling, the local tradition from which Martin comes, uses a number of the devices which he uses.  However, for unequivocal demonstration of what I mean, compare Martin Hayes' playing of Paddy Fahy's and Sean Ryan's Jigs on track 2 of 'Martin Hayes' (Green Linnet 1127) with Paddy Canny's Garrett Barry's and the Banks of Lough Gowna on track 23 of 'Milestone at the Garden' (Rounder 1123).  I understand that some of the East Clare fiddlers, Paddy Canny in particular, were influenced by the extraordinary Dublin fiddler, Tommy Potts whose 'The Liffey Banks' (Claddagh CC13), may give some help in determining where all this is coming from.  Martin Hayes has not arisen fully armed from the waves.

There's another point: as tunes pass from player to player and through time, variations arise.  We can document this in a way that previous generations could not.  We can also combine in a single performance numbers of the variations which one player might discover over a lifetime or a whole district of fiddlers might play between them.  Given the technology and the formal musical training open to most fiddlers today it is only a surprise to me that Martin Hayes is the only fiddler who plays as he does, and that it attracts such controversy.

John Moulden

Re: Belle Stewart Obituary:

Something that has always puzzled me about the Stewarts is the oft-repeated reference to 'pearlfishing in Ireland'.  I've lived all my life in this country and I've never heard of any pearl fishing.  It's possible that one in ten million Irish oysters might have a pearl in it, but there is certainly no chance (nor was there ever) of an Irish pearlfishing industry.

Is it possible that they collected and sold shellfish?  Alternatively, in restaurant kitchens, the kitchen porters who wash the dishes are sometimes known as pearl divers.  All I know is that the Stewarts didn't dive for pearls in these waters.

Finbar Boyle - Claddagh


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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