In spite of my overall enthusiasm for New Music and Artists, now and again, I find myself in a nostalgic mood, that brings out the “music time traveler” in me, beckoning my ears on a tryst and galloping back in time.
I have several DJ’s on RadioFlag to thank at the end of this article, for igniting this last trip. While exploring RadioFlag on St. Patrick’s Day, I tuned into the DJ’s who were giving spins to Irish and Celtic tunes. I began to wonder, is there a difference between Celtic and Irish music? If so, what is it? Maybe you’re asking yourself, “who the heck cares anyways?” Well, as a person who truly “digs” music (I mean that very literally), I like to dig deep into it. Think of it as music archaeology combined with music farming, hunting, and gathering, if you will. Investigating, exploring, digging, and gathering the roots to a song, is a big part of the pleasure; all in due preparation for a satisfying scrumptious sound feast.
It’s like the difference between fast food and a slow and sensuously indulged meal, whose whereabouts can be traced to an artisan farmer (which on exceptional occasions I would go so far as to liken it to bio-dynamic farming, although not all bio-dynamic farming is what I could consider artful). From there, consciously procured to induce a thoroughly engaging relationship with the food, taken into a persons body temple as empowering fuel. Music is like fuel in that way, just taken through the ears instead. Simply said, its like the perfect condiment, and it enhances the flavor of each tasty tune that rides its wave towards an honest desire for profound musical exhilaration.
“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” ~ Hunter Thompson
This unfeigned passion spurred me to capture one single evocative tune; one that hearkened the feeling of lore and music tradition, with roots that plunge into the oldest history of Ireland. At the same time, I wanted this song to hold its place in the line of time and space, coming all the way to touch the present day, in an all pervading, global, and creative way. The song that stood out was a medieval ballad called ‘Scarborough Fair‘, first made famous in the 1960′s, by Folk Rock Artists Simon and Garfunkel. Although it’s traditionally an English ballad, there seems to be a lot of room for debate regarding the original medieval source; one being that the song is rooted in a Scottish ballad called “Elfin knight”. The magical story is about an Elf who kidnaps a woman, and will only release her from his love grasp if she can succeed to do “impossible things”. Sounds like a good time.
In light of that fanciful perspective, there seems plenty of chance for an Irish influence, whereas not to be forgotten. It’s true that the song’s title places it in the Medieval English “hot spot” of Scarbourough, a town in Yorkshire. The Scarbourough Fair was like a big and popular party scene in the 14th century, and whose jubilation’s endured all the way into the 1700’s. This yearly festival heralded in all kinds of colorful characters from mighty distances for the purpose of trade, eating, drinking, mirth and merriment, and in this particular case, unrequited love.
The lyrics detail a young man requesting impossible tasks of his lover, and promising if she accomplishes the charge, he will have her back. Likewise, she counters with equally impossible tasks for him to perform. They then agree to set forth on their lover’s challenge simultaneously, wishing each other “all good things”, symbolized by herbal references to “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”.
Most people today don’t give much credence to The Doctrine of Signatures, or the idea that herbs are anything more than something you add to a salad or marinade. However, herbs charmed the romantic imagination of medieval lovers, much the same way chocolate in heart shaped boxes, and red roses on Valentines day, fan the fires of modern day romantics. So in the context of the day, parsley was used by medieval doctors to turn spiritual bitterness into mildness, sage as a symbol for strength and protection, rosemary to build faithfulness and counter loneliness, and thyme to instill courage. Thus, in essence, each time this chorus comes up in the song, it instills a blessing from one lover to the other, while they do the impossible. How romantic is that?
Returning to the question; what is the difference between Celtic and Irish music? The key to opening a door to answering this quest, was handed to me by DJ Blondie on RadioFlag, when she played an iconic Celtic inspired artist by the name Loreena Mckennitt.
This video depicts Mckennitt performing live from one of Spain’s most wondrous ancient and exquisitely intricate architectural masterpieces, The Alhambra. In the introduction she explains her deep life long musical fascination with Celtic music and the expansive influence of the Celt people.
In fact, the answers to the Celtic questions are not easily unveiled, being heavily shrouded in a tempest of time and magical tales, cultural and religious inoculations, raucous and drunken silly talk through centuries of Scarbourough fairs, scholarly opinion, and ceaseless ornery gibberish and senseless shenanigans surrounding the topic.
The simplest answer, is that Celtic music cast a wider net than simply “music from Ireland”, because it encompass music from Great Britain; which is Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. However, there is much more to the story of the Celts, whose culture, language, and art of all kinds spread across the majority of the European continent, before the rise of the Roman empire. The music has roots that go very deep, high and wide, and making it your study, is like climbing a giant “Tree of Life” with roots that penetrate middle earth, and branches that spread throughout the heavens. It’s like peeling through the layers of a macro-cosmic onion, that emanates from many mystical places across this earth. This exploration turned into quite an unexpected excavation, that had me digging back into a fantastically adorned realm of medieval laden musical mysticism.
Much like the lore of Celtic music itself, the ballad of Scarborough Fair has a similar mystery story, with a horizon line that keeps on moving out ahead with each new discovery. One path led me to the tune, another to the history of the ballad, onto a study of cultures, migrations, traditions, stories, myths, magic, artists, songs, cover songs, musical instruments, and musical interpretations from various artists of different countries, regions, genres and styles.
The most delightful explanation I came upon reads below:
“What is the difference between peaches and stone fruit? The peach is a stone fruit but stone fruit is a category idea that covers other fruits that have some commonality, but it is not an actual tangible thing. You cannot compare a peach to a stone fruit because a peach is a stone fruit. However , you can examine what qualifies to be a stone fruit to see if peaches , plums, nectarines, and apricots fit the idea.”
So finally, here is a testament to the enduring power of Scarbourough Fair, revealed in 31 versions of the song in various genres, and by different creative music artists around the World. Cheers & Sláinte !
Sarah Brightman – Celestial Operatic Gothic Theatrical – England
Jan Laurenz – Ukulele Harp – Switzerland
Queensrÿche -Progressive Heavy Metal -USA
Michal Zator – Acoustic Harp Traditional Medieval / Renaissance -Poland
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Classical – England
Blackmore’s Night – Traditional Folk – UK and USA
Simon & Garfunkel – Folk Rock -USA
Hayley Westerna – Neo-Classical Folk – New Zealand
Nolwenn Leroy -Celtic Folk – France
Aeon – New Age Folk – England / LA
The Harp Twins – Duo Electronic / Acoustic Harp – USA
KM Music Conservatory – Hindi – India
Nox Arcana – Gothic Rock – USA
Tracy Huang – Pop – China
Leaves Eyes – Symphonic Gothic Rock – Norway & Germany
Caterina Valente – Jazz – Italy
Laurent Voulzy – Experimental Folk Orchestral – France
Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 – Latin Bossa Nova – Brazil
The Gotthard Sisters Celtic/ Irish Roots – Seattle, USA
Gregorian Monks – Gregorian Chant – Germany
Brainbox- Classic Rock – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Cernunnos – Folk Metal – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Gypsy Soul – Celtic Folk & Soul – California, USA
Aoi Tada – Anime Manga Soundtrack – Tokyo, Japan
My Dying Bride – Atmospheric Doom Metal – England
Thy Blood My Gain- Power Metal -Netherlands
The Georgetown Chimes – A Capella – Georgetown University USA
Celia Pavey – Folk Country – Australia
Somerville College Choir at Oxford -Choral – England
I want to thank the following DJs in the RadioFlag community, @facesofradio @blackrandal @Djdolan @kaylaCP and @Djblondie, for getting into the spirit and celebration of the day, and lighting up my interest to go deep into this music time voyage.
‘Got Airplay?’ ‘Because Air Should Be Free’