A Modern Revival

Tracing the Celtic roots of Southern music

By Erin Crews 09C 09G

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a handful of amateur musicians huddle around as Jamie Laval pulls out his fiddle to demonstrate a point about double-stops. “In Appalachian music you get an ensemble together and you get this rhythm started, and there’s no stopping it,” he says.

Laval, a renowned Scottish-style violinist, is conducting an intimate workshop with fellow fiddlers Henry Benagh and Alan Jabbour, part of the symposium “Making Connections: The Celtic Roots of Southern Music” in April. The free-flowing, music-filled conversation takes place in Cannon Chapel, light wafting through the wooden beams above, and covers everything from the history of cross-tuning to why people stopped making their own violins in the American South. (By the late 19th century, you could get them just as cheaply from Sears.)

“Celtic Roots” is the brainchild of James Flannery, who came to Atlanta in 1982 to found Emory’s theater program and now directs the W. B. Yeats Foundation. “Living in the South, I became increasingly interested in the connections between Irish music, Scottish music, and Appalachian music,” Flannery says. Celtic influences in Southern literature have been well documented, he explains, pointing to Gone with the Wind, figures such as Flannery O’Connor, and the clear influence of Irish novelist James Joyce on Mississippian William Faulkner. But the musical connections have not.

“The existing conversation about country music in the South and Irish music just had this glib sentimentality to me,” Flannery says. “I really wanted to trace what the lineaments of those connections were in a lot of different ways, with evidence behind it.”

So he set out to find the best people in the field who had something to say—“but I wanted them to be people who not only could talk about it in solid academic terms but also were practitioners in some way,” he explains. The process took two years.

The event headliner, Henry Glassie—“the dean of American folklorists,” according to Flannery, and one with a knack for dramatic effect—has quite a bit to say. He positions himself against globalization in a fierce way, describing the phenomenon as “the ooze of our [Western] culture over the world by electronic means.”

Glassie spent years living in Ballymenone (population: 153), an isolated hamlet in Northern Ireland. When he first arrived during the bloody years of the Troubles, the community had no electricity, running water, or telephone service. What it did have was a rich cultural life and an abundance of storytellers, musicians, and singers. Ballymenone’s “localizing energy,” particularly its folk arts, were a “subversive form of resistance against mass media,” according to Glassie.

He was appalled to find that 15 years later—after the arrival of television and other modern conveniences—only one house made in the hamlet’s signature architectural style was still standing. “It was all commonplace international bungalows,” he said. “Once tradition becomes heritage, it doesn’t have life anymore. People are fragmented into an infinity of isolations. What’s the cost of globalization?”

The tension between folk tradition and innovation was a constant undercurrent in each session of the symposium, but some participants were more skeptical about the conflict between these two forces. “There’s not a hard, fast line between classical music and folk or ethnic music,” said Ken Perlman, who is known as a pioneer of the “melodic clawhammer” banjo style. “It was literally the same people in late 19th-century Scotland playing violin in the symphony and then afterward going to play fiddle in the pub.” Fintan Vallely, a musician and writer who teaches Irish flute, agreed. “In modern times we’re imposing this sense of tradition, and it’s not a unified thing.”

Punctuated by spontaneous bursts of music and the involuntary tapping of feet, this conversation made clear Flannery’s motivations for seeking out experts who were both researchers and musicians. Panelists’ instruments were always glued to their sides, as if by an invisible force.

“It was a combination of ideas and the demonstration of those ideas in performance,” Flannery says of the conference. “That leads not only to high points intellectually, but also high points of imaginative discovery, people making connections they didn’t even know existed. Two fiddlers from different parts of the world pick up and they start playing the same tune, and then they analyze it but, most important, they play together and demonstrate that connection. So you not only get a very high intellectual level of discourse, but people who are deeply moved by an awful lot that they experienced.”

Flannery was drawn to Ireland decades ago as a scholar of Yeats, whose work was steeped in Irish folklore.

“I was utterly intrigued by it and then I experienced it myself when I went to the west of Ireland, to West Clare, to the place where my mother was born in an Irish-speaking family,” he says. “And I heard these stories. Some of the people I met there were frankly much wiser, much more whole men, than a lot of academics I’ve known. They knew far more. They knew it by heart. They would quote poems; they would sing songs. They were extraordinarily witty. And I thought, what produces this?”

After the conference, Flannery tells me a story about one of his conversations with former university president Bill Chace. The two were discussing the difference between an academic and an intellectual. “Bill and I were talking about it, and he said that to be a good academic, it’s as if you have a garden that is surrounded by walls,” Flannery recounts. “And you cultivate that garden as deeply and as thoroughly as you possibly can. But very often you don’t look over the wall. An intellectual looks over the wall.”

“That’s what Henry was really talking about,” he continues. “It’s applied knowledge in the living life of a community, and what it takes to create a community.”

Cultivating a sense of community, both at Emory and in Atlanta, was another “secret reason” Flannery was driven to make Celtic Roots a reality. He felt that Emory, as a uniquely positioned southern institution, bears a certain responsibility for passing on the wisdom of the folklore of the South. After all, the borrowing of ideas and blending of traditions to create a “musical tapestry,” as Perlman terms it, was pervasive not only in 19th-century Scotland but in the American South as well.

“This is a vast area, and you wouldn’t really know how Irish it was and is until you begin to explore it—and particularly the Scots-Irish,” Flannery says. “They made a vast contribution to the South, and indeed to the entire country. But unlike Irish-Americans, they know comparatively little about themselves, and very little is known about them.” He approached the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) with his vision for the conference as a response to this need; NEH offered a $10,000 We the People grant, the catalyst that enabled the event to coalesce.

These efforts soon will create ripples beyond the Southeast. The team behind the Atlanta conference is now busy planning a follow-up symposium in Dublin, where Flannery is a visiting professor at University College. The Celtic Roots experience has been an invigorating one, and he is committed—perhaps now more than ever—to strengthening and preserving “the fragile quality that cultures like this represent. I’ve seen it disappear in the very place where my mother grew up in a little valley they’d lived in for 600 years.”

But back in the fiddle workshop in Cannon Chapel, traditional music appears to be alive and well. After one last demonstration of the intricacies of different enunciations and styles according to regional differences in Scotland, Laval looks back up. “Any more questions?”

A brief pause.

“Play us out!” 

Erin Crews 09C 09G is editor of Emory in the World.

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