Riding the Celtic wave: what makes folk music?

There are some habits that are so ingrained in us that we forget they’re there, like background noise, until someone points them out to us. A way of sitting, a morning ritual, a nervous tic. The habits that irritate, and the habits that provide a soothing rhythm to our lives.

I have few habits related to music (always excepting the Beatles, which I was practically suckled on) except a single weekly one that has fed my thirst for Celtic music for nearly fifteen years. In that time, I have cancelled social engagements, shoved guests out the door without ceremony, and rearranged radio locations, all so I could listen to the Thistle & Shamrock.

Fiona Richie Thistle Shamrock copyright Roy Summers Scottish Field

Broadcast from Edinburgh to a US audience through National Public Radio, this show devoted to Celtic music has been a landmark for Scottish and Irish folk since 1981, when Fiona Ritchie, with her delicious Scottish burr, established an unexpected touchstone with a one-time fundraising special.

Over two decades later the Thistle & Shamrock continues to entertain Celtic music lovers by broadcasting traditional and cutting-edge albums mixed with poetry, interviews, and folk music festivals. Its only drawback is that you have to find when it plays on your local NPR station (in the US) — I add my voice to all those begging Ritchie to broadcast the full show on Thistlepod, her podcast featuring new albums and artists.

thistle scotland music

I’ve loved Celtic music since I was a little kid, and have listened to Fiona Ritchie for most of my adult life. I could have stayed ensconsced forever in the world she formed through traditional artists such as The Cheiftans. But in recent years I’ve noticed that more of her shows are devoted to Celtic music abroad, from Brittany to Botswana, not only the effects traditional Irish and Scottish tunes have on worldwide folk music, but the effects felt in reverse.

This week’s show was devoted solely to that issue: “21st century contemporary Celtic music may take in Balkan tunes, African percussion, and Latin rhythms,” says Fiona. “Does it all simply boil down to world music soup, or is this cutting edge Celtic?”

True, it was hard to hear the ‘Celtic’ in some of the African rhythms or Eastern European beats broadcast, but I’ve always seen Celtic music as connecting easily to worldwide folk genres such as bluegrass. One feeds into another. In fact, one of the best concerts I ever heard was over ten years ago in a small auditorium. My small liberal arts college, located in the Midwest and started by a Scotsman, boasted at that time both an active bagpipe band and a popular African drumming program. It also hosted one of the largest Scottish fairs in the US. After one of these fairs, the bagpipe and African drumming groups played together, and as I listened I thought I’d never heard true folk music before dancing to bagpipes blasting ‘Scotland the Brave’ through the stomping rhythm of a huge African percussion group.

Fiona Ritchie had it right when she said that true Celtic music was enhanced by other world music, and vice versa. I love traditional Celtic, but it comes from the same place as all other folk: the heartbeat of a culture, and that rhythm is the same worldwide.

Photographs added by Kerry Dexter in April 2018.
Photograph of Fiona Ritchie copyright Roy Summers/Scottish Field
You may also like to learn about Wayfaring Strangers, the book by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr.

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