The Best ITM Tune-Learning Tutor

What’s in a Name?

Long Gold Braid

Is it Celtic, or Irish, or Scottish, or ITM, or What?

In fact, the issue of what to call this genre of music is vexed.  It is only a little less vexed than the idea that naming things is neutral.  Just what you call something has implications, and it has them whether you want it to have them or not.  “Implication” is just not a synonym for “intention,” and only a silly person would think otherwise.  So, let me explain a bit so that at least you’ll know what implications you’re putting out there.

The issue really comes down to providing a short term to cover the kinds of traditional musics which have their roots and branches in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Skye, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney, the Shetland Islands, Wales, Cornwall, Northumberland, the Isle of Man, Brittany (western France), Galicia and Asturias (northwestern Spain), as well as music of the diasporas: Canada (Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Vancouver Island), Australia (including Tasmania), and New Zealand.  This is not, in reality, a simple task.  Nothing that has yet been proposed seems to do the job very well.  Here’s why.

First, the term “Celtic” is not accurate for one very obvious reason.  This music is not Celtic in any historical sense.  The Celts are so-called because they were called “Keltoi” by the Greeks.  Their story is complex.  Roughly, they were a very loose-knit Iron-age warrior -people who migrated in waves to Ireland starting around 500 BCE. By 200 BCE a faction of the Keltoi called the Gaeil had pretty much displaced and absorbed the existing peoples in Ireland and elsewhere.  What held the Gaeil together was their common language and culture (music and art), their system of laws, and their predilections for cattle raiding and warring with one another.  However, many other peoples migrated to these areas over the centuries, including Romans, Vikings, and various other groups of European Christians.  These cultures mixed and mingled until by 1000 CE there is little, if anything,  left that can be identified as pure Celtic.  Blame who or what you will, but we have no music from the Celts.  Not one tune.  Not a musical phrase. Nothing.  This is a pretty good reason why “Celtic music” should be regarded as a misnomer, and why CTM or Celtic Traditional Music should follow suit — though I think CTM is more common among academics, specifically ethnomusicologists.  Vestiges of the various cultures remain, of course, but there’s no good cultural reason to call all of what remains by one name rather than another — there are marketing reasons for doing so, of course.  There have been a number of attempts since the eleventh century to recast history so it would tell a particular kind of story: political, heroic, nationalist, economic, etc.  As I mentioned, it’s a complex story. No single theme is going to capture it without some real bends and twists.

Today, in fact, most people use the word “Celtic” to refer to the music because that’s what the music industry used in the 1990s.  So we should draw a distinction between music industry “Celtic,” on the one hand, and the kind of traditional music we’re concerned with here, on the other.  The music industry has always sought out niche markets when thinking about expanding, and has always aimed to label them on a single shelf so as to better control consumption.  The kind of traditional music we’re concerned with here is actually many hundreds of years old, woven into its current form between the 16th and 18th centuries, with threads from native Irish music, as well as Scots, English, French, and some Spanish musics.  Globally speaking, Irish music was pretty obscure for most of that time, and only recently become (somewhat) popular. In the last thirty or so years this has included music with a traditional flavor which has gained popularity for periods of time, and so become fairly profitable for a handful of people.  More specifically, those engaged in producing concerts, festivals, and recordings make most of the money.   It is not very profitable for most musicians in comparison, but involves playing great old tunes in a pub, on benches, and in someone’s kitchen.   The straight dope is that the music industry used the term “Celtic” because they don’t really give a hoot about historical accuracy or traditional musical values. It was a marketing tool, a term that told its own story. They used it because they wanted to sell stuff.  As much stuff as they could.  They still do. They like to produce labels that consumers will grasp onto when consumers want to consume stuff.  In the 90s (and a bit in the late 80s) the term “Celtic” was ubiquitous whenever there was a discussion of Ireland, Scotland, or Wales.  It was a very effective 90s marketing campaign. Only a little less effective now than it was twenty years ago.  What then is the implication when someone calls it “Celtic music”? Well, if you call it “Celtic music” that implies that you’re as concerned about such things as historical accuracy or the values inherent in traditional music as, say, billionaire music moguls.  What it says to people is this: “I don’t really care about anything very much. I just want stuff that’s packaged this way. I’m fine with the idea that billionaires control how I talk (and think) for their own benefit.”  Yea.  It’s not a pretty picture. 🙁

Second, the terms “Irish” and “Scottish” are inaccurate because they are far too narrow.  The genre of music we’re talking about is spread across large regions, even before you consider the various diasporas.  There are commonalities and family resemblances in the this music, but to be inclusive you’d need to say at least that it’s the music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, the Isle of Sky, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney, the Shetland Islands, Wales, Cornwall, Northumberland, Brittany (western France), Galatia and Asturias (in Northwestern Spain), as well as the diasporas of Canada and Nova Scotia (esp. Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Vancouver Island), Australia (including Tasmania), New Zealand, and the Appalachians (in the US).   Some would even hold that close-enough resemblances are also found in music of Greece, Turkey, and parts of North Africa. What this means is that to refer to the music as if it were from one country/region/area would be too limiting to be accurate.  There was a movement of sorts some years ago to refer to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland collectively as IONA — an acronym for “Islands of the North Atlantic” — which has the same drawback as calling the music “Irish music.”  That is, as many people pointed out, the acronym IONA would, in fact, leave out most of the islands of the North Atlantic! What then is the implication when someone calls it “Irish music” or “Scottish music” or something like this?  Well, if that’s what you call it, then that implies that you prefer to name the whole by a part, and don’t concern yourself with including those who deserve to be included.  What is says to people is this: “I don’t really care that there are many nations and cultures that have participated in the development of this music.  I like to think that the music is all the result of just my favorite culture/nation/people. I’m basically a biased person.” This is also not such a pretty picture. 🙁

Third, the acronym ITM, which stands for Irish Traditional Music, has a flaw similar to the above.  Though it is my preferred way of referring to this music that I love, and the term I use often on this website, I realize the flaw, and when it is pointed out I will and do agree.  When it is pointed out vehemently the only thing I can do is ask what label is preferred.  Still, there is no term that anyone has come up with that is accurate.  There’s something I find calming in that for some reason.  I use ITM as a blanket term, in full understanding that it pisses some people off. I do play mostly Irish music and so it makes the term apropos in that context, but surely less so in others. What is the implication here? If you, like me, call it “ITM” it still rings of bias, and naming the whole by a part.  Hiding behind an acronym can shield you a bit, but it only works on those who don’t care much either way. When talking to those who care it says: “I don’t really care that there are many nations and cultures that have participated in the development of this music.  I like to hide behind seemingly innocent acronyms, and hope that no one calls me out.  I’m basically biased, but I try to hide it because it embarrasses me.”  This is what I use most often, but it’s not pretty either.  Not at all. 🙁

Last, what then is one to do when trying to refer to this wonderful music?  My serious answer is this. Learn to understand the implications of what you say, and learn to make wise contextual choices concerning your language.  It is not someone else’s fault that the world is complicated, it is your own fault if you think you can simply ignore a complicated world by falling back on what you intend over what your language implies.  Now this is really some kind of pretty, isn’t it? I guess it’s lucky, then, that only some people take it very seriously.  🙂


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