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13 March 2024  •  Creative Writing

A Banjo, Fiddle or Song

I think being a folk musician, playing music that has been passed down for generations, creates a deep sense of responsibility to respect the tradition and its inheritors. It requires you to search for a tradition you feel you can at least contribute to, if not be a part of.

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By Rueben Agius (he/him)
A Banjo, Fiddle or Song

The last musicians are insisting on playing just one more song. Despite being the only ones left in the bar, and despite having been told by Mort (one of the main Gaelic Club board members) to play the last song ten minutes ago. Trad music — traditional Irish folk music — is the music of Fridays at the Gaelic Club. And Fridays are the only day we are regularly open, so it’s pretty much all the music of the Gaelic Club. Trad sessions are usually led by one musician, but anyone can bring their instrument and join in. It’s a pretty informal gathering and there’s nothing that thrills the musicians more than having a new participant. This ‘last’ song has been going on for a long time considering trad songs seem to rarely go longer than two minutes. Unless it is a medley, then they could extend one song into ten without having to stop:

Máirseáil / Rince Sciobóil / Ríl Jamesy Gannon's / Mcdermott's / Over The Moor To Peggy 

I move closer to the musician’s tables with my spray and cloth. That usually works to hurry them out. Cam the guitarist came tonight. He has a habit of arriving just when we are starting to clean up or are about to call last drinks, and will play some rousing pub song in the style of The Dubliners or The Clancy Brothers that compels everyone to buy another pint. Pelle, the Swedish uilleann piper, is leading the session. All the session regulars are here: Ross the fiddler and his friend, a girl who wore a t-shirt last week with “Crypto is for virgins” on the front; the Kiwi tenor banjo player who always talks so quietly when he orders from the bar, I can barely hear what he is saying (though at this point I’ve realised the only thing he ever orders is a pint of Guinness, so I just assume that’s what he wants and don’t bother asking him to repeat himself). His wife is also an excellent tenor banjo player — I suppose ‘opposites attract’ doesn’t apply in banjo circles.

Pelle’s instrument, the uilleann pipes, are inflated using a pump at the elbow (hence the name uilleann), rather than with the mouth like Highland bagpipes or warpipes. They make a droning sound that seems to come from deep within the earth. A low, droning earthiness you only ever hear in folk and trad music. Eventually Mort joins the session, and he seems to play every instrument from the tin whistle to the mandolin.

The dark, leaf-green walls of the Club are hung with Irish paraphernalia. On one pillar hangs a grainy black and white photo of the Darlinghurst Seven, seven Irish-born Australian men who were imprisoned in Darlinghurst Gaol after accusations that they were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood — the group responsible for the 1916 Easter Rebellion (not to be confused with the later and more famous Irish Republican Army or IRA). The building the Gaelic Club now occupies one floor of was built with money raised by the Irish National Association, the group the Seven founded, as a gathering place for Irish people (and Irish-Australians, and their friends, as my manager stresses). 

On another wall hangs a print from the 1940s with the portraits of each of the leaders of the same Easter Rebellion, with the date they were each shot dead, executed or sentenced to life imprisonment written underneath their portrait. The ‘Lament for the Death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill’, an elegy by early 19th Century Irish writer Thomas Davis, is framed above the high tables opposite the bar:

Sure we never won a battle—”twas Eoghan won them all.

Had he lived—had he lived—our dear country had been free;

But he’s dead, but he’s dead, and ’tis slaves we’ll ever be.

The memory and pain of Ireland’s colonisation are very palpable here. Before the failure of the Voice Referendum, the Club was covered in ‘Yes’ posters — a history of genocide and loss at the hands of the English is certainly something Indigenous Australians and the Irish have in common. At a ‘Yes’ campaign event at the Club, Tomas, one of the old Irish regulars, said an Acknowledgement of Country in Irish Gaelic.

Yet this place also feels completely disconnected from the outside world. The green doors on Devonshire Street and the sign in English and Irish are easy to walk past unnoticed. Walking up the three flights of stairs, you can hear the fiddles gradually getting louder. The stairs certainly weed out those that are either too drunk to make it up or just can’t be arsed. The otherworldliness of this place always reminds me of what our manager says it’s about: creating a place that reminds the Irish of home. The Club certainly reminds me of Ireland. But for me, an Australian bartender who is always a bit perplexed by the question of where I am from, this place certainly doesn’t evoke a sense of ‘home’. 

At least folk and trad music has an excellent ability to capture that longing for home, put nicely in the shanty ‘Home Boys Home’, most famously recorded by The Dubliners in 1964:

And it’s home, boys, home

Home I’d like to be, home for while in me own country,

Where the oak and the ash and the bonny rowan tree 

Are all a-growing green in the old country

These songs make me feel a sense of longing for a home that isn’t mine. That is the curious phenomenon about folk music. It seems to stir something, a longing to return to something lost, in a strange, elusive way that is hard to pin down. Trad music and the idea of returning physically to a place must go hand in hand, since a great number of Ireland’s visitors today go for the music. 

The popularity of this music has been constantly increasing since the folk revival of the 1960s. However, the cultural and familial customs that underpin the practice of this music are fragile. Outside pressure has pushed many musicians to abandon the historical, small-scale localised settings of their music to cater to the way music has been consumed since recordings eclipsed live music as the primary means of listening. Today, with streaming as the ‘default’ mode of consumption, the pressure to move beyond the local setting is even stronger. Within Ireland, many bemoan the loss of the practices which allowed Irish music to develop. As author Susan Motherway writes, “The pub rather than the kitchen [has become] the home of Irish traditional music.” 

This music is not the work of individual composers but grows organically within families and communities. The songs themselves bear the stamp of the locality they evolved within. There is no ‘correct’ way to play a particular reel, merely different variations based on locality. Individual players can add their own rhythmic style, or ornamental motifs, layered on top of their teacher’s additions, influenced by their local sessions. No version claims to be the original. Song is the property of the community. 

A single piece is a palimpsest of all the variations, additions and subtractions that occur when music is a communal practice. Songs become artefacts of the land in which they evolved, embedded with regional idiosyncrasies as much as the landscape itself. The Ulster hunting song ‘The Hare’s Lament’, recounting a hunt from the perspective of the hare, rather than the hunters, captures this admiration and respect for land:

They hunted me up and they hunted me down

The bold huntsmen of Stratham on my tail sent the hounds

Over highlands and lowlands moorlands also

Over hedges and ditches like the wind I did go

“Mush-a-ri tally-ho! Hark ye over hi-ho”

“Hark ye over” cried the huntsman, “Hark ye over hi-ho!”

Trad music is never taught from sheet music like almost all other genres, but is taught through observation and listening. In this way, more is transmitted through teaching songs than just music. If songs are artefacts of the land they are played on, then the passing on and teaching of those songs to the next generation is a transferral of the culture of the community. The narrator of ‘Wexford Town’ reminisces about inheriting the fiddle from his father:

My father was a fiddler dunne,

Now I’m a fiddler too

Although I often felt his fist, he taught me all he knew

Yet the Gaelic Club doesn’t really exist within that setting. The songs played at the Club are removed from their cultural context and sense of place. These songs, many of which are older than the country of Australia, are played on the other side of the world from where they were created, by musicians who often are not born in Ireland. The Irish tradition is insular, and globalisation has already led to the fraying of ties between music, land and family. As folklorist Tom Munnelly lamented, “A song tradition, which came as naturally as the air they breathed to some people born into certain geographic areas and particular dynasties, has now to be searched for by even these people”. 

Taking trad music out of its original contexts perhaps undermines the previously inseparable ties between music, land and identity that make folk music ‘folk’ — the music of the people. I recall once looking down at a fiddler playing in the session and being perplexed by him reading sheet music off his phone. In trad music, notated music is often looked at with deep scepticism, for the way it ‘deadens’ the cultural practice and sets it in stone, to be unchanging and learnt from books rather than from communal playing. 

This is the impasse between nostalgia and the pressure to adapt. To adapt may well undermine the values of the genre. But won’t failure to evolve condemn trad music to extinction? 

With a Swedish piper leading the session, an English girl having drunk far too many double gin and tonics wearing a t-shirt about crypto sitting under old photos of the Darlinghurst Seven, while fiddlers and flautists play reels and jigs, the Club reflects this clash between global multiculturalism and old world parochialism.

I think being a folk musician, playing music that has been passed down for generations, creates a deep sense of responsibility to respect the tradition and its inheritors. It requires you to search for a tradition you feel you can at least contribute to, if not be a part of. 

The non-Irish musicians who play at the Club certainly would have had to search for the Irish musical tradition. As a banjo player myself, I find myself continually searching. I play traditional American folk but have no familial connection to America. I often feel I am performing some artificial imitation when playing this music, like I’m trying to insert myself into something that I’m not a part of. I envy people raised within a musical culture as children, where they can say, without a shred of un-truth, that this music is their music.

I find it frustrating when I hear my friend from Dallas speak with embarrassment and distaste for the fact he was born in the southern United States. I think it is a shame he is not a banjo player. I would certainly not speak with shame about having been born in the great cradle of American folk music that Texas is.  

But, I suppose, the deep sense of history is why I am so drawn to folk music. I find it immensely satisfying to play songs and instruments you could write a whole book on the history of. 

By extension, then, that is why I love the Gaelic Club. Unlike other Irish venues in Sydney, the Gaelic Club is not built on some plastic paddy fantasy of Irishness (Molly Malone’s, Kelly’s on King, Scruffy Murphy’s), neatly packaged up and commodified into a pub where people can get drunk on pints of Guinness while snacking on Tayto’s for the novelty of it all. The Club is grounded in and tied up with the history of the Irish diaspora in Australia, as is the music played there every Friday. I don’t count myself in that diaspora, but I am thankful I can contribute something small to the celebration of folk music. Even if it undermines the tradition just a bit…

He taught me pride and how to live, though the road is hard and long,

And how a man will never starve, with a banjo, fiddle or song.


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