From the discussions starting yesterday I think there is some interest
and need to explain in a bit more detail what I was trying to convey
about the way in which music functioned culturally in traditional
In order to do this concisely and believably, I will simply quote
excerpts from the experts in their works, and then you'll be sure I'm
not making this up.
From the Introduction to "Nua-Bhardachd Ghaidhlig / Modern Scottish
Gaelic Poetry" by Donald MacAulay:
"...Gaelic traditional poetry was in the main one of celebration
and participation. The poet produced an artefact which enabled his
audience to participate in their culture; to act out culturally
reinforcing roles. The poetry was largely oral-based; much of it was
meant to be sung. In such circumstances innovation was not at a
very high premium. The verse had to make an immediate impact, and
skill in versification and verbal wit culminating in the well-wrought
memorable phrase was therefore the basic requirement. Naturally also
in such a situation there was no place for the professional critic.
There was no distinction, in the modern sense, between critics and
audience, though, no doubt, there were leaders of taste..."
But probably the best article on this subject, which I had forgotten
yesterday until I stumbled upon it at home yesterday, is the article
written by John Shaw for the 'Fasgnag II' conference last year at
Sabhal Mor Ostaig, entitled "Gaelic Cultural Maintenance: The
Contribution of Ethnography". I would highly recommend anyone interested
in this topic to read the paper, and many others like it, from the
proceedings. Here are a few excerpts:
"WHen we observe active culture in what remains of traditional Gaelic
communities, they can present a marked contrast there to mainstream
Victorian attitudes [which still remain amongst the outside public at
large], and the survival or passing of the tradition is often likened
to life itself. That such apparent curiosities have always made up a
vital part of individual and community life is clearly recounted by
Calum MacLean in his accounts of Hebridean storytellers from the 40's.
Seumas MacKinnon, the last surviving storyteller in Barra, observed
how the ceilidhs had then disappeared, while in his youth "Every evening
in winter, when his days work was done, he and a number of other young
boys visited the house of old bedridden Roderick MacDonald". Seumas
then adds: "There is nothing like that today, today there is only death".
Mrs Marion Campbell of South Uist, one of the best performers of Fenian
[Ossianic!] ballads in trhe 20th century, was heard to sing one on her
[the new ethnographic approach] incorporates the social and political
dimemsions and effectively begins to deal wth questions touching on the
future on Gaelic culture and its existance as a legitimate ethos and
system of values_distinct_from_all_others_... (!!)
Performers emphasise that songs until very recently were constantly
present in the lvies of the people: often on your way past a homestead
you would hear singing as people went about their chores; in the heavy
communal work, say hauling logs out of the woods in winter, men would
sing to pass the time... Thus the occasions for singing were so numerous
that Gaelic song - and the social and affective content of the verses -
have inevitably made up a large part of the inner verbal dialogue
among many traditional Gaels.
Informants have viewed the advent of radio and TV as a crucial factor
in the demise of singing, observing that the line of transmission [of
song] to the young have been broken; they are likewise conscious of
the effect of these advances on the social context for performing,
namely the ceilidh...
The youth were quick to adopt radio, and the net effect was that the
As to what constitutes a good Gaelic song in traditional terms, the
criteria of ease in singing, quality of the poetry, and the air are
referred to frequently, but the primary factor mentioned was the
"essence of the song" (bri\igh an o\rain)...
To be sure, a good singing voice ranks high among the requirements;
what ranks higher still with the traditional audience is the ability
for the singer to understand and express the central proposition in the
A further criterion which I feel contains central implication for
Gaelic esthetics is the gift of a good singer for subordinating his
presence to the song being shared in common with the audience...
When contrasted with the current active concepts of mass culture
passed on to us through our institutions and media, the picture
emerging from these Gaelic communities belongs to the same universe,
perhaps, but it is located in a different galaxy. The stock western
concept of art is_individualist_and_asocial,_and_the_role_of_the_
artist_or_writer_is_conceived_as_a_solitary_one; in other words,
individual creation is emphasised over social tradition. This stands
in marked contrast to the nature and function of composition by
village bards in both Ga\idhealtachds...
The unspoken network of social obligations extends to accuracy in
transmission as well...
Detailed ethnographic work in various cyltures and analysis of
the material derived therefrom have made it evident that oral narrative
and song are a form of symbolic and expressive activity in each
culture and serve as a parallel language which is active in dimensions
not ordinarily open to direct discourse. Nowadays much of this
traditional material is regarded as revealing of a larger symbolism
underlying a culture...
The same question was addressed last year in a conference in Nova
Scotia by representative of the Lakota-Ogalala tribe of South Dakota:
"I asked an elder once, 'How can we preserve our culture?' His response
was, 'You have not understood your own question: we need our culture
to preserve *us*.'" Modern ethnomusicologists have observed among
many peoples that traditional music has the effect on promoting
continuity and stability within the culture...
The first point to bear in mind is that cultures can differ from
each other far more radically than we realise, with the differences
manifesting themselves as the "hidden currents that shape our lives";
and Gaelic culture does doubtlessly differ from English based culture
in fundamental ways that we have not yet begun to understand... such
characteristics as reflect the deeper structure of the culture may
provide the most effective and viable basis for healthy cultural
innovations within Gaeldom. The ecological parallel which is now
appearing in the study of lesser used languages applies equally to
minority cultures: that diversity is desirable in cultures as well
as biology, and what is good for North America, Japan or England
is not necessarily good for Gaels."
I regret I had to leave out so many important sections, as well as
quotations. However, the enterprising reader will doubtless follow up
on this information...