Home, Jeeves!

“Many strings of lives ago,”

         Chippewa storyteller


“I have heard and you shall hear”



Gurteen[1], in the south of county Sligo in Ireland, is a blip on the map, even by Irish standards. Put your compass point at the town crossroads and draw a circle a radius of fifteen miles. The area within that circle, containing only other tiny towns, nevertheless produced the three seminal recording figures of Irish traditional music in America in the 1930’s. Today one would find there more than twenty traditional musicians of consummate skill, loyal to the local style and repertoire, descended from families that have been producing musicians for many generations. This is also true of many locales in all the counties on the west coast of Ireland (Vallely and Piggott 1998).

Many other musicians have emigrated from these areas, and wherever in the world you find them they are dedicated to traditional music, the playing, singing, and the telling of it. Their core performance pieces and the lore that goes with them remain those of their home place. They are “of that place” though they may not have lived there for twenty years or more. By now they’re used to the tape and mini-disc recorders on the stools in front of them – most are glad to see them. They are opinionated, critical un-self-conscious as performers. They are the well of sustenance for a dedicated practitioner of Irish traditional music; they are, to borrow a term from John D. Niles, “strong tradition-bearers” (Niles 1999). I will describe here some of these people, what I know about them personally, some of the attributes of their characters, and why I think they are worthy of examination.

What kind of people are they? What might make them important to the rest of the world? Should academics study them? Do they deserve status beside the great story and folksong persons lionized by collectors and ethnologists? How are they the same, and how are they different from these storytellers and folk singers?

Some aspects of the current state of folklore research

There have always been people within the world’s traditional communities, men and women who by virtue of their lifelong immersion in the music, song and lore of a particular geographic area, or a long history of commitment to the particular tradition, either assume or are appointed by their community as, in a sense, the “guardians” or arbiters of the tradition. Essential for the understanding of this concept is the notion of praxis, that is, the performance of the corpus of that person’s tradition “live” in front of a knowing audience, perpetually renewing the value of this body of knowledge and belief to the community and exercising the right of this guardian/arbiter to add his or her contribution to the tradition as it gets passed along (Niles 1999: 173-193).

“Until the early 60’s, a division existed between folklorists who saw themselves involved in a great international and comparatist ‘scientific’ enterprise, and those primarily concerned with the ways in which folklore gave nations, regions, or locales their special character. The former tended to think of themselves as library and archive scholars, while the latter were theorists who had also been involved in field collecting and who were as interested in the singers and story-tellers as the songs and the stories” (Abrahams 1993: 382). These latter believed “that through observing lore in its living embodiments the secret of folk creativity and endurance might be best described and comprehended... [through the] pragmatic study of culture in place” (Abrahams 1993: 382).

This was a new Big Idea – a paradigm shift of the first order. The old way was to “collect your corpus of folklore items on the one hand, your sociological or ethnographic data on the other, and hold the two discrete sets of data up to each other with a view toward where they match... a correlational paradigm” (Bauman 1989:177). The “new” idea “centers on performance as a special, artful mode of communication, the essence of which resides in the assumption of accountability to an audience for a display of communicative competence, subject to evaluation for the skill and effectiveness with which the act of expression is accomplished” (Bauman 1989: 177).  Call them living embodiments, arbiters, guardians; but the idea is that real, identifiable people are at the center of the circle and give the body of work meaning and value, even renew it each time in the telling.

The introduction of the phonograph and the broadcasting of folk material “elicited fears in the face of an homogenizing drift of the cultures of the world – what Alan Lomax called the ‘Cultural Grey-Out’” (Abrahams 1993: 381), but the new idea “sought to locate responsibility for culture with specific individuals interacting in definite places and times” (Hanson 1993: 327). These people would exercise their obligations to preserve, while at the same time add new life to their cultural group. The phonograph would be used with profound effect on the overall quality of traditional music. At first the recordings of Michael Coleman “buried” regional styles in favor of a standard – the music of county Sligo; as more recordings emerged in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and inexpensive methods of reproducing relatively small amounts of CDs and audio cassettes emerged, other regional players came to the public’s attention. “Individual artistry is a central concern, though always by reference to the dynamic tension between the socially given and the emergent, between conventions of performance on the one hand, individual creativity and situational uniqueness on the other” (Bauman 1989: 177).

Here is my attempt to distill from Lyotard (1984) a comprehensible form to the relationships among the tradition bearer, the audience, and the content of tradition. “The consensus that permits such knowledge to be circumscribed, and makes it possible to distinguish one who knows from one who doesn’t... is what constitutes the culture of a people” (Lyotard 1984: 19). “Thus the speech acts relevant to this form of knowledge are performed not only by the speaker, but also by the listener, as well as by the third party referred to... What is transmitted through these narratives is the set of pragmatic rules that constitutes the social bond... not only the meaning of the narratives... but also in the act of reciting them” (Lyotard 1984: 21-22). The “third party referred to” is the subject of the tale or song.

Scholars in the academy of folklore, sociology, and ethnography, even as profound as Lyotard, have often danced around the need to include traditional musicians among the guardians of the social bond. Here are two good reasons, I believe, to include them.

Two “Strong Tradition-Bearers”

Kevin Henry is 76 years old[2] born near the border of counties Mayo and Sligo. He learned the tin whistle[3] and flute,[4] beginning as a child, from the local practitioners in that district, of which he said, “In my village alone there were four flute players” (Henry 1998). Fiddle and flute are the foundation of the sound of traditional music in this area, often called “Coleman Country,” after a famous 1930s recording-artist-émigré from the area to New York.  Kevin learned to play in what is described as a “rush” style of which, besides him and his daughter, there are only one or two practitioners left alive. He left home in 1947 for England, and came to the US in ’53, ending up in Chicago, on the south side, where he lives to this day. He performs occasionally; some engagements are of no particular account, but some are as a highly honored guest. He will sometimes bring his daughter Maggie who plays fiddle in addition to flute and tin whistle, sometimes a childhood friend, Malachy Towey for his bodhrán.[5] Alone or in the company of other musicians he stands out. Listeners come away stunned, swearing he could make a dead man dance. The most frequent opportunity to meet Kevin is at a session[6] on Chicago’s south side. Kevin at a session plays most often the flute, second most the Irish pipes.[7] At the core of his repertoire are the tunes of the south of county Sligo that he learned as a youth. He may, if the spirit moves him and the audience is right, sing a song – usually one from his childhood – or launch into a thunderous recitation of verse, which may be anything from an anonymous Irish poem to a work of Robert Service, one of Kevin’s favorite poets. These “recitations,” are equally spellbinding whether in person or on a recording. Always standing, never sitting, right hand gesturing, left hand in his pocket, sometimes jingling his car keys, he can be heard in the back row.

When I first heard him twenty-five years ago I thought his flute was going to explode from the power of the sound he wrenched from it. At 76 years old he can still dominate a session of expert flute players. Kevin’s embodiment of lore (the tune repertoire) coupled with the inventive presentation of a very old skill (the south Sligo “push” style) to a knowing audience (the session) who also may “also drive from time to time” (Niles 1999) qualifies him in my mind as a strong tradition-bearer every bit the equal of the “singer of songs and the teller of tales.” That he might on occasion sing a song or tell a tale only reinforces my characterization. It is the identity of his personality with his “place,” his absolute dedication to Irish music, and his love of those gone before and those with whom (for whom) he is performing that qualifies him as a strong tradition-bearer. Niles (1999) speaks of the “mental engagement... deep and tenacious” (175) of the singer and the storyteller. The same is true for this Irish traditional musician.

John Creaven is only in his thirties. He grew up in Menlo, county Galway, in Ireland, earned a PhD in mechanical engineering at Queen’s College, Belfast. He plied his trade in Chicago, then England, and now lives in Granger, Indiana (USA) where he designs medical equipment for the Bayer Corporation. As a child he began learning the whistle and flute from county Galway musicians, but unlike Kevin, who stayed closer to home as a youth, John toured all over the country with an Irish dance band and played with many of Ireland’s finest. Queen’s College, Belfast, was a hotbed of traditional music, possessed of its own Irish studies program, and a magnet for northern musicians, Catholic and Protestant, in addition to musicians from the south.

 John Creaven plays simply, carefully, paying attention to every note. His playing has the lyricism, which sets him apart from others. Quoting from the liner notes to his first CD, “As soon as he began to play, the group realized that in their midst was a great flute player” (Creaven 2002). The person who wrote the notes, Frank Burke, is an accomplished fiddle player of Kevin Henry’s “old school” generation, which lends even more weight to his characterization.  When John talks about a tune he can tell you its provenance – how it came to his hand. His knowledge of the music is encyclopedic; he seldom loses the game of “stump the expert.”

John in a session will often follow a tune that everybody knows with another that often no one knows. When he realizes those around him may not “have the tune” he’ll play it in a basic fashion many times so that the quicker among us can get “the bones of it” if not the flesh. He has carried to the South Bend area an immense body of the traditional music of Ireland; he gives it away freely to all. If someone is tired of a tune they’ve been playing for years John will have a new twist for it or a version from some other Irish locality. He tempers the local “youngsters” who might be over-attentive to the latest fashionable tunes or musical groups, but always has a tune (and the provenance to go with it) from some great player who few of us have heard. John gets a recording from one of his friends in Ireland - the contemporary surrogate for, or functional equivalent of a live performance for those far away (Bauman 1989: 181) - then hides in his “flute room” (humidified – all wooden flute-players live in fear of cracks) and learns all the tunes on it, then brings them out one by one to delight the rest of us.

Just by being at a session either of these people can keep it “on the straight and narrow:” traditional pace – not too fast - and just the right timing, interesting selection of tunes.  They need not say much, just play by example, with a word or two of encouragement. “Great pace.” “Great tune. Great player.”

Kevin Henry by his very presence takes command; he always has. John reminds one of the speaker who enters the room and remains still until the audience quiets down and is ready. Kevin in his younger days played for country-house dances. By the time John matured the country-house dance had long since faded away and dances moved to bigger but less personal venues. Both players learned (and still learn) almost exclusively aurally; that is, not orally – by instruction – but by listening and trying until they get it right. Knowledge for them contains also the elements of  justice, happiness, and beauty. “It also includes notions of  ‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to live,’ ‘how to listen’” (Lyotard 1984).

Some comparisons



Strong Tradition Bearer, Storyteller, Singer (many societies)

Additional Considerations for the Strong Tradition Bearer, Irish traditional music (can be applied to many other musical traditions of locales and ethnic groups)

“The tale must be well known to the public if the performance is to be a success for the audience must not be overly preoccupied with the task of trying to follow painstakingly what is being told in order to follow the tale” (Vansina 1985: 35).

Audience may know the repertoire and forms if from the same locality. If not, the audience will at least know the forms (reel, jig, slide, etc.).

“[R]emembering is action, indeed, creation” (Vansina 1985: 43).

It first enters the soul of the listening singer, and then is reborn, with personal features.” (Niles, 1999, p. 153)

“As soon as some proficiency is has been attained, one should listen to a tune to learn it, not to acquire its style... [T]he setting played may have been good or bad; the transcription may be accurate but skeletal [or] defective but detailed. When the tune has been added to one’s repertoire, it should be regarded as one’s own... A second-hand player always remains a second-rate player” (Breathnach 1971:123).

[The corpus is] “first, what a single person remembers in his [or her] mind” (Vansina 1985: 148).

“So in practice the corpus becomes what is known to a community or to a society in the same way that culture is so defined” (Vansina 1985: 149)

“Oral tradition is known to many persons and each of them can always complete their information from others... What matters most is to realize how widely known a tradition is and to view renderings of it as backed up by the collective memory of the group who knows” (Vansina 1985: 153)

Applies directly, but creation may be completed by others present (collective memory). This is frequently witnessed in a session when someone starts a tune but finds he or she can’t complete it, but it is taken up by the group and someone completes it for the player; it is then taken up by the whole group. One player, especially the strong tradition bearer, may perform a part differently, causing others to pause or play softer when that part comes around again. The different part is then taken up or rejected. If taken up, becomes part of individual and collective memories.

“[A] pragmatic protocol...betokens a theoretical identity between each pf the narrative’s occurrences.” (Lyotard 1984: 22) Lyotard gives preeminence to the narrative itself as having the ability, by virtue of its telling, to lend its authority to the narrator who, with the listener, “actualizes the narratives... recounting themselves through them... by putting them into ‘play.’ ” “They thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” (Lyotard 1984: 23)


Recasting this quote:

The tune is essentially the same each time it is played. It’s essence – that which makes the listener say “that is Star of Munster” even though the player’s rendition of it is unique – identifies it at each occurrence, much like Plato’s ideal of a horse.

The tune, and the body of tunes belonging to tradition, are really nothing until they are played (put into play). The strong tradition-bearer then shows what can be done with them in terms of innovation, yet keeping within the “rules” of tradition.

Singers and storytellers “ cultivate an oral tradition because they love the songs and stories, they love the conviviality of the performance situation, and they often love the family and friends from whom they learned their lore and whose memory these things call up, sometimes with a presence so palpable as to call up tears or laughter” (Niles 1999: 179).

Identical motivation: “atmosphere of veneration for the past and for one’s predecessors” (Niles 1999: 179).

Strong tradition-bearer singers and storytellers use cadence, pitch, rhythm, timing, variation, and imagination within the traditions of their craft. Speech evokes temporal sequence.

These metaphors are all taken from the world of music, and apply to crafters of traditional music.

Music evokes temporal sequence.

“From Horace to Sidney and later, theorists have repeated that poetry is of twofold purpose: to teach and to entertain” (Niles 1999: 68). Niles uses “poetry” as in the sense of Greek poiesis, “making” (Niles 1999: 1).

Traditional music conveys the power of the unknown, the magic of imagination applied to re-creation/recreation.  “Traditional players are not, in any event, obsessed by the bookish idea that there can be only one correct version of a tune. The way, then is open for reshaping in transmission” (Breathnach 1971: 120)

“[I]t’s not just the tellers whose physical presence makes these stories so memorable. It is the whole set of people, both living and dead, who share the site of performance: this ritual space where social dramas are enacted in a ‘time out of time’” (Niles 1999: 63).

The tune connects not only for the strong tradition-bearer, but also often for the listener, evoking memories of place and persons – the context within which one last heard or played the music.

People sing and recite tales and songs of mourning, pleasure, celebratory, marshal, soothing, entertaining aspects.

Breathnach (1971) refers to the legendary three forms and functions of “ancient Irish music” on the harp, suantraí, geantraí, and goltraí. These make people weep, laugh or fall asleep. These names are also applied in story to the music played on strings of iron, brass, or silver respectively. (Breathnach, 1971, pp. 2-4)




Songs and tales are an organic phenomenon, an integral part of a culture, but the material aspects can be abstracted and stored. (Ben-Amos1971).

 The full “ecology” of a traditional music community cannot be experienced apart from aastructured group – concert or session.

“[I]dentity, whether it be of an individual person or of a historical community, is acquired through the medium of narrative and thus is a function of fiction” (Niles 1999: 3).

Identity is acquired through the use of musical forms, rhythm, sound, etc. mediated through the company of traditional player/listeners.






Even taking into consideration the position of the strong tradition-bearer, “no single member of the community has complete command of all its facets, so folklore in this sense must be an abstract construct based upon the collective information as it is stored with many individuals” (Ben-Amos 1971: 6). Though I’ve only touched on it, every strong tradition-bearer has a well of re-creation to whom he or she flees for renewal, just as every priest must have a father confessor. Here is a diagram of continuity as I now see it, which could embrace the traditional culture of the past and the present. The distinctions blur when one considers traditional music in the setting of a session. The listeners often become players, co-participants in the act of re-creation/recreation with the strong tradition-bearer. The result here is a real unity in which the participants may come away breathless, feeling as if they had been a part of some kind of rapture.

“[A]n otherwise unexceptional biological species has become a much more interesting thing, Homo Narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, finding enough food and shelter to survive, but has also learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. It is through such symbolic mental activities that people have gained the ability to create themselves as human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before.” (Niles, 1999: 3)


Thanks to Dr. Mike Keen, Director of the MJLS Program for a ferocious, challenging thoughtful class, but with all the encouragement to go with it. Thanks Ian, Linda, Howard; we’re all very “non-traditional” students, aren’t we? Thanks Rosanne Cordell, Head of Reference at IUSB Schurz Library for all the insight – you opened up the candy store for this kid.


“Here ends the story of [strong tradition-bearers in Irish music]. The man who told it to you is [David James].”




[1] Goitrtín in Irish: “little arable field.” (Room 1994)

[2] At the time of this writing, 2005.

[3] Tin whistle: typically in the key of C or D, about a foot long having six open holes, end blown through a “fipple” and in the same family as the recorder. Today they are made from straight or tapered tube, of brass or nickel, sometimes plastic, and cost anywhere from $5 to $300. Its range is about two octaves and in the hands of an accomplished player – many of whom still play the inexpensive “traditional” instruments – is capable of rendering Irish music with incredible subtlety and dash.

[4] Flute: made of wood and blown transversely like the modern metal instrument, six open holes and optionally one to eight keys. Modern practitioners sometimes call it the “concert flute.” It is also known as the “simple system” flute to distinguish it from the modern “Boehm” flute fingering.

[5] Bodhrán – the open backed drum of Irish music. Made from a goatskin stretched over a 14-22” hoop of wood approximately 4” or more deep. Played with a small stick called a cipín, or beater, or, in the case of Malachy, with the bare knuckles.

[6] A “session” is an informal gathering of Irish traditional musicians, sometimes by invitation sometimes by happenstance, usually in a particular pub, but sometimes in a basement or living room. Don’t confuse this term with “jam session.” There is no “jamming” here. A person either knows the music or not. None of the “regulars” can be fooled. The session is the locus, the center of the local Irish music community.

[7] The Irish pipes, more formally called the Uilleann Pipes – meaning “elbow-driven” – are the most sophisticated form of the bagpipe to come to the present day. Unlike the familiar Scots warpipes where the player’s breath keeps the bag inflated, the Irish version utilizes a bellows pumped with the elbow.  Further, the Irish pipe possesses a range of at least two octaves compared with the nine notes of the warpipe. In addition to the familiar drones, it also may also possess one or more ancillary pipes, keyed and lying on the performer’s lap along with the drones, called “regulators,” with which the player can execute accompanying chords with the edge of the hand. Kevin owns several unique instruments.





Abrahams, Roger D. 1993. After New Perspectives: Folklore in the Late Twentieth Century. In Western Folklore. 52, no. 3,4,5: 379-400.

Bauman, Richard. 1989. American Folklore Studies and Social Transformation: A Performance-Centered Perspective. In Text and Performance Quarterly. 9 (July 1989), no. 3: 175-184.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1971. Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context. In Journal of American Folklore. 84:3-15.

Breathnach, Breandán. 1971. Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press.

Hanson, Paul W. 1993. Reconceiving the Shape of Culture: Folklore and Public Culture. In Western Folklore. 52 (April 1993): 327-344.

Lyotard, Jean-Franćois. 1984. The Pragmatics of Narrative Knowledge. In The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge: Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10. Trans. By Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Niles, John D. 1999. Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Room, Adrian. 1994. A Dictionary of Irish Place-Names. Belfast: Appletree Press.

Vallely, Fintan, and Charlie Piggott. 1998. Blooming Meadows: the world of Irish traditional musicians. Dublin: Town House.



Henry, Kevin. 1998. One’s Own Place – a family tradition. Chicago: BogFire CD 2001.

Creaven, John. 2002. The Story So Far: Traditional Irish music played on the wooden flute. CD JPC229.

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