Note: This piece contains no actual or researched history of Celtic music; purely my jaundiced thoughts and observations. For everything I say, you could find ten guys to refute it. And another ten to back it up. And I don’t care. That’s kinda the point.
Several years a go I joined a Celtic music group. It was the last thing I thought I’d ever do. But the band was comprised of good friends, and they needed a shitty guitar player. I knew little about Celtic music – probably about as much as any average music fan –The Pogues, of course. Without them, I wouldn’t have bothered. Aside from them, a little Waterboys, Chieftains, Flogging Molly, and Clannad. Oh, and that Celtic Chili’s commercial, “I found five dollars in the pocket of me jeans!”
What really surprised me, as we delve into the fatty meat of this rambling, is how disparate the genre was. I thought of Celtic music as a subgenre of folk, but really, it’s so diverse and sprawling, it nearly defies categorization. Yet here I go. Again. On my own.
The First Guys to Piss off Old People
It’s hard to believe, but the guitar (six-string, 12-string, acoustic, electric, you name it) wasn’t introduced to celtic music until the 50s. Not the 1850s. The 1950s. Do some research if you actually care, but the gist of it is folkies started crossing over into Celtic music and they brought their guitars. And this pissed off the olds.
Until that fateful decade, Celtic music was performed on banjo, Cittern or Irish Bouzouki, fiddle, whistle, various forms of pipes, accordion, and maybe a hammered dulcimer. Sometime shortly before guitar stuck its ugly head in the picture, the harmonica, mandolin and bodhran (Irish hand drum) became accepted, though they weren’t previously considered “traditional” instruments.
And that’s funny, because today, a “traditional” Irish band is usually thought of as a guitar, fiddle, whistle, mandolin, bodhran, and maybe banjo, pipes and accordion. So yeah, fuck tradition, right? It means what we say it means! Though there are lots of traditional groups around, there are few that play with pre-midcentury instrumentation.
Not the Kind of Session You Were Hoping For
In Celtic music, everyone gets an erection by segregating themselves into groups and taking turns looking at each other with disgust. The biggest wankers of the lot are session players. You may think of session musicians as kickass studio hired guns, but the Celtic (and original) meaning is guys who play things exactly the same way every time and refuse to enjoy it. Seriously. If you’ve never been to a Celtic session, don’t. The point is to play things perfectly without adding anything new or any part of your personality to the music. The tunes are usually 12 or 24 bars, consisting of two or three chords, with melodies that are indistinguishable to anyone other than session wankers. So they play the same 12 bars about 8 times and move on to another song that sounds the same. Oh, and Celtic music is almost always in the same key. It’s pretty fucking great… if you like sharp objects rammed through your frontal lobe.
Session tunes consist of jigs, reels, hornpipes, strasthpeys and polkas. Again, no one can tell the difference between any of this shit, except the session players themselves; a point they take great pride in. It’s like having a Ph.D. in Shit Forensics and proudly wearing your shit-stained lab coat to the grocery store. You might say they rub it in peoples’ faces, even.
Sing Us a Song, You Annoying Man
And then there are traditional pub groups. See, in Celtic music, there aren’t just songs. There are songs and tunes. Songs have words. Tunes do not. If you want to see a guy in a fisherman’s cap roll his eyes in self-important disgust, refer to a piece with lyrics as a “tune.” These bastards take this shit seriously.
Anyway, session players don’t typically like pub groups because pub groups pretend to have fun. They get to sing and maybe even drink a beer. But what they’re singing is roughly as simplistic and dreadful as the session tunes, and the fun is a tediously engineered stage act. In truth, they’re as joyless and banal as session players, but not as talented. And everyone is aware of this implicit fact, which is why pub guys hate session players right back.
An offshoot of the pub band is the faire group. Yes, I’m talking about renaissance faire balladeers; the guys not good enough to get a non-paying pub gig. They’re the lowest form of musical scum found at the bottom of the cultural barrel, but they typically have a great collection of merkins and jerkins and handcrafted man-tights. Enough said.
Similar to the Ren Faire ponces is the shanty group. Yes, that’s a thing. Groups of four or more guys who “sing” sea shanties and dress like the homeless in an attempt to look like an “authentic pirate.” (Not that Johnny Depp bullshit, man! It’s so phony!) At first blush, that sounds like it might be cool. It’s not, unless you like endless repetition, atonal shouting and feckless posturing from poofs who have never been on a boat. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of crossover with the ren faire scum.
Scottish? Irish? And What the Feck is Cape Breton?
Just to make things more annoying and give intolerable people something else to argue about, the Great Alcoholic God of the Celtic Peoples divided his music based upon different nationalities. Now, to normal people it all sounds like the same dreck. But to Celtic music fans, the difference could not be more important. I’ve actually had my life threatened because my band of nobodies wasn’t Scottish enough and didn’t know a certain tune (we did, we just didn’t want to play it for the assholes).
The big two are Irish (or course) and Scottish. Irish music is the shit you’ve probably heard before. Scottish music sounds exactly the same, but has a bit more emphasis on fiddle and pipes. That’s it. Oh, and there’s an offshoot of Scottish music called Cape Breton fiddling. It’s the same shite as Scottish fiddling, performed by the Scots who sailed to Nova Scotia centuries ago. Really, it’s all the same fucking thing, but these people have nothing better to do than categorize terrible music and grow beards.
And yeah, there are other variations from the different “Celtic Nations,” but nobody cares about them. Manx, Cornish, Welsh, Asturian, blah, blah blah…
The thing about bagpipes is no one knows if the fucking things are being played well or not. The sad truth is, after years of involuntary indoctrination, I’ve learned enough to sort of distinguish between a lousy piper and a good one. And 95% of them are terrible. I mean, why put in the work if no one knows the difference anyway?
The thing is, they’re damned hard to play, even though they’re only capable of emitting seven notes. I know, because I tried to learn. No, I didn’t want to play bagpipes. No one does. The dark, unspoken truth is, the bagpipes are a scam. Just another money-making scheme. I know lots of guys who can barely play three songs – I mean tunes – and they get paid hundreds of dollars to show up at a funeral and squawk about for 15 minutes in their tartan and tam o’shanter. People like that, because someone on another continent played bagpipes at a funeral once. Probably because they hated the dead bastard.
And pipers usually look nice. In a world where a t-shirt without ranch and ketchup stains is considered “dressy,” a funeral is often the only time many people put on a pair of shoes instead of flip flops. And for some dudes, wearing a kilt is as close as they’ll ever get to coming out of the closet. So because of some bullshit fantasy tradition and latent homosexuality, we have to put up with fucking bagpipes.
Hippies Ruin Everything, Even 500-Year Old Music
So, the folkies of the 50s flirting with Celtic music turned into the hippies of the 60s absolutely desecrating it with bands like Planxty, Pentangle, and Clannad (Dear God, the names alone are too horrible to hear). Hell, even Stevie Winwood took a stab at the corpse with Traffic’s “John Barleycorn.” I would say hippie Celtic was the worst music ever made, but there’s so many forms of terrible Celtic music. I JUST CAN’T CHOOSE!
But these tasteless burnouts – mostly Brits, for some twisted reason – got sick of desecrating decent American Rhythm and Blues, so they took some time from their schedule of not bathing and destroying capitalism to ruin whatever was left of Celtic music after the likes of Kingston Trio left it for dead. And fatefully, they introduced traditional rock instrumentation (electric bass, drum kit) into the mix, so the next generation could have a go at fucking it up even worse. Much like hippie music led to psychedelia, which led to early heavy metal, the stupid hippie experiments with Celtic music led to The Pogues, which led to shitty Celtic Punk and Metal. Speaking of which…
Very Metal and Punk’s Not Dead, Not Til We Kill it.
The only good Irish band ever wasn’t even really that Irish. They were a bunch of loser kids from London (with some Irish heritage) who got bored with punk relatively quickly, and decided to fix what the hippies broke. So they founded The Pogues and people called them Celtic Punk (they weren’t). If the whole thing had ended there, we’d all be better off.
But it didn’t. Shane drank too much and Spider thought he was the leader (He wasn’t. Phil was). Even Joe Strummer couldn’t fix it after that. And then the world went back to not having any good Celtic bands. Then some other twats decided to revive Celtic Punk. But they all went and bought too many distortion pedals and Hot Topic studded belts and forgot what made The Pogues great. So now we’re stuck with the likes of Dropkick Murphys (Slipknot in a kilt), Flatfoot 56 (Pantera in flatcaps) and Flogging Molly (who would be pretty good if they could write more than the same two songs over and over). Oh, and you’ve got the Tossers and The Mahones, who are essentially really bad Pogues tribute bands.
And the saddest part is, few of the kids that listen to this tripe even know who Shane McGowan is.
Modern Love Terrifies Me. Gets Me to the Slop Bucket Every Time.
The direct descendant of the electric hippie Celtic noodle-fest of the 70s is modern Celtic music. I don’t even know if there’s a term for it. It’s like Enya and shit. It’s got more to do with funky smooth jazz-fusion than it does cabbage and potatoes. I’m talking about bands like Solas and…. um, Solas. Really, there are 8,000 of them, and only one of has ever caused me to remember their name. Just Imagine that shit you hear in elevators, throw in some fretless bass, 18 “worldbeat” percussion instruments and an electric fiddle on top. Does that sound good to you?
And this is the garbage that begat Riverdance, Celtic Woman, Celtic Thunder, Celtic Man, Celtic Sex Offender, Celtic Sewage Tank, etc. You know, that horrible shit your Mom watches on PBS. This has to be the bottom, right? Please tell me it can’t get any worse.
What About Tommy Makem, The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, The Irish Rovers…?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. This is the crap everybody claims to listen to. AUTHENTIC Celtic music. Gives you that delicious Celtic Cred, boyo. But you know what? It’s horrible. Nobody really listens to it. You can’t, because you would fall into a coma or slit your wrists before you got through a single 30-minute CD (and they’re only 30 minutes, because every damn song is two minutes long). If you’ve heard one of those old peckerheads sing one single song, you’ve heard them all. It’s all. the. same. shit.
Celtic music is terrible, awful, banal shit. And I didn’t even get a chance to talk about the suspicious cross-over with the white supremacy movement (for real, yo). Don’t listen to it. Don’t commiserate with people who listen to it. Buy The Pogues’ first three records and call it done.
And for God’s sake, stay the fuck away from bagpipes.
Bagpipes – The Great Celtic Music Swindle
Bodhran – An Irish hand drum played with a single stick (a “tipper”). In the right hands you can sound like Neal Pert!
Celtic Chili’s – Bennigan’s
Celtic Nation – Sigils of the seven celtic territories are often displayed on t-shirts worn by bored, tasteless white people
Celtic Thunder – The signal that Ragnarak is imminent.
Cittern – basically a four string guitar that sounds like shit
Hippie – The worst thing ever and the death of all culture.
Hornpipe – Sort of like a march played by people with epilepsy.
Irish Bouzouki – basically a Cittern
Irish Music – Whatever you say it is, as long as you’re wearing a flat cap and shitfaced drunk.
Jig – The 17th century version of mosh pit music. For reasons no one knows, there are half a dozen types of jigs.
Folk Music – Mostly harmless, but responsible for every bad thing that ever happened.
Polka – Few realize every stupid culture has polkas. Even the Irish.
Pogues (The) – The only good Celtic band. Probably because they were mostly British.
Prefab Pub – an actual thing sold on the internet. They build an “authentic” pub in the exact dimension of your strip mall space, box it up and ship it over to the states so you can sell green Coors Light to bros.
Reel – The whitest music ever created.
Scottish Music – An excuse for white people to flirt with cultural pride, often a cover for white supremacist leanings.
Strasthpey – A soul-less type of traditional tune meant to sound like a bagpipe. The question is why.
Tilted Kilt – Scottish Hooters