Back in grad school, in the wastelands of Michigan, I was up studying one night with NPR on and John Schaeffer, on his show New Sounds, played a couple of songs by a band from Ireland called Clannad. I didn't know it then, but I was doomed. The first one's always free, you know? It didn't help that on my first trip to Edinburgh, I'd been lucky enough to be standing on the ramparts of the castle one late afternoon when one of the pipers started to practice. It sent a chill up my spine and some ancestral gene woke up, as though switched on by the sound but waiting for that first real hit to lock into the receptor. In short order, I bought the album, "Macalla" (this was back when everything was still vinyl and East Lansing was the capital of cheap music and cheap beer). Before too long I was hunting out more contemporary and traditional Celtic music. Then I stumbled across and was utterly bewitched by the crystalline tone of Alasdair Fraser's fiddle, which is even more awe-inspiring live. I wrote most of my novel to his and his band Skyedance's music, to Clannad, Altan, The Chieftains, Cherish the Ladies and Joanie Madden, and a pile of Celtic music collections comprised of various artists doing traditional and remixed arrangements of traditional tunes. I fell in love with the pipes—bag pipes and uillean pipes. I bought a penny whistle and played along.
See, the thing I quickly realized about Celtic music, and I suppose about the Celts themselves, is that their operating philosophy seems to be that when things get bad, if you can't fight it, you might as well have a drink and sing instead. Good friend just died? Forget the weepin' and wailin'. Take the carcass down to the pub and tie one on with all his mates. And not in a gloomy way, either. No cryin' in yer beer. It only dilutes the liquor. I've never run across any other music that can break your heart with the sadness of the words or the tune at the same time it's making your feet dance while you sing along. Don't get me wrong: some of the ballads are heart wrenching, but in a music set they'll immediately segue right into some frenzied jig or reel before your tears have time to dry. Either that or some utter tragedy will have the most upbeat melody, as if to say "fook it. Yeah, it's bad, but you have to laugh." Not a bad philosophy. And it seems to have kept the Scots and Irish alive and kicking all those centuries under the British thumb, and on their peripatetic diaspora across the Atlantic, into America's Appalachia and Canada's eastern seaboard. Not to mention their cousins in Cornwall, the Channel Islands, France, and Spain.
All this is just a longish introduction to another Celtic flavored band that Dr. Em turned me onto not too long ago, and with whom I've completely fallen in love, head over heels: Great Big Sea. They're from
Nova Scotia Newfoundland (sorry, I always mix the two up for some reason) and here they're playing with The Chieftains, absolutely seamlessly, as though they were indeed distant cousins. If you can resist singing along, you win the Curmudgeon Award and I pity you, you poor bugger.