"THE FIVE B's OF CELTIC MUSIC"
Updated: Apr 1
St Paddy’s Day is just around the corner. It’s arguably the most important, or at least the most celebrated, day of the year for people who are Celts, or for those who wish they were. It’s also the day when our music abounds and is in its highest demand. While gathering repertoire for this project, I realized that most of our music can be classified under five general themes. To learn about what I call “The Five B’s of Celtic Music", keep reading.
Although this may look like a list of poorly described vitamins, I assure you that these five themes generally cover almost all of the subject matter we hear in Celtic music. In no particular order, they are as follows:
B1 – “Beauty" - This first "B" essentially encompasses songs about love. Originally, I called it "Belles and Beaus" as songs that laud the beautiful, like the “Queen of Argyll” or “The Star of the County Down”, abound, but changed it because songs about those who never find love, due to a lack of physical beauty, like “The Old Maid in the Garret”, also exist. Some songs tell stories of romantic love, such as in "The Valley of Strathmore", tragic love, like that found in “Sweet Dublin Bay”, or how love can come and go awry with hilarious effect, such as in “Courtin’ in the Kitchen”. Because it's such an overarching theme, love of a beautiful place, like Tommy Makem's "Farewell to Carlingford", or a time, are also common. Love of the liquor, however, gets its own special "B". See below.
B2 – “Booze” – To say we tend to have a fondness for the drink might be a gross understatement. For good or bad, it’s not surprising that it’s a common theme in our music. How many tunes or songs can you think of that either have some type of alcohol in their names or tell the story of, or the aftermath of, a night out on the lash? For me, “Whiskey in the Jar”, “Whiskey Before Breakfast”, “Whiskey, You’re the Devil”, “Nancy Whiskey”, “The Old Black Rum”, “Seven Drunken Nights”, “The Wild Rover”, “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?”, “Black Velvet Band”, and “Go to Sea No More” all promptly top my list.
B3 – “Battle” – Contingent on the composers' biases, many tunes and songs can both celebrate or denigrate war, specific battles, their results/effects, or the warriors who fought them despite their causes. “Ye Jacobites by Name”, “Gallant Murray”, “Donald MacGillavry”, “Bonnie Dundee”, "Hey, Johnnie Cope!", "General Taylor", “The Battle of Killiecrankie”, and “The Battle of Waterloo” are a few that immediately come to mind.
B4 – "Boats” – It should be no surprise that songs about boats, bodies of water, fish, and all things relative to the maritime/seafaring way of life are woven into the musical fabric on islands like Ireland and the United Kingdom and that the areas to which people from those places immigrated, particularly Atlantic Canada, carry on that musical tradition. In fact, sea shanties are their own popular sub-genre within the canon. “Lukey’s Boat”, “The Irish Rover”, “Fogarty’s Cove”, “Botany Bay”, “Squid Jiggin’ Grounds”, “Greenland Whale Fisheries”, “The Mingulay Boat Song”, “Heave Away”, "I's the B'y" are but a few examples from my setlist.
B5 – “Bereavement” – We often associate death with sadness and bagpipes at funerals often open up the waterworks. Piobreachd, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe, is inundated with laments for those who have passed. Music can celebrate and/or memorialize the dead, but they can also help relieve death’s pain through humour. Where “General Taylor” laments a respected military officer, songs like “The Night Pat Murphy Died” and “I Had a Hat” recall the shenanigans that can happen at a funeral or a wake.
Naturally, these "B"s don’t usually stand alone as hard and fast entities. They commonly overlap to create a good song that tells a good story.
Are there any "B"s that I have missed? If so, let me know in the comments and don’t forget to tell me your favourite song and under which "B" it falls.