It’s easy to forget the roots of American music, and even easier to forget everything American is the result of a synthesis. In one way or another, we can say that about all things: The whole is the sum of its parts, and nothing exists in isolation.
In fact, T.S. Eliot wrote about this phenomenon in his seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he mused everything in art is a natural result of everything that comes before it, and that artists’ individual contributions can only legitimately come after a thorough knowledge and understanding of related art that has come before.
With the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day, music lovers have an opportunity to bring their awareness to Celtic music. The musical art form predates the existence of America, and is heavily reliant on a vast and often complex musical tradition. But once digested and understood, it enables musicians to add individual contributions due to the open-ended nature of the structure of the songs.
It sounds a bit complex as I write, but I’ve been there, in the middle of a Celtic jam, and I’ve both witnessed and experienced the Celtic pocket that emerges once a circle of musicians collectively grasps a song or tune. It’s truly a simple, entertaining method.
You can witness Celtic music unfold in a variety of ways in Centre County, where we have a healthy Celtic music scene. It’s not music you will hear at Zeno’s Pub on a weekend night, or at the Darkhorse Tavern or some similar place, but if you keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll start to see it’s an active scene.
In the center of that scene is a local band named Callanish that gigs regularly and is steeped in the Celtic traditions, namely traditional Irish and Scottish music that features instrumentals, singing and a relatively open form that lends itself to improvisation. Even the name is a shoutout to an ancient Scottish landmark.
“It’s the name of a group of standing stones in Scotland,” guitar and bouzouki player Holly Foy said. “It’s been around for thousands of thousands of thousands of years. So, we named the band after them.”
The members of Callanish certainly know their Celtic history, but their performances are reflective of what you could possibly hear in Irish and Scottish pubs now and in recent history.
“This is the music you would have heard for the last 50 years in pubs and homes all over Ireland and Scotland,” Foy said. “Many of the tunes we do are dance music, so jigs and reels and polkas. It’s music to celebrate. The songs are more diverse. The songs speak of humanity, of love and loss.”
When interviewing someone like Foy about traditional music, it’s an exciting experience of learning about the past and how it informs the future. For example, it’s common for musicians to refer to “jamming” with each other, or that they are going to go to a “jam.” This term is a modification of the Celtic “session,” where people jammed or improvised on the melodies of the songs, hence the term “jam session” emerged at some point in America.
Local sessions occur outside of the group Callanish, and a typical session could involve 10-12 musicians sitting in a circle taking turns leading tunes and songs, usually one at a time and often completely off the cuff.
“The sessions started in 2004,” Foy said. “We started at Cool Beans in Bellefonte, and then went to Kildare’s until it closed. We’re looking for a new home at this point. We’re looking for a place to play on the last Thursday of every month from 7-9 p.m.”
For now, they meet the second Thursday of every month at Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte.
“We sit in a circle, and in an average night we have 10-12 musicians, with fiddles, flutes, whistles, concertinas, guitar, Irish drums (bodhrans), mandolins, banjos, harp, Irish pipes and singers,” Foy said. “Session information printed and put on all of the tables ... A session isn’t a concert and we are not a band. It’s more like a musical potluck.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.
Upcoming Celtic performances
- Callanish, 5-7 p.m. March 17, Duffy’s Tavern, 113 E. Main St., Boalsburg.
- Callanish, 8:30-10:30 p.m. March 17, Gigi’s, 2080 Cato Ave., State College.
- Anne-Marie Hildebrandt, 2:30 p.m. March 19, Centre County Library Historical Museum, 203 N. Allegheny St., Bellefonte.